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

The Art of Drinking: Il Carapace

There seem to be few things as polarizing as contemporary art, especially contemporary art inserted into unlikely places. Case in point: the new Tenuta Castelbuono winery building near Bevagna. This massive work, called “Il Carapace”, by contemporary Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, was completed after six years of work in 2012 and straddles the fence between sculpture and architecture.

I’m going to immediately stick my neck out to say that I like “Il Carapace”. Or, to be even more polemic, I love it. Saturated with symbolism, this copper dome-shaped structure is modelled on a giant tortoise shell—representing “stability and longevity”—and the low, rounded shape blends seamlessly into the surrounding landscape of rolling vineyard-covered hills, an echo of the “union of earth and sky”.

Being from Chicago, I am no newcomer to Pomodoro; a number of his works are displayed in the city, including the campuses of both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. I am also no newcomer to livable sculpture…from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago has a proud tradition of revolutionary buildings which blur the line between art and architecture. But contemporary architecture in a modern city is expected; contemporary architecture juxtaposed against the backdrop of this region so steeped in the Middle Ages that one would hardly blink an eye if Saint Francis himself were to come around the corner is riskier.   

It was a risk well-taken, as Il Carapace has been met with much praise. Commissioned by the Lunelli family–which primarily produces spumante in Trento under the Ferrari label—to mark their foray into Umbria’s Sagrantino country, the winery building has been getting more press than the wines produced there. It’s easy to see why, as the tasting room inside Il Carapace’s dome is spectacularly distracting, with its soaring rib-like arches and plate-glass walls framing the dreamy vineyards outside, as is the cantina, with its spiral shape and disconsonant sky-blue walls, giving you a moment of vertigo as you try to remember if you’re above or below ground.

Photo courtesy of Umbriabeecoming

Both times I visited Il Carapace were for special events; lit up in the evening by flickering torches and soft lights and animated by live music and the clinking of hundreds of glasses, Pomodoro’s work becomes both more dramatic and more intimate—though hard to photograph.

Tenuta Castelbuono offers tours and tastings; for more information, visit their website. Pomodoro was so successful in blending his “living sculpture” into the scenery that it’s not easy to spot the winery from afar. Keep watch for the red, dart-shaped structure that stands at the entrance, towering above the hills like the shaft of an immense arrow shot into the earth, both a complement and an antithesis to the harmony of Il Carapace itself.


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.


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.

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


Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is throwing a party this month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio, we’ve invited the folks from COSI (Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy) to talk with us about this month’s theme of “authenticity”. (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.


Late last year I reviewed the delightful “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in which author Elizabeth Wholey takes readers on an absorbing journey through the history and culture of the Upper Tiber Valley, passing by way of the area’s farms and their stocked pantries.

To illustrate and enliven her narrative, she includes a number of simple, traditional dishes taken from the well-worn recipe cards of country housewives from the four regions which meet in the Alta Valle del Tevere: Umbria, Le Marche, Tuscany, and Emilia Romagna.

As a further homage to this excellent little book, I decided to try out one of these recipes for this month’s Italy Roundtable, as nothing can better illustrate authenticity in Umbria (or Italy as a whole) than its traditional cuisine. I immediately knew which to choose; I had just had a conversation with a visiting friend about one of our winter staples: fennel. Along with greens, cauliflower, and broccoli, this crisp, anise-flavoured, celery-like vegetable is omnipresent at our table during the colder months, but besides simply slicing it and dressing it with a bit of salt and olive oil or, if we are feeling posh, mixing it with thinly sliced oranges and either black olives or pomegranate seeds to form a colorful salad, I’m not particularly creative with how to serve it.

So when I spotted Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro—billed as “Angiolina’s Thrice Cooked Fennel with Tomato Sauce”—I knew that was the one.

Here it is:

Prep time:

10 minutes

Cooking time:

40 minutes


  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • 500 g ripe, flavorful tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or 350 g Ortobono pomarola, or canned Italian tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 250 ml water
  • 1 lt oil for frying
  • 400 g all-purpose flour for dredging
  • grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


To make the tomato sauce: in a 2 lt heavy pot with a close-fitting lid, heat the chopped garlic in the oil until its aroma is just released (do not overcook), the add the chopped tomatoes or pomarola sauce, water, and salt. Cook for 10 minutes; remove from heat and set aside.

