Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
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From Tours to Tables: Umbria’s Farm Bounty

After our annual August break, we’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “From Farm to Table”, and we have a new member to welcome…Georgette Jupe from Girl in Florence in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy! Our roundtable has grown, but don’t forget to take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our long banquet table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Remember in high school when you would go to Blockbuster on Saturday night? You would wander the aisles crowded with hundreds of VHS covers lined up at attention on the shelves for an hour, undecided…maybe I should get all intellectual, you’d think, and rent a French movie. Or retro and grab a Cary Grant classic. Or Film Study and watch “Citizen Kane”. Perhaps now’s the time to see the entire Bond canon, or every movie Jack Nicholson ever made.

And, finally, exhausted with the endless options, you would say, “Fuck it,” grab a copy of “The Princess Bride” for the 14th time, and thoroughly enjoy every minute. Sometimes the obvious solution is also the most satisfying.

That’s what I felt like about this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable theme. “From farm to table” seems tailor-made for this rural region of Umbria, where pretty much everything on your table has come from a farm…yours or someone else’s. To mix things up a bit, I toyed with a bunch of crazy interpretations of the theme (one discussing my older son’s eye-opening trip to New York City this summer, during which he went from his Umbrian farm diet to sampling more world cuisines in 15 days than he had in his previous 15 years of life), but after wandering the aisles of my mind for hours, I finally came to the conclusion that the obvious solution was also the most satisfying. So, ladies and gentlemen, I offer up “The Princess Bride” of blog posts…a quick guide to how to sample Umbria’s farm bounty during your next visit.

 Umbria farm tour

 

Agriturismo (Farm Holiday)

You can’t get more farm to table than an agriturismo, which is a working farm which also offers accommodations and/or meals to travelers. Umbria has one of the most dense concentrations of agriturismi in Italy, which is hardly surprising given its rural history and culture here and thriving tourist economy.

A caveat, however: the more posh the farm, the less likely you will be sampling anything beyond their olive oil or perhaps wine. An agriturismo can be classified as such as long as it produces at least one agricultural product, which means that alongside the small, traditional family farm (which generally includes stock, an olive grove, a small vineyard, a kitchen garden, an orchard, courtyard animals, cultivated fields, and woods), you also have large, wealthy estates which have hectares of olive trees or vines from which they produce their label of oil or wine, but nothing else. If you are looking for an upscale relais with a spa and paved parking lot, this is where you should head. If you are looking for a mamma in the kitchen who is cooking up hand-rolled tagliatelle with goose sauce featuring a fat lady you heard honking out back just yesterday, choose a simpler, more rustic agriturismo.

Many agriturismi also offer casual cooking lessons with the family, which is a great way to both sample the farm products and learn some tricks for reproducing the simple yet unforgettable flavors of the Umbrian countryside in your kitchen back home. Very few, however, will allow guests to participate in the farm work (they’ll tell you that it’s for insurance reasons, but the truth is that nothing throws a wrench into the works like well-intentioned city folk who don’t know what they’re doing) aside from simple tasks like picking olives or grapes, but most let you pick your own produce from the home garden, gather eggs, and sample the house preserves, charcuterie, cheese, and other goodies.

farm tour umbria

 

Farm Visits

Even if you prefer to stay in town rather than an agriturismo in the countryside, you can work in a farm visit or two to your itinerary. Umbria is blanketed with farms, large and small, though most are not set up for visits…and even those which are open to the public are quite informal, so don’t expect a White House tour. Here are some good options:

Wineries

Remember, a cantina (or winery) is a farm…it’s just specialized in a single product. My favorite area for winery visits is around Montefalco, home of Umbria’s flagship Sagrantino wine. Try the Di Filippo or Scacciadiavoli wineries, which have a good balance between down-home, family hospitality and organized wine tours.

Umbria’s wineries also have two open houses a year: Cantine Aperte in May and Cantine Aperte in Vendemmia in September. Things can get a little crazy during Cantine Aperte, but it’s also a great way to enjoy a day in the vineyards with music, food, tastings, and tours.

Olive Oil Mills

A mill (or frantoio) is really only interesting to visit during the fall and early winter when the harvest is coming in; the rest of the year, things are pretty quiet and your “tour” will consist of standing in a silent mill to gaze at machinery. That said, if you are visiting from October to December, it’s fun to stop by a frantoio buzzing with tractors pulling up to unload bales of olives and local farmers lounging around as their harvest is milled. Most have a small fireplace to grill bruschetta, so the newly-pressed oil can be sampled seconds after it drips out of the press.

