Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
Browsing category: Food and Wine in Umbria, Life in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations

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. My personal favorite set of knives come from SharpenedKnife, sturdy and heavy pocket knives. 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.


Two First Dates: Ristorante Nanà and L’Officina

The score: Let’s just say that some need a second date to win you over, and some you know are the love of your life before you even get to dessert.

You know when your best girlfriend has been trying to set you up with this friend of hers for years and all she does is talk him up and drop little hints into every conversation and mention that he still happens to be single after every one of your breakups and so finally, though you never go on blind dates on principle, you give in and call the guy?  And he sounds really nice on the phone, so you say, Sure, Saturday night is fine.  And the date starts really well:  he brings you peonies, which are your favorite flowers, suggests this really lovely rooftop bar to watch the sunset, orders two Gin and Tonics without having to ask, and you get settled in thinking, Hey, this could work.

Then things go downhill. Fast.

His favorite movie is Titanic.  He would never visit Morocco because he’s heard it’s dirty.  If Sarah Palin’s only two constituencies are the Religious Right and Fans of Comedy, you are both constituents though you belong to the latter group and he, you are beginning to strongly suspect, the former. And just when you are thinking that the evening has been a total wash and you would have had much more fun hanging out on the couch in your Slanket with a glass of Merlot and the first season of Glee and are thinking of the tongue-lashing your girlfriend is going to get the next morning for setting you up with this loser, the most amazing man walks into the bar.  The. Most. Amazing. Man.  And Mr. Loser looks up and says, Oh, hey, there’s my brother.

And that’s how you meet your husband.

Ristorante Nanà

Corso Cavour, 202
075 5733571

Closed Sunday

Okay, now translate that all into restaurants.  My dear friend, Letizia, whose food opinion I respect and trust, had been talking up Nanà for ages.  Ages, I say.  So many ages that I kept putting off actually going to Nanà because I wanted to save it for a special occasion, which just happened to be a friend’s 40 birthday.  And it started off wonderfully:  the restaurant is a charming retrofitted salone signorile (an airy surprise after you pass through the narrow corridor entrance), the proprietors (a family of father, mother, daughter, son-in-law) were warm and we started the meal with a long chit-chat about local wineries, the menu was limited but promising and the wine list had some of my favorite Umbrian cantine.  Even the appetizers boded well; I had a light leek and truffle flan with cheese sauce which was perfect in every leeky/truffley/cheesey way.

Then things went downhill.  Fast.

Our pasta dishes were mediocre.  And I really wanted them to be good, because it was like being on a blind date with your friend’s friend and you want to like him so you can bring back a positive report to your friend, who you know is waiting by the phone for a play-by-play when you get home.  But it just wasn’t happening.  They were bland, slightly overcooked, and mean portions (and I say this from an Italian portion point of view, not an I-must-have-enough-to-take-home-in-a-doggie-bag-so-I-can-microwave-it-at-the-office-tomorrow-for-lunch portion point of view.)  Our plates had five potato/truffle ravioli on them.  We were tempted to check the floor to see if some had slid off on the trip from the kitchen.

Our meat dish (venison) was inedible.  I am cringing to say it, because one of my cardinal review rules is: if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t review the restaurant, but it’s the truth.  We left it virtually untouched (and they, very graciously, took it off the bill later).  And the salt they forgot to put in the pasta water was on the artichokes.  Wow, pass the water.

They rallied at dessert (I had their nice little traditional bread pudding, which I haven’t had in years and it was a little dry but still nice and cinnamon-y.  My friend had their warm chocolate pudding cake, and was very satisfied.  So was I, since I ate half of it.)

Despite having had a lukewarm first date with Nanà I am still writing it up.  Why?  Well, for one I feel like this restaurant deserves the benefit of the doubt.  The proprietors are so welcoming, passionate, and obviously put a lot of care into their service–my gut feeling is that we just stopped in on an off night, which is a shame but happens.  I am going to give them a shot at a second date, and we’ll see what happens.  For better or for worse, you will all know about it.  For two, as I was writing this article I skyped my friend, who, as it turns out, has much more charitable memories of our meal than I do.  So perhaps I’m just being too demanding.  And, for three, the night we went to Nanà is the night I discovered my New Favorite Place in Perugia, aka L’Officina.


