If I only had one summer left to live and had to choose a single last sagra to attend, (Yes, I realize it’s an unlikely scenario. Humor me.) I would choose Cannara’s over-the-top-out-of-control-mother-of-all-sagras Festa della Cipolla at the beginning of September. Hands down.
There's a big sign. Just in case the smell of cooking onions doesn't clue you in.
This year I went on a Saturday night at 8 pm. If there is a night that one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s Saturday night. If there’s a time one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s 8 pm. But there are days—stretches of days, sometimes—out here in the Umbrian hills during which I do not see another human being who is not a blood relation, so I get a little starved for human contact. And if there is a place to be in Umbria if you are looking for human contact, that place is the sagra in Cannara on a Saturday night at 8 pm.
As I parked my car (so far away that the guys directing traffic spoke with Roman accents), I thought Wouldn’t it be funny to say in my blog that despite parking roughly 25 kilometers from the sagra, the smell of cooking onion hit me as soon as I opened my car door for comic effect. Then I opened my car door, and the smell of cooking onion hit me. These folks are serious about onion, and their onion gravitas stays with you for days. I speak from experience.
This is what I'm talking about.
The reason I love the onion festival so (aside from the fact that it is one of the few sagre where a vegetarian can eat to her little piggy heart’s content) it that it embodies the essence of all that a sagra should be:
At a time where sagre are multiplying like mushrooms, and disappearing with the same speed, La Festa della Cipolla is in its 30th year and still going strong. From a tiny little block party-esque communal dinner, this annual event now feeds around 60,000 people during its two week run. Just to put that in perspective, keep in mind that the population of the entire region of Umbria hovers around 900,000. This festa has put Cannara on the map, and it’s fun to be a part of it.
Sorry this picture is a little blurry. I was being jostled by roughly ten percent of the population of Umbria.
Nothing bugs me more than these young whippersnapper sagre serving foods that have absolutely no cultural value whatsoever. The Beer Sagra. The Nutella Sagra. The Seafood Sagra. In Cannara, the main food celebrated is a genuine local delicacy. Cannara’s red, yellow, and flat onions are unique to this area (their flavor influenced by the type and humidity of Cannara’s marshy soil) and have been noted by Slow Food and various famous chefs.
Onions. Consume them on site, or purchase for home. Either way, you'll be sleeping alone.
How much of the real stuff is actually used in the menu is debatable (that would be a heck of a lot of onions to serve 60,000 people for a tiny area like Cannara), but you can buy rustic braids of onions from the stands set up along the streets of the town and taste them for yourself.
The onions go like hotcakes.
I love a sagra where I get the feeling everyone and their brother (and sister, mother, father, cousin, and car mechanic) is involved…and that is definitely the vibe for two weeks in Cannara every fall. There are six “stands” set up in various courtyards and squares in the town–by stands, they mean entire piazzas crowded with long tables and benches under canvas tents—which can serve a total of 2,500 people at a sitting. Given that Cannara is home to less than 4,000 residents, to keep an event going of that size–between the planning, cooking, serving, cleaning, organizing, and entertaining—it’s pretty much a whole town affair. And then some.
The stands are hopping on a Saturday night. Or any night, for that matter.
At one end of the spectrum, there are sagre set up underneath anonymous tents in the middle of some wheatfield, then come the ones set up in a gravel and concrete paved community park, then come the ones which are in the main piazza of a town, then comes Cannara, where the town and festa exist in perfect symbiosis. Every courtyard is occupied with tables, the streets are crowded with booths hawking wares, the larger squares have main stages set up with band playing music or clowns entertaining the kids, local shops are open until after midnight. This is Cannara’s moment to shine, and it goes all out.
Onions, spices, mushrooming baskets, art, crafts, disco lights, jewelry, antiques, pet rocks. I saw them all on sale in Cannara.
There are doubtless naysayers who do not love the Onion Festival. It’s crowded (though if you hit it at 7:00ish on a weeknight the crowds are much more manageable), overblown (lots of people attend the festival. See above.), overpriced (expect to pay pretty much trattoria prices for your food), slow (hey, they’ve only got 4,000 people working there) and leaves you gassy (no denying that). But the food is delicious. Some stands are better than others (for the record, I’m a Giardino Fiorito abituè), some years are better than others. But I have never been disappointed by my dinner, and that’s a big plug for a meal that is being prepared inside camp kitchens by volunteers. Don’t miss the onion desserts. I’m not kidding.