For a list of olive oil farms and mills open to the public, take a look here. There is also an annual open house, Frantoi Aperti, each November with tastings and events.

Truffle Reserves

Ok, truffles aren’t really “farmed” in the strict sense, but the precious patches of woods where trufflers and their dogs forage for these buried treasures are certainly cultivated with as much care as fields of grain. A truffle hunt, followed by a cooking lesson and meal, is an unforgettable way to experience Umbria’s rural countryside and cuisine…especially for families with kids.

My favorite truffle producers who organize hunts and meals are Bianconi near Città di Castello and San Pietro a Pettine near Trevi.

Meat Farms

Umbria is the Iowa of Italy, a land where pork reigns supreme and the charcuterie is among the best in the world. I love visiting Peppe Fausti’s farm near Norcia, where he raises his pigs free-range (they come when he whistles…you can see it here at 2m 50s.) For locally-raised Chianina beef, heirloom Cinta Senesi pork, lamb, poultry, and game, there’s no better stop than Fattoria Lucchetti, which raises the stock and sells cuts from their farm butcher shop in Collazzone.

Cheese Farms

Some of Umbria’s best artisan cheeses are made by Rita and Francesco Rossi near Cascia, but I have recently fallen in love with Diego Calcabrina’s goat cheese, made with his tiny herd at the foot of Montefalco. Il Secondo Altopiano outside of Orvieto is also known for its amazing artisan goat cheeses, and Walter Facchini near Sigillo in the Monte Cucco Park has a variety of wonderful pecorino sheep cheeses.

Herbs, Jams, Saffron, and Other Special Things

A special mention to one of my favorite farms in Umbria, Zafferano e Dintorni, in the breathtaking Valnerina along the Nera river. Marta and her family (21m 30s) began with an orchard, then added saffron and medicinal herbs, and now have a number of excellent jams and preserves, herbal teas, and other goodies available to taste and purchase at their family farm right next to the San Felice di Narco church.

 

img_8668

 

Farm Tours

So, yes, you can definitely go commando and just show up at the farms listed above for a walk around and tastings. That said, many of these spots are not easy to find, the hosts speak little if any English, and they don’t have a staff…so if they are busy with chores or simply not home, you may be out of luck.

By far the best way to tour Umbria’s farms are with a local guide on a farm tour. This solves all of the logistical hitches in one fell swoop: you don’t have to worry about navigating the confusing country roads, you have a translator and interpreter by your side, and your visit is arranged in advance, so the family knows you are coming and can spend some time showing you around. You can also often have a farm meal during your visit, or a cooking demonstration or lesson.

Two of the best farm tours around are those offered by Alessandra at Discovering Umbria and Jennifer at Life…Italian Style. I have been sending guests to both for years, and everyone has come away raving about their wonderful experience.

farm tours umbria

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

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Of Flowers and Bees, Butterflies and Dreams: Il Lavandeto di Assisi

We’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Bug”, and you can blame any of my fellow writers for this, including Laura Thayer, Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, or Michele Fabio. Any of them. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

Italy Blogging Roundtable

 

Follow your dream, they say. They say it in commencement speeches. They say it on Oprah. They say it on Instagram, superimposed on romantic photos of footprints on the beach stretching to the distant sunset.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Yeah, well. As anyone who has actually followed a dream knows, it is a hell of a lot of work…much more than one would presume from the idyllic kitten posters and wrist tats. And sometimes it doesn’t pan out, or it pans out only halfway, or it pans out much, much later than what your business plan suggested.