Borgo XX Giugno, 56
075 5721699

As we were walking down the street towards Nanà, we passed a small dimly lit doorway a couple of blocks away and I said, Is that a store? And my friend said, No, it’s a great little restaurant.  I’ve eaten there a couple of times.  Fabulous food.

So awhile later we went back to this funky space, part art gallery, part restaurant, part left wing social revolution headquarters (just kidding…but it does kind of have that vibe).  From outside, the small doorway seems to lead to some sort of used bookstore or second-hand furniture shop, but it’s the original architectural details from when the building was a workshop for building and calibrating scales—including the turn of the century wooden floor–which give it the ex-industrial-loft feel.  But following the stairs towards the back you find yourself in a larger room (crammed with tables, European-style.  Not the place to stage a break-up.  Just in case you are reading restaurant reviews looking for the perfect place to stage a break-up.) with artwork covering the walls (they host rotating shows of local artists) and the kitchen behind a glass partition.

The service was rather perfunctory (nothing bugs me more than when you ask your waiter about a dish, and they have to check with the kitchen because they don’t know what’s in it.  Folks, that sort of research should happen in the ten minutes you open for dinner, not when you’ve got people already seated.  And, while I’m bitching, no use having an encyclopedic wine list if half the choices aren’t available.  Ok, I’m done.), but the food was, simply put, amazing.  Now, let me warn you that this is definitely nouveau-Italian.  If you are looking for classic Umbrian dishes, this may not be the place for you.  But if you’ve had your fill of strangozzi al tartufo and are in the mood for a meal that pushes the envelope in a delightful way, you’ve hit the jackpot.  The descriptions of the dishes go on for a paragraph, the presentation is whimsical (my friend had ravioli in red sauce served in a Margarita glass), and the ingredients quirky and original.

I had carob tagliatelle tossed with arugula and almond pesto and a delicious creme brulée with Madagascar vanilla bean, both of which were memorable and left me feeling happily in love with this place.  But the real winner of the meal was the tasting menu, comprised of a seemingly endless procession of tapas-sized samples –appetizers, first and second course selections, and dessert–each paired with a different wine.  A wonderful way to try this restaurant’s innovative cooking without commiting yourself to any one menu choice, and at €25, the price was more than fair.

All told, I am very much looking forward to my second date with L’Officina (perhaps this winter, to check out their seasonal menu changes) and a long and happily committed relationship.  But I may just have a little fling on the side with Nanà.  You never know.

Expect your meal with wine to run between €50 and €75 for two at both of these restaurants.


Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Grape Harvest and Wineries in Umbria/Olive Harvest and Oil Mills in Umbria on’s GoItaly

Stop by Go Italy’s blog to see some of my suggestions for planning a visit to Umbria in the autumn when the grape and olive harvests are in full swing.

Wineries and olive oil mills are open to the public, and you can walk or bike the vineyard and olive tree covered hills to see first hand the care and labor that goes into making Umbria’s wonderful wines and olive oils.

A special thanks to Marsha Bakerjian for letting me contribute to her informative blog!


Hey, What’s Up With the Bread in Umbria?

The Umbrians have lied to me.

They have been telling me all this time that their traditional bread is an acquired taste.  That, my friends, in a gross falsehood.  I have been here close to 20 years, and it is still one of the biggest disappointments of my overseas move to Italy, second perhaps only to the discovery that one does not transform into a sultry mediterranean seductress simply through a process of cellular osmosis by living in a country inhabited by sultry mediterranean seductresses.  Apparently, you are either born Sophia Loren or you are not.

Traditionally, Umbrian bread (also known as pane comune) is made with three ingredients:  flour, yeast, and water.  And, not surprisingly, once baked it tasted like flour, mixed with a little yeast and water.  To someone who has grown up with the neighborhood Italian bakery hawking freshly baked “Italian bread”– that wonderfully aromatic thick baguette-type loaf with a moist, chewy, flavorful crumb and a crisp, flaky, glazed crust—this saltless low loaf with its dense, dry crumb and hard, tough crust is blasphemy.

