There are wines that are meant to be consumed with gravitas. They require our full attention, want to be at center stage, and pout and sulk if we are distracted from their brooding power. They need the trappings: decanters, broad-bowled stemware, exact temperatures. These are Sagrantino from Montefalco.
Then there are happy-go-lucky wines. They are light-hearted, easy-going, and just pleased you invited them to the party. They are fine sitting elbow to elbow with picnic fare or finger food and deal well with backpacks, jostling, and even—gasp—plastic cups. These are Trebbiano, Grechetto, and Sangiovese from Colli Martani.
The DOC whites—Trebbiano and Grechetto—which come out of the tiny triangle of area between the Umbrian towns of Foligno, Todi and Spoleto are produced primarily with the local sub-varietals of Trebbiano Spoletino and Grechetto Spoletino and yield two straw-colored, clean and linear wines, the former fruity with a spicy tail and the latter rounded with herb and nut flavors.
The ruby-toned Sangiovese DOC is a perfect quaffing wine when young (aged minimum 12 months), with its dry, lightly tannic mouth feel and herb and berry flavors. The darker Riserva, aged two years—and finished in oak—is more complex and structured (it can even get a little Chianti-esque), but still friendly and approachable.
All of this is well and good, but begs the question of what to pair with these wines. Well, I suggest a bike.
Ok, ok, pipe down. Hear me out. I’m not a big biker either, but if anything is going to inspire you to hop in the saddle and peddle your way from cantina to cantina, it’s going to be the bucolic rolling vineyard-blanketed hills surrounding the tiny hamlets of Castel Ritaldi, Giano dell’Umbria, Marcellano, and Gualdo Cattaneo. This is what they meant when the phrase “wine country” was coined, because nothing shapes a countryside more than a 2,000 year history of cultivation. (Oh, and big box stores, I guess. Those can really shape a countryside quickly. But I digress.). These are hills that were planted with vines by the Etruscans, followed by the Romans, followed by the noble class in the Middle Ages, followed by a group of small-scale vintners—almost exclusively family businesses—who are passionate about this land and the historic varietals they are keeping alive with an eye on the past, but their heads in the future.
What better way to savor both the landscape and the wines in this area than by taking the slow food/slow travel route and biking the wine roads (fortuitously low-trafficked), stopping in the wineries dotting these hills for tastings fo wines light enough that you will still be street-safe? A perfect starting point is the startlingly excellent Bike in Umbria website (full disclosure: I have since become friends with the folks behind this organization, but the site was fabulous long before I knew them.). You can arrange hiring bikes and booking bike-friendly accommodations through them, but where the site really shines is in their itineraries. Divided by difficulty, type of bike, and area, they give a number of great suggested routes—with maps, descriptions, and practical information—in the Colli Martani (and neighboring Sagrantino) area. By doing a quick cross-reference with the locations of the area’s cantine (see below), it’s easy to pull together a day-long bike excursion broken up with visits to wineries along the route.
Some wineries along biking itineraries near the Colli Martani are:
Any conversation about Umbria and her wines must necessarily begin at the very heart of this region, both geographically and historically, which is to say at Sagrantino.
This hearty dry red (and honeyed sweet) is made primarily (or exclusively, in the case of the DOCG) from the indigeneous Sagrantino grape varietal—though indigeneous is relative for a plant that has probably been growing in this area for centuries. Did it come from Greece? Did French friars import it? Did, as the legend goes, Saint Francis bring back a cutting from the Middle East to use for sacramental wine? No matter, it’s Umbrian now.— which is cultivated in a limited geographical area surrounding the hill town of Montefalco. The micro-climate in this undulating valley is marked by hot, dry days, interspersed with nights cooled by the Tramontana breeze from the north, a long Mediterranean growing season, and clay soil…all of which form a perfect storm to turn out the dark, tannic grapes which define Sagrantino.
Which is where we hit our first glitch. Because I am about to commit the biggest blasphemy any lover of Umbrian wine can—a stab in her heart, so to speak—and admit that Sagrantino is not my favorite wine. It’s not the complex, earthy flavor—marked by dark red fruit, spice, and smoke—or the masculine boldness (these are big wines, but I’m a big girl) that I find unapproachable. It’s the incredible, suck-your-tongue-dry, let-age-a-minimum-of-a-decade, decant-for-at-least-twelve-hours-prior-to-drinking tannins. And by tannins, I mean Tannins. Sagrantino is one of the most tannic grapes in the world, and many young Sagrantino labels are lip-puckeringly tight and really only show their true colors after almost ten years of aging…and even then, the tannins don’t beat around the bush.