 

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

But sometimes it does work out. Sometimes you’re just an office employee in Umbria who has a passion for plants – lavender and other herbs, to be specific – and you up and decide more than a decade ago that you are going to quit that job, rent a plot of land near your house, and plant your first rows of fragrant lavadula. You start with that first crop, and then you plant the next. You sweat under the hot sun, you start adding other herbs and medicinals, you pack up your van each weekend with pots and dried flower sachets to hit the area markets and fairs, and you begin to make a name for yourself.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Sometimes you even open up a little shop in town, stuffed to the gills with lavender-themed gift and crafts. You start getting your husband excited about your side hustle, and he eventually quits his job to help you in the fields and greenhouses. You start to stock rare types of basil and strangely colored breeds of sage, and next to the fields you begin to stake out a lovely garden with rose-covered trellises, lush beds of herbs, and even a tiny pond with waterlilies looking as exotic as pineapples in the surrounding Umbrian countryside.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

 

Sometimes you have the grit and vision and patience of Lorena Fastellini, who founded Il Lavandeto di Assisi more than ten years ago. From a small plot of lavender, Il Lavandeto now grows dozens of types of herbs and medicinal plants – including a vast variety of lavender – and has a shop both in Assisi and at the farm. But most people know Il Lavandeto for their lovely garden in the valley below Assisi, where visitors can wander through the herb and flower beds, stroll under the trellis, relax next to the pretty pond, and snap some of the best pictures of Assisi from below against the foreground of deep blue lavender flowers.

Il Lavandeto di Assisi garden

 

I stopped by last week, just after their annual “Festa della Lavanda” was finishing up. For three weekends in June and July, the lavender is at its most colorful and Loreno (with husband Gino), hold a market in their garden and a series of lavender-themed dinners and other events. The Lavandeto buzzes with visitors from across Italy, and is filled with stands selling lavender-related crafts. But the morning I pulled in, all was quiet. I spent a few minutes in the garden by myself, savoring the clean scent of lavender and rose, watching the butterflies and honeybees alight on their delicate blossoms, and listening to the plops of fish (or maybe frogs) in the pond. If this is what a dream looks like, then follow away, I say.


A special thanks to Lorena Fastellini, who very generously provided me with bug pictures to fit the theme of this month when it became clear that I had neither the skill nor the equipment to take them myself. You can visit their garden and greenhouse on Via dei Laghetti in Castelnuovo di Assisi, or their shop in the center of Assisi at Viale Guglielmo Marconi, 1c right next to the Giovanni Paolo II parking lot near the Basilica.

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

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Public Transportation: Getting to Assisi from Rome and Florence

We’re back with our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Public Transportation”, and we have a new member to welcome…Laura Thayer from Ciao Amalfi on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome to our ever-expanding table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

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Ok, yes, I realize that instructions on how to take public transportation from Rome or Florence to Assisi is not that exciting of a topic. But guess what: you’re a grown up now (at least I presume you are, as you are traveling to Europe). And though there are many perks to being a grown up, many of which involve gin, there are also downsides. Like, for example, having to deal with the decidedly unsexy logistics of travel in Italy.

 

calvin and hobbes

 

To be honest, I never really paid that much attention to how to take the train or bus from Rome and Florence to Assisi until just recently. I get around almost exclusively by car, and when we only hosted guests in the countryside, they either rented a car or traveled with their own wheels during their stay. Now that we host guests in the center of Assisi as well, we have more and more guests who are using Italy’s public transport and I find myself fielding questions often about the logistics of getting between the two biggest cities in central Italy and our hilltown in Umbria.

So here are some tips and information, based on the situation on the ground in 2016:

Getting from Rome to Assisi

By Train

If you are arriving at the Fiumicino airport, you will have to take the Leonardo Express shuttle train from the terminals to the Termini train station in the city center, where you can connect to trains to Assisi. The shuttle trains run every 15-30 minutes, take just over half an hour to reach Rome, and cost €14 per one way ticket.

There are a number of direct trains (both high speed and slower regional) which run from Rome’s main Termini station to the Assisi station, located in the valley below the center of Assisi in Santa Maria degli Angeli. High speed or Alta Velocità (AV) trains including the Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca, and Intercity require reservations in advance and passengers have an assigned seat; Regionale and Regionale Veloce train tickets can be purchased directly before boarding and you have no assigned seat.

There are also many trains which require a change in Foligno, a small city about half an hour from Assisi. There are only four tracks in Foligno, and the change is usually easy…but if you would rather not have to make a connection, double check before buying your ticket that you have selected a direct route.

Many trains to Assisi depart from the remote Binari 1 or 2 EST tracks at Roma Termini, which are an extension of the main platform. If your train is departing from one of these, it will take about 7 minutes more to walk to the remote platform from the station atrium.

Direct trains take around 2 hours between Rome and Assisi, and trains which require a change can take 15 to 20 minutes more. Tickets cost from about €10 to €50 (don’t take those trains…that’s crazy money).

