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.
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). They have an absolutely fully equipped kitchen, including vegan baking supplies if any of you are lactose intolerant or vegan, they will be able to accommodate you too!
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.
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.
Nothing brings out the kid in you like a visit to a chocolate factory. Maybe it’s the recollection of Curious George’s shennanigans when he stopped by with the man with the yellow hat. Maybe it’s that classic episode of “I Love Lucy”, which flashes through your mind any time you see a conveyor belt in motion. Maybe it’s the image in Willy Wonka of the majestic chocolate river and mixing waterfall (never touched by human hands!). Maybe it’s simply that irresistible scent that seeps into your clothes and hair and skin and follows you around for the rest of the day.
Whatever it is, it’s right up there with bubbles and foosball and lawn sprinklers as far as the power to channel your inner child. And, given that I’m a big believer in the restorative properties of an occasional date with my inner child, the Perugina chocolate factory and museum (officially known as the Casa del Cioccolato) outside of Perugia is one of my favorite places to visit.
Perugina (now owned by Nestlé) was founded in Perugia proper in 1907, though didn’t begin producing its signature “Bacio” (kiss) chocolates until 1922. Brainchild of Luisa Spagnoli, wife of one of the company’s four founders (you know what they say about who is behind every successful man…), this chocolate and hazelnut treat (a sphere of gianduja, topped by a whole hazelnut and glazed with a layer of dark chocolate) was originally called “Cazzotto” (punch) because of its irregular fist shape. Luisa may have been a brilliant chocolatier, but marketer? Not so much. Fortunately, the other partners stepped in to both rename the product and add the tiny slips of paper printed with pithy romantic aphorisms which make the chocolates so distinct…and such a huge commercial success.
Perugina’s Bacio chocolates, as well as their other chocolate and candy products, are still made in their sprawling modern factory on the outskirts of Perugia. A visit begins with a brief tour of their small museum, where there are sections dedicated to the history of the company, the techniques used in their chocolate production, and—perhaps my favorite—a collection of their advertising posters and marketing materials over the past century. Akin to the historic Coca-Cola ads, the progression of Perugina’s advertising images parallels the evolution of modern popular art in Italy, and, under the art direction of the great Federico Seneca, some of the Futurism-school images used to promote the company at the beginning of the century are both iconic and timeless.
Before entering the factory itself, visitors are shown a short video explaining the production (yes, okay, it’s an infomercial. But guess what. They placate you with a free sampling of their chocolates before it starts. I find that I sell my soul disconcertingly easily when chocolate is on the table.). Afterwards, the group is led by a guide into a suspended catwalk over the production floor, where the scent of roasting cocoa beans washes over you like a chocolate tide. The tour is worth it for that alone. The guide sportingly attempts to describe what is going on below, fighting a losing battle against the roar of the machinery (this is why you should pay attention to the video) and the glazed-eye distraction the intoxicating aroma produces, but it’s fun to see actual chocolates being whizzed around on actual conveyor belts and packed into actual boxes by actual white coat-and-hairnet-clad ladies. It’s just like the movies.
A little side note: I actually have a friend who works for Perugina, and when I learned that enticing bit of information I grabbed her by the elbow, steered her into a corner of the room, and asked with the urgent intensity of a drug addict having found a new source, “Can you eat the chocolates?” Well, yes and no. Employees have an all-you-can-eat policy while at work, but aren’t allowed to take anything out of the factory. Which means, according to my friend, that almost everyone overdoses the first few weeks they work there, and then go off of chocolate pretty much forever. I know. Shocking, but true.
After seeing the roasting machines, mixing vats, pouring and molding equipment, and packaging belts (What products you will actually see made depends upon the season; Baci are made all year round, but many other products only specifically for Easter or Christmas. Production also slows dramatically in summer.), visitors end in the small gift shop, where you can pick up fun Perugina memoribilia and—of course—chocolates.
Don’t let the lack of an English version of their website deter you (Really?!? C’mon Perugina. You sell in 75 countries on 5 continents and your website isn’t translated?); it is both possible and easy to reserve an English speaking tour by calling their toll-free number at 800 800 907. Opening days and hours vary by season depending upon the production cycle and pre-booking is a must if you want an English speaking guide. The factory is located in San Sisto (a suburb of Perugia), so make sure you map it out before you go.
–Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed in the factory (Corporate espionage is just like in the movies, too.). The photos here are used with kind permission from Perugina–
The more I travel the world, the more I appreciate the beauty of Umbria. (I know, it seems like a hard sell—but it’s the truth.) And the more I travel Umbria, the more I appreciate the beauty of Assisi. Sure, there are other areas of Umbria which I hold particularly dear (the largely undiscovered Valnerina, for example), but Assisi is—despite the tourists, despite the souvenir shops, despite the glaring lack of stellar restaurants—simply, gloriously, lovely.
One of the features which makes this iconic hilltown remarkable is the lack of modern development ringing its historic center, which means that it has both remained stunningly picturesque from afar and a perfect base for walkers and hikers, who can literally step out of the city gates and in minutes find themselves meandering in bucolic solitude the surrounding undulating landscape.
The wines produced on the hillsides and valley surrounding Assisi—using primarily Trebbiano, Grechetto, Sangiovese, and Merlot grapes to make their whites, red, and rosato—are perfect walking wines: light and clean, pairing well with a simple dejeuner sur l’herbe spread, and not picky about temperatures and oxidation. These are wines to be tossed into your shopping basket alongside your marinated olives and artichokes, cheese and salame, bread and apples, and uncorked on a hillside, under an olive tree, with the sun shining on your upturned face.
Mount Subasio Park
This extensive regional park–which includes the Assisi DOC producing towns of Assisi and Spello (and the lesser known Nocera Umbra and Valtopina), a number of tiny hamlets, four country churches, three abbeys, the Topino and Tescio rivers (criss-crossed with medieval stone bridges), and a network of hiking and walking trails (you’ll need to pick up a CAI trail map at a local bookstore)–centers around the hulking Mount Subasio.
It’s worth the trek to the softly rolling peak of this mountain (often full of wildflowers and grazing horses), which offers amazing views from over the Umbrian Valley to the south and the Appennine foothills (you can spot the craggy peaks of the Appennines themselves in the distance on a clear day) to the north. I especially love the Franciscan Trail (CAI n. 51) from Assisi to Nocera Umbra, which traces the last journey of a dying Saint Francis, and the itineraries suggested by Via di Francesco.
The Bosco di San Francesco
The newly inaugurated San Francesco Woodland, adjacent to the imposing Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, is a restoration project spearheaded by the Italian National Trust, which cleared more than 30 tons of waste, cut back undergrowth and replanted native species of trees and shrubs, opened over 3 kilometers of walking paths, and restored the 13th century Santa Croce Benedictine convent and mill, (now used as a visitors’ center) over a 12 acre area of wooded land which had been neglected for centuries.
The woodland’s walking paths and corresponding explanatory notes, an audioguide, and mobile app are grouped into three thematic routes: the landscape route illustrates the history of the rural landscape in Italy; the historical route recounts the area’s historic architecture; and the spiritual route invites walkers to reflect on the relationship between nature and mankind. The Saint Francis Woodland also holds Michelangelo Pistoletto’s piece of landscape art Terzo Paradiso, using the mathematical symbol for infinity to comment on the unsustainability of the model of modern development and the union of heaven and earth.
Don’t want to muck around with trail maps and packing picnics? Saio Winery just outside of Assisi’s historic center has a pretty walking trail through its vineyards and can provide a picnic (which they drop off at one of the shady spots along the trail for you).
If I could change one thing about Italy–wait, who am I kidding? I love living in Italy, but given the chance I would change roughly 14,000 things about it. But for argument’s sake, let’s choose one thing—it would be the ethnic food situation. Italy doesn’t do ethnic food. It doesn’t even do inter-regional food that well. If I go to my vegetable guy at the outdoor market and ask for black cabbage, I get a look and a, “Black cabbage?!? I don’t sell that. That’s what they use to make ribollita in Tuscany!” as if Tuscany were a remote province in southern China and not the bordering region roughly a 20 minute drive away. In Umbria, you eat Umbrian food. Just like in Puglia you eat Puglian food and in Liguria you eat Ligurian food. And if you want anything outside of those gastro-geographical borders, you need to book a flight.
Part of me is happy about that. I believe very strongly in eating mindfully (it’s about at new age-y as I get). Our food doesn’t inhabit a cultural and historical vacuum; our food is part of a larger context of land and people, the ebb and flow of economies and conquering armies, and often there’s a side helping of religious traditions on our plates, as well. Eating locally in a country like Italy—which has a rich gastronomic history and culture currently under attack by the invasion of fast food and imported counterfeits—is both a pleasure and a civic duty.
Of all the foods that weave a seamless tapestry between culture, history, and land, wine is the most illustrative. To really get a sense of the importance of millenia of viticulture and vinification on the landscape, art and literature, and cuisine of Umbria, Italy, and the entire Mediterranean basin, a visit to Torgiano’s excellent Wine Museum is de rigueur.
Though founded in the mid-1970s, careful upkeep and curation have made this far from a dusty, arid storehouse of wine related bric-à-brac, but more a compelling walk through the history of wine in all its thousand facets: gastronomic, economic, social, ceremonial, and medicinal. The museum, housed in the the 17th-century Palazzo Graziani-Baglioni six kilometers from Perugia, displays a vast array of items from archeological artefacts, artworks, and ethnographic collections—all aimed at illustrating the history and civilization of wine from its import from the Middle East, through the Etruscan and Roman cultures, until the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps the most charming section of the museum is the vaulted stone and brick basement holding the antique wine cellar, with its collection of reconstructed antique grape presses, immense vats, and other wine-making equipment, many of which still used in Umbrian cantinas until just a few decades ago. One can just picture a winsome Sofia Loren-esque country maid, with her skirt hitched up and a come-hither look on her face, as she stomped through grape must and captured the heart of a roomful of farmboys.
I had expected an academic vibe to this museum, but instead found it captured the light-hearted, human side of wine–and drinking. From the collection of “lover’s cups”—used to woo one with wine—to the animal-shaped flasks, to the pieces dedicated to the ubiquitous Dionysian Myth, to the hip contemporary ceramic and graphics sections, at the Wine Museum I was reminded of how such a humble chemical reaction (we’re just talking about fermented grape juice, after all) can produce something so central to an entire civilization’s history and culture.
That said…um, I’m really craving a samosa right now.
One of my favorite wineries is right down the road: Terre Margaritelli. Stop in for a tasting!
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.