Which is cool if you are drinking Sagrantino with what it is meant to be paired with. Like marinated lamb chops. Or steak. Or a big chunk of braised cinghiale. It is not so cool if, like me, you are a vegetarian (another blasphemy in the region where Pork is King) and are limited to a thick bean soup dressed with peppery olive oil or hard aged cheeses. Which may keep the tannins at bay for while, but they are still nipping at you through the bars of their cage.
The tannin question may also be behind the rise in popularity of this wine over the past generation. The traditional diet in Umbria—indeed in most of Italy, a poor, rural country until the 1960s—was light on meat and heavy on grains, legumes, and vegetables (none of which are particularly suited to a beast of a wine like Sagrantino). What is known here as la cucina povera and in the rest of the world as The Mediterranean Diet gradually began to change with a rise in standard of living through the 1960s and 1970s, with the consumption of meat moving to center stage rather than being limited to once a week or, the in poorest areas of Italy—including Umbria—feast days.
And, parallel to the growing frequency of strong meat-based dishes came the rise of Sagrantino, a wine that needs a plate of grilled sausages as its foil. Though Montefalco has a history of grape cultivation mentioned by Pliny, the Sagrantino grape itself had fallen into disuse and was on its way to extinction until the 1970s, when a number of cantinas around Montefalco “rediscovered” this historic varietal and embarked on a campaign of scientific research, rivitalization of both vineyards and wineries, and—most recently—savvy marketing and promotion. Sagrantino di Montefalco became a DOC in 1980 and a DOCG in 1992, and the prestige and quality of the region’s labels continues to grow. Combine that with the fortuitous economic reality of the rise of a meat-based cuisine well-paired to this robust wine and, voilà, a Cinderella story.
If you are like me, you may find yourself the ugly stepsister, but the meat eaters out there will probably discover themselves Prince Charming to this Princess of a wine.
Here are a few of my favorite cantine which offer visits and tastings:
The enoteca is housed in the restored cellars of the convent, and charmingly decorated with works by Orvieto's historic Michelangeli workshop. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)
If you think the closest you’re going to get to heaven in Orvieto is gazing at the Signorelli frescoes in the magnificent Duomo’s San Brizio Chapel, keep walking uphill.
Yep, up the Corso, across the Piazza della Repubblica, and through a series of steep, narrow alleyways (if an older gent stops you with a “Psst, Signorina, do you want to see my Etruscan cave?” go ahead and take a look. He really does have an Etruscan cave under his floor.) until you finally reach the highest point on the dramatic cliff which has been home to Orvieto for the better part of humanity.
Take a peek in the Palazzo del Gusto's pretty cloister, but for the good stuff head downstairs to the cellars. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)
Here you will find the former convent of San Giovanni, which is now the headquarters of the “Palazzo del Gusto”, an umbrella enogastronomic and cultural association which hosts a series of workshops, courses, and thematic dinners and tastings aimed at promoting traditional cuisine, Slow Food, and local wines.
The entry to the Enoteca holds examples of local crafts...the approach to celebrating local products isn't limited to just food and wine. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)
Head downstairs to the restored cellars (the architectural history of which runs from the Etruscan era through the Middle Ages) underneath the convent, where you can take a guided tour of the “Enoteca Regionale”, a regional wine library which holds more than 120 different labels of the best DOCG, DOC, and IGT wines in Umbria.
The tasting rooms are tucked under medieval vaults and over Etruscan caves. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)
Different “packages” are available for wine tastings, or you can splurge for a prepaid “wine card” to sample up to 16 different wines from automatic dispensers. Between the dispensers and the handy information-laden touch-screens, you can almost throw together a DIY visit, but try to nab Graziella, Lucia, or Francesca, three walking local wine and food encyclopedias who have been involved in the Enoteca Regionale through its conception and expansion. Their passion for the gastronomic history and culture of the region is contagious, as they give a lively context to each wine, elevating it from the Enoteca’s evocative underground cellar to exalted heights.
For more information or to reserve a tasting, take a look at the Palazzo del Gusto‘s terrific website.