Assisi’s tiny station is called both Assisi and Santa Maria degli Angeli, so make sure you get off when you see either of those destinations. You will also see Assisi up on the hillside to the right as the train pulls into the station.

Once you arrive at the station, you can take a local bus (the C line) 10 minutes up the hill to the center of town. Tickets can be purchased from the newspaper stand in the station for €1.30 or directly from the bus driver for €1.50 (you must have exact change). Get off at Piazza San Pietro for the Basilica or Piazza Matteotti for the central Piazza del Comune.

Otherwise, there is also a taxi stand in front of the station, and the fare is about €15 for two passengers plus luggage to the center of Assisi.

 

***A note from friend and Italy expert Bill Thayer that I will add here:

A detail, but an important one, I think. The logistics of getting from Rome to Assisi: no, absolutely not, we do not need to go through Termini! The place is hell on wheels, especially for Italy newbies. To get to Umbria, they might prefer to take the *other* train – the one that goes to Orte, on the other track at the airport. They’re going to have to change trains anyway, and the change at the little station at Orte is much easier than scrambling through Termini. The train to Orte is almost never full, plenty of room to sit down and put your baggage in the aisle comfortably, and on a hot day the air conditioning is not swallowed up in the heat of all those bodies. It is also much cheaper; the Termini train is specially priced: it gouges the tourist. It’s also useful to tell them that they can buy their tickets to Assisi right at the airport, not just a ticket to (Rome/Orte), with the need then to buy a second ticket at a second station.***

 

By Bus

There are also coaches which travel between Rome and Assisi, though they only depart in the early morning and take much longer than the train.

The Sulga bus departs from the Fiumicino airport Terminal 3 – International arrivals (it stops in the tour bus parking area) and from the Tiburtina train station (not Termini!). Only two routes come all the way to Piazza San Pietro in Assisi; the other routes stop at the Perugia train station, from which you will have to catch a train to Assisi. The trip takes between 3 and 4 hours and tickets cost €23.50 (from the airport) and €18.50 (from the station).

 

Getting from Florence to Assisi

By Train

If you are flying into Florence, you will have to take a taxi or the shuttle bus from the airport to the central Santa Maria Novella train station. Routes depart every half hour, and tickets cost €6 and can be purchased directly from the driver on board.  

There are direct trains (both high speed and slower regional) from Florence’s central Santa Maria Novella station to Assisi, and routes which include a change in Terontola, a small town about an hour from Assisi. The Terontola station is small and it’s simple to change trains there, but if you would rather avoid having to make a connection, opt for a direct route. There are also routes which require two connections (Terontola and Perugia), to be avoided if possible.

High speed or Alta Velocità (AV) trains including the Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca, and Intercity require reservations in advance and passengers have an assigned seat; Regionale and Regionale Veloce train tickets can be purchased directly before boarding and you have no assigned seat.

Direct trains take around 2.5 hours between Florence and Assisi, and trains which require a change can take 30 minutes more. Tickets cost from about €15 to €30.

Assisi’s tiny station is located below the center of town in the valley and is called both Assisi and Santa Maria degli Angeli, so make sure you get off when you see either of those destinations. You will also see Assisi up on the hillside to the right as the train pulls into the station.

Once you arrive at the station, you can take a local bus (the C line) 10 minutes up the hill to the center of town. Tickets can be purchased from the newspaper stand in the station for €1.30 or directly from the bus driver for €1.50 (you must have exact change). Get off at Piazza San Pietro for the Basilica or Piazza Matteotti for the central Piazza del Comune.

Otherwise, there is also a taxi stand in front of the station, and the fare is about €15 for two passengers plus luggage to the center of Assisi.

 

By Bus

There is one coach which travels between Florence and Assisi each Monday and Friday, departing at 6 pm and and arriving at 8:30 pm; seats must be booked by 7 pm on the evening before departure by phone (800099661).

The Sulga bus departs from the Santa Maria Novella train station and arrives at Piazza San Pietro in Assisi. The trip takes between 2.5 hours and tickets cost around €25.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

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

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Lake Trasimeno with Kids: Five Suggestions for a Family-Friendly Visit

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month is “Five”, to celebrate our 5 years of gathering around the table for a virtual chat and drink. Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Dreamy Lake Trasimeno, located in Umbria but hugging the border of neighboring Tuscany, is the perfect destination for traveling families who need to strike that delicate holiday balance between water fun and sports (for the kids) and cuisine and culture (for the grown ups). The lake itself is ringed with family-friendly beaches and parks, a leisurely walking and biking trail, and casual restaurants and pizzerias. Further up in the surrounding hills, more active (and older) families can take advantage of a number of scenic walking trails, visit pretty Medieval lakeside villages, and sample some of the area’s excellent wine and olive oil.

Photo by Maurizio Zanetti via Flickr

Photo by Maurizio Zanetti via Flickr

For a special day in the Trasimeno area focused specifically on the kids, here are a few suggestions for the most fun-packed spots and activities guaranteed to keep the little ones occupied the adults relaxed:

Sualzo Beach
Passignano sul Trasimeno

Perhaps the best kitted out beach for a day on the lake is this long stretch near Passignano. With a nice mix of sandy shore and grassy, shaded park, Sualzo has rental chairs and umbrellas, a playground, pool, restaurant, and refreshment stand. For the more active families, there is a beach volley ball court and canoes, paddle-boats, and bikes available for rental. On weekend evenings, the place gets hopping with a DJ or live music far into the wee hours. If you have your choice of where to stop for a day at the beach, this is probably your best bet.

Fishing Trips with the Cooperativo Pescatori di Trasimeno
San Feliciano

With the beaches lining the lake, and the resort feel of the villages perched on its shores, it’s easy to forget that for hundreds—if not thousands—of years, the people of this area survived almost primarily by fishing. Though there are not that many fishermen left, those few who do continue to live off the water do so through the Lake Trasimeno Fishermen’s Cooperative, which is based in San Feliciano. For kids (and adults) who would like to try their hand at the traditional fishing techniques that the locals have used since time immemorial, the Cooperative organizes day trips on the water with a flat-bottomed wooden boat, an assortment of nets and lines, and a local expert to reveal where the fish are biting.

Photo by Roberto Taddeo via Flickr

Photo by Roberto Taddeo via Flickr

Water Park: Parco Acquatico Tavernelle
Tavernelle

This water park is perfect for a family looking for splish-splashy fun in the sun. With three pools (swimming, diving, and wading), a jacuzzi, three fabulous waterslides for the older kids, and a separate kiddie area for toddlers who need some pint-sized slides and shallow water, there are thrills for the whole family. You’ll need to bring your own suit and towel, but the pool has caps (required), goggles, and sundry other pool gear for purchase. You can rent an umbrella and loungers in the vast, grassy surrounding park, or grab a shady spot under some trees and spread out. There is an excellent self-service restaurant and refreshment stand, or you can bring your own picnic supplies.

Autodromo dell’Umbria
Magione, Loc. Bacanella

Vroom, vroom! Sure, art and culture. Nature, too. But for a real treat for your motor-loving kids who need a break from all the bucolic sights around Lake Trasimeno, consider a day at the races. The Magione autodrome is a family-friendly sized facility hosting both auto (ranging from NASCAR to antique cars) and motorcycle races on its 2.5 kilometer circuit most weekends. It may not be the most educational day of your vacation, but chances are your kids will remember it as the most fun. For a race schedule (in Italian), check their website.

Photo by Coloriamoicieli via Instagram

Photo by Coloriamoicieli via Instagram

Coloriamo i Cieli
Castiglione del Lago

For a few days spanning the end of April and the beginning of May, the skies around Castiglione become crowded with brightly colored kites, as kite enthusiasts from across the globe gather to fly their creations over Lake Trasimeno. Located at the former airport, the festival has workshops, entertainment, refreshments, games, and lots of booths were visitors can buy the most basic to the most elaborate kites of their own to try their hand at flying. Co-sponsored by a number of environmental organizations, the festival is thick with fun kid-friendly activities promoting conservation and recycling, art projects focused on local flora and fauna, and a number of nature walks, bikes, and horse-back rides.

Five Best Towns on Lake Trasimeno

Passignano sul Trasimeno

One of the most popular villages along the lakeshore, Passignano has a Medieval castle at its head and a pretty beach and park at its feet, both fun stops for traveling kids. Their “Palio delle Barche” festival in July, when locals in period dress race through town toting boats on their shoulders, is raucous and memorable.

San Feliciano

Quiet San Feliciano harks back to the lake’s roots and a fishing culture and economy, and is one of the few spots along the shore where visitors can spot fishermen heading out in their traditional flat-bottomed wooden boats or hand-mending their nets.

Panicale

This Medieval village perched on a hilltop south of the lake offers beautiful views over the lake and surrounding countryside, and an iconic “small Italian town” vibe of locals leisurely making their way between the town’s three historic piazze to shop, mingle, and gossip.

Montecolognola

Tiny Montecolognola, near the more industrial town of Magione, is perched on the summit of an olive grove-covered hill, and has a pretty castle, a parish church decorated with frescoes spanning from the 14th to the 16th century, and gorgeous views over the lake.

Castiglione del Lago

Neatly laid out on a tongue of land sticking out into Lake Trasimeno, Castiglione’s beautiful views, picturesque castle, excellent restaurants and shops, and resort town vibe make it one of the more popular destinations for travellers to the lake.

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

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My Local: The Last Woman Standing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piazzetta dell'Erba, Assisi, Italy

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

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

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

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

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

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

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

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

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

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

Piazzetta delle Erbe Assisi Umbria Italy

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For the Birds: The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis

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

I have, of late, discovered the small nugget of joy that is birdwatching. To be honest, what I do can hardly be called by that name. I rarely correctly identify a species—indeed, I rarely see a bird if it’s not pointed out to me by a companion. I have a hard time maneuvering binoculars, and forget about photography. By the time I’ve chosen the right exposure and focus, the flock has long migrated to Africa.

 

Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Battitoriso via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Lake Alviano WWF Oasis

But the silence and pace are a welcome respite from my loud, fast life, so I find myself more and more frequently retreating for a few hours to one of the number of natural bird sanctuaries around Umbria. My favorite, the WWF Oasis of Alviano in the southern part of Umbria, was hit hard by a devastating flood two years ago and my heart broke when I heard about the incredible damage to the park and its infrastructure. So when they put out the call for volunteers to come and lend a hand rebuilding, I signed right up.

Lake Alviano Umbria Italy

Photo by Il Cantore via Wikimedia Commons

The Alviano Oasis is one of the WWF’s largest, extending 900 hectares along the manmade Alviano Lake, formed with the 1960 damming of the Tiber River for a hydroelectric plant. The area had already been an established stop for thousands of migratory birds each year, but with the formation of the vast lake and surrounding wetland, the importance of the resulting ecosystem became such that in 1978 the area became a natural reserve and in 1990 was taken over by the WWF.

Lago di Alviano Umbria Italy

Photo by Ziegler175 via Wikimedia Commons

There are four kilometers of walkways and hiking paths circling the lake and marsh, broken up by bird blinds and towers. Here skilled (and, ahem, lucky) birders can spot over a hundred species, including brightly plumed kingfishers, great crested grebes, herons, cormorants, bitterns, and falcons. The area is also lush with aquatic plants and the amphibians that call them home.

Birdwatching Umbria Italy

Photo by Marco Ilari via Wikimedia Commons

Repairing the Damage

When I went to lend a hand on the first gorgeously sunny Sunday of spring last year, I was expecting scenes of destruction and despair. Instead, I found that though much of the park infrastructure had been badly damaged (the oasis also lost two of their three horses in the flood), reconstruction efforts were going well and spirits were high with both the staff there directing the work and the hearty group of volunteers.

Alviano Umbria Italy

We worked on clearing the paths, rebuilding walkways, cleaning out the blinds and towers, and repairing fencing. Ours was just one in months of volunteer weekends, and it was so heartening to see the mixed group of locals and lovers of the oasis from further afield working together to get this unique area in shape to be reopened for the 2013 season. Indeed, just a few weeks later the Alviano Oasis was able to open its gates to birding enthusiasts again (though there is still work to be done), just in time for the first spring migration.

Birdwatching in Umbria Italy

Photo by Mediamenta via Wikimedia Commons

Visiting the Oasis

The Alviano Oasis is open to the public 10 am to sunset from September 1st to May 31st (best times for birding are October/November and April/May). The entrance to the Oasis is at Madonna del Porto (Guardea) along the Alviano Scalo-Baschi road. For more information, email lagodialviano@wwf.it or call 333/7576283.