Artisan baker wood fired oven baked bread has a moister crumb and a slightly sourdough flavor: edible.

Why do Umbrians still remain faithful to their traditional bread, especially now that fabulous Tuscan bread (closer to what the world associates with “Italian bread”) and Neapolitan bread (with a slightly chewier crumb and dark crust) is easily found?  One explanation is historical:  in the mid-1500s,  Pope Paul III imposed a hefty tax on salt to increase revenue from his Papal States (which included present-day Umbria).  Rather than pay up, the inhabitants simply began making their bread without salt, and the tradition still continues.  That said, Umbrians routinely used leeches to bleed their ailing brethren, but over the centuries came to the conclusion that perhaps that wasn’t the best idea.  So history and tradition can’t be the sole reason.

Bread baked by a bakery in a conventional oven: given a choice between this and death, edible.

What it really comes down to is this:  bland Umbrian bread is the perfect foil for traditional Umbrian cooking.  In fact, when eaten how nature—and centuries of culinary tradition– intended, this otherwise sad excuse for a loaf becomes, well, delicious.  Before I tell you the secret of its transformation, let me be clear that there is Umbrian bread and then there is Umbrian bread.  Traditional Umbrian bread made by an artisan baker in a wood fired oven is, given certain preconditions, edible.  Traditional Umbrian bread made by a bakery in a regular oven is, given the choice between that and death, edible.  Traditional Umbrian bread of the variety made by big commercial bakeries and sold at the supermarket shrinkwrapped in plastic is inedible.  Period.

Choose death.

La Scarpetta

La scarpetta is, simply put, when you use a piece of bread to wipe the remaining sauce off your plate and pop it in your mouth.  It is one of those behaviors that is both considered impolite yet universally tolerated, as everyone recognizes it as one of the pure joys of human existence.  Sort of like putting your feet up on the coffee table after Thanksgiving dinner.  Umbrian bread is perfect for la scarpetta.  As it has virtually no flavor of its own, the bread lets the strong flavors of traditional Umbrian sauces, many made with game, shine through.  Rather than a foodstuff, consider it a mode of sauce transportion.  An edible fork, if you will.

Il Panino

Umbrian cured meats—primarily prosciutto, but also salame, capocollo, salsiccie secche, guanciale, and coppa—are intensely flavorful and aromatic, and also tend to be heavily salted.  The traditional recipe of 1-1-1 (one finger width bread slice to one finger width coldcuts to one finger width bread slice) would be overwhelming if a more savory type of bread were used.  Again, with a good quality wood-oven baked loaf, a simple bread and Norcia prosciutto sandwich with a swig of farmer’s red to wash it down is one of life’s gastronomic epiphanies.

La Bruschetta

Okay, it’s broo-SKET-ta, folks.  I don’t want to hear any of that broo-SCHE -ta going on.  If I needed only one single reason to defend the continued existence of  Umbrian bread, this would be it.  With its dense crumb, Umbrian bread takes well to being sliced and toasted over wood coals (the best way to make bruschetta) without breaking apart and soaks up just the right amount of olive oil to strike the delicate balance between dry and dripping-down-your-forearm.    The bread’s lack of flavor means you don’t miss one hint of fruity or grassy or spicy or fresh or mellowed extra-virgin olive oil, and you can pick things up with more or less salt sprinkled on top and, though the purist jury is out, a clove of garlic rubbed over the top.  The role that traditional Umbrian bread plays in constructing the perfect slice of bruschetta is enough to redeem it, in my book.

It grows on you.

Hmm…now that I think about it, I have acquired a bit of a taste for this region’s bread.  Okay, okay.  I guess the Umbrians haven’t lied after all.


The Best Tiramisù on the Planet (But I’m Not Bragging)

You will never make tiramisù better than mine.  I’m not gloating, just stating a fact.  You may as well make peace with it now.

When my dear friend Letizia asked me to make my famous Limoncello and Berry Tiramisù for her daughter’s birthday party, I was thrilled.  First because Letizia is a wonderful cook, so anytime she asks me to make a food item I get all flustered and honored and start sounding like Sally Field accepting an Oscar.  Second because it gave me an excuse to go off Weight Watcher’s exactly 36 hours after hopping back on the wagon.  Because it was for a child’s birthday party, people.  I mean, who doesn’t cheat on their diet for a child?  Cruella DeVil, for example, was stick thin because she did things like refuse to prepare desserts for children’s birthday parties and attempt to skin puppies for a fur coat.  I am not Cruella de Vil.