Museum of Olive Oil Culture in Trevi. Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Remember when you’d just have a cup of coffee? You didn’t bother yourself with its country of origin and how many times it had been roasted. You just sloshed it boiling hot from the Mr. Coffee and sucked it down along with all the chemicals leaching out of the styrofoam cup it was in.
Remember when you’d just eat a tomato? You didn’t ask yourself about its carbon footprint or whether it was heirloom or hothouse. You just sliced it onto your iceberg lettuce, drowned the whole cabash in Thousand Island, and got on with it.
Remember when you’d just drink some wine? You didn’t hold forth on varietals and terroirs and Super-thises and thats. You just unscrewed that cap on the old Lancer’s bottle and poured with gravitas into two chunky cut-glass goblets and felt very sophisticated.
Before I start sounding like Andy Rooney, let me just be clear that I hold no particular nostalgia for those times. I am a foodie (though I lean less towards murmuring about tannins and undertones over a mellow glass of Sagrantino and more towards a loud, “Damn, that’s crazy good! Pass that bottle back over here a minute.”) and this growing culture of caring about where our food comes from and what it tastes like is just fine with me. I do, however, watch with amusement as wave after wave of ingredients that were once somewhat quotidien show up on the fickle foodie radar to get exalted, examined, and ultimately abandoned for the Next Big Thing by hungry hipsters.
Right now it’s all about olive oil, folks. Friends whom I know for a fact were dressing their salads with generic supermarket corn oil just minutes ago are suddenly armchair experts on cold-pressing and mono-cultures and phytonutrients. Olive oil tastings andgastronomic tours to the mills are all the rage, and travellers seem to be packing less wine and more olive oil in their suitcases for the trip home.
Traditional olive oil dispenser, Trevi, Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)
Anyone who loves Umbria as I do couldn’t be anything but thrilled at this trend; olive cultivation and oil production is one of the most fundamental threads running through the historic and economic fabric of this region. And no better place to understand just how important this 2,000 year old culture is than the delightful hilltop town of Trevi.
Museum of Olive Oil Culture
Trevi is a charmer of a village even for wanderers who have no particular interest in olive oil…but for those who do, you’ve hit paydirt. Your first stop should be the small but excellent Museum of Olive Oil Culture in the museum complex of San Francesco (if you stop first at the tourist info office in the main Piazza Mazzini, you can pick up a map and free audio guide of the town). An ecclectic mix of archival photographs, historic farm and mill implements, horticultural explanations–and heart-warmingly old-timey displays like scale models of the town and surrounding hillsides and a life-size diorama of an 18th century mill and kitchen, just the fact that an entire museum dedicated to the culture and history of olive oil exists (and a well-curated one, at that) is testimony to how fundamental this fruit is to the entire region. They offer an audio-guide in English (included in the price of your ticket) which is a must to really enjoy the displays.
Olives from Umbria ready for pressing by olive oil tours www.discoveringumbria.it
Olive Oil Mills
From here the next logical step is to visit an olive oil mill itself and taste what is often referred to as this region’s “liquid gold”. The impressively organized Olive Oil Road lists mills open to the public in each of the five subzones in Umbria; Trevi is included in the Assisi-Spoleto area and I used the listings to visit two local mills. At the first I was greeted by Central Casting’s “Italian Grandmother”, complete with thick specs, flowered housecoat, and carpet slippers…who was mortified to find a visitor on the day they were cleaning out the mill and apologized profusely that I had caught them with things in disorder. She did ask me in for tea and cookies, but I pressed on to the nearby Frantoio Gaudenzi.
As soon as I stepped into their pretty new mill and shop (they’ve been producing oil for 50 years, but recently built a new press along the Via Flaminia in the valley below Trevi), the pungent odor of freshly pressed oil hit me in a wave–setting off the Pavlov slobber common in any olive-oil enthusiast. Stefano, grandson of the founder, showed me the shining modern presses working the heaping mounds of freshly harvested olives (they are pressed within hours of picking) into the bright green, cloudy-thick new oil filling the vats. The Gaudenzis, like many mills, make a variety of olive oils: their basic oil, their higher-end regionally specific oil, an organic variety, and—my favorite—“Fifth Moon”, an oil made exclusively from olives harvested within the fifth moon of the flowering (meaning the month of October). Dribbled over a piece of local, unsalted bread, the fruity smell and flavour of this intriguing oil made me lick my foodie chops.
Freshly pressed olive oil from Umbria by olive oil tours www.discoveringumbria.it
I came away from my visit to Trevi with a feeling of having somehow connected the past to the present to the future. The Roman terracotta urns in the olive museum, the mills churning out oil under the bright October sky, the third generation producer passionately exploring new blends and techniques. Over two thousand years of history condensed into the thin, bright stream of oil soaking my bread and warming my heart.
There are lots of olive oil soaked events in Umbria in the fall and winter–for a complete list, check the program at Frantoi Aperti. Also, I highly recommend the olive oil food tours offered by Dicovering Umbria!
Just another day in the office for Francesco Rossi, sheep and goat herder and cheesemaker (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
I find it surprising—and somewhat heartening—that in this age where everyone seems to aspire to some sort of white-collar service sector desk job (those, of course, who don’t aspire to starring on a cable reality show), there are still people who make a conscious choice to get their hands (and boots) dirty.
Follow this sign (and the bleating of hundreds of sheep) to the good cheese. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
Enter Rita Rossi and her brother Francesco from tiny Colforcella outside of Cascia, who found themselves the unexpected owners of three orphan lambs about ten years back. As they couldn’t keep up with the rest of the herd, a passing shepherd left them in their care along with cursory instructions as to how to raise them. Rita quickly found her passion, and involved Francesco in expanding their herd and adding goats. From their hilltop farm, they now raise about 150 sheep and half as many goats…taking them from their warm shed each morning to graze in the surrounding sloping fields of the Valnerina.
Try making small talk around the water cooler with this guy every day. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
From books and neighbors, the Rossis taught themselves the art of cheesemaking, quickly turning out products of such fine quality that they count some of the best restaurants in Umbria among their clients. Demand is so high for their tangy and pungent wheels that they no longer sell aged cheese, as they can’t keep them around long enough to properly age them. They offer a variety of soft, fresh goat cheese and sheep cheese ranging from two days to a month old…some of which are flavored with the saffron threads they harvest from their field of crocuses (croci?).
Rita Rossi separates out saffron threads from her crocus field. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
My visit to the Rossi farm, accompanied by a chef friend who had sung me their praises, only underlined the singularity of these brother-and-sister team’s choice of work: theirs is no showcase estate, but a real working farm complete with lots of hounds and lots of mud. That said, the bleating sheep coming up the lane against the background of the autumn colored woods, the field of tiny violet crocuses with their bright orange stigmas, and the serene smile lighting up Rita’s face as she shyly talks about her life are undeniably bucolic.
The view from your office ain’t that bad, if you don’t mind a little mud on your boots.
Our visit ended with a quick sampling of some of their cheeses: a strong soft goat caprino, a spreadable fresh sheep, and a semi-aged (about a month) casciotta (true to her word, the aging room was virtually empty…these wheels go like hotcakes). They were straightforward and left a clean taste in your mouth, with none of the insipid flavors or chemical aftertaste that comes with so many commercial cheeses made from milk from larger farms.
Made in the morning, by afternoon these cheeses are sold out. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)
Before slicing into a wheel of casciotta, Rita rinses the rind of brine and mold (the good kind of mold).
Like the Rossi family, these cheeses had nothing fancy about them; simple, honest, and matter-of-factly excellent. Here’s to going back to the land, and from that land making something heavenly.
To taste some of these cheeses yourself, contact Rita through their website to arrange a visit or ask where their products are sold locally. You won’t be disappointed!
A huge thanks to chef Jennifer McIlvaine of Life…Italian Style for introducing me to the Rossi farm and snapping these wonderful pictures.
Easter comes exceptionally late in 2014, which means it’s a great year to take off for the week and head to Umbria where spring is in full swing.
If you are planning an Easter visit, I wrote a few tips about what to expect regarding events and food related to this important holiday for About.com’s GoItaly this week.
Want more information on what to pig out on during your Easter break in Umbria? Say no more.
What’s the funnest part of Easter in Umbria? Read on.
Have any more tips for visiting Umbria at Eastertime? Leave a comment below!
This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a bit sluggish…blame the August heat. Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month), professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me have to say. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some popsicles, and join in on the conversation.
August in Italy
August in Italy is hot. Hot hot. Too hot to work (which is why this post is late), too hot to sleep, and too hot to cook—much less eat–much of anything.
There is one dish that I can always stomach, no matter what the thermometer reads. No, it’s not gelato (there are days when even gelato seems a challenge) and it’s not pasta salad (though it’s a close runner-up). It’s panzanella.
Panzanella is both a quintessentially Umbrian and a quintessentially summer dish. Umbrian because it is a delicious way to use up stale bread, which appeals to the parsimonious Umbrians and their farming traditions of not letting anything go to waste, and because pretty much every cook has their own version of it, depending upon their tastes and vegetable garden. Summer because it is built around flavorful garden tomatoes, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and not much else–all ingredients that abound in these summer months—and involves not a lick of flame to make.
When the temperatures soar, make yourself a big ol’ plate of panzanella. And then take a nap in front of the fan.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Ingredients for four servings:
- 200 grams traditional Umbrian bread (cooked in a wood oven is best), cubed
- 3-4 ripe tomatoes (cherry tomatoes work fine, as well), chopped
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 1 stick of celery, sliced
- (optional, according to taste: 1 cucumber and/or 1 carrot and/or a few leaves of romaine lettuce and/or capers and/or minced garlic and/or red or yellow sweet peppers)
- a handful of green or black marinated olives (the good ones, people)
- a bunch of fresh basil, chopped
Cut the vinegar with the same volume of water, making enough to soak the bread cubes. Soak for about five minutes, then press out the liquid well (the cubes get a little mushed up…it’s fine.).
Mix the bread with the chopped vegetables, olives, and basil in a large salad bowl. Dress with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.
Let the panzanella rest in the refrigerator for about two hours.
Yep, that’s it. Nap time.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.
Before I go any further, let me just preface this by saying that Umbria is a food culture, not a drink culture. A group of friends in Umbria is much more likely to organize an evening around a meal—either at home or at a restaurant—than around meeting for drinks. In fact, for roughly the first 15 years I lived here I don’t think I ever met up with friends for a cocktail. At most, we would grab a beer after dinner in the pub…but even that was rare.
Lately a small cocktail culture has begun to take hold in Umbria, for a number of reasons. First, the concept of the aperitivo has become increasingly popular over the past couple of years, probably because the happy hour-esque pairing of drink with food around dinner time is something that the Umbrians can cotton on to without much trouble. Also, with the economy being what it is, it can be cheaper to nurse a drink for an evening of after-dinner conversation than order a meal (However, as part of my hard hitting journalism, I actually found myself consuming an €8 cocktail the other night. €8. Like, the same amount I pay for a pizza margherita and a small beer in my real life.). And, of course, Umbrians–like the rest of the world–like to feel like they are doing the same things hip people in Manhattan are doing, so mixed drinks are hot right now. Though the hip people I know in Manhattan seem to spend an inordinate amount of time ordering-in Vietnamese sandwiches and watching The Wire on their TiVo.
The bottom line is that you are probably not going to get an extraordinary drink in Umbria. This is not the land of the mixologist, but of the porkologist. If you want a memorable salame, you’ve come to the right place. If you want a memorable Manhattan, you should probably go there. This is, however, a land of wonderful views, people watching, and historic cafes…so I’ve given more weight in my choices to the esthetics than to the quality of the alcohol. If you’re choosy about your cocktails, you can always just order a glass of wine. Umbrians do know good wine.
A Drink with a View
Punto di Vista–Viale Indipendenza, 2 Perugia
The bad news is that Perugia has no rooftop bars. The good news is that this hilltop town doesn’t need them. Perch yourself on one of the stools along the parapet which forms the long wall of this outdoor bar, and sip a cocktail while enjoying one of the most spectacular views around. From here you can see almost the entire length of the Umbrian valley, and prettily lit Assisi on the far hill.
Why, yes, I did manage to snap this picture on the night of the full moon. Why, yes, I do rock.
Il Trombone–Via Fontanello 1, Spello
The view from this outdoor lounge is so enchanting that you will be tempted to return here for a meal. Don’t do it. The restaurant is—how can I put this?—a crime against Italian cooking. But the adjoining bar is a lovely tree shaded patio with wicker seating tucked into niches and an incredibly soothing view over the green olive-grove covered hills surrounding Spello. I repeat: just drink here.
The view takes the edge off just as much as your drink.
A Drink with a Different View
Tric Trac–Piazza Duomo, 10 Spoleto
If you are green hill panorama-ed out but would still like some eye candy to accompany your gin and tonic, head to one of the outdoor tables at this elegant bar overlooking Spoleto’s breathtaking duomo. The piazza–closed to traffic–is unusually quiet for an Italian square, so you can sip in peace while gazing at the softly lit facade of one of the most magnificent churches in Umbria.
The bell tower is currently under scaffolding, but that doesn't distract from this breathtaking facade.
Nun–Via Eremo delle Carceri, 1A Assisi
This rather unfortunately named brand-new-never-been-opened-still-in-box luxury hotel and spa seems to have gotten everything right…the elegant renovation of the historic ex-convent it now calls home, the breathtaking spa in the excavated Roman ruins under the hotel, and the chic internal courtyard bar open to both guests and the public. This glass, chrome, and dramatically lit space offers a unique view in Assisi…looking up, rather than down, you see the Rocchicciola, or secondary fortress which dominates the skyline.
Hotel Bontadosi–Piazza del Comune, 19 Montefalco
If all humans are actors in this theater of life, the main stages in Italy are doubtless the town piazzas. Settle yourself down in one of this elegant hotel’s inviting outdoor couches, order a drink from the formal yet approachable staff, and watch the show.
Get front row seats to the show in Montefalco's charming piazza
Bar 1.2–Piazza Garibaldi, Todi
Right under the portico of the elegant Palazzo del Comune, this new bar is both a wonderful place for people watching and, if you’re lucky, listening to live music. The atmosphere is young and casual, the shows are a mix of acoustic, jazz, and alternative, and the piazza is hopping. A winner.
H2nO–Via Baldeschi, 12/a Perugia
If the sun isn’t cooperating but you are still hankering for a Cuba Libre, search out this quirkily hip bar right in the university district, with its young clientele and a fun vibe. The main floor is built around some restored Roman arches in brick and stone, which makes it an interesting space when the weather outside is frightful.
Il Vincaffè–Via Filippeschi 39 Orvieto
This wine bar is upscale yet friendly, like a neighborhood place in Soho. Great wines and spirits, jovial staff, and some foodie munchies. A perfect place to pop in for an hour on a chilly fall evening to imbibe and rub elbows with the locals.
This great shot by Dean Thorsen captures the vibe of the place. Good times.
A special thanks to Alessandra from Discovering Umbria for her Todi and Orvieto help and suggestions!
I have to fess up and admit that it took me years to finally work up the courage to check out what turned out to be one of my favorite festivals in Umbria.
My only other contact with anything resembling a medieval fair was the now defunct King Richard’s Faire outside Chicago, which is an event roughly 1/3 kitsch, 1/3 tacky, and 1/3 fat, badly dressed midwesterners (I feel I can say this with impunity, being myself a fat, badly dressed midwesterner). Actors wandered around the fairgrounds in costumes which can be described only as flower child 1980s Shakespearean, chitchatting in ye olde English, and selling “jars of mead” (Budweiser) and “sweet water” (Coke) from handbaskets. The food was whole turkey legs, eaten with one’s hands, and funnel cakes. The crafts were dried flower arrangements and toy swords. I loved it, to be fair. But I was 8, to be honest. When I was 8, the height of cuisine was chili-mac, the height of fine wine was Lancers (Grandma drank it), the height of music was K-Tel’s Disco Nights, and the height of culture was King Richard’s Faire.
So it was with much trepidation that I approached the Mercato delle Gaite in Bevagna, imagining obnoxious jesters, marauding costumed concessionary hawkers, and just simply too much bad taste for my grownup self to handle. Instead, this ten day long festival set in the 1300s is the antithesis to all of that, and a damned good time for both adults and kids, to boot.
One of the principal differences is that the annual event—founded in 1983–is not simply entertainment but instead a competition between the four traditional gaite, or quarters, of the town of Bevagna: San Giorgio, San Pietro, San Giovanni, and Santa Maria. Each quarter earns points primarily based on their historical accuracy during each of the four competitions held during the festival; continuous and quite rigorous accademic research goes on behind the scenes and the festival’s jury is largely made up of historians and experts on fourteenth century Italy. Like I said, there ain’t no ye olde English-esque stuff going on.