Il Giardino Fiorito is the oldest stand and housed in the cloister of an ex-convent. It is also my stand of choice.
If you have a rare onion intollerance and have to choose just one thing to eat, get the onion pizza. Trust me.
La Festa della Cipolla is held the first two weeks of September every year in Cannara. For a complete program, list of stands and their menus, and map please see their official website.
A few weeks ago, our little hamlet held what comes closest in rural Umbria to a block party, if by block party one includes events that begin with Mass, end with a costumed drum corp, and have tables laden for food for the 150 guests (though only 11 actually live on the block). We had guests staying at Brigolante on the Sunday of the party, and—as we do every year—we invited them to come join in for food and fun. As one of the party’s organizers, I spent the evening serving food, filling glasses, herding children, hunting down extra chairs, bantering and gesticulating, joining in when the accordian started busting out with Ecco maggio, è venuto! and pretty much leaving our American and English guests to fend for themselves, which they did with aplomb.
Our block party begins with Mass
And ends with a drum corp!
The next morning one said to me, “Wow, you sure have assimilated after all this time living here!” which stopped me short. Have I?
1. to be or become absorbed.
I am coming up on my 40th birthday (Though they say that 40 is the new 30, which is fine by me. While we’re at it, can we throw in grey is the new honey-colored highlights and muffin-top is the new six pack?), and predictably I’ve been reflecting about where I am in my life…a large part of which is the experience of being an expat. In fact, in just a few short years I will have lived more years outside my home country than inside. I would love to say that I have assimilated, that I have become so seamlessly absorbed into the culture and language here in rural Umbria as to be virtually interchangeable with someone who was born and bred here. But I know that’s not the case.
Culturally (let’s not even get into the language issue) I will always be set apart. I may live here another decade or another half century, but there are some fundamental differences in world view that are so part of who I was before I arrived here that no number of years could change. I see this in how I raise my children, who I gently but constantly edge toward the side of the nest to test their wings while Umbrian parents tend to gather their own children as tightly as possible under their own wings. I see this in how I divide the gender related work in our nuclear family, and even in how I identify a nuclear family separately from one which includes second or third generations. I see this in how I instinctively—and surely naively–trust institutions of government and administration instead of viewing every figure of authority with automatic suspicion. I see this in my cravings and comfort foods, which are completely different than the craving and comfort foods of most Umbrians I know. I have yet to meet an Umbrian who has craved a bagel and I will never–never, I say–crave Maccheroni Dolci.
I have not assimilated, and never will. Over time I have come to peace with this…in the big soup pot that is Umbria, I will always be the odd bit of turnip. But I am part of the soup, so perhaps I have integrated.
1. to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole.
I can’t deny that I participate in public life here. I have never been a shrinking violet, and that didn’t change once I moved. I actively and vocally volunteer in my sons’ schools, I have worked with charitable organizations organizing drives, I have taken salsa dance classes and scrapbooking classes and photography classes and kickboxing classes. I have participated in the comunity theater and the parish. And during all of those activities, I have made many, many acquaintances and also some dear friends. But does that mean I have integrated?
My idea of integration presumes a contribution of ideas or beliefs or customs or recipes or secret handshakes or anything of the like—something of yours that has been adopted and incorporated into the bigger picture. Sure, I have done my civic duty, taken my classes, kicked the piss out of the punching bag, but always within the parameters of what was acceptable and expected in each context. No revolutions happened, no innovation, no newly minted traditions.
I have been a worker bee—an important member of the hive, but one known less for lofty improvements and more for humble adaptation.
1. to adjust oneself to different conditions, environment, etc.
If I have honed any skill over the past 17-odd years, it has been that of being a chameleon. I can be the bantering and gesticulating waitress at the block party. I can be the mom fretting about her sweating son getting a fever at the soccer game. I can be the pizza dough recipe swapping housewife in the schoolyard. I can be the graciously nodding and assenting professional’s wife at the business dinner. I can be the sunny and welcoming hostess at work. I can be the polite tongue-biting foreigner at the police station. I can be, and often am, all of these things in the space of a few hours.