The great thing about tiramisù is that it’s so amazingly simple to make (there’s really only one thing you can screw up, which I inevitably screw up every time I make it), even this variation which was suggested to me years ago by another wonderful cook, Judy Witts Francini.  The tricky thing about tiramisù is that success of the end product depends almost exclusively on the quality of the ingredients you use.  Which is why my tiramisù rocks, almost certainly much more than yours will.

I use the classic 1-1-1 proportion–100 g mascarpone-1 egg-1 tablespoon sugar—which I multiply by 5 to fill a nice sized baking dish.  To make the cream, you mix the mascarpone, egg yolks, and sugar (I also add some limoncello here.  An amount somewhere between “half a glass” and “too much to reasonably drink in one sitting”).  Then you fold in the whites which you’ve whipped to hard peaks.  You layer it with Savoiardi cookies (ladyfingers to those sad world citizens who can’t lay their hands on the real deal) and mixed berries (I use two bags of frozen berries, which I thaw and toss with some sugar and blackberry liqueur then let sit for an hour or so), and leave it set in the refrigerator for a few hours to a day.  What could be simpler?

But here’s the trick:  I go to the dairy down the road and get the mascarpone they make fresh every morning.

The fresh mascarpone is so dense, the dairy wraps it in butcher paper

Then I go to the fowl I harbor in my backyard, and grab eggs right from under the hen’s butt.

Why, yes, that is a piece of straw sticking to one of the eggs. I told you they were fresh.

Then I go to the liquor cabinet and get a bottle of homemade Neapolitan limoncello so rich you can slice it with a knife and a bottle of homemade Umbrian blackberry liqueur.

Neapolitan relatives bring us a bottle of their take no prisoners limoncello every Christmas.

Then I whisk it all together.  Which is actually the biggest pain of the whole process.  Fresh dairy mascarpone is about as hard as butter, but you can’t whisk it with an electric mixer because it will break down and get all curdy on you.  So, you hand whisk.  And whisk.  And whisk some more, until your arm starts to ache and just when you are cursing that stronza Letizia who should have just requested that you bring a bag of chips or something because, what, are you, like, Laura Ingalls Wilder now? you look down and–voilà—there is a lovely smooth cream in your bowl.

This is what it looks like before you've cursed Letizia

This is what it looks like after you've cursed Letizia

Then you whip your egg whites with an electic mixer, loving every 21st century automated minute of it, and fold it together.

Better taste the cream, just to be sure. Hmm. Better taste it again.

Once you’ve admired your lovely homogeneous cream you can start layering it with your cookies and berries:  cookies, berries (make sure you use enough juice to moisten the cookies), cream; cookies, berries, cream.

Your first layers: cookies,, cream.

Beginning the second layer with more cookies over the cream...this is about 30 seconds before you realize you've screwed up.

Then you screw up the one thing you can screw up.  You use too much cream in the first layer and don’t have enough to completely cover the top layer.  You probably would have had enough cream had you not been pilfering it out of the bowl since you made it, but you are not Cruella de Vil.  So, you just spread what you have left semi-attractively over the center of the top layer, call it “rustic” and conveniently forget to photograph the final product.

Which, I can assure you, is better than yours will ever be.  But I’m not gloating.


This Vegetarian Loves Eating Hearts: Artichoke Hearts, That Is!

There are some things you hate as a child, as a grown-up continue hating, and in all probability will die hating.  In my case, math and being called Becky.

There are some things you hate as a child, but as a grown-up realize that in the hands of a competent professional they can actually be quite rewarding.  Take, for example, a perm and french kissing.

And there are some things you hate as a child, but as grown-up come to love them so deeply they become your raison d’etre and you fervently wish you could travel back in time and inform your child self about their virtues, thus avoiding missing out on 20 years of pleasure.  Opera, for example. Non-fiction books.  And, of course, artichokes.

A basket of artichokes from the garden, about to meet their maker.