The coat of arms for San Giorgio
San Giovanni's coat of arms
San Pietro flies these colors
The crest of Santa Maria
Another difference between the two festivals is, of course, the venue. Bevagna is an absolute jewel in the Umbrian plain, listed among the most beautiful villages in Italy. The festival’s four competitions all take place in the lovely main piazza, and the medieval streets, buildings, and courtyards which surround it. A charming place to visit all year round, this town really shines when all decked out for their annual festival.
The most important difference is, of course, the events themselves, four in all, which make up the competition between the gaite—first among them the mestieri, or artisan workshops. Each quarter has the task of organizing two different workshops which use both the techniques and technology of the 1300s to actually produce wares—which makes the Mercato delle Gaite unique in a region where medieval festivals come a dime a dozen.
The bell foundry...one of the "mestieri"
Over the years some of the less successful workshops have been replaced, others enlarged (this slow but constant evolution means that the trades have become more elaborate and spectacular with time), and now all are marvelous and fascinating.
The immense replica silk thread making machine
From the silk workshop–which raises silkworms, unravels the cocoons, and spins fine thread on a manual wooden contraption which fills an entire room and looks as if it jumped right out of one of da Vinci’s sketchpads of marvelous machines—to the paper workshop—which produces fine handcrafted paper by pounding rags with an enormous pulper powered by a waterwheel—to the bell foundry—which casts bronze bells on commission from churches and historical societies all over Italy—each workshop is manned by artisans in period garb who explain their trade as practiced 700 years ago. There are ten mestieri in all (two are permanent and non-competing) open to the public every night from 9-12 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 5-7 pm and again from 9-12 pm.
The apothecary's workshop
As long as you are headed into town to see the workshops, plan to have dinner at one of the four taverne (outdoor restaurants) organized by each gaita. The second competition which takes place during the festival–and figures into calculating the victor–is gastronomic. Each quarter of the city researches recipes and ingredients used in fourteenth century cuisine and offers the public a chance to taste the fruits of this research by creating a menu exclusively made up of historical dishes. The fare is heavy on meat (especially game), spices (this year I had a spice lasagna which was fabulous), and egg pasta and bread. You won’t find tomatoes (no tomato sauce on your tagliatelle), potatoes (no gnocchi), corn (no polenta), or any other ingredients which were brought back from the New World 200 years after the time of the gaite.
A banquet with period food and costumes
After dinner and before making the rounds of the workshops, you can stop in the central Piazza Silvestri and watch a series of theatrical and musical events in costume, or the archery contest (the third of the four competitions during the festival). Especially interesting is the Notte Medievale, a dusk to dawn medieval festival-within-a-festival with a full night of art, music, dance, and food.
Archers from the four Gaite prepare to compete in the piazza
The highpoint of the festivities, and the origin of the name Mercato delle Gaite, is the medieval market which takes place during the afternoons of the final weekend. Each quarter organizes a working market, where locals play artists, artisans, tradespeople, and farmers displaying their wares—the competition consists in trying to create the most interesting, artistic, and historically accurate market square. The feel of these markets really is a step back in time…each teems with customers weaving their way through the market booths, the din of the tradespeople hawking their wares and the live animals protesting their confinement, the smell of fresh flowers and herbs, cheeses, and dried sausages, the colorful garb of the costumed sellers and their stalls heaped with wares.
A market scene
I suppose the one thing the Mercato delle Gaite and King Richard’s Faire have in common is that you will find yourself inevitably bringing something home from both…what you end up bringing away with you from Bevagna, however, will never be a source of buyer’s remorse.
These photos were reproduced with permission of the Associazione Mercato delle Gaite.
I find it shocking when I discover that I’m not always right. It happens rarely, of course, as I am usually always right. But every once in awhile I am not completely right, and I am served up a big old dish of steaming hot crow, which I choke down philosophically. Then I immediately try to get back on track with the being always right thing.
Case in point:
Enoteca L’Alchimista Wine & Co Enoteca
Piazza del Comune, 14 Montefalco
Lunch and dinner; closed Tuesdays
Vegetarian and gluten free options
There are a couple of characteristics common to a certain category of restaurants in Italy that pretty much guarantee mediocre food, in my experience. A setting of outdoor tables looking over a pretty main piazza, for example. Frequent mention on the online foodie forums. A menu in three languages, color coded for vegetarian, low sodium, and gluten-free options. A website with a flash intro. And lots and lots of foreign customers.