Heat the frying oil to 180° in a deep, heavy saucepan. In a separate pot, bring to boil 2 lt of salted water. Prepare a large bowl with flour for dredging.

Thinly slice the fennel bulbs, wash, and add to the pot of boiling water. Cook for five minutes [I found that this was too long…I would cook just until fork-tender; about three minutes], then remove and dry them on a clean towel.

When they are cool, dredge them in the flour and carefully place in the hot oil. Fry, turning occasionally, until they are a golden color. Lift them out and place in the pot with the pre-prepared tomato sauce.

[We got into a little trouble here, having discovered that fried fennel is pretty darn good just all by itself. Mostly because pretty much any food is pretty darn good if deep-fried. But we managed to quit snacking on them and got most of the fried fennel slices in the pot of sauce.]

When all the fried fennel is in the pot of sauce, cover it and cook on the stovetop for about 10 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding additional water to prevent sticking. When the sauce has become thickened and creamy, transfer the fennel with the sauce to a warm serving dish and serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

A special thanks to Elizabeth Wholey for allowing me to reproduce her recipe here!

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

And from our friends at COSI:


Italy Roundtable: Lost at the Table

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable has grown over the past month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria, we welcome new member Michelle Fabio from the wonderful Bleeding Espresso blog to explore this month’s theme: lost in translation. (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’m not sure how it came up. We may have been talking about childhood memories, or maybe some American movie, or maybe just our favorite foods from growing up. But for whatever reason, I started describing to my children -bicultural but 90% Italian in matters concerning the palate – that perennial favorite: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

I watched as their expressions shifted from mild interest to disbelief to outright disgust as I described the bright orange powder which, when mixed with milk, butter, and slightly overcooked elbow pasta, would transform through some sort of gastronomic alchemy into what was, in the 1970s, our hands-down favorite meal and one of the pillars of our household cuisine.

“Wait, what? It was dried, powdered chemical cheese?!? And you ate it?” my children cried in horror. And then, “So if you ate that and you’re fine, why can’t we have Coke?”

It seems odd, but I had never really thought about some of my favorite and, admittedly, slightly disgusting favorite dishes from growing up during what was probably the lowest moment for American cuisine. They had gradually faded from my memory over the distance decades and oceans, and it was only during what quickly become one of my children’s favorite topics of dinnertime conversation that I revisited these dishes.

Over the next few weeks, a myriad of nostalgic favorites were discussed, to the growing incredulity of my children. What was served at home and school in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s and 80s was as odd and gastronomically untranslatable to two Italian children growing up in the Umbrian countryside in the 21st century as molecular cuisine or whatever tube worms eat in the depths of the ocean.

What were the foods – and I use the word “food” loosely – that left them most awed and amazed?

Chili Mac. This was the logical segue after Kraft Mac & Cheese (with a slight, longing detour past Hamburger Helper), and my kids were slightly less scandalized by this, as they have had chili with more or less success. Of course, the chili that they have had is my homemade black bean chili with chipotle and fresh lime which simmers on the stove for the better part of a day. The chili my mother used was made by Hormel and simmered on the stove for exactly 30 seconds before being tossed with overdone macaroni (was there any other pasta shape in the Midwest in 1981?) and served up to much enthusiasm. Had I had the audacity to bring up canned chili, I could have also mentioned Spaghettios and Chef Boyardee Ravioli, but they can’t handle the truth.

The whole genre of orange processed cheeses. Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, Kraft Singles. America has invented many wonderful things, but I venture that our eponymous cheese is not one of them. I’ve never been a big fan of American cheese, so understood my sons’ perplexed looks while I described the disconcerting color, rubbery texture, and chemical aftertaste. Cheese is our family Esperanto, apparently. That said, one of my favorite childhood memories was going to the public library on Saturday and then afterwards stopping at the Peter Pan Diner for a grilled cheese sandwich…and you can bet your bottom dollar that it was made with Wonder Bread, American cheese, and fried up in margarine. Best lunch ever.