A life far from your home culture is one of constant adjustment, like the fine tuning of the dials on a radio to get just the right music to fit every situation. It’s a talent, but it’s also hard work. The bottom line is that I am a guest here in Umbria, and good guests don’t pick fights at the dinner table, aren’t rude to the hosts, and leave the bathroom clean–even if what they really want to do is debate politics, spit out the awful roast, and forget to flush—to avoid being ostracized and even more isolated than what they already are as the odd man out. Or, even worse, projecting that fate on their half-foreign children.
Are any of these chameleon colors I wear really who I am, or are they all who I am? Where, in the life of constant accomodation and adaptation do you bend so out of your original shape that you find you can no longer get back to it? Or is what seems like shape-changing really just growth? With the accumulated wisdom of 40 years, I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea.
So, I’m a turnip. No, I’m a worker bee. No, I’m a chameleon.
No, I’m just an expat, doing what we do.
This article was reproduced by permission of its author, Giuseppe Bambini, and was originally published in the now defunct quarterly magazine AssisiMia, edited by Francesco Mancinelli.
We would like to propose an easy walking tour which reveals an area of great geological and scenic interest: Marchetto Canyon. Comfortable clothing and footwear appropriate for an excursion in the countryside is advised.
By car: from Piazza Matteotti leave the city through Porta Perlice and take route SS444 in the direction of Gualdo Tadino – below to the left is the deep gorge of the stream Tescio; after about 6 kilometers, directly in front of the little private church of Pian della Pieve, leave route SS444 and turn right onto a dirt road which, after passing over a little bridge, brings you under the arcade of the large Ponte Francescano where you can park your car (6,2 km from Piazza Matteotti).
Walking itinerary: from the rest stop beyond the arcade of the large Franciscan bridge and before reaching the little bridge, turn left onto a well-marked path (there is a no thoroughfare sign), which goes up along the right slope (on the map) of Marchetto Canyon.
The walls of the Marchetto Canyon
After a brief level grassy stretch, the path becomes discontinuous and begins to rise, then levels out again (here you can glimpse the deeply-embedded ravine below with its deep chasms) until it reaches the destinctive Marchetto bridge (40 minutes from the start) which projects over the wild chasm with an exceptional view of the vertical rock-face and the sinuous progress of the course of water below (be careful!). The bridge, certainly medieval, in ancient times was known as the Bridge of the Wolves and represents an important arterial path between the city and the vast countryside to the East.
The Marchetto Bridge
Leaving the bridge to your right, proceed following the red and white trail signs 51 to Ponte Cavaliero (18th century), near the confluence of Cavaliero Canyon into Marchetto Canyon.
The Marchetto Canyon from above
Once again leaving the bridge on your right, proceed slightly uphill skirting the gorge until you reach a fork in the path. Ignore the sign for trail 51 and take the little level grassy road to the right which soon leads to a waterfall Fersena, which can be heard for some distance; over the waterfall is the Norcia-Assisi-Perugia aqueduct by which you can reach the head of the waterfall (once again, be careful!).
Returning to the fork, take up the marked path again. With a couple of upward turns in the path you come out of the woods; skirt the cultivated field until you reach Casa Poderaccio (40 minutes from Marchetto Bridge). Beyond the house, leave trail 51 and take a dirt road to the left that, in slight but constant descent (beautiful panoramic view of the wooded northern slope of Mount Subasio and the surrounding hills) will bring you pleasantly back to the starting point (40 minutes from Casa Poderaccio).
At the end of the excursion, returning toward Assisi on route SS444, we suggest a brief stop at Restaurant da Giovannino at Ponte Grande where, in homey and hospitable surroundings, you can taste the characteristic local dishes cooked in the authentic traditional manner.
The score: Let’s just say that some need a second date to win you over, and some you know are the love of your life before you even get to dessert.
You know when your best girlfriend has been trying to set you up with this friend of hers for years and all she does is talk him up and drop little hints into every conversation and mention that he still happens to be single after every one of your breakups and so finally, though you never go on blind dates on principle, you give in and call the guy? And he sounds really nice on the phone, so you say, Sure, Saturday night is fine. And the date starts really well: he brings you peonies, which are your favorite flowers, suggests this really lovely rooftop bar to watch the sunset, orders two Gin and Tonics without having to ask, and you get settled in thinking, Hey, this could work.
