Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
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My Local: The Last Woman Standing

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month is “My local…”! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

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Sometimes I feel like I have lived through the 1970’s twice.

I did my first turn around the block in the US, growing up in the Midwest. The 1970’s was a time when there were still small neighborhood shops and locally owned grocery and department stores. Our day-to-day shopping was broken down into a number of stops: the butcher’s downtown, the bakery on the corner (watching our loaf go though the bread slicer was the highlight of the trip), and even – if I plumb the depths of my toddler memory – the dairy. (Side note: the Weber Dairy building had a big cement milk bottle out front, which was huge when I was three years old. It towered at least 2 stories above my head. Two years ago, I happened to pass the building, now an office complex called The Dairy Center. The milk bottle is still there, but I had to laugh at how small it had become over 40 years.)

Even the larger stores were local chains. Our grocery store of choice was Honiotis Bros. because, you know, Greeks. (The Xoniotis family, who became the Honiotis family, was from Mykonos like our Theodosis and Vardoulakis – now Vardal – families, so we bought our carrots and toilet paper from Honiotis’ out of national pride.) But sometimes we would make a big trip to Dominick’s, which was a local chain. If we had to stock up on school clothes, it was off to to Wieboldt’s or Goldblatt’s (Wieboldt’s was better, because they gave out S&H Green Stamps), but a family wedding merited an excursion to Kline’s or The Boston Store. We loved The Boston Store, because the name conjured up that sophisticated and exotic city on the East Coast.

And then things started to change, and we all know how. First it was large supermarket chains that offered unbeatable prices during the recession, then it was newfangled malls that replaced the main streets for teenagers and adults alike. Not long after, the first big-box stores appeared, funneling business from the locally owned shops, and the vacant storefronts were replaced by national franchises.

None of the businesses I remember from my elementary school years are still around. Honiotis went first in 1985, then Dominick’s began to falter. Wieboldt’s, Goldblatt’s, Kline’s, and The Boston Store (not to be confused with Boston Store)…all gone. Now it’s chains as far as the eye can see, and everything from the suburbs to the downtowns look pretty much the same across great swathes of the US.

When I first came to Umbria in the mid-1980’s, in many ways it resembled the US a decade or two before. Franchises and big-box superstores were virtually unknown, and the retail sector was almost exclusively small, family-run businesses. Grocery shopping was divided between the local outdoor market for produce, the dry goods store, the butcher, and the bread shop. Buying a pair of black pants meant stopping in at one or two central emporiums, announcing that you needed black pants, and trying on whatever they brought you from the shelves. It was more time consuming and less efficient, but also more human and kept residents living in the otherwise inconvenient confines of the town centers.

Unfortunately, the same process that tore the fabric of American downtowns twenty years before began taking hold in Italy shortly after my first trip. The convenience and competitive pricing of supermarkets began to squeeze out the tiny markets and food shops, the novelty of the mall trumped the fustiness of historic clothing stores for younger customers, and the powerhouse marketing of national and international franchises crushed local shops. I have watched in dismay over the past two decades as more and more local businesses struggle while Foot Locker, H&M, and even the Italian chain Intimissimi seem to multiply overnight like mushrooms.

Though, in my heart of hearts, I long for an Ikea, I also have seen (twice!) the damage this modern franchise culture can do to communities and their local economies. I try to limit my excursions to the mall and the sprawling grocery stores along the highway to dire emergencies, and spend my time and money in the admittedly more expensive but also charmingly timeless shops in the center of Assisi.

Piazzetta dell'Erba, Assisi, Italy

This vintage photo is from the menu of Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi

Case in point: the Piazzetta delle Erbe. This tiny square just steps from Assisi’s main Piazza del Comune has been the local produce market for decades, if not centuries. Certainly long enough that the spot was officially dubbed “Greens Square” at some point and is now home to an excellent restaurant of the same name.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

The home I stayed at on my second trip to Assisi in the late 1980’s had rooms overlooking this square, including my bedroom. I would wake to the friendly squawking of the local ladies bargaining for everything from potatoes and tulips each morning, mixed in with local gossip and good natured ribbing. The Piazzetta delle Erbe was both market and meeting place, and the small space was crammed with makeshift stands and tables, three-wheeled Apes, or simply stacked crates holding towers of seasonal fruit, vegetables, fresh eggs, ricotta, honey, and anything else these farmwives from the surrounding countryside had to sell that morning.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

Today, just Novella remains. With enough energy and warmth to fill a piazza, but with just one lone stand of goodies she and her sweet husband Bruno bring in from their farm plot outside of town each morning, Novella holds court from dawn to lunchtime each day. She is almost never alone, as the local ladies take turns resting on her guest stool to swap news while she tirelessly rearranges buckets of fresh flowers, piles of greens, and crates of fruit. She holds the scales in her hand to weigh purchases, and then always throws in something extra after declaring an (often seemingly arbitrary) price.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

It makes be both sad and joyful to see Novella still out there every morning. “Bongiorno, core!” she calls out as I pass. She knows what each of my sons prefer, and will spend a good five minutes picking the radicchio leaves out of my mixed greens to please them. She will scoff at my selection of tomatoes, tossing them back into the pile and choosing others. “Those are for salad, cocca. You want the sugo ones,” she explains after placing what look like identical ones on the scales. She will pick out a melon with all the gravity of a Antwerp diamantaire, after inquiring about the exact time I plan on serving it.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

I know it takes me twice as long to buy from Novella, but I love the familiarity of it. I love being grilled by a group of housewives about my menu for the day, and then standing back as they argue amongst themselves about recipes and ingredients. I nod and smile, often feigning exaggerated ignorance just to revel in their animated conversation. The vast Coop supermarket will be there for years into the future, but one morning soon Novella will be gone, and with her the Piazzetta delle Erbe market. And until that day comes, she’s my local go-to vegetable lady.

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Anything But Second Best: Foligno’s Pasticceria Muzzi

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable takes on the theme of “sweet” this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Muzzi Foligno Umbria

 

Foligno is to Perugia what The Midwest is to The East Coast. The latter sophisticated and worldly, perennially the star (and largely deserving it), but often overwhelming and cold. The former gritty and modest, perennially the second-fiddle (and largely resenting it), but often welcoming and warm.

I’m a Midwesterner, so though I recognize Perugia as the cosmopolitan hub of Umbria, it is Foligno where I feel most at home. A small valley city (the third largest after the region’s two provincial capitals, Perugia and Terni), ringed by a discouraging stretch of post-war factories and suburbs, Foligno has its distinctive charm: a lively historic center (currently undergoing a major facelift) with pretty palazzi lining the narrow, shop-filled streets, a unique Piazza with the grandiose Duomo facing the elegant neoclassical Palazzo Trinci, and—most importantly—the unpretentious and humble Folignati themselves, with their simple warmth (hidden, perhaps, behind their very dapper garb) and comforting dialect, all soft vowels and endearments.

Muzzi Foligno Umbria

 

Even thinking about chocolate in Umbria, eyes turn automatically to the star of the show: Perugia’s sprawling Perugina factory. But just a stone’s throw away at the far end of the Umbrian Valley, a family from Foligno has been quietly churning out sweets since 1795: the historic Muzzi clan.

Over two centuries ago, Mastro Tommaso di Filippo Muzzi (the family still respects the quaint tradition of naming their first-born sons Tommaso or Filippo alternatively by generation) set up a small shop in the center of Foligno, producing anise-laced minuta candy, a local specialty since the 15th century. Thus began 200 years (give or take—there was a brief period in the 19th century during which the family dipped their toes in the wine business, but quickly returned to their first love) of an un-uninterrupted chain of Tommasos, Filippos, and their extended family, which has gradually expanded the Muzzi line to include cookies and cakes, candy, and–most importantly–a vast array of high quality chocolate.

Muzzi Foligno Umbria

 

To give you a concrete example of the Perugia/Foligno juxtaposition (it’s always a good day when I can use that word), here’s how it works to talk to someone official at Perugina and someone official at Muzzi: At Perugina, you call the toll-free number, and the operator forwards your request to someone, who forwards it to someone else, until it eventually ends up at their official press office in Milan, which very promptly and professionally calls you back and with great courtesy provides you with pdf files of their company history and line of products.

At Muzzi, you drive out to their small factory on the outskirts of Foligno and head into the pretty shop at the front. You tell the guy at the counter weighing out chocolates that you need to talk to someone about the company, and he says, “Oh, that’ll be the Signora Loredana” and sends you to the unmarked door at the side of the building. You wander through a warren of hallways and offices, each one leading you further into the depths of the building until you find yourself standing in front of the desk of a grandmotherly, soft-spoken, genteel woman who invites you to sit down and spends the next half an hour talking about her three sons and nine grandchildren. She sends a secretary out to the storeroom to see if she can scare up some sort of company brochure for you, and quietly packs you an overflowing bag full of chocolates “for your kids”. (Quotes mine.)

Muzzi Foligno Umbria

 

Only when you look around and notice all the certificates of knighthood and merit, pictures of Popes and presidents, and the benign chaos of stacks upon stacks of papers and documents covering every flat surface do you realize that the Signora Loredana is, in fact, the acting head of the family (widow to Tommaso and mother to Filippo) and company, and a damn formidable businesswoman, to boot. Testimony to the family’s business acumen is the name it has made for itself not only in Italy, but in the rest of Europe, North America, and Asia, where it exports much of its production. The Signora Loredana is particularly proud of the success her tea biscuits have had in high-end boutiques in Paris. And we all know how the Parisians are about their sweets.

Though they made chocolate Easter eggs seasonally beginning in the 1970s, they have only concentrated on their line of chocolate in earnest over the past few decades. Their production has expanded exponentially, and now ranges from the “healthy” (Signora Loredana went to great pains to explain to me that three squares of dark chocolate is as beneficial as an apple. Ok. I’ll buy that.) to the unapologetically decadent (don’t miss the chocolate hazlenut spread, which is what Nutella tastes like in heaven).

 

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You can find Muzzi chocolates at specialty stores around Umbria, but I suggest you stop in at their factory shop on Via Roma in Foligno (you can’t miss it)…here not only will you get a taste of their freshest chocolates, but chances are you’ll catch the smiling Signora Loredana bustling around the shelves herself.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Holiday Munchies: Addormentasuocere

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable takes on the theme of “sweet” this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Paolo is a bit of a modern Renaissance man, if by “Renaissance” one intends beer-brewing aerospace engineers with a talent for photography, a passion for grunge, and a mouth that would shame an Irish sailor. He’s also a man-about-the-kitchen, and when I stopped by his darkroom the other day to irritate him with my amateur questions, wildly off exposure times, and tendency to drip caustic liquids pretty much everywhere, I rediscovered one of the simple pleasures of snacking that had slipped my mind: addormentasuocere.

My love for these simple-yet-addictive candied hazelnuts has two roots: 1. the fabulous name (addormentasuocere can be loosely translated as “mother-in-law tranquilizers”, one assumes because the act of popping them in the mother-in-law mouth prevents the mother-in-law tongue from wreaking its usual havoc) and 2. the most amazing gelato EVER that I tasted a couple of years ago on the Adriatic, that was addormentasuocere flavored. I still fantasize about it.

Paolo had a plate of his homemade addormentasuocere on hand in his darkroom, which paired well with our ice-cold Peronis and steady stream of banter. I was still thinking about them the next morning, and decided to try my hand at mixing up a batch myself for our traditional Family Christmas Movie Extravaganza. They also work well for munching during holiday card games and tombola (a bingo-like game played in Italy for New Year’s).

Here’s what you need:

  • 100 grams of peeled, toasted hazelnuts
  • 50 grams of sugar
  • 5 T of water

I couldn’t find toasted hazelnuts, so I had to toss them in the oven on a cookie sheet for a few minutes until they turned slightly golden. Then I had to keep myself from eating them immediately, which may have been the hardest step of the entire process. Have you ever smelled freshly toasted hazelnuts? They’re pretty tempting.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper where you’ll cool the candied nuts.
  • Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for about 6-7 minutes, until it just starts to thicken into a syrup.
  • Add the nuts, stirring constantly so they don’t clump.

  • Continue stirring over medium heat until the sugar coating starts to carmelize (turning a slightly darker color).
  • Pour the nuts onto the prepared baking sheet and separate any that have stuck together with a fork (or, if you’re a fan of burnt fingertips, your hands).
  • Let cool completely (or, if you’re a fan of burnt tongues, sample them constantly while still roughly the temperature of the sun.)
  • Enjoy, with or without a Renaissance man.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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Digging for Umbria’s Black Gold: Truffles

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about harvest this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

There are some firsts you never forget. Your first kiss (Bubba, fifth grade) and your first heartbreak (same kid). Your first hiring (Gino’s Italian Deli) and your first firing (same job). Your first drive (1982 Dodge Colt) and your first accident (same car). And, in my case, the first time I ever tasted truffles (June, 1986).

I was a high school exchange student staying with a marvelous family in Assisi and during my first week there my “host sister” told me, “Mamma has prepared something special for lunch!” We all sat down at the table, where steaming plates of perfectly cooked spaghetti dressed with just a few drops of golden-green Umbrian olive oil waited. I watched as the family’s mother reverently pulled out what looked to my midwestern American eyes like a clump of dirt and began to grate it over each individual dish. I started to panic. (I had just recovered the previous day from the shock upon hearing that Umbrians regularly ate mice. Only after much elaborate gesticulating and explaining did I realize that what I had understood from the heavily accented English to be the small rodent was actually the word “maize”. Much to my relief.)

I could see no way of diplomatically refusing to eat the soil-covered pasta, and while all eyes around the table were fixed on me, I took my first bite. It was an epiphany.

Nothing can describe the penetrating, earthy (no, it’s not dirt, but its flavor suggests loamy woods and wild mushrooms and crisp autumn days and burning leaves all rolled into one) taste of the world’s most precious tuber. Grated over pasta, mixed in sauces and patès, simply wrapped overnight in a soft towel along with fresh farm eggs for a truffle-infused frittata the next day…these divine delicacies–the Romans believed that truffles were the fruit of the sacred thunderbolt of Jove—are one of the staples of Umbrian cuisine.
Their ubiquitous presence on menus across this central Italian region belies the fact that they are not that easy to come by. They require a precise microclimate at medium-high altitudes, calcareous soil, stony and rich in clay, sunny yet damp spots near oaks, hornbeams, hazelnuts and holm oaks.

They also require a nose—a good nose. These elusive fungi usually grow covered by leaf litter or under the forest floor and eyes aren’t good enough to roust them out. You need the nose of a dog, and I don’t mean in the figurative sense: a real truffle dog. Dogs are trained as pups to sniff out truffles (pigs were once used, but had the bad habit of eating what they found) and used by professional and amateur truffle hunters across the region to locate their woodland treasures. After years of passively eating truffles, I was ready to switch to the active side of the equation and participate in a truffle hunt myself.

When pondering truffles in Umbria, the town of Norcia in the far southeast corner of the region, bordering on The Marches, inevitably comes to mind. Truffles are to Norcia what bicycles are to Beijing and sin is to Vegas, so much so that the common name of the dark Tuber Melanosporum Vitt is Norcia Nero or Norcia’s Black Gold and the town holds an important truffle fair and festival every year in late February. But to participate in an actual hunt, I crossed to the opposite corner of the region and ended up on the upper northwest border with Tuscany among the picturesque wooded rolling hills of the Upper Tiber Valley.

I met up with the delightful couple, Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi, of Tartufi Bianconi located in the small town of Città di Castello. In the truffle business since 1990, for the past decade the Bianconis have opened their doors to travellers and gourmands from all over the world to share their love of the local history, culture, and cuisine—all of which are closely intertwined with this delicacy. I immediately headed out with the affable Saverio, whose knowledge of the Upper Tiber Valley was exhaustive and enthusiasm infective, to a nearby truffle reserve where we met up with two local foragers and their professional canine colleagues: Asia and Sandy.

The dogs were literally trembling with excitement as I got kitted out with my “bisaccia”, or traditional leather truffle bag, and headed into the woods. As soon as they were let free and given the command, they began zigzagging through undergrowth, nose to ground, sniffing for buried treasure. Not three minutes had passed when Asia began circling a spot, and delicately pawing her way through the dried leaf cover and damp humus underneath. Score! A pair of lovely black truffles, about as big as walnuts, were about two inches underground, and I was as proud of her hunting prowess as if she had been by my own. Less than an hour later, with a warm thank you and goodbye to our two “tartufai” truffle hunters and their dogs, I set off with Saverio to his home and business to have our booty weighed and sorted.

Once at Tartufi Bianconi, I discovered Saverio’s tiny private truffle museum–floor to ceiling packed with charming and quirky truffle hunting tools, memorabilia, and an educational display with various samples of local and foreign tuber varieties and curiosities. His lighthearted explanation included wily tricks local foragers use to sell their finds at the highest price (including packing the truffles’ warty skin with pebbles and dirt to make them heavier, thus more valuable, and passing off truffle-shaped stones as the real thing) and to keep the best foraging areas a secret (one local “tartufaio” regularly goes out in drag, so he won’t be recognized and followed to the woods by competitors). Afterwards, I had a peek in their processing rooms, where they weigh, sort, clean and prepare the truffles—drying, deep freezing, or chopping them for patè, sauces, and infused olive oil.

Saverio’s wife, Gabriella, then welcomed me into her homey kitchen and led me through a tasting of the four main truffle varieties found locally: the delicate white truffle (I was there just as the white truffle season opened, and was lucky to be able to sample this rare treat fresh from the woods) sliced paper thin and served raw with lightly salted butter, the stronger summer white truffle, or Bianchetto, which was stored minced and frozen and now served with just a drop of olive oil, the local black truffle (Gabriella had me first taste it raw, then gently warmed in olive oil to demonstrate how this brings out the aroma), and the strong Norcia black truffle, again warmed in olive oil to accentuate the flavor. After 25 years of enjoying truffles, I felt I had finally discovered how to distinguish between them and use each variety to its best advantage—knowledge I will be using to my best advantage at future dinner parties!

We finished our day in the best possible way: cooking and eating our bounty. With Gabriella as instructor, and using all local ingredients and products prepared by the Bianconis, we prepared a pecorino flan with honey and truffles, egg tagliatelle dressed in fresh truffle, a juicy beef roast with truffle sauce, and finished with a wonderful traditional dessert–zuppa inglese–made with custard and sponge cake. We chatted, laughed, and swapped stories from the first bite of antipasto through the last sip of smoky-sweet vin santo made by a micro-vintner down the road. In this day of discoveries, the biggest one was this: truffles are not about food, but about people. The history of people who have foraged for them for millenia, the culture of people who keep this history alive, the passion of people who pass down this culture in the kitchen, the stories of people who are passionate about this breathtaking valley and its bounty.

A special thank you to Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi for a wonderful day!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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The Art of Drinking: Il Carapace

There seem to be few things as polarizing as contemporary art, especially contemporary art inserted into unlikely places. Case in point: the new Tenuta Castelbuono winery building near Bevagna. This massive work, called “Il Carapace”, by contemporary Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, was completed after six years of work in 2012 and straddles the fence between sculpture and architecture.

I’m going to immediately stick my neck out to say that I like “Il Carapace”. Or, to be even more polemic, I love it. Saturated with symbolism, this copper dome-shaped structure is modelled on a giant tortoise shell—representing “stability and longevity”—and the low, rounded shape blends seamlessly into the surrounding landscape of rolling vineyard-covered hills, an echo of the “union of earth and sky”.

Being from Chicago, I am no newcomer to Pomodoro; a number of his works are displayed in the city, including the campuses of both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. I am also no newcomer to livable sculpture…from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago has a proud tradition of revolutionary buildings which blur the line between art and architecture. But contemporary architecture in a modern city is expected; contemporary architecture juxtaposed against the backdrop of this region so steeped in the Middle Ages that one would hardly blink an eye if Saint Francis himself were to come around the corner is riskier.   

It was a risk well-taken, as Il Carapace has been met with much praise. Commissioned by the Lunelli family–which primarily produces spumante in Trento under the Ferrari label—to mark their foray into Umbria’s Sagrantino country, the winery building has been getting more press than the wines produced there. It’s easy to see why, as the tasting room inside Il Carapace’s dome is spectacularly distracting, with its soaring rib-like arches and plate-glass walls framing the dreamy vineyards outside, as is the cantina, with its spiral shape and disconsonant sky-blue walls, giving you a moment of vertigo as you try to remember if you’re above or below ground.

Photo courtesy of Umbriabeecoming

Both times I visited Il Carapace were for special events; lit up in the evening by flickering torches and soft lights and animated by live music and the clinking of hundreds of glasses, Pomodoro’s work becomes both more dramatic and more intimate—though hard to photograph.

Tenuta Castelbuono offers tours and tastings; for more information, visit their website. Pomodoro was so successful in blending his “living sculpture” into the scenery that it’s not easy to spot the winery from afar. Keep watch for the red, dart-shaped structure that stands at the entrance, towering above the hills like the shaft of an immense arrow shot into the earth, both a complement and an antithesis to the harmony of Il Carapace itself.

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Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is throwing a party this month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio, we’ve invited the folks from COSI (Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy) to talk with us about this month’s theme of “authenticity”. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

ibr1

Late last year I reviewed the delightful “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in which author Elizabeth Wholey takes readers on an absorbing journey through the history and culture of the Upper Tiber Valley, passing by way of the area’s farms and their stocked pantries.

To illustrate and enliven her narrative, she includes a number of simple, traditional dishes taken from the well-worn recipe cards of country housewives from the four regions which meet in the Alta Valle del Tevere: Umbria, Le Marche, Tuscany, and Emilia Romagna.

As a further homage to this excellent little book, I decided to try out one of these recipes for this month’s Italy Roundtable, as nothing can better illustrate authenticity in Umbria (or Italy as a whole) than its traditional cuisine. I immediately knew which to choose; I had just had a conversation with a visiting friend about one of our winter staples: fennel. Along with greens, cauliflower, and broccoli, this crisp, anise-flavoured, celery-like vegetable is omnipresent at our table during the colder months, but besides simply slicing it and dressing it with a bit of salt and olive oil or, if we are feeling posh, mixing it with thinly sliced oranges and either black olives or pomegranate seeds to form a colorful salad, I’m not particularly creative with how to serve it.

So when I spotted Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro—billed as “Angiolina’s Thrice Cooked Fennel with Tomato Sauce”—I knew that was the one.

Here it is:

Prep time:

10 minutes

Cooking time:

40 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 500 g ripe, flavorful tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or 350 g Ortobono pomarola, or canned Italian tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 250 ml water
  • 1 lt oil for frying
  • 400 g all-purpose flour for dredging
  • grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

To make the tomato sauce: in a 2 lt heavy pot with a close-fitting lid, heat the chopped garlic in the oil until its aroma is just released (do not overcook), the add the chopped tomatoes or pomarola sauce, water, and salt. Cook for 10 minutes; remove from heat and set aside.

Heat the frying oil to 180° in a deep, heavy saucepan. In a separate pot, bring to boil 2 lt of salted water. Prepare a large bowl with flour for dredging.

Thinly slice the fennel bulbs, wash, and add to the pot of boiling water. Cook for five minutes [I found that this was too long…I would cook just until fork-tender; about three minutes], then remove and dry them on a clean towel.

When they are cool, dredge them in the flour and carefully place in the hot oil. Fry, turning occasionally, until they are a golden color. Lift them out and place in the pot with the pre-prepared tomato sauce.


[We got into a little trouble here, having discovered that fried fennel is pretty darn good just all by itself. Mostly because pretty much any food is pretty darn good if deep-fried. But we managed to quit snacking on them and got most of the fried fennel slices in the pot of sauce.]

When all the fried fennel is in the pot of sauce, cover it and cook on the stovetop for about 10 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding additional water to prevent sticking. When the sauce has become thickened and creamy, transfer the fennel with the sauce to a warm serving dish and serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

A special thanks to Elizabeth Wholey for allowing me to reproduce her recipe here!

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

And from our friends at COSI:

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The Torta al Testo Taste Test

I snort when I laugh really hard. I do. And there are only a couple of people in this world who can regularly make me laugh so hard I get to snorting. Jennifer McIlvaine, blogger, chef, and irreverent Philly girl, is one of those people. She’s a foodie with attitude, an ironic commentator on the quirks of living shoulder to shoulder with the Umbrians, and one of the most talented chefs I know. She is also the mother of lovely Olivia and Gabriele and wife of Federico, one of the region’s experts on food and wine. I love her food-centric blog (her recent post on canning is one of my favorites) and I was so happy to have her stop by this week with a post about one of my favorite Umbrian staples.

Four takes on this most traditional of Umbrian dishes (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Will the real Torta al Testo please step foward?

Umbrians are by definition, traditionalists. So I was floored the other day when, dining at one of my favorite local spots, I tried a piece of Torta al Testo (a traditional Umbrian flatbread) NOT made in the traditional way – its was spongy, and yeasty…different!

Torta al Testo is eaten throughout Umbria and its name comes from: Torta, meaning bread or pizza and Testo, the heavy disc on which the bread is cooked. In ancient times the testo was made from clay and placed over coals in the fireplace. Modern times have brought us the contemporary version made from iron and aluminum, and placed directly on the stovetop. Of course, Umbria being Umbria, full of small, walled medieval towns, it seems that everywhere you go, the torta is known by a different name: Torta al Testo in the central-north area, Crescia in Gubbio, Ciaccia on the border with Tuscany, and Pizza sotto il Fuoco in the South. So many names for such a simple bread in such a small region!

So, as I mentioned, I was very surprised to try a new version of this classic; as it was chewy and had a yeasty flavor, it inspired me to do a little experimentation…

I used 4 “rising agents” to test the different recipes:
#1: I used a very old recipe, just flour, baking soda, salt and water.
#2: I used a classic recipe with Lievito Pizzaiolo – which is kind of like a cross between baking powder and instant yeast
#3: I used brewer’s yeast
#4: I used a natural (sourdough) bread starter that I made from grape yeast.
In the 2nd-4th recipes, I also added a little milk, olive oil, and parmigiano to the mix, known here as condita, or flavoured.

(In doing my research, I did also find recipes that contained eggs, but these are widely considered heresy – no good Umbrian would add such rich ingredients – if you are going to go down that route, why don’t you just add some butter as well? Will never happen.)

My willing guinea pigs where comprised of 1 expert from Assisi, 2 from Todi, 1 from Foligno, 2 from Cannara, 1 from Puglia and 1 American, as well as my 19 month-old daughter – a certified bread afficianado.

My hypothesis was that torta #1 would most likely be chosen at the true torta visually, but I was hoping that torta #4 would be chosen for taste. Astonishingly, EVERYONE picked the torta made with the natural bread starter (#4) as the true torta al testo based on visuals – it was highest and most leavened. This surprised me, because, the tortas that I have eaten have always been relatively flat and compact without a lot of air bubbles.
However, when it came to taste, almost everyone chose #1, the most simple, made with just baking soda (also the most dense). Those who did not choose #1, chose #4, sticking with the natural starter. Tortas #3 & #4 were considered good but standard. Naturally, all of this experimentation sparked a lively debate on what the REAL traditional recipe is, some swearing up and down that a rising agent is unnecessary – just use flour, water and salt. I conducted a sub-experiment without the rising agent and the result was a little pasty. This recipe could be used if cooked in the antique way – in the fireplace, under the ash, but must be eaten immediately.
And the winner is… well, my results remain inconclusive, but I think we all agreed that simplicity is best. So my quest to create the perfect Torta al Testo continues… The goal is to get a good rise and a rich flavor from the most basic of ingredients.


The Torta al Testo dates back to Etruscan times as a simple quick flat bread that did not need a long rising time – should we just keep it that way? Maybe some of us will break with tradition, but only within our own private medieval walls…

The Recipes

Torta #1
500g flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1 level teaspoon salt
about 350mL warm water

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until a ball of dough is formed. If the dough is sticky add a little bit more flour. Knead the dough with your hands for about 5 minutes until it becomes a smooth ball. Let the dough rest in a warm place covered with a towel for about 40 minutes. Roll dough into a disc. Place directly onto preheated testo or griddle pan (without oil!). Prick with a fork and let cook over a medium-low heat until brown on one side. Flip and continue to cook on the other side. Let rest for a few minutes off the heat. Cut into wedges and fill each with either prosciutto, cheese or greens and sausage. Buon Apetito!

Torta #2
500g flour
1 packet (15g) Lievito Pizzaiolo
220mL warm water (or one Nutella glass)
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Make a well with the flour and add the lievito and water mix well. Then add the rest of the ingredients, leaving the salt for the end and mix well. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes then, let rest for 40-60 minutes. Continue as above.

Torta #3
500g flour
25g brewer’s yeast (fresh or dry)
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Dissolve the yeast in warm water with sugar. Add to flour, add rest of ingredients and continue as above, letting the dough rest 1-1 ½ hours.

Torta #4
500g flour
100g natural bread starter
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Same as above, letting the dough rise for 6 hours.

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Olio Nuovo: One for the Bucket List

I have made many gastronomic discoveries during my years living in Umbria. Mostly, I’ve discovered Food. Having grown up in a major American city during the 1970s and 80s, we didn’t see much of Food. We saw a lot of Kraft Mac & Cheese, Marshmallow Fluff, Froot Loops, and Kool-Aid, but real honest to goodness Food didn’t really start showing up on my plate until I moved to Italy.

Olive groves cover hillsides across Umbria.

One of the foundations of Italian food, at least from central Italy and continuing south, is olive oil. Each region has its signature oil, and Umbria is no exception. One of this area’s most prestigious products, olive oil from the millions of trees cultivated on the hillsides across Umbria is interwoven with the region’s cuisine, landscape, agriculture, and many of its folk traditions.

One of the most unique places to visit in Umbria is one of its many olive mills during pressing—late October through December, most years—where you get to see how this “liquid gold” is produced and sample one of the joys of the world’s gastronomy: freshly pressed olive oil.

This is what oil looks like hot (actually, cold) off the presses. Check out that color…finger-lickin’ good.

Bright green, pungent, knock-your-socks-off peppery, and thick as molasses, olio nuovo should be on everyone’s bucket list of Foods to Try Before I Die. Its flavour is too strong to use as a condiment to dress salads or vegetables; it’s best tasted liberally poured over freshly toasted bread (saltless Umbrian bread works like a charm) or to perk up a winter legume soup.

The color of the oil turns golden and becomes transparent as the weeks pass. The top oil is about two weeks old and the bottom oil about four weeks.

Unfortunately, the unmistakable zing of freshly pressed oil softens quickly as the oil matures. In just a few short weeks the taste mutes into the well-balanced grassy-fruity flavour which works well as a base for more complex dishes. If you love fresh olive oil as much as I do, however, there is a trick: you can freeze a small amount and use it through the summer. It consolidates into an easily spreadable paste, which melts as soon as it comes in contact with hot bread or soup. So come those chilly days in March you can still have some soul-satisfying bruschetta.

How new oil is meant to be relished…

A special thanks to Lucia Olivi and Alessandra Mallozzi for their delish pics!

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Sustenance: A Satisfying Guide to Food Traditions in the Upper Tiber Valley

There is no greater joy than receiving a book in the mail. Unless, of course, it turns out to be such a gem of a read that you find yourself thinking two things: 1. I wish I had written this book; and 2. I can’t wait to share this book.

And so it happened last week that I found Elizabeth Wholey’s new “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in my mailbox. I’ve known Elizabeth “virtually” for more than a decade; she’s a fellow American expat who has lived in Umbria for more or less the same amount of time I have and our paths crossed years ago on the then embryonic Slow Travel forum. I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship with Elizabeth, as she seems to share my same delicate mix of delight and affection for our adopted home tempered with straighforward pragmatism. We are, neither of us, either bucolically Under the Sun nor bitterly Burnt by the Sun.

That said, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Elizabeth’s new book. Umbria being a small place, I had heard through the grapevine (the grapevine being one of her neighbors, Saverio Bianconi, who is mentioned with much warmth in “Sustenance”) that she was writing a socio-gastronomic history of the Upper Tiber Valley, an expanse of land where the four regions of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Le Marche meet. Beginning at the source of the Tiber River on Monte Fumaiolo, the Alta Valle del Tevere extends south to Umbertide, traveling through rugged mountains, rolling hills and finally to the fertile river valley, passing a number of Roman and Medieval towns along its meandering journey.

It is the area that Elizabeth calls home and knows well, and as both a Slow Food and International Association of Culinary Professionals member, she is more than qualified to to research and publish a thorough academic study of the agricultural and culinary history of the valley. And with that in mind, it goes without saying that I “put it aside for later”.

Luckily for me, that “later” was cut short by a bout of insomnia just the next night. I sighed, switched on the light, and picked the first book from the stack next to my bed which seemed dry enough that it would be likely to put me sleep quickly. Yes, “Sustenance”.

How wrong I was. I found myself staying up to the wee hours reading this delightful, engaging guide from cover to cover. Part history, part journal, part travel guide, and peppered throughout with tempting recipes for preparing the rustic, genuine dishes which characterize the local peasant cuisine, “Sustenance” tells the story of this land and its people by highlighting sixteen local, contemporary farmers and food producers who turn out everything from eggs to honey, from olive oil to heirloom fruit.

In its pages, Elizabeth weaves a fascinating historical and social narrative, reconnecting these modern agricultural and culinary hold-outs with the peasant culture and traditions which preceded them (and are in danger of vanishing) and their continued belief in and defence of the exceptional quality and variety of foods still found in this valley. But she also goes one step beyond, making her subjects and their food accessible to readers (and, one hopes, travelers) through both sharing their simple, homey recipes and providing practical instructions to seek them out and sample their food as one should: in the land and with the people who have put their heart and soul into bringing it to the table.

To make it even easier to explore the Upper Tiber Valley, Elizabeth has divided the chapters of “Sustenance” into carefully curated itineraries, organizing farmers and products geographically, highlighting nearby sites and monuments to visit, and listing local markets and annual festivals and fairs.