Jello. I have vague memories of opening up the kitchen cabinet and seeing a number of those small boxes neatly stacked in a variety of flavors. We were big jello fans at our house, and jiggly trays would be prepared and then cut into ice-cube sized squares to be popped into the mouth directly from the fridge all afternoon long. Try explaining to a 10 and 13 year old Italian kid that merenda was squares of acid-colored sweet gelatin flavored with artificial fruit flavors. Yeah, it doesn’t really translate that well. Throw in canned mandarin orange slices and marshmallows, and they were backing away from the table at just the thought. But boy did I love that when I was seven. (Also: Jello instant pudding in the similar little boxes. This did not gross the kids out as much, as there is instant budino here. Which they refuse to eat. But they’ve seen it.)

Sloppy Joes. I went into a long explanation of the singular delight that is the Sloppy Joe, and when I finished there was a long silence. Then, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s ragu served on a hamburger bun?” Yeah. Exactly. I’d never really thought of it like that, but yes. They were totally on board with the Sloppy Joe, and I have promised to make it for them some day. Because, you know, they’re two boys. And Sloppy Joes are, well, sloppy. Which is pretty much the attraction there, because otherwise it’s really nothing more than ragu sauce on a bun, you big dummy.

Corn dogs. No one is quibbling about the deliciousness that is the corn dog on a stick. Really, any food on a stick is pretty much the bomb, but the corn dog reigns supreme in pure State Fair joyousness. And yet. Try to explain the corn dog concept to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to actually taste one at an age too young to ask too many questions and you are bound to get Prince-at-the-2015-Grammys shade tossed your way. My kids are off and on about hot dogs (though hamburgers are always a win), and meh about cornbread. So the combination didn’t really sway them, though the concept of it being served on a stick gave them pause. Every once in awhile, just for laughs, they’ll randomly ask me to describe a corn dog again. And I have to admit, the more I talk about it the more I realize that it is kind of weird. But I hear that pretty much everything is battered and fried and served on a stick these days, so corn dogs have become the Atari of fair foods.

Tater tots. One bite of tater tots and they would burn their Italian passports. That is all. You think your favorite school lunch day was Sloppy Joe Day, but that’s because you forgot about Tater Tot Day. The day of the week we all lived for. I haven’t actually eaten a tater tot in probably 30 years, but I was able to perfectly describe the crunchy fried outer layer, lightly dusted in salt, which would be cracked open to reveal the steaming soft totness within. And, as a close cousin to the universally beloved french fry, (so deeply part of our cultural roots that when those rats in France had the audacity to justly question our invasion of Iraq after 9/11, we started calling them “freedom fries” because the alternative—boycotting french fries altogether—was unthinkable), my sons were easy converts.

Every so often, we open up the gastronomic Pandora’s Box and I’m able to exhume other more or less horrifying (to them)-slash-nostalgic (to me) examples (Tang.), much to our mutual enjoyment. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about highlighting the crazy differences that separate their experiences from mine, but about coming together and reveling in our shared life despite those crazy differences. Sure, food is sometimes lost in translation…but family is a something we all understand.

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


The Torta al Testo Taste Test

I snort when I laugh really hard. I do. And there are only a couple of people in this world who can regularly make me laugh so hard I get to snorting. Jennifer McIlvaine, blogger, chef, and irreverent Philly girl, is one of those people. She’s a foodie with attitude, an ironic commentator on the quirks of living shoulder to shoulder with the Umbrians, and one of the most talented chefs I know. She is also the mother of lovely Olivia and Gabriele and wife of Federico, one of the region’s experts on food and wine. I love her food-centric blog (her recent post on canning is one of my favorites) and I was so happy to have her stop by this week with a post about one of my favorite Umbrian staples.

Four takes on this most traditional of Umbrian dishes (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Will the real Torta al Testo please step foward?

Umbrians are by definition, traditionalists. So I was floored the other day when, dining at one of my favorite local spots, I tried a piece of Torta al Testo (a traditional Umbrian flatbread) NOT made in the traditional way – its was spongy, and yeasty…different!

Torta al Testo is eaten throughout Umbria and its name comes from: Torta, meaning bread or pizza and Testo, the heavy disc on which the bread is cooked. In ancient times the testo was made from clay and placed over coals in the fireplace. Modern times have brought us the contemporary version made from iron and aluminum, and placed directly on the stovetop. Of course, Umbria being Umbria, full of small, walled medieval towns, it seems that everywhere you go, the torta is known by a different name: Torta al Testo in the central-north area, Crescia in Gubbio, Ciaccia on the border with Tuscany, and Pizza sotto il Fuoco in the South. So many names for such a simple bread in such a small region!

So, as I mentioned, I was very surprised to try a new version of this classic; as it was chewy and had a yeasty flavor, it inspired me to do a little experimentation…

I used 4 “rising agents” to test the different recipes:
#1: I used a very old recipe, just flour, baking soda, salt and water.
#2: I used a classic recipe with Lievito Pizzaiolo – which is kind of like a cross between baking powder and instant yeast
#3: I used brewer’s yeast
#4: I used a natural (sourdough) bread starter that I made from grape yeast.
In the 2nd-4th recipes, I also added a little milk, olive oil, and parmigiano to the mix, known here as condita, or flavoured.

(In doing my research, I did also find recipes that contained eggs, but these are widely considered heresy – no good Umbrian would add such rich ingredients – if you are going to go down that route, why don’t you just add some butter as well? Will never happen.)

My willing guinea pigs where comprised of 1 expert from Assisi, 2 from Todi, 1 from Foligno, 2 from Cannara, 1 from Puglia and 1 American, as well as my 19 month-old daughter – a certified bread afficianado.

My hypothesis was that torta #1 would most likely be chosen at the true torta visually, but I was hoping that torta #4 would be chosen for taste. Astonishingly, EVERYONE picked the torta made with the natural bread starter (#4) as the true torta al testo based on visuals – it was highest and most leavened. This surprised me, because, the tortas that I have eaten have always been relatively flat and compact without a lot of air bubbles.
However, when it came to taste, almost everyone chose #1, the most simple, made with just baking soda (also the most dense). Those who did not choose #1, chose #4, sticking with the natural starter. Tortas #3 & #4 were considered good but standard. Naturally, all of this experimentation sparked a lively debate on what the REAL traditional recipe is, some swearing up and down that a rising agent is unnecessary – just use flour, water and salt. I conducted a sub-experiment without the rising agent and the result was a little pasty. This recipe could be used if cooked in the antique way – in the fireplace, under the ash, but must be eaten immediately.
And the winner is… well, my results remain inconclusive, but I think we all agreed that simplicity is best. So my quest to create the perfect Torta al Testo continues… The goal is to get a good rise and a rich flavor from the most basic of ingredients.

The Torta al Testo dates back to Etruscan times as a simple quick flat bread that did not need a long rising time – should we just keep it that way? Maybe some of us will break with tradition, but only within our own private medieval walls…

The Recipes

Torta #1
500g flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1 level teaspoon salt
about 350mL warm water

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until a ball of dough is formed. If the dough is sticky add a little bit more flour. Knead the dough with your hands for about 5 minutes until it becomes a smooth ball. Let the dough rest in a warm place covered with a towel for about 40 minutes. Roll dough into a disc. Place directly onto preheated testo or griddle pan (without oil!). Prick with a fork and let cook over a medium-low heat until brown on one side. Flip and continue to cook on the other side. Let rest for a few minutes off the heat. Cut into wedges and fill each with either prosciutto, cheese or greens and sausage. Buon Apetito!

Torta #2
500g flour
1 packet (15g) Lievito Pizzaiolo
220mL warm water (or one Nutella glass)
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Make a well with the flour and add the lievito and water mix well. Then add the rest of the ingredients, leaving the salt for the end and mix well. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes then, let rest for 40-60 minutes. Continue as above.

Torta #3
500g flour
25g brewer’s yeast (fresh or dry)
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Dissolve the yeast in warm water with sugar. Add to flour, add rest of ingredients and continue as above, letting the dough rest 1-1 ½ hours.

Torta #4
500g flour
100g natural bread starter
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Same as above, letting the dough rise for 6 hours.


Italy Roundtable: The Hardest Thing

We tried. We did. We tried to quit, but we just couldn’t do it. We missed our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable date too much, so I’m back with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria to tackle this month’s theme: cha-cha-cha-changes. (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.


The Hardest Thing

I used to be a bit more starry-eyed about human nature. I used to observe humanity and see only what unites us: our common basic needs, our social nature, our love of fried foods. I would hum John Lennon and feel at one with the universe.

Now, perhaps a bit more jaded or simply realistic, I tend to see what divides us. The world seems to be cracking down the middle lately in everything from politics to pop culture, and there are less and less fences to sit on. You are either left or right, trash or high culture, vegan or paleo.

One of the divisions in human nature that has come into focus for me lately is this: there are those who need stability and those who need change. I mean, I suppose like sexuality and love of Beyoncé, it’s a spectrum, but — just like sexuality and love of Beyoncé — the vast majority of us are pretty far on one side or the other. And I have discovered, after years of thinking that I was a starter for Team Stability, that I am actually the official mascot for Team Change.

My son recently started using a guitar pick, after two years of lessons playing with his fingers. He fretted and fussed and got frustrated, and then one day picked out the first iconic notes of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” as if he had been doing it for years. And he said to me, with the frank wisdom that is found only in 10 year olds, “It wasn’t that it was hard. I was just scared it was going to be hard. The changing isn’t hard, it’s the thinking before the changing.”

And therein lies the truth, at least for me. The hardest thing isn’t the changing, contrary to what I thought for most of my life. The changing, I have discovered, is my lifeblood. It makes me feel vibrant and courageous and purposeful and, ultimately, triumphant. The hardest thing is the standing still and thinking before the changing.

Which brings me to a Whole Bunch of Great News! Or, at least, great news for a newly-outed Change Poster Child. In our world of the Italy Roundtable, many of us have gone through big changes since we last sat down to chat – babies have been born, international moves have been made, careers have been formed – and I have some news of my own to toss into the ring.


Brigolante Goes to Town

We are adding three new apartments on to Brigolante! We have recently taken on three pretty studio and one bedroom guest apartments in a historic palazzo right on the central Piazza del Comune in Assisi. Unfortunately, the Roundtable decided to launch before we are ready with our new website, but in the coming season we will be able to offer guests a choice between Brigolante Country here in the hills outside of Assisi and Brigolante Centro right in the heart of Assisi just steps from all the sights.

After a few years of languishing and feeling a little directionless, when the opportunity came to add new offerings and shake things up a bit, I jumped at it. I hadn’t realized just how much I needed a new challenge to stimulate me and get me excited about my business (my first “baby”, born before the real babies came along) again. I’ll be announcing our news with a big website launch, but I wanted to share it with my readers in the meantime.

These apartments have terraces with a view over the piazza, quiet inner courtyards with pizza ovens and ringing churchbells, and lots of space and light. The best part is that with more guests, there’s more of an opportunity to organize activities and events…so get ready for wine tastings and pizza parties and all sorts of fun stuff in the coming months!


Rebecca Leaves Town

Another exciting change recently was my involvement in producing a fabulous new travel series for PBS with Dream of Italy, an Italy travel newsletter that I have contributed to a few times over the years. When the editor at Dream of Italy and producer of the PBS series, Kathy McCabe, contacted me about collaborating with the production logistics, I really had to think about it. The project involved traveling for five weeks, which was a logistical challenge both for my family and professional life, and I just wasn’t sure if it was feasible.

But, like the wise boy said, it’s the thinking before the changing. In just a few days, a number of things fell into place in a way that was both serendipitous and timely and I was able to participate in this amazing adventure which took us from Piemonte to Puglia, passing through Tuscany, Umbria (of course Umbria!), Rome, and Naples and the Amalfi Coast along the way.

Dream of Italy – 2015 Teaser from Trivium Films on Vimeo.

It was hard work, but also perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Not only did I meet some amazing people (and see old friends), but I was able to rediscover the passion and warmth that had made me fall in love with this country over 20 years ago which I had begun to lose sight of recently. The series is coming out this spring, so check your local PBS listings to watch!

Other changes? Yes, lots of them. With the fervor of the newly converted, I am giving a stiff beating to my rug of life to see what flies off into the ether and what sticks around and reveals itself to be woven into my essence. It’s taken me a long time to pull that rug up off the floor and take it into the sunshine, but once I did it I realized that it was, surprisingly, the easiest thing.

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



Olio Nuovo: One for the Bucket List

I have made many gastronomic discoveries during my years living in Umbria. Mostly, I’ve discovered Food. Having grown up in a major American city during the 1970s and 80s, we didn’t see much of Food. We saw a lot of Kraft Mac & Cheese, Marshmallow Fluff, Froot Loops, and Kool-Aid, but real honest to goodness Food didn’t really start showing up on my plate until I moved to Italy.