Then things go downhill. Fast.
His favorite movie is Titanic. He would never visit Morocco because he’s heard it’s dirty. If Sarah Palin’s only two constituencies are the Religious Right and Fans of Comedy, you are both constituents though you belong to the latter group and he, you are beginning to strongly suspect, the former. And just when you are thinking that the evening has been a total wash and you would have had much more fun hanging out on the couch in your Slanket with a glass of Merlot and the first season of Glee and are thinking of the tongue-lashing your girlfriend is going to get the next morning for setting you up with this loser, the most amazing man walks into the bar. The. Most. Amazing. Man. And Mr. Loser looks up and says, Oh, hey, there’s my brother.
And that’s how you meet your husband.
Corso Cavour, 202
Okay, now translate that all into restaurants. My dear friend, Letizia, whose food opinion I respect and trust, had been talking up Nanà for ages. Ages, I say. So many ages that I kept putting off actually going to Nanà because I wanted to save it for a special occasion, which just happened to be a friend’s 40 birthday. And it started off wonderfully: the restaurant is a charming retrofitted salone signorile (an airy surprise after you pass through the narrow corridor entrance), the proprietors (a family of father, mother, daughter, son-in-law) were warm and we started the meal with a long chit-chat about local wineries, the menu was limited but promising and the wine list had some of my favorite Umbrian cantine. Even the appetizers boded well; I had a light leek and truffle flan with cheese sauce which was perfect in every leeky/truffley/cheesey way.
Then things went downhill. Fast.
Our pasta dishes were mediocre. And I really wanted them to be good, because it was like being on a blind date with your friend’s friend and you want to like him so you can bring back a positive report to your friend, who you know is waiting by the phone for a play-by-play when you get home. But it just wasn’t happening. They were bland, slightly overcooked, and mean portions (and I say this from an Italian portion point of view, not an I-must-have-enough-to-take-home-in-a-doggie-bag-so-I-can-microwave-it-at-the-office-tomorrow-for-lunch portion point of view.) Our plates had five potato/truffle ravioli on them. We were tempted to check the floor to see if some had slid off on the trip from the kitchen.
Our meat dish (venison) was inedible. I am cringing to say it, because one of my cardinal review rules is: if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t review the restaurant, but it’s the truth. We left it virtually untouched (and they, very graciously, took it off the bill later). And the salt they forgot to put in the pasta water was on the artichokes. Wow, pass the water.
They rallied at dessert (I had their nice little traditional bread pudding, which I haven’t had in years and it was a little dry but still nice and cinnamon-y. My friend had their warm chocolate pudding cake, and was very satisfied. So was I, since I ate half of it.)
Despite having had a lukewarm first date with Nanà I am still writing it up. Why? Well, for one I feel like this restaurant deserves the benefit of the doubt. The proprietors are so welcoming, passionate, and obviously put a lot of care into their service–my gut feeling is that we just stopped in on an off night, which is a shame but happens. I am going to give them a shot at a second date, and we’ll see what happens. For better or for worse, you will all know about it. For two, as I was writing this article I skyped my friend, who, as it turns out, has much more charitable memories of our meal than I do. So perhaps I’m just being too demanding. And, for three, the night we went to Nanà is the night I discovered my New Favorite Place in Perugia, aka L’Officina.
Borgo XX Giugno, 56
As we were walking down the street towards Nanà, we passed a small dimly lit doorway a couple of blocks away and I said, Is that a store? And my friend said, No, it’s a great little restaurant. I’ve eaten there a couple of times. Fabulous food.
So awhile later we went back to this funky space, part art gallery, part restaurant, part left wing social revolution headquarters (just kidding…but it does kind of have that vibe). From outside, the small doorway seems to lead to some sort of used bookstore or second-hand furniture shop, but it’s the original architectural details from when the building was a workshop for building and calibrating scales—including the turn of the century wooden floor–which give it the ex-industrial-loft feel. But following the stairs towards the back you find yourself in a larger room (crammed with tables, European-style. Not the place to stage a break-up. Just in case you are reading restaurant reviews looking for the perfect place to stage a break-up.) with artwork covering the walls (they host rotating shows of local artists) and the kitchen behind a glass partition.
The service was rather perfunctory (nothing bugs me more than when you ask your waiter about a dish, and they have to check with the kitchen because they don’t know what’s in it. Folks, that sort of research should happen in the ten minutes you open for dinner, not when you’ve got people already seated. And, while I’m bitching, no use having an encyclopedic wine list if half the choices aren’t available. Ok, I’m done.), but the food was, simply put, amazing. Now, let me warn you that this is definitely nouveau-Italian. If you are looking for classic Umbrian dishes, this may not be the place for you. But if you’ve had your fill of strangozzi al tartufo and are in the mood for a meal that pushes the envelope in a delightful way, you’ve hit the jackpot. The descriptions of the dishes go on for a paragraph, the presentation is whimsical (my friend had ravioli in red sauce served in a Margarita glass), and the ingredients quirky and original.
I had carob tagliatelle tossed with arugula and almond pesto and a delicious creme brulée with Madagascar vanilla bean, both of which were memorable and left me feeling happily in love with this place. But the real winner of the meal was the tasting menu, comprised of a seemingly endless procession of tapas-sized samples –appetizers, first and second course selections, and dessert–each paired with a different wine. A wonderful way to try this restaurant’s innovative cooking without commiting yourself to any one menu choice, and at €25, the price was more than fair.
All told, I am very much looking forward to my second date with L’Officina (perhaps this winter, to check out their seasonal menu changes) and a long and happily committed relationship. But I may just have a little fling on the side with Nanà. You never know.
Expect your meal with wine to run between €50 and €75 for two at both of these restaurants.
Stop by Go Italy’s blog to see some of my suggestions for planning a visit to Umbria in the autumn when the grape and olive harvests are in full swing.
Wineries and olive oil mills are open to the public, and you can walk or bike the vineyard and olive tree covered hills to see first hand the care and labor that goes into making Umbria’s wonderful wines and olive oils.
A special thanks to Marsha Bakerjian for letting me contribute to her informative blog!
Here’s watcha wanna do, watcha wanna do is this:
I’m especially proud of this picnic spot, not so much because it’s extraordinarily beautiful (though charming it is) or particularly hard to find (though you’ll have to follow my directions carefully), but simply because I had to do some serious recon work to find a place that I liked enough to share. After a long day of driving around more or less chasing wild geese and rejecting contenders with a growing sense of defeat, this tiny lake came out of left field and surprised me with its quiet grace.
But first, victuals. This is a perfect excuse to take a stroll down the main corso of pretty Bevagna, where in the space of four or five blocks you can find all you’ll need for a meal al fresco. Begin at Tagliavento on Corso Amendola…here you’ll find a tempting selection of handmade salame, prosciutto, dried sausage, and other traditional Umbrian charcuterie side by side with some local cheeses and the ubiquitous porchetta. Umbrians have been coming here for their cold-cuts for three generations, so take your time and choose with care—or let Marco and Rosita suggest something special.
From there, cross over the piazza toward Corso Matteotti; along the Corso you can stop by the greengrocers at number 53, the grocery market at number 49, and the Polticchia bakery right around the corner at Via Fabio Alberti, 9. And you can’t spit in Bevagna without hitting a wine shop, so stock up on some local Sagrantino as long as you’re there. This is how small town shopping is done and—when not pressed for time—it’s a pleasure to finish up laden with an anachronistic array of bundles, bags, and packages from four or five different stores.
Now to reveal to you my secret spot: From Bevagna, take the provincial highway SP 403 following the signs towards Capro and Cannara. About two kilometers outside of Bevagna, you’ll come to an old brick bridge that runs parallel to the road (where there’s a new bridge now) which has been closed and made into a picnic spot (one of the rejects…too much traffic noise). Where this bridge begins you’ll see a small road on the right with a sign indicating Il Convento dell’Annunziata (another reject…pretty view but no place to sit. I’m telling you, I cased the Bevagna countryside). Turn here, but rather than continuing uphill towards the convent, take the road which continues straight along the plain marked by an arrow reading Lago di Aiso. After about a kilometer, you’ll come to the small fenced lake ringed by poplars and picnic tables. For the prettiest view, walk around to the table at the far side, where you’ll have a view of Assisi.
The still lake perfectly mirrors the surrounding trees and fields
This spring-fed lake is small but deep—around 15 meters—and flows into the nearby Topino river. Though unassuming, it has a wonderful legend surrounding its origins which has been traced back to the 1600s. It is said that at this very spot there once stood a large farmhouse owned by a wealthy but impious and miserly farmer named Chiarò. One year he decided to thresh his fields on the feast day of Saint Anne (the 26th of July), despite it being traditionally a day of rest. His wife, known for her piety and charity, begged him not to work on this holy day to no avail. As soon as he had finished threshing the last stalk of wheat, the house and surrounding fields suddenly sank into the ground and the deep pit immediately filled with water, drowning the farmer and his fieldhands.
The sound of rushing water from the run off into the nearby Topino river is perfect background music for a picnic
His wife—warned by an angel of what would soon be the fate of her husband–was able to escape with their baby son, but a small stream of water followed her and drowned the farmer’s offspring as well. The nearby natural spring called the Asillo marks the spot where the infant drowned. Every year, on the night of Saint Anne, those who visit the lake can see the house of Chiarò under the water at the bottom of the lake and hear his cries as he urges on his threshing horses.
Get the VIP table with the view of Assisi on the far hill
What an honor to be invited by Michelle Fabio of the wonderful Bleeding Espresso blog to participate in August’s Gita Italiana trip around Italy.
In two weeks of guest posts, Italy travellers and residents took readers on stops to some of the most beautiful spots in the Bel Paese. I talked about what it is I love so much about the magical town of Assisi here.
Salve, Umbria verde, e tu del puro fonte
nume Clitumno! Sento in cuor l’antica
patria e aleggiarmi su l’accesa fronte
Hail, green Umbria, and you, Clitumno, genious of the pure spring!
I feel in my heart the ancient fatherland, and the Italic gods
alighting on my fevered brow.
So often human history is intrinsically intertwined with water—floods and drought, navigation and exploration, the rise and fall of nations—and a visit to the crystal-clear springs which form the source of the Clitunno river is a reminder of this symbiosis.
Le Fonti del Clitunno's landscape of shallow lagoons and weeping willow planted islands
This idyllic spot has been the inspiration for writers, poets, artists, priests, and emperors for over 2,000 years. In Roman times the spring was considered sacred for the river god Clitumnus, and white oxen were raised here to serve as sacrifices (legend had it that bathing the animals in the river rendered their color immaculate).
Try to visit on a weekday late afternoon, when traffic is at a minimum on the nearby Via Fliminia and the bus tours have left
A severe earthquake in the year 444 a.D. changed the river’s depth, leaving it no longer navigable, and muddied the area around the springs. In the middle of the 19th century, a careful landscaping project restored the springs and surrounding park to their former splendor.
Writers from Virgil to Pliny, from Carducci to Byron have paid homage to these springs
Continue a kilometer down the Via Flaminia to visit the Tempietto del Clitunno, a truly fascinating piece of architeture which straddles the centuries of the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Christianity.
The colored marble columns and pediment on the elegant facade are just some of the pieces pilfered from nearby abandoned Roman buildings
Dating somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries a.D., this early Christian church was built with architectural elements plucked from abandoned Roman villas and pagan chapels which once stood in the sacred area along the Clitunno river. Here in this one tiny building you can see one of the last architectural works of antiquity, now adopted to make a Christian church rather than pagan temple. Soon Christian architecture would take over, and this world would be lost forever.
The tiny indoor chapel is decorated with 8th century Byzantine frescoes
I feel very strongly about travelling in a way respectful of the local environment, history, culture and economy. These are the values of the Local Travel Movement, and I was very happy to contribute to their blog this week.
If you want to see how staying in an agriturismo in Italy can be a great way to experience this country in a mindful way, read here.
The Umbrians have lied to me.
They have been telling me all this time that their traditional bread is an acquired taste. That, my friends, in a gross falsehood. I have been here close to 20 years, and it is still one of the biggest disappointments of my overseas move to Italy, second perhaps only to the discovery that one does not transform into a sultry mediterranean seductress simply through a process of cellular osmosis by living in a country inhabited by sultry mediterranean seductresses. Apparently, you are either born Sophia Loren or you are not.
Traditionally, Umbrian bread (also known as pane comune) is made with three ingredients: flour, yeast, and water. And, not surprisingly, once baked it tasted like flour, mixed with a little yeast and water. To someone who has grown up with the neighborhood Italian bakery hawking freshly baked “Italian bread”– that wonderfully aromatic thick baguette-type loaf with a moist, chewy, flavorful crumb and a crisp, flaky, glazed crust—this saltless low loaf with its dense, dry crumb and hard, tough crust is blasphemy.
Artisan baker wood fired oven baked bread has a moister crumb and a slightly sourdough flavor: edible.
Why do Umbrians still remain faithful to their traditional bread, especially now that fabulous Tuscan bread (closer to what the world associates with “Italian bread”) and Neapolitan bread (with a slightly chewier crumb and dark crust) is easily found? One explanation is historical: in the mid-1500s, Pope Paul III imposed a hefty tax on salt to increase revenue from his Papal States (which included present-day Umbria). Rather than pay up, the inhabitants simply began making their bread without salt, and the tradition still continues. That said, Umbrians routinely used leeches to bleed their ailing brethren, but over the centuries came to the conclusion that perhaps that wasn’t the best idea. So history and tradition can’t be the sole reason.
Bread baked by a bakery in a conventional oven: given a choice between this and death, edible.
What it really comes down to is this: bland Umbrian bread is the perfect foil for traditional Umbrian cooking. In fact, when eaten how nature—and centuries of culinary tradition– intended, this otherwise sad excuse for a loaf becomes, well, delicious. Before I tell you the secret of its transformation, let me be clear that there is Umbrian bread and then there is Umbrian bread. Traditional Umbrian bread made by an artisan baker in a wood fired oven is, given certain preconditions, edible. Traditional Umbrian bread made by a bakery in a regular oven is, given the choice between that and death, edible. Traditional Umbrian bread of the variety made by big commercial bakeries and sold at the supermarket shrinkwrapped in plastic is inedible. Period.
La scarpetta is, simply put, when you use a piece of bread to wipe the remaining sauce off your plate and pop it in your mouth. It is one of those behaviors that is both considered impolite yet universally tolerated, as everyone recognizes it as one of the pure joys of human existence. Sort of like putting your feet up on the coffee table after Thanksgiving dinner. Umbrian bread is perfect for la scarpetta. As it has virtually no flavor of its own, the bread lets the strong flavors of traditional Umbrian sauces, many made with game, shine through. Rather than a foodstuff, consider it a mode of sauce transportion. An edible fork, if you will.
Umbrian cured meats—primarily prosciutto, but also salame, capocollo, salsiccie secche, guanciale, and coppa—are intensely flavorful and aromatic, and also tend to be heavily salted. The traditional recipe of 1-1-1 (one finger width bread slice to one finger width coldcuts to one finger width bread slice) would be overwhelming if a more savory type of bread were used. Again, with a good quality wood-oven baked loaf, a simple bread and Norcia prosciutto sandwich with a swig of farmer’s red to wash it down is one of life’s gastronomic epiphanies.
Okay, it’s broo-SKET-ta, folks. I don’t want to hear any of that broo-SCHE -ta going on. If I needed only one single reason to defend the continued existence of Umbrian bread, this would be it. With its dense crumb, Umbrian bread takes well to being sliced and toasted over wood coals (the best way to make bruschetta) without breaking apart and soaks up just the right amount of olive oil to strike the delicate balance between dry and dripping-down-your-forearm. The bread’s lack of flavor means you don’t miss one hint of fruity or grassy or spicy or fresh or mellowed extra-virgin olive oil, and you can pick things up with more or less salt sprinkled on top and, though the purist jury is out, a clove of garlic rubbed over the top. The role that traditional Umbrian bread plays in constructing the perfect slice of bruschetta is enough to redeem it, in my book.
It grows on you.
Hmm…now that I think about it, I have acquired a bit of a taste for this region’s bread. Okay, okay. I guess the Umbrians haven’t lied after all.