Richer than a cook book, lighter than a historical tome, more compelling than a travel guide, I can’t sing the praises of this small but important book highly enough. “Sustenance” is must-read for anyone–traveler or settler–who wants to discover the Upper Tiber Valley, its history, its people, and—of course—its food.

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Perugina’s Chocolate School, or How To Get Your Kids To Do Anything, Anything At All

My sons hate getting their hair cut. Hate it. They wail and protest, gnash their teeth and rent their garments, and generally cause so much mayhem that I don’t insist until I honestly can’t see the whites of their eyes. But every once in awhile—if the carrot is tempting enough—they go to the gallows with the serene resignation of sheep to slaughter. Or, at least, sheep to shearing.

Which is why I was so sure I had it in the bag this month, because I was offering up the Mother of All Carrots: an afternoon making chocolate creations at Perugina’s Scuola del Cioccolato.

The deal had to be finessed, of course. “Hey, guys, I thought it would be fun to go cook some stuff at the chocolate school this afternoon! Whaddya think? Cool, huh?” When the cheering died down, I slipped in, “We just have to make a quick stop first. Nothing important. It’ll just take a sec.” There was a suspicious silence. They’ve heard that before.

We got through their haircuts with a level of haggling and negotiation that would give Kofi Annan pause (my older son is on his fourth year of drum lessons and intent on cultivating an appropriate rock coiffure and my younger son is profoundly vain of his golden locks in this Mediterranean country of olive skin and dark curls) but without a major diplomatic incident, and were soon off to the Perugina factory on the outskirts of Perugia.

We were met by the kind staff of the Casa del Cioccolato–which includes their museum, factory tour, and cooking school–and our Maestro, Chef Alberto. (Ladies, a side note: Chef Alberto is just about as yummy as the chocolate he cooks up. But you didn’t hear it from me.) My fear that they might not be set up to handle kids was quickly put to rest, as the staff engaged them immediately in friendly banter (my little devils demanded the secret recipe to Perugina’s signature Baci chocolates so “we can make a lot of money”. Yes, those are the values I’ve been raising them with.) and asked about any special requests (they prefer milk chocolate, which turned out to be no problem).

We were sent to wash our hands and don our spiffy Scuola del Cioccolato aprons (just part of the swag we got to take home) and Chef Alberto (who, as it turns out, is not only one handsome specimen but also fitted out with the patience and good-nature of a saint. Whoever the patron saint of chocolate-mess-making seven-year-olds may be. I’ll have to google it.) got down to business, announcing that we would be making Easter eggs! Super fun, and a perfect project for kids (and—ahem—their grown-ups).

After explaining to us the importance of tempering chocolate, we were set to doing it ourselves. Let’s just say it’s not as easy as the deft Chef Alberto makes it look, and our aprons were quickly proving their worth. All I could think of was how happy I was that I wasn’t responsible for mopping up the floor after we left.

 

 

 

 

 

But it was great fun…I mean, what isn’t fun about pouring a bowl of melted chocolate onto a flat surface and messing around in it with a couple of spatulas for 15 minutes?…and we were soon ready to pour our chocolate into the egg and base molds and make our little heart-shaped chocolates that would be the “surprise” inside our hollow eggs.

Chef Alberto did a fabulous job keeping everyone busy, working at their own pace, and engaged in the demonstration, which isn’t a small feat with a group of such a range of ages. He is obviously passionate about his job and very much a “people person”—an apt combination for these chocolate lessons aimed not at professional chefs but simply amateur cooks looking to pick up tips for making some eye-popping creations at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once our chocolate had cooled and hardened, we were able to pop them out of the molds, assemble the two egg halves with our little hearts tucked inside, mount them on their chocolate base, and decorate with white chocolate and sugar flowers—all under the careful eye and guidance of Chef Alberto. When we were done with our decorating, we packaged our works of art in plastic boxes provided by the school and were presented with our certificates pronouncing us Artista del Gusto. I’m not so sure about Artista, but we sure became hardcore fans of the Scuola del Cioccolato. And the biggest surprise: a copy of Perugina’s secret Baci recipe! (I’m waiting for the money to start rolling in. It’s time these kids start paying their own way…they are seven and ten, after all.)

The verdict from my sons? “That was worth getting our hair cut!” Well, there’s no higher praise than that.

If you are headed to Umbria for the upcoming Travel Bloggers Unite conference, you can visit the Perugina Casa del Cioccolato if you register for the “Lake Trasimeno, Chocolate, and Cashmere” post-conference blog trip.

Otherwise, the Chocolate School holds courses open to the public most Saturdays, or private classes for groups–this is a great activity for families, groups of travellers, or corporate events– can be arranged during the week. You can view a calendar here (in Italian) and request more information and/or sign up for a class on their website here or by calling 800 800 907.

Classes range in price from €30-€65/person…a fantastic bargain given the length of the class, fun quotient, and swag! As the staff told us, these courses are offered with the spirit of spreading Perugina’s passion for chocolate and thus accessible to every budget.