Olive groves cover hillsides across Umbria.

One of the foundations of Italian food, at least from central Italy and continuing south, is olive oil. Each region has its signature oil, and Umbria is no exception. One of this area’s most prestigious products, olive oil from the millions of trees cultivated on the hillsides across Umbria is interwoven with the region’s cuisine, landscape, agriculture, and many of its folk traditions.

One of the most unique places to visit in Umbria is one of its many olive mills during pressing—late October through December, most years—where you get to see how this “liquid gold” is produced and sample one of the joys of the world’s gastronomy: freshly pressed olive oil.

This is what oil looks like hot (actually, cold) off the presses. Check out that color…finger-lickin’ good.

Bright green, pungent, knock-your-socks-off peppery, and thick as molasses, olio nuovo should be on everyone’s bucket list of Foods to Try Before I Die. Its flavour is too strong to use as a condiment to dress salads or vegetables; it’s best tasted liberally poured over freshly toasted bread (saltless Umbrian bread works like a charm) or to perk up a winter legume soup.

The color of the oil turns golden and becomes transparent as the weeks pass. The top oil is about two weeks old and the bottom oil about four weeks.

Unfortunately, the unmistakable zing of freshly pressed oil softens quickly as the oil matures. In just a few short weeks the taste mutes into the well-balanced grassy-fruity flavour which works well as a base for more complex dishes. If you love fresh olive oil as much as I do, however, there is a trick: you can freeze a small amount and use it through the summer. It consolidates into an easily spreadable paste, which melts as soon as it comes in contact with hot bread or soup. So come those chilly days in March you can still have some soul-satisfying bruschetta.

How new oil is meant to be relished…

A special thanks to Lucia Olivi and Alessandra Mallozzi for their delish pics!


Sustenance: A Satisfying Guide to Food Traditions in the Upper Tiber Valley

There is no greater joy than receiving a book in the mail. Unless, of course, it turns out to be such a gem of a read that you find yourself thinking two things: 1. I wish I had written this book; and 2. I can’t wait to share this book.

And so it happened last week that I found Elizabeth Wholey’s new “Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland” in my mailbox. I’ve known Elizabeth “virtually” for more than a decade; she’s a fellow American expat who has lived in Umbria for more or less the same amount of time I have and our paths crossed years ago on the then embryonic Slow Travel forum. I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship with Elizabeth, as she seems to share my same delicate mix of delight and affection for our adopted home tempered with straighforward pragmatism. We are, neither of us, either bucolically Under the Sun nor bitterly Burnt by the Sun.

That said, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Elizabeth’s new book. Umbria being a small place, I had heard through the grapevine (the grapevine being one of her neighbors, Saverio Bianconi, who is mentioned with much warmth in “Sustenance”) that she was writing a socio-gastronomic history of the Upper Tiber Valley, an expanse of land where the four regions of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Le Marche meet. Beginning at the source of the Tiber River on Monte Fumaiolo, the Alta Valle del Tevere extends south to Umbertide, traveling through rugged mountains, rolling hills and finally to the fertile river valley, passing a number of Roman and Medieval towns along its meandering journey.

It is the area that Elizabeth calls home and knows well, and as both a Slow Food and International Association of Culinary Professionals member, she is more than qualified to to research and publish a thorough academic study of the agricultural and culinary history of the valley. And with that in mind, it goes without saying that I “put it aside for later”.

Luckily for me, that “later” was cut short by a bout of insomnia just the next night. I sighed, switched on the light, and picked the first book from the stack next to my bed which seemed dry enough that it would be likely to put me sleep quickly. Yes, “Sustenance”.

How wrong I was. I found myself staying up to the wee hours reading this delightful, engaging guide from cover to cover. Part history, part journal, part travel guide, and peppered throughout with tempting recipes for preparing the rustic, genuine dishes which characterize the local peasant cuisine, “Sustenance” tells the story of this land and its people by highlighting sixteen local, contemporary farmers and food producers who turn out everything from eggs to honey, from olive oil to heirloom fruit.