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Holiday Munchies: Addormentasuocere

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

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

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

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

Here’s what you need:

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

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

Here’s how to do it:

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

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

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Christmas Markets in Umbria: A New Tradition

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

Italy Blogging Roundtable

 

I have to admit that I’m not completely sold on the whole Christmas market thing. An import from northern Italy—which, one presumes, imported it from the Alpine villages across its borders—these picturesque seasonal markets, composed of a number of small booths where artisans and artists hawk their wares, are starting to pop up more and more during the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays in piazzas across Umbria.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

 

Unfortunately, a number I’ve visited have been disappointments…just a handful of booths, or poorly organized, or largely forgettable items for sale: Umbria is obviously still in the embryonic phase of its holiday market tradition.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

 

 

There are two exceptions to this largely insipid pool: Assisi’s pretty market the first weekend of December and Perugia’s large market which takes over the whole of the Rocca Paolina for the month of December.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

 

The Rocca is a fascinating place to wander through anytime—the remains of the medieval cityscape perfectly conserved beneath the modern streets of Perugia above—but is particularly suited to a meandering market, with booths tucked away in the various alleyways and niches which make up the brick and stone underground warren. The booths ranged from ceramics and leather goods, to handmade toys and accessories. There were a number of vintage clothing and jewelry sellers and a great selection of fun items for kids.

Christmas market Perugia Umbria

 

The biggest selling point—aside from the dramatic setting and number of sellers—was the range of prices. You can easily find a number of unique stocking stuffers for under €20, up to more expensive leather bags and coats. I’m especially heartened each year by the number of local artisans with handmade crafts and food, always something I am happy to spend my (limited) Christmas budget on.

Christmas Market Perugia Umbria

 

Unfortunately I’ve never snapped pictures when visiting the market, so a big thanks to Gigi Bettin from Via di Francesco for pinch hitting for me and loaning me some shots!

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Digging for Umbria’s Black Gold: Truffles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Italy Roundtable: Partytime at Assisi’s Calendimaggio

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

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Assisi– with its iconic Basilica of Saint Francis, picturesque twisting stone alleyways, and breathtaking views over the surrounding olive grove-covered hills–is not known for its nightlife. The atmosphere of this beautiful and stately hilltown is staid and spiritual, lending itself more to contemplative walks and quiet cappuccinos than bacchanal excess and nocturnal partying.

That is, except for those three days (and nights) a year when Assisi really lets her hair down. For the past 50 plus years, Saint Francis’ hometown sheds its normal air of peace and brotherly love to spend the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of May locked in intense competition as the Parte de Sopra and the Parte de Sotto put on elaborate processions, scenes of medieval life, and concerts with period music as they compete for the Palio, judged by a panel of three experts, one specialized in history, one in theater and the arts, and one in music.

Virtually everyone who lives in Assisi – and many locals who have since moved away but make a yearly pilgrimage during the days leading up to Calendimaggio – participates in this community-run festival, from building sets and sewing costumes, to acting in the Medieval scenes, to singing in the choir, to going around town each evening to light the many torches illuminating the streets (yes, there is a special group of guys who are specialized in the torches). In a town in which only about 1,000 people currently live in the historic center, almost 2,000 routinely participate in some way in the festival, which brings the town together in both solidarity and rivalry like no other event.

The festival—currently shortlisted for UNESCO World Heritage recognition—is seen best from the bleacher seats in the main piazza (tickets available in the tourist information office); Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons are filled with processions (Thursday is marked by the keys to the city being ceremoniously handed over by the Mayor to the Master of Ceremonies for the three days of festivities; Friday the two Parti compete in crossbow and Medieval games; Saturday afternoon is the theatrical procession. Perhaps the most spectacular of the three days of festivities is Saturday night when fire and pyrotechnics play a large part of the show.). On Thursday and Friday nights the scenes of Medieval life which each Parte organize in their respective areas of the town are open only to the judges, but can be seen by the public projected on screens in the main piazza.

These are magical days when flags and banners hang from each window, a taverna (temporary restaurant) is bustling to serve hungry festival-goers under the Piazza del Comune, costumed theatrical processions, crossbow tournaments, feats of physical strength, Medieval choirs with historic instrumental accompaniment, and dancing go far into the night…indeed, on Saturday the rowdiness flows to dawn, when the verdict from the three judges is announced and the winning Parte literally dances in the streets (And piazzas. And fountains.).

These photos of past editions of Calendimaggio are courtesy of Via di Francesco.

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