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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.