In its pages, Elizabeth weaves a fascinating historical and social narrative, reconnecting these modern agricultural and culinary hold-outs with the peasant culture and traditions which preceded them (and are in danger of vanishing) and their continued belief in and defence of the exceptional quality and variety of foods still found in this valley. But she also goes one step beyond, making her subjects and their food accessible to readers (and, one hopes, travelers) through both sharing their simple, homey recipes and providing practical instructions to seek them out and sample their food as one should: in the land and with the people who have put their heart and soul into bringing it to the table.

To make it even easier to explore the Upper Tiber Valley, Elizabeth has divided the chapters of “Sustenance” into carefully curated itineraries, organizing farmers and products geographically, highlighting nearby sites and monuments to visit, and listing local markets and annual festivals and fairs.

Richer than a cook book, lighter than a historical tome, more compelling than a travel guide, I can’t sing the praises of this small but important book highly enough. “Sustenance” is must-read for anyone–traveler or settler–who wants to discover the Upper Tiber Valley, its history, its people, and—of course—its food.


Umbria’s Surreal Ideal City: La Scarzuola

“Are you elastic?”

It’s a strange way to begin a tour, and our guide’s question gives me pause. I would like to think I am—aside from issues about which no moral adult could have any flexibility, like the appalling pairing of french fries with mayonnaise—but exactly how elastic does one have to be to appreciate the surreal, allegorical, esoteric “Ideal City” of 20th century Milanese architect Tomaso Buzzi, La Scarzuola?

Quite a bit, it turns out, as a visit to this mind-bending “theatrical complex”—as Buzzi defined it—with its adjoining sacred and profane “cities” which together form a vast architectural allegory for the physical and existential journey through life is a trip down a rabbit hole, transporting visitors from the bucolic hills on the Umbrian-Tuscan border to a parallel universe; both dream and nightmare, both whimsical and forbidding.

An oasis for gathering, for study, for work, for music and silence, for Greatness and Misery, for a social life and a hermitic life of contemplation in solitude, reign of Fantasy, of Fairy Tales, of Myths, of Echoes and Reflections outside of time and space so that each can find here echoes of the past and hints of the future
–Tomaso Buzzi on La Scarzuola

As do so many spots in Umbria, La Scarzuola has roots in Franciscan history and lore. The Saint is said to have built himself a humble hut on this remote hillside using a indigenous marsh plant called la scarza, from which derives Scarzuola. In 1218, Francis planted a rose and laurel bush near his shelter and a spring miraculously began to flow (still considered sacred by the locals); slowly a Franciscan community grew and a monastery was eventually built in the early 1400s—the surviving fresco in the apse is one of the few which pictures Francis levitating—which remained a property of of the Franciscan Order until the end of the 19th century.

Buzzi, an eminent architect, artist, and influential cultural figure in Italy since the 1920s and 1930s, purchased the monastery in 1957 and soon after began his most visionary project to date: the transformation of the site into his “Ideal City”. Beginning with the restoration of the existing monastery and the trasformation of the convent gardens into an intricate series of hedge mazes, dotted with statuary, fountains, and exotic plants—what he regarded as the Sacred City—Buzzi moved on to build the more fantastical (and impenetrable) “Profane City”.

The architect viewed his opus as an autobiographical work—his Città Buzziana–and to visit this theatrical mash-up of Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, and Mannerist structures built around a natural amphitheater in the hillside and adorned with bizarre and fantastical reliefs, astronomical symbols, and quotations is like a stroll through his right-brain stream of consciousness sketchbook. Seven theaters, an Acropolis, the Tower of Babel, the Arch of Triumph, meditation grottoes, pagan temples, and a monumental nude all vie for space in this Escher-esque cityscape, where staircases lead nowhere, proportion is warped, buildings are meticulously rendered outside yet a warren of empty chambers inside, and the apparent randomness masks layers of meaning and symbolism.

The site would be a mere curiosity were it not for the quirky yet fascinating guide, Buzzi’s nephew Marco Solari. Solari inherited the site from his uncle upon the latter’s death in 1981 and has devoted his life to completing the work based on prints left by Buzzi. Who better to lead visitors through this convoluted and complicated monument, with its decadent jumble of contrasting architecture and philosophies?

Solari has put his soul into La Scarzuola and his joy at peeling back the layers of allegory and symbolism which permeate every stone pillar, grotesque relief, and geometrical calculation–and adding his own colorful interpretation, full of energetic forces and third eyes and mysticism—is what brings this jarring yet somehow harmonious jumble to life. Peppering his rapid-fire, eccentric-at-times-bordering-on-bizarre presentation with his contagious cackle, Solari weaves a story of art and architecture with one of magic and miracle…leaving some incredulous, and some—like myself—simply charmed.

