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Italy Blogging Roundtable, Life in Umbria, Uncategorized

puppy in umbria
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Of Dogs and Death

Yesterday morning, I sat on a hillside with the soft spring breeze on my back and watched my 15 year-old son dig a grave for his dog.

When I had seen him throw the pick and shovel over his shoulder and trudge towards the woods, I had begged him to let me come and help. “No, I want to do this alone,” he had said, and set his shoulders as only a teenager can do. “Then let me just keep you company so you won’t be alone,” I had insisted. So there I sat, a few meters away, and watched him wrestle with buried field stones and tree roots as he hacked at the hard earth beneath a towering oak, pausing occasionally to wipe at his eyes until, finally, he let the tears run in two steady streams down his cheeks and drip onto the newly turned soil.

I waited in silence on the slope above, just far enough to respect his heartbreak and just close enough to share it. The sun rose directly above as a trio of yellow ladybugs made their way onto my knee. I carefully rounded them up in my palm to make a wish: “Let him never feel pain. Let him never feel pain. Let him never feel pain.” They scattered into the wind, their magical powers no match for the weight of my son’s grief.

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I remember the day I watched my sons die. How I stood rooted to the ground as their bodies were thrown high into the air, two rag doll shapes silhouetted against the sun, and swore I would never let them suffer again.

“Please!” they had begged me that hot August afternoon in Puglia. We had spent the day at a zoo-slash-amusement park, an ethically questionable form of outdoor entertainment that my sons had loved with an enthusiasm only ethically questionable entertainment seems to evoke in pre-teen boys. “Please let us ride the ‘Jet Figther’!” I was skeptical, pausing in the shadow of this hulking beast of loop-the-loop coaster. How rigorous could the safety standards possibly be when they hadn’t even managed to spell the name of the ride right? And, in all honesty, my younger son met the minimum height requirement only because he was badly in need of a haircut.

But I relented, and they ran off merrily with ticket money clutched tight in their fists. I watched from below as their car ran back and forth along the track, circling higher and higher, until it finally made the entire loop and shot off the rails at the other end, throwing passengers helter-skelter into the sky. The riders’ screams filled the air and I screwed my eyes shut, amazed at how casually I had sent my sons to their death. Me, who had spent their entire lives shielding them from pain. Me, who had slept on the couch for five years to delay the inevitable breakup of our family. Me, who had forced their father to drag our resident badger from his final resting place in the middle of our country highway and hide him in the tall weeds so they would never know about his sad end. Me, who had made sure that despite an economic crisis and failed business, music lessons and sport teams and pizza nights continued as if they world was and would always be a secure and predictable place.

happy dog

My reverie was interrupted by the sound of thundering footsteps, as my sons ran to me, breathless with excitement and pride. “Did you see us, Mamma?” they asked, “Did you see how brave we were? We didn’t scream even once. The grown ups all screamed and screamed, but we weren’t scared at all!” They jumped up and down and threw their arms around my waist, surprised and emboldened by their own courage. “Can we go again, Mamma, please?” I looked down at the tiny half-moon marks my nails had left in my palms from having kept my fists clenched so tightly during their ride. “Yes,” I said. “Of course.”

And that’s what it is, this beautiful and terrifying adventure of parenting. That’s the choice we have to make, every single day. We can send our children out into the dangerous world, letting them risk body and heart and mind, and find that they are stronger and bolder then we – and even they – ever expected. Or, we can distract them with cotton candy and merry-go-rounds, and never know what people they could have been or what lives they could have led.

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We buried him that afternoon, my sons and I. We stood by his grave piled high with unearthed fieldstones and cried, my sons for the dog they had loved and lost and I for all the loving and losing I knew they would encounter over the course of their lives. All the risk and disappointment. All the sorrow. I cried because I knew I had to send them there, to that dangerous roller coaster that could derail in an instant, and let them sail up into the sky, two bold and fearless shapes silhouetted against the sun. Not to fall, but to fly.

 

our last photo

 

This post is a late addition to the Italy Blogging Roundtable, which focused on pets this month. It was just too soon to post before today. It may still be too soon, but these are my thoughts. Take a look at posts by Georgette JupeJessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) 

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

hiking in umbria
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A Perfect Day, A Perfect Hike: Spoleto’s Monteluco

Welcome to my late entry for the January edition of the Italy Blogging Roundtable! The theme this month is “Move”, and I look back on one of my favorite ways to move…hiking! So take a look at posts by Georgette JupeJessica Spiegel, Melanie RenzulliAlexandra Korey, Gloria, Laura Thayer, and Michele Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table in this new year…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation!

The older I get, the more zen I become. I used to be the kind of person who made plans and stuck to them…and then got all hot and bothered when plans changed. But I am finding more and more that things tend to work out in the end, and when the end is different than what you had envisioned at the beginning, it is usually a better end.

Monteluco spoleto umbria

An excellent example: recently, I had made plans to visit the Mongiovino castle and sanctuary near Panicale, which I had been looking forward to since friends had taken a hike there and came back raving about the area weeks ago. I don’t tend to explore around Lake Trasimeno (I prefer the rugged Apennines and the tiny hamlets of the Valnerina) and the sanctuary is one of Umbria’s few excellent examples of Renaissance architecture, so I was looking forward to shaking up my usual routine and doing something a little different.

Well, it didn’t happen that way. For a series of reasons, the Mongiovino plan had to be abandoned and Monteluco near Spoleto was floated as an alternative. Sure, I said. Ok, I said. Whatever, I said.

It was the perfect day.

monteluco hike umbria

I had been meaning to visit Monteluco for years, but just never seemed to get around to it. One of the reasons may be that it’s so accessible—a quick walk from the center of stately Spoleto–that I always put it aside as a back-up plan when a more complicated day of hiking wouldn’t work. Which is exactly what ended up happening on Sunