Browsing category: Food and Wine in Umbria, Life in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations

The Vegetarian’s Dilemma: Umbria and Pork

The toughest trial the newly-minted expat has to endure is that clunky, awkward, square-peg-in-round-hole exercise of superimposing one’s own largely culturally dictated belief system on that of one’s new host culture, and–with a little cutting and pasting, giving and taking, conceding and demanding– cobbling together a new one.

Okay, the second toughest trial.  The first is, of course, bagel withdrawal.

When it works (a fun story of when it works), the exercise is an alchemy of skimming the cream off the top of both cultures and creating something greater than the sum of its parts.  When it doesn’t work, it produces the Bitter Expat…the one who does nothing but harp on the host culture at dinner parties, boring fellow expats with tales of woe and offending locals with claims of how everything is bigger, better, and faster in one’s home country.

I moved to Umbria as a vegetarian.  Luckily, not a new vegetarian, so I had shed the holier-than-thou affect of the newly converted, but a vegetarian nonetheless. Umbria is a region of meat eaters.  Not only meat eaters, but meat raisers and meat butcherers.  This traditional, rural area still has vast swaths of farmland where the turn-around time between barnyard and dinner table is a few hours at most.  Though older Umbrians remember a diet based largely on grains and legumes (flavored with pork fat and charcuterie) with meat reserved for special occasions or, for the more prosperous, Sundays, the steadily climbing standard of living over the past two generations means that meat has become a mainstay of the local diet.

The sight of fresh homemade sausages hung to dry warms the cockles of any Umbrian's heart.

That said, the modern regional cuisine continues to reflect the poor hunting and farming culture that dominated Umbria for millenia with its heavy use of game (hare, fowl, and wild boar) and–the uncontested monarch–pork.  The pig was, and remains, the foundation upon which the lion’s share of Umbrian dishes rest for a number of reason.  Pigs once had a symbiotic relationship with the land (less so now as most are no longer kept outdoors), as each fall they were herded under oak trees bordering farm fields to consume the fallen acorns and—ahem—fertilize the fields along the way.  Pigs are a smaller, less dangerous animal than cattle and their care and feeding were often the responsibility of the family’s children.  And, most importantly, pigs can be consumed down to the last centimeter.  Nothing was wasted when a pig was butchered, and during a time when a family of twenty had to stretch out a single pig to cover a year (something often done), this could make a big difference.

They say that pigs are highly intelligent animals. After having them as next door neighbors for 18 years, I have my doubts.

Most country families in Umbria still butcher a pig each year (though now the meat is consumed by about four people, and much less of it is cured in favor of freezing), and many urban families reserve a pig in the spring at a local farm, which raises it for their clients until the following winter.  This tradition is so strong that a recent EU regulation banning home butchering was amended to allow a limited number of pigs to be home butchered (across Italy).  The ingrained frugality continues, and the pig is still consumed from snout to tail (head cheese helps clear up the scraps, as does blood pudding (a blood, sugar, raisin, pinenut baked concoction that my husband’s 105 year old grandmother still makes), heavy use of lard in cooking, and generosity with the dogs.).

Le dejeuner sur l'herbe

So, have I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian?  Yes, and I may as well fast forward over the first years of avoidance ( I would simply head out of town for the weekend) followed by reluctant acceptance (I would hunker down inside the house for the weekend) to my current whole-hearted embrace (I invite friends for a “salsicciata”, or sausage roast, for the weekend).  It has been a long road to reconcile my American urban vegetarian value system with the Umbrian rural farming value system, but I have done it.  Here’s how:

Respect the Pig

Ok, there’s no way around it.  The pigs end up dead.  Yep.  They are killed in the end.  So, if that’s a deal breaker for you, it’s going to be a problem.  I realized that it’s not so much a deal breaker for me if 1) the animals are treated well during their life and 2) the animals are treated well in death.  Which they are, on both counts.

There's no getting around this.

Umbrians (and, I suspect many cultures who maintain a much more immediate relationship with their food than most Americans do) tend to treat their animals well…they eat well, they have ample room and fresh air, they are not given hormones, antibiotics, or fillers, they are allowed to grow at a normal rate and are given adequate vet care.  This not because Umbrians are more soft-hearted about animals in general (their unsentimental view of dogs can be jarring), but because they care about what they eat and any animal who has been badly fed, stressed, and medicated is not going to make for good eating.

The actual killing of the pig is, I daresay, anticlimactic.  There is no throat-slitting, no trauma, no slasher-film graphic.  They take a compressed air pistol shot to the temple, and are already gone when they hit the ground.  That’s how it’s done.  It took me years—years—to work up the courage to stand by and watch, and then I felt silly for making such a big deal of it.  Some squealing occurs, not because of pain or terror but because pigs are stubborn, ornery SOBs who don’t like to be moved around, be it from one sty to another, from one pasture to another, or from one dimension to another.

Three generations of "norcini" or hog butchers.

Respect the Earth

There is no environmental impact in family farm stock raising.  We feed them the forage we raise in our fields, and use their waste to fertilize our fields.  This is not a feed lot. There is no manure lagoon. They roam freely in their pen. They are never medicated (unless, of course, they get sick).  All those misgivings I had about meat consumption in the 1980s in the US do not apply here.  In fact, much of the Umbrian landscape—the patchwork of tiny, oak-ringed fields, pastures, vineyards, and olive groves–would be very different were it not for the history of the small, family farm which dabbles a bit in stock, a bit in forage, and a bit in produce.

It's a tag-team job of hands and knives (and tongues).

Respect the People

To love Umbria is to love its culture, history, and people.  And it’s hard to separate that from the dinner table.  There are some practices that have roots in history that I consider indefensible (genital mutilation comes to mind, for example), but the annual hog kill is not one of them.

Once a year, the extended family gets together (with various neighbors, friends, and passers-by who catch a whiff of fresh sausages frying) for what amounts to more of a party than a chore.  In Umbria, the heavy work of sectioning the meat, grinding mixes for sausage and salame, and preparing haunches and shoulders for salting and curing is primarily the men’s job, though that’s not true in all of Italy, and the women spend the day bustling back and forth from the kitchen with pots of boiling water, spices, and lots of unsolicited advice.

Making the salame is serious business accompanied by lots of banter.

There is laughter, light-hearted ribbing, and hours and hours of story-telling.  Long dead family and friends are brought up as if they had just departed yesterday, and children (mine included) are handed knives and taught how to correctly cut ribs (usually by four different people with four conflicting methods), make head cheese (in a perplexing development for this vegetarian mom, my eldest son’s favorite task is also arguably the goriest one), and, in a subtle way, internalize the cycle of life-death-life.  The day culminates in a sausage roast come dinner time, when the numbers swell and often an organetto appears from nowhere to wheeze out traditional tunes.

My son's favorite task is, clearly, also the most dangerous and disgusting.

Have I begun eating meat? No (more out of habit that principle–honestly, many of the same moral and ethical arguments made against the meat industry can be made against the sugar and cocoa bean industry but that doesn’t slow my chocolate consumption one bit, baby) but I learned that though we began our journeys from two points of departure that seemed diametrically opposed, somehow the Umbrians and I have ended up in the exact same place.

Our charcuterie curing under a thick layer of salt, pepper, and garlic.

Intrigued by home curing meat? Follow Judy from Divina Cucina as she spends the next twelve months showing us her thighs, breasts, and belly during Charcutepalooza!


The Persimmon Problem

I feel roughly the same way about persimmons as I do about Leonardo di Caprio.  Though objectively I realize that both are near perfect products of nature, neither are my type.  Ripe persimmons have a sliminess factor that is hard for me to get past (come to think of it, that may just be my hang up about di Caprio, as well) which is a shame, since come late autumn gardens across Umbria offer up the dramatic sight of the stark blackish trees bare but for the perfect orange-red orbs of ripe fruit hanging from each bough like the Earth’s own Christmas ornaments.  Framed against a slate-grey autumn sky, the trees have all the spare elegance of a 15th century Japanese waterpainting without the requisite languid kimono-clad damsel.

The starkly elegant persimmon tree in autumn. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Robert.

But then you have to eat the damned things. And, since nature is a prankster, it seems that the less you are partial to persimmons the more your backyard tree is a contender in the persimmon olympics.  They don’t keep for more than a couple of days if picked ripe (food writer Sara Bir described the ripe fruit as “supple and yielding, like a breast”.  Which may be one more reason eating one gives me pause.) and tend to ripen all at once, so suddenly you wake up one day with crates of persimmons you have no idea what to do with.  It is a zucchini-like fruit, in that way.

This persimmon is pretty, but not yet completely ripe. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Olegiwit.

That said, the tangy-sweet flavor of persimmons is quite pleasant if you can get past the viscid, jellylike texture of the fruit fully ripe (when the flavor is at its best—don’t try to cut to the chase and eat them too soon, unless you enjoy that certain je ne sais quoi of chewing cotton batting).  Here are three recipes that cut the slime while highlighting the tang, making persimmons palatable—even delectable—to a self-declared skeptic like myself.

They almost look good enough to eat. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Pizzodisevo

Lava Cake with Persimmon Sauce

In the eighties, this over-the top-chocolate debauchery was commonly known as “undercooked brownies” and eaten with spoons out of a single baking pan with your best girlfriends whilst sitting on the kitchen floor bemoaning boys.  Now we are all genXers and have hiply renamed our sinful desserts, make them with organic single bean chocolate in precious little ramekins, and top them with exotic fruit sauces.  Though we still tend to indulge with our best girlfriends whilst bemoaning boys.  So, get yourself a good Lava Cake recipe among the 124,000 results that pop up when you google “Lava Cake recipe”.  And then make yourself a Persimmon Sauce to top it with (the tang of the persimmon is the perfect foil to the oozing sweetness of the cake).   Simply simmer 3 persimmons (about two cups cut into pieces) with enough water to keep the pulp liquid (it will depend upon how breast-like your ripe persimmons are).  When the firmer pieces of persimmon are soft (about 15 minutes), blend the mixture with enough of the cooking liquid to make a creamy sauce, adding a tablespoon or so of lemon juice to highlight the flavor.  You can season with cinnamon or nutmeg, or sweeten with a bit of sugar or honey to taste.

Persimmon Semifreddo

I cribbed this from one of those half-assed low brow daytime news cooking segments, which feature unhealthily thin women instructing the masses on how to cook a meal in twelve minutes or less.  Kraft Singles and ketchup often figure prominently.  I usually tune out this background noise as I wait for them to get around to the weather forecast, but I was so desperate to do something edible with my persimmons one year that I actually jotted this down.  I’ll be damned if it wasn’t delicious, and can be made in twelve minutes or less.  Take 2 persimmons (they have to be absolutely ripe) and peel and seed them.  Pulse the pulp in a blender until smooth.  Whip 500 grams of whipping cream with about 3 T sugar (depending upon how sweet your persimmons are) and a couple of drops of vanilla extract, and fold the two mixtures together until evenly mixed.  Spread the mixture in a loaf pan and freeze until solid (about three hours).  When you are ready to serve, place the loaf pan in hot water until you can easily turn it onto a plate.  During the holidays, I’ve put star anice onto the bottom of the loaf pan which makes it pretty turned out and adds a little undercurrent of anice flavor, which ain’t bad.

Spiced Persimmon and Orange Jam, a.k.a. My Drug of Choice

I have never actually watched frenemy Letizia (I say frenemy because she keeps me about 5 pounds overweight with her irresistible cooking) prepare this highly addictive jam, but I suspect that she sneaks some crack into the boiling pot at some point, because there is no other explanation as to why I find myself thinking about this jam as I drive down the highway, waking up during the night to eat it by the spoonful directly from the jar, and hiding it from my loved ones.  The tartness of the persimmons, the bite of citrus, the lingering spiciness.  This is the jam version of the best sex you’ve ever had.  And jam has to be epically good to be compared with sex, in my book.  I especially like it on a crostata (Letizia’s sweet shortbread crust version is perfect for this flavorful preserve), but it also makes a sophisticated Jam Thumbprint for your Christmas cookie plate, or–I may as well admit it—holds its own on butter-spread Saltines.  It’s made a persimmon convert out of the most recalcitrant of hold-outs (myself included).


Gluten Free Italy: A Celiac’s guide to Umbria

I know, this seems to come out of left field.  But I’ve been meaning to pull together a quick travel resource for celiacs travelling to Umbria for awhile…not because I have a gluten intollerance, but because we have a strangely disproportionate number of celiac guests.  This for two reasons: 1) celiacs tend to stay in self-catering accommodations where they have access to their own kitchen and 2) Shauna Ahern, aka star celiac blogger and cookbook author, stayed with us a couple years back during her honeymoon (just for the record, she and new hubby were the cutest little piccioncini—lovebirds—and are now parents) and we’ve had many of her readers as guests.

Let me preface this by saying that though Italy is often associated with pizza and pasta, it is–somewhat counterintuitively—one of the best gluten free countries in the world.  There is a very high awareness of celiac disease here, children are routinely screened for it, and celiacs get a state subsidy for the cost of their gluten free foods.  People who follow a gluten free diet will find that most chefs and waiters are matter-of-factly familiar with celiac disease, and Italian food manufacturers produce some of the best gluten free food (which is readily found in larger supermarkets). In restaurants and bars, I have come across gluten-free croissants, pasta, beer, pizza, and gelato.

All this to say that I’m not being a hero.  Not a lot of sleuthing had to go into this, just a bit of organization (and some translating).

Gluten Free Travel Resources for Italy

The sine qua non to tripping through Italy gluten-free is Maria Ann Roglieri’s The Gluten-Free Guide to Italy.  The downside is that—like all printed guides—the restaurant information can go quickly out of date.  However, there is an extensive glossary and sample questions to ask restaurant staff, and many of the suggestions are still valid (the latest edition is from 2009).

For a more updated guide to regional restaurants, bars, pizzerie, and gelaterie which offer gluten free options, you can check the Italian Celiac Association’s website.  It’s not translated into English, but you can choose a category from the list at the left (example: Ristorante) and then the region (Umbria) from the drop down menu at the bottom.  From there, you get a list with the location (by town), category (hotel, restaurant, pizzeria, or albergo (inn)), and and name.  There is also a regional Celiac website, but their restaurant list just sends you back to the national website.

If you feel awkward about stumbling over an explanation as to your dietary restrictions in Italian, you can simply download and print celiac restaurant cards in Italian here.

There is also a new iPhone app that maps out the nearest gluten free dining options.  The text is in Italian, but the list is easy to decipher and the maps are your standard Google maps.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much for the region of Umbria, but if you are hopscotching around Italy you may find it helpful.

Where to Buy Gluten Free Food in Umbria

Keep in mind that the gluten free (senza glutine) label in Italy looks like this:

The best place to get gluten free food simply at the grocery store.  And the best grocery store in our area is the Ipercoop at Collestrada.  Coop (the chain of supermarkets) makes their own line of gluten free products, easily identifiable by the white and mint-green packaging.  Aside from their own line, they also stock a variety of gluten free foods from other producers at a fraction of the cost of the pharmacy (see below).  The shelving is a little unpredictable (sometimes the gluten free pasta is shelved with all the other pastas, but sometimes they seem to group all the gluten free products into one display near the pharmacy section) so you may have to comb the store pretty well and watch your labelling, but from pasta to flour to bread to frozen pizza to crackers to snack cakes to cookies…it’s all here, and relatively inexpensive.

I have noticed that other area grocery stores stock gluten free items, but seem to have less variety and consistency than the Ipercoop.  Smaller Coop grocery stores, for example, may stock some of the Coop gluten free line, but not as completely as the Collestrada flagship store.  If you are popping into a supermarket to pick up something, it may be worth it to take a quick look around.  But with the Ipercoop, you know you are going to hit gold.

For a little more grain variety, you can also try the health food store in Perugia.  There are a couple, which are all part of the B’Io organic market chain, but the easiest one to find is just up the road from the Perugia train station at Via M. Angeloni, 42 (it’s on the right as you are climbing the one-way street).  They stock goods made with kamut, rice, spelt, and corn flour and a variety of soy products, as well, if you are looking for lactose free products.

As a last resort, you can purchase gluten free food at any pharmacy in Italy (the bigger the pharmacy, the more variety they will probably have, of course).  I say as a last resort simply because it is usually the most expensive, inconvenient, and restrictive option.  But it is there, in case you find yourself in a bind and can’t make it to either a Coop or a health food store.

Where to Eat Gluten Free Food in Umbria

The gluten free restaurant emblem in Italy looks like this:

It seems like every menu I run across lately has a little star next to the gluten free dishes on offer, so it’s pretty daunting—if not impossible–to make an exhaustive list.  Just casually mentioning this blog post to a friend solicited two gluten free pizzeria suggestions that I had never heard of.

A good place to start is the Italian Celiac Association’s website mentioned above.  I gave it a cursory glance and noticed one restaurant listed that has since closed and one I know which serves gluten free options not included, so your mileage may vary.  I recommend phoning first just to confirm that they do, indeed, have dishes for celiacs available.

I will also be listing restaurants here as I review them when I see that they offer gluten free options.  If I actually eat something from the gluten free menu, I will be sure to mention it.  Otherwise, you can use it as a guide to the general quality and vibe of a place.  Check back periodically, as I will be updating the list over time.

L’Alchimista Wine & Co., Montefalco

Finally, ask around.  As I mentioned before, Italians are generally quite well informed about celiac disease (and many have friends or family who are on gluten free diets), so I’ve often found that word of mouth is a great way to discover local restaurants and pizzerias who will be happy to accommodate your diet.

What to Eat Gluten Free in Umbria

You’ve hit the jackpot in Umbria, as some of its best local foods are naturally gluten free.  While you’re here, make sure you sample the famous pork charcuterie (including prosciutto, salame, and dried sausages) from Norcia, the porchetta (whole roasted pork) from the street vendors’ white vans, wild asparagus, mushrooms, and truffles (depending upon the season), Sagrantino wine, extra virgin olive oil, and legumes (lentils from Castelluccio, fagiolino from Lake Trasimeno, and the chickpea’s close cousin: cicerchie).  Sure, Italy may be known for its pasta and pizza, but the traditional cuisine is so much more than that…and much of it senza glutine.  Enjoy every bite!


Chestnuts and Vino Novello: La Festa di San Martino in Umbria

There saints of whom I am particularly fond.  San Francesco, because we eat mostaccioli on his feast day (Umbria’s singular contribution to cookie-dom).  San Costanzo, because we eat torcolo on his feast day (any cake that is considered a viable breakfast food is good, in my book).  San Giuseppe, because we eat frittelle di riso on his feast day (in a land lacking donuts, we turn to fritters for our cholesterol).  And San Martino, because we go to Mass on his feast day.

Just kidding.  We eat roasted chestnuts and drink young wine on his feast day.

San Martino, San Martino, Castagne e Vino (Saint Martin, Saint Martin, Chestnuts and Wine)

Dishes associated with the celebration of a particular saint usually have a symbolic connection with their life and legend.  Mostaccioli (a lovely anise infused crisp cookie sweetened with grape must) were Francis’ favorite sweet and the Poor Clare Jacopa di Sottesoli is said to have prepared him a batch on his deathbed.  Torcolo (a sweet bread ring rich with candied fruit, raisins, and pine nuts) recalls, with its circular shape, the wreath of flowers mourners placed around San Costanzo’s neck to hide the signs of his decapitation.  San Giuseppe, patron saint of the destitute, is fittingly fèted with fritters traditionally prepared with only rice and lemon peel.  The modern versions are more elaborate and use ingredients which would have been too precious for poor farmers centuries ago (eggs, flour, sugar), but the symbolism of a poor man’s sweet for the poor man’s saint remains.

San Martino, a pragmatic ex-soldier who ran his sword through his own cape in order to give half to a freezing beggar, doesn’t cotton to any of that highbrow symbolism.  To celebrate him, we eat castagne and sample Vino Novello because, well, they’re in season.

If you’ve only ever tasted the blackened balls of mealy styrofoam hawked on winter streets in most northern American cities, you have missed one of the great miracles that the alchemy of heat + nut can produce.  Chestnuts from Umbria—particularly marroni from the forests surrounding Spoleto—are sweet, creamy flavour bombs and overdose is avoided only because liberating them from their piping hot toasted peels is particularly labor intensive (and leaves you with charcoal-tinted fingertips for days).  Umbrian’s score the reddish-brown shells with a sharp knife before roasting the nuts whole in perforated metal pans over the coals in fireplaces, woodstoves, or bonfires.  Once the shells blacken and peel back from the escaping steam of the cooked nutmeat inside, they are wrapped in a large cloth and rolled between the table-top and able hands to loosen the shells from the interior.

Vino Novello, is the perfect foil to the richness of roasted chestnuts  This ‘young wine’—which officially goes on sale on November 6th, but is traditionally consumed the evening of the 11th to celebrate San Martino– is a light, fruity (sometimes slightly fizzy) red similar in taste and production to the French Beaujolais Nouveau. Made by accelerating the fermentation process, Novello does not have tannins and will go bad if not consumed the same day it is opened.  Not to be confused with Vino Nuovo (which is simply ‘new wine’, or wine that has just finished its traditional fermentation process and has not yet begun to age…most rural farm families drink their home brew Vino Nuovo on the night of San Martino), Novello can be found in most wine shops and cantine through the winter.

If you are in Umbria around November 11th, take the time to drop in at a local Castagnata (chestnut roasting) for the Festa di San Martino.  Here you can sample the local marroni, Vino Novello, and, if you are lucky and are treated to one of those unseasonably warm days that can pop up even late into autumn, toast to l’Estate di San Marino (Saint Martin’s Summer).


Us vs. The Big Boys: Wine Making in Umbria

There is how the Big Boys do it, and there is how we do it.  Wine, that is.

The Big Boys carefully plan their vineyard and select grape varieties appropriate for the soil, sun exposure, and altitude.  They take great care in cultivating the delicate vines:  pruning the shoots, selecting the stronger plants, replanting old or weak vines.  They consult with botanists, agronomists, viticulturists, and agricultural historians. They monitor and treat for mold and insect damage.

Our grapes, of the select "uh, who knows?" variety.

We just go with whatever my husband’s grandfather planted together with his brother 40 years ago on a piece of land near the house that they chose because they eyeballed it figured it looked sunny enough, given that we are on the north side of Mount Subasio.  We occasionally fill in the gaps left where vines have died, but only when it gets to be a couple in a row.  If you ask my father-in-law what grape varieties he has, he will respond: Red and White.  When pressed, he will concede with a nonchalant shrug that there are probably Sangiovese, Merlot, and Sagrantino vines planted, and white Malvasia grapes and “Boh, something else but I can’t remember” grapes.  Mold and insect damage get noticed and commented on at the dinner table.

Filled bins, waiting in a line like soldiers about to be shipped to the Western Front.

The Big Boys organize their grape harvest using white lab-jacketed professionals who begin to pick after monitoring the level of sugar, acid, and pH of the grapes.  Clusters of grapes are selected according to their stage of ripeness over a period of days, and overripe or damaged fruit is attentively weeded out.  The grapes get carefully placed in small crates which are sorted by variety and loaded on flatbed trailers to be transported to the winery with minimum damage and bruising.

Zio Gino, our oldest picker.

Nicolò, our youngest picker.

Our grape harvest includes Zio Gino, Zia Viola, our neighbors, my inlaws, my nine and six year old sons, and occasionally sporting guests at Brigolante and is begun after tasting a couple of grapes to see if they are sweet and monitoring the weather report on Rai Uno.  The vineyard is stripped of every cluster of grape over an afternoon regardless of ripeness, lest it begin to rain or run into dinner time.  The grapes are chucked indiscriminately into big 50 gallon plastic garbage pails (which we use only for this purpose), and then loaded onto the back of the tractor where they make the bouncing and bumping trip back to the garage.

My father-in-law Ugo's hi-tech harvesting tools.

The Big Boys then proceed to destem, crush, ferment, and press the grapes, sorted by variety, in gleaming modern cantine with stainless steel mechanical equipment and small chemistry laboratories used to monitor and adjust sugar, yeast, and alcohol.  The rooms are temperature controlled to calibrate the speed of fermentation, and after the must is pressed the wine is stored in massive stainless steel vessels or new oak barrels for the remainer of the secondary fermentation and aging…under careful watch by the vitner’s enologist who runs periodic tests checking the status of the wine:  pH, titratable acidity, residual sugar, free or available sulfur, total sulfur, volatile acidity and percent alcohol.

Our grapes ready to give their life for a bigger cause. Notice the odd white cluster. Eh, just toss it in!

After much swearing and searching for an adapter for the German plug, we fire up our little mechanical crusher/destemmer in the garage and set it on two wooden planks above a big plastic vat the size of a Jacuzzi.  (We don’t have a Jacuzzi, of course, but I’ve seen them.)  First the white grapes all get tossed in, and the must immediately passed to our old wooden basket press, which is cranked by hand either by my father-in-law or my older son, depending upon if it’s a school day.  The white wine is immediately trasferred to the fiberglass vat to ferment and age, because none of us like white that much so if it doesn’t come out that great no one cares.  Then the red grapes all get tossed in to be destemmed and crushed, and stay there fermenting in the vat with an old wool plaid blanket thrown over the top to try and keep the temperature warm enough in the cold garage.  Every day or two my father-in-law tosses a saccharometer (which looks kind of like a floating candy thermometer and measures the sugar content) in there to see how things are going, but since his eyes aren’t that good and both my husband and I have grave doubts as to whether he actually knows how to read the calibration even if he could see the tiny markings, it’s pretty much a crap shoot.  When we notice all the neighbors pressing, we figure we may as well.  Then the wine gets stored in big old wooden barrels next to the washing machine and the tool bench for a couple of months.

Tossing the grapes into the crusher/destemmer.

The Big Boys polish their wines with blending and fining, and stabilize them with preservatives and filtration.  Often, the results are—unsurprisingly–fabulous.  Their wines are bottled in new glass wine bottles, labeled beautifully and informatively, and shipped all over the world.

This is much more fun than going to school.

We open up the taps at the bottom of our barrels and vat in the spring, and drink whatever comes out.  Sometimes it’s suitable for nothing more than dressing a salad, together with olive oil and salt.  Sometimes the results are—surprisingly–fabulous.  We fill pitchers with our rough farmer’s red that we set on the table for mealtimes directly from the vats, or bottle some in bottles we’ve washed and put aside from store bought wines, which we then manually cork and stick a label on that I print off a Word document on my computer.  Our wine is incredibly instable; just the altitude difference between our house and the valley under Assisi is enough to make it turn.  Which means we drink it all here, just friends, family, guests, and the odd passer-by.

And I’d rather have that than be a Big Boy any day.

This is what's in our wine.


Buried Treasure: Truffle Hunting in Umbria

I recently spent a day with the delightful Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi in Città di Castello.

Saverio took us along on a truffle hunt (with real truffle dogs and real truffle hunters) and showed us his fascinating private collection of truffle related memorabilia and curiosities.  His wife, Gabriella, welcomed us into her kitchen for a tasting of the precious local tubers and a truffle-themed home-cooked lunch.

To read a more detailed article about truffles in Umbria and my day spent with the Bianconis, check out the November 2010 Destinations Travel Magazine–but in the meantime here are some outtakes from our absolutely perfect day.

Meeting our pooches (and their pets) at the edge of the woods.

Asia The Truffle Dog gets right down to bizniz.

Score! Showing the humans how it's done.

And now she wants her Scooby Snack!

Sandy doesn't want to be outdone...she's on the chase now!

Giving us the goods...

Mmmm. That's what we're talking about.

Gabriella and I look over our haul, about to be sorted and weighed at the Tartufi Bianconi processing rooms.

Saverio shows me his unique private collection of truffle-related memorabilia

While we were preparing lunch, some local truffle hunters brought in some precious white truffles.

Gabriella prepares our tasting of the four different kinds of truffles found locally.

The perfect day ended with a perfect truffle-infused meal!

A special thanks to photographer Carlo Franchi for his wonderful shots of our adventure.


Invasion of the fun-guys: Wild mushrooms in Umbria

When summer begins to bleed into fall and the days alternate between earth-soaking downpours and warm, sunny skies you know it’s just a matter of hours before they appear.  Brightly colored or camouflaged in browns and greys, in groups or by themselves, tall and thin or squat and round, behind every tree trunk, under every shrub, they cover the forest floor and leave no doubt as to what season is about to begin.

Mushroom hunters.

Yes, foraging for wild mushrooms is such a popular pastime in Umbria that at times it seems like the hunters outnumber the hunted.  From late summer through fall until the first frosts draw the season to a close, the woods and meadows all across Umbria are invaded by basket-toting funghi devotees with their eyes fixed on the ground and their ears pricked for encroachers.  It’s a competitive sport, and like all sports has its rules—written and unwritten.

A sure sign that fall is here

A Place of One’s Own

Every mushroomer in Umbria has their special spot, and much cloak-ing and dagger-ing goes on to guard the exact coordinates as closely as if they were an Eye’s Only state secret.  Lifelong mushroomers remain more faithful to their mushrooming location than to their spouse.  My own father-in-law will leave the house with his basket in the crook of his elbow and, with a furtive look and rather transparent subterfuge, head off on foot in one direction only to double back once out of sight and disappear into a completely different wood.  (I only know this because my husband, aka my father-in-law’s sole offspring and heir, watches him from the house through binoculars, hoping for clues as to where his father’s secret mushrooming spot is.  Because he’s never been told.)

Not only are you faithful to your spot because you know it to be a particularly fertile one, but also because the toxicity of many mushrooms can be very terroir specific.  Meaning, to you novices out there, that a mushroom which is perfectly good to eat in one part of Umbria may be slightly toxic in another based on soil chemistry.  So, not only is it good to know your ‘shroom, but it’s also good to know your dirt.

Kitted Out

You gotta have a basket.  Because it looks more folksy than a plastic shopping bag from the Eurospin Discount and because the Man says you have to have a basket so spores can fall out and re-seed the forest floor.  You gotta have a little pocket knife.   Because any excuse is a good one to have a cool little pocket knife and because the Man says you have to have a little knife so you can leave a small piece of mushroom on the ground when you pick it to keep the forest floor producing.  You gotta have one of those vests with about 17 pockets commonly worn by fishermen and the homeless.  Because that seems to be the uniform.  I don’t think the Man has anything to do with it, but everyone seems to have gotten the memo.  You gotta have a permit (if you’re not a resident).   Because the Man needs his tax money.  This I only found out because once my husband and I were surprised by a Forest Service jeep on one of the rare times we’ve strayed from our own special spot ( I acquired rights by marriage), and my husband hissed, “Hit the deck!”  Which I did, and commenced to combat crawl to the nearest ditch, where I hissed, “Why are we hiding?”  “Because we don’t have a permit for Valtopina!”  “How expensive could the fine possibly be?”  “Who cares about the fine?!?  They’ll confiscate our mushrooms!”

An official basket. Note the mushroom to leaf/dirt ratio. A seasoned mushroomer doesn't waste time cleaning off the prey while foraging.

The Pecking Order

There are mushrooms and then there are mushrooms.  Based on their flavor, use, and how common they are, different mushrooms carry different street cred to a real connoisseur.  One of the thrills of foraging is meeting back up at home with everyone else who has gone out hunting for the afternoon and dumping the contents of your basket with the air of a poker player showing his hand.  As each basket is dumped, the contents are examined and there is inevitably an air of The Gambler as winners and losers are made around the table.

Use your could seem like little hands reaching out of the ground.

The pecking order also loosely follows the altitude at which they are found.  Pinaroli, which grow in clumps under certain conifers, can be found even on the valley floor and are considered a last resort mushroom, to be picked solely in case of emergency—i.e. the shame of returning home with a completely empty basket.  Working your way up the mountain, Manine (they carry this nickname because with a little squinting and a lot of creative imagination these vaguely coral-shaped mushrooms might resemble little hands) come next…relatively mild flavored and best used in pasta sauce.  When you start coming home with a basket full of Lardelli, Carpinelli, Biscetti, Peperoni, and Biette, you can hold your head high.  These are flavorful mushrooms which can be roasted over the coals or conserved in oil for antipasti during the winter. Gallinelli (chanterelles) and Porcini are, of course, the reigning kings of mushrooms and two nicely sized Porcini and a handful of Gallinelli will trump an entire basketful of mushrooms from a lower suit.  These are wonderful in risotto or simply sauteéd with olive oil and garlic.   But just one Turino, rare and found only at the highest points of the pre-Appenine hills, will shame all the rest.  This tender, snowy-white mushroom is so flavorful (and digestible) that you can eat it raw, sliced paper-thin and dressed with nothing more than a few drops of olive oil.

These Porcini trump almost anything else

Don’t Be a Hero

The stakes are high when foraging, and I’m not talking about pride.  Every mushroomer I know has a story that runs somewhere along the spectrum from death, to near death, to permanent liver damage, to seriously ill, to minor-ahem-plumbing problems.  Only life-long foragers who are very familiar with the local terrain should be trusted to separate the edible from the lethal; even after all these years of mushrooming I have the contents of my basket carefully checked before eating them.  I have had an entire basket of good mushrooms tossed because I had inadvertantly picked a mushroom so toxic that simply the contact of carrying it in the same basket put the others at risk of contamination.  And the risk is never worth it.  Believe me.  When they’re good, they’re very, very good.  But when they’re bad, their deadly.

Friend or foe? Ask an expert.


The Uber-Sagra: La Festa della Cipolla (Cannara)

If I only had one summer left to live and had to choose a single last sagra to attend, (Yes, I realize it’s an unlikely scenario.  Humor me.) I would choose Cannara’s over-the-top-out-of-control-mother-of-all-sagras Festa della Cipolla at the beginning of September.  Hands down.

There's a big sign. Just in case the smell of cooking onions doesn't clue you in.

This year I went on a Saturday night at 8 pm.  If there is a night that one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s Saturday night.  If there’s a time one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s 8 pm.  But there are days—stretches of days, sometimes—out here in the Umbrian hills during which I do not see another human being who is not a blood relation, so I get a little starved for human contact.  And if there is a place to be in Umbria if you are looking for human contact, that place is the sagra in Cannara on a Saturday night at 8 pm.

As I parked my car (so far away that the guys directing traffic spoke with Roman accents), I thought Wouldn’t it be funny to say in my blog that despite parking roughly 25 kilometers from the sagra, the smell of cooking onion hit me as soon as I opened my car door for comic effect. Then I opened my car door, and the smell of cooking onion hit me.  These folks are serious about onion, and their onion gravitas stays with you for days.  I speak from experience.

This is what I'm talking about.

The reason I love the onion festival so (aside from the fact that it is one of the few sagre where a vegetarian can eat to her little piggy heart’s content) it that it embodies the essence of all that a sagra should be:


At a time where sagre are multiplying like mushrooms, and disappearing with the same speed, La Festa della Cipolla is in its 30th year and still going strong.  From a tiny little block party-esque communal dinner, this annual event now feeds around 60,000 people during its two week run.  Just to put that in perspective, keep in mind that the population of the entire region of Umbria hovers around 900,000.  This festa has put Cannara on the map, and it’s fun to be a part of it.

Sorry this picture is a little blurry. I was being jostled by roughly ten percent of the population of Umbria.


Nothing bugs me more than these young whippersnapper sagre serving foods that have absolutely no cultural value whatsoever.  The Beer Sagra.  The Nutella Sagra.  The Seafood Sagra.  In Cannara, the main food celebrated is a genuine local delicacy.  Cannara’s red, yellow, and flat onions are unique to this area (their flavor influenced by the type and humidity of Cannara’s marshy soil) and have been noted by Slow Food and various famous chefs.

Onions. Consume them on site, or purchase for home. Either way, you'll be sleeping alone.

How much of the real stuff is actually used in the menu is debatable (that would be a heck of a lot of onions to serve 60,000 people for a tiny area like Cannara), but you can buy rustic braids of onions from the stands set up along the streets of the town and taste them for yourself.

The onions go like hotcakes.


I love a sagra where I get the feeling everyone and their brother (and sister, mother, father, cousin, and car mechanic) is involved…and that is definitely the vibe for two weeks in Cannara every fall.  There are six “stands” set up in various courtyards and squares in the town–by stands, they mean entire piazzas crowded with long tables and benches under canvas tents—which can serve a total of 2,500 people at a sitting.  Given that Cannara is home to less than 4,000 residents, to keep an event going of that size–between the planning, cooking, serving, cleaning, organizing, and entertaining—it’s pretty much a whole town affair.  And then some.

The stands are hopping on a Saturday night. Or any night, for that matter.


At one end of the spectrum, there are sagre set up underneath anonymous tents in the middle of some wheatfield, then come the ones set up in a gravel and concrete paved community park, then come the ones which are in the main piazza of a town, then comes Cannara, where the town and festa exist in perfect symbiosis.  Every courtyard is occupied with tables, the streets are crowded with booths hawking wares, the larger squares have main stages set up with band playing music or clowns entertaining the kids, local shops are open until after midnight.  This is Cannara’s moment to shine, and it goes all out.

Onions, spices, mushrooming baskets, art, crafts, disco lights, jewelry, antiques, pet rocks. I saw them all on sale in Cannara.


There are doubtless naysayers who do not love the Onion Festival.  It’s crowded (though if you hit it at 7:00ish on a weeknight the crowds are much more manageable), overblown (lots of people attend the festival.  See above.), overpriced (expect to pay pretty much trattoria prices for your food), slow (hey, they’ve only got 4,000 people working there) and leaves you gassy (no denying that).  But the food is delicious.  Some stands are better than others (for the record, I’m a Giardino Fiorito abituè), some years are better than others.  But I have never been disappointed by my dinner, and that’s a big plug for a meal that is being prepared inside camp kitchens by volunteers.  Don’t miss the onion desserts.  I’m not kidding.

Il Giardino Fiorito is the oldest stand and housed in the cloister of an ex-convent. It is also my stand of choice.

If you have a rare onion intollerance and have to choose just one thing to eat, get the onion pizza. Trust me.

La Festa della Cipolla is held the first two weeks of September every year in Cannara.  For a complete program, list of stands and their menus, and map please see their official website.