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!
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.