This is because Italians are all about food. They are not about ambience (some of the best food I’ve had in Italy has been served in stuffy, overcrowded restaurants panelled alla 1976 basement rec room and decorated with soccer trophies and an oversized fish tank.). They are not about foodies (if you discuss food with ardor and passion in Italy you are just a normal citizen, not part of an irritatingly pompous social subset.). They are not about complicated menus (Good: a single page grease-spotted photocopy with name of dish and price. Better: a chalkboard near the door. Best: the waiter tells you what you will be eating today. And you had better like it, because Mamma’s in the kitchen.) or blingy websites. And they are certainly not about pleasing an international palate.
Which is why it took me so long to try L’Alchimista in Montefalco, which I had been hearing about (primarily from my guests here at Brigolante and on the travel forums) for so long. Everything about the place turned me off. The charming outdoor tables in Montefalco’s main piazza…incidentally, one of my favorite towns and favorite piazzas in Umbria. The purple prose praise in the guidebooks and on the forums for the wine/gourmet shop inside the enoteca, and for the food itself. The extensive menu, with its unusually ample selections for vegetarians, celiacs, and those trying to watch their waistline. The website with so much stuff flashing at me I got a headache and had to lie down in a dark room for a few hours to recover. And the lots and lots of foreign customers.
I went so far as to recon another restaurant in town that I was sure would be better. Because I’m always right. So I dragged a friend all the way to Montefalco to dine at Spirito Divino, which has an elegantly understated website, is on a smaller secondary piazza, offers a simple straightforward menu, and strangely seems to be under the international radar (the foreigners are all up the street at L’Alchimista, apparently). When I got there, I was pretty convinced I was right. The restaurant is charming…exposed beam and tile ceiling with requisite hanging prosciutti and garlic braids, shelves of wine bottles lining the walls, compelling menu, enthusiastic owner/server. Unfortunately, the food was a heartbreaking disappointment. And overpriced. I was crushed.
So I swallowed my pride and returned, tail tucked between legs, to take L’Alchimista for a long overdue spin. I was there on a warm summer evening, so sat at an outdoor table watching life pass by in Montefalco’s piazza and trying not to be irritated by all the English and German I was overhearing at the neighboring tables. When the waitress—who proved herself competent and attentive, if not passionate–hefted the multilingual menu at me, I hunkered down and silently spent the next few minutes wading through pages of traditional or vegetarian or gluten-free or heart healthy options. I was grim.
The house red came—a Montefalco Rosso. To me, the quality of a house wine is to a restaurant what the quality of a first kiss is to a love affair. You can pretty much tell if it’s going to fly in the first 3 milliseconds or so. And the wine was good. Very good. Ah, I harrumphed, you can hardly expect to get a bad wine in Montefalco. (I was not going to make this easy.)
Then our antipasti came…mine was a surprisingly enjoyable cheese and confit plate (like I said, I wasn’t going to make this easy) and my friend had a twist on a caprese salad. The reluctant comment: Olio buono. Now, just to put that into perspective, to have an Umbrian admit that an olio not produced directly by themselves or, in a pinch, immediate family is buono is akin to having a Democrat admit that a Republican colleague is a worthy adversary or a Greek admit to a Turk being a good neighbor. I was a bit taken aback, and hoped L’Alchimista would drop the ball on our primi so I could salvage a bit of pride.
It was not to be the case. The gnocchi al Sagrantino were fabulous…the gnocchi were light (Umbrians tend to make them heavy and either too sticky or too chewy) and freshly made, the sauce not overpowering. We even unobtrusively scarpetta-ed our plates (when you use a piece of bread to clean the remaining sauce off your dish and pop it in your mouth. Not very polite. Not restaurant behavior.). The portion was so generous that I skipped a second course, but my friend had the chicken saltimbocca (again, with a splash of Sagrantino) and again a little scarpetta action went on. The olio was buono. Harrumph.
There was still a chance for them to ruin everything, as I am a Big Dessert Person. But wouldn’t you know it, they had an extensive an embarrassingly sinful house dolce selection, from which I chose a chocolate nuclear bomb-esque mousse cake concoction that gave me tachycardia for hours and completely won me over. Nothing more be said. L’Alchimista is a winner and I was wrong.
Our meal was paid for by e20umbria, but would have been about €40/head.