The difference, I suspect, is in how elastic you are.


Of Hermits and Saints: The Abbey of Sant’Eutizio

They say that there are certain places on earth which somehow speak to the spirit. The molecules there vibrate at a certain frequency, or the auras become more defined, or the souls of those who have left their bodies on that spot continue to abide.

I’m not sure what I think about this (one area which is considered intensely spiritual is Assisi, but since I live here and spend my days distracted by electric bills and dentist appointments and work deadlines, I might not be tuned in enough to pick up on all the molecular vibration going on), but it is true that Umbria has produced an inordinate number of saints in its long history, many of whom passed at least part of their life in spiritual contemplation as hermits.

The Sant’Eutizio Abbey in the lush Val Castoriana as seen from the hiking path above.

The lush Nera River Valley (known as the Valnerina, and hands down one of my favorite areas of this region) is a veritable saint and hermit factory. This breathtaking area, with its winding river gorge lined on both sides with towering, craggy mountain slopes, has churned out an impressive number of holy figures over the past millenium and continues to host—in a manner almost inconceivably anacronistic—about ten monastic hermits today.

I recently spent a day hiking in the hills above the tiny town of Preci on the Campiano river (one of the tributaries of the Nera which has carved out a branch of the Valnerina: the pastoral Val Castoriana), where I was able to revisit the origins of a thousand years of hermitic life.

The Benedictine abbey of Sant’Eutizio–or, to be more precise, the caves in the rock wall above the abbey itself–mark the beginning of this long and rich history. Here I wandered through what remains of the living quarters of Saint Eutizio, disciple of Saint Spes (Latin for “hope”), one of the first wave of converts to Christianity who chose the cliffs above the Val Castoriana (known locally as the “Sponga” for the rock’s sponge-like texture) to search for God in solitude.

The pretty rose window in the church’s simple Romanesque facade.

The mountains attracted a number of disciples of Spes over the following decades, who followed in his contemplatory footsteps and formed a vast, loose spiritual community (Benedict from the nearby town of Norcia was also inspired by Spes’ asceticism, leading him to found a small community with an oratory on this spot). Legend holds that Spes, who had spent forty years in complete blindness, regained his sight shortly before his death and spent his final days visiting and ministering to his disciples in the surrounding woods and caves.

After Spes’ death, his disciple Eutizio was appointed abbot of the fledgling Benedictine community but maintained a hermitic lifestyle by carving out a home in these rock caves (now accessible through the abbey courtyard). Eutizio was widely loved and revered for his spiritual integrity, and the valley was soon populated with both religious and lay followers who became the founders of many of the hamlets which still dot these hillsides today (don’t miss delightful Campi, by the way…especially the church portico at sunset).

Eutizio was buried under the primitive Benedictine oratory upon his death in 540, and it took another 500 years for the monastic community to slowly transform itself from hermitic to cenobitic, gradually moving out of solitary caves and huts and organizing around the abbey, built in the 1200s on the spot where the Saints Spes and Eutizio were buried centuries before.

The bell tower rests on the craggy cliffs above the church.

The Abbazia di Sant’Eutizio’s simple stone Romanesque church and rustic cloister remains one of the prettiest spots to visit in the upper Valnerina. The remains of the saints are kept in the carved marble urn behind the church’s altar, and the delicate rose window in the spare facade and ornate 17th century belltower on the rough cliff above make for some beautiful pictures.

Sant’Eutizio continues to be a central figure in local spiritual lore, and his mantle is said to have rain-producing properties. As the monk told me when I visited, during times of drought the mantle is displayed in a religious procession. If rain doesn’t come within a week, it’s taken out again. And again. And—miracle!—sooner or later it always rains.

The ivy-covered, silent courtyard. Where just a little vibration may be felt.

And maybe the miracle of molecular vibration is like the miracle of rain. It’s not so much about the laws of physics as it is about the the depth of faith and the gift of patience. Sooner or later, with a little of both, something is bound to resonate.

These photos were taken by friend and hiking partner-in-crime Armando Lanoce, whom I thank for his generous use of them.