I love artichokes with a passion one can only feel for vegetables and men whose spiny, tough exteriors harbor a soft heart within.  This was not always true (either for the artichokes or the men, but let’s talk artichokes); I spent the first 15 years of my life loathing them for reasons I can no longer recall.  Then, at 15, I got my first job at an Italian deli called Gino’s (all the books on writing tell you not to foreshadow too heavily, but sometimes life is stranger than fiction) where they sold a few genuine Italian products and lots of pseudo-Italian products (it was the ‘80s before the whole foodie movement began, so mozzarella curds from Wisconsin were considered Italian).  The place was owned by an Italian husband/Irish wife team whose domestic squalls were legendary and often involved flourishes like hurling pots of boiling coffee at each other or locking each other in the cold storage in the back.  I was never privy to one of these, but I sure heard about them the next day.

At Gino’s they made a sandwich which is one of my touchstone life foods…you know, those ten-ish dishes which flavours you can conjure up precisely in your mind for years afterwards and are inexorably tied to a specific person, place, or moment in your past.  Also on the list are my aunt Anthula’s baklava, graham crackers dipped in milk (my favorite Saturday morning cartoon breakfast), the brick burger at the Laurel Tavern in Madison, WI, the Turtle Sundae at Creamy Delight in Chicago, beef stew made in the Crock Pot (we had that every Sunday for lunch), Fannie May’s Trinidads (before the company was sold…they don’t taste the same now), spanakopita from Cross Rhodes in Chicago, Shasta, and…. Gino’s Vegetarian Special (another example of foreshadowing) which was basically a cheese sandwich with a kind of chopped spread made with spicy green peppers, olives, and artichoke hearts.  Except I didn’t know it was artichoke hearts until I had already gotten hooked on the sandwich, and the discovery of what I had been eating for lunch for months was a shock.

Now, as an adult, I absolutely adore artichokes prepared in almost every way imaginable.  When my mother-in-law has been particularly obnoxious and knows she’s in the doghouse she makes me stuffed hearts for lunch and all is forgiven.  I have been known to take the train to Rome exclusively to eat carciofi alla giudea– whole deep fried artichokes–which you can’t find in Umbria, or stick close to home to eat carciofi alla romana—stewed hearts with garlic and either parsley or mint—which, despite their name, you can find in Umbria. I’ll also take them batter-fried (mmmm, batter fried artichoke hearts…I just need a moment here…okay, I’m back), roasted, or raw (sliced paper-thin with shaved parmeggiano and balsamic vinegar…but they have to be right-from-the-backyard-garden tender).

But my favorite artichoke dish is simple marinated artichokes preserved in olive oil.  I always have a jar going in the fridge, so when I get a hankering I can just pluck a tender heart out with a fork and pop it in my mouth.  They are wonderful added to a tossed salad, chopped into a sandwich spread, diced into a cold pasta or rice salad, or simply served as part of an antipasto platter.

Some of this year's harvest.

Cleaning artichokes and reducing them to the heart is a test of perserverance and sang-froid…the weak-willed often fail to completely remove all the tough outer leaves and are forever picking artichoke fibers out from between their teeth.  It is also a test of forethought, for if you forget to wear your rubber gloves your blackened hands will remind you of your morning spent trimming artichokes for weeks.

If you've been sufficiently heartless, your cleaned artichokes should look like this.

Once you’ve trimmed them, boil the hearts in 1 ½ liter of white wine vinegar mixed with ½ liter of water, a sliced lemon, a tablespoon of salt, 3 whole cloves, 3 peppercorns, and 3 fresh bay leaves for about 15 minutes, or until they are fork-tender.  Drain the hearts and arrange them in a single layer on a clean kitchen towel, lay another clean towel over the top, and leave them to dry from 6 to24 hours.

When they’re dry, pop them into glass jars and cover with good quality olive oil.  You may need to check on the jars after a couple of days and top off the oil if the level has fallen.  The important thing is to have your hearts completely immersed in the oil.

All snug in their jars just waiting to be snarfed.

Enjoy your hearts for as long as they last…which, in my experience, ain’t that long.  Sometimes–just sometimes–it’s really great to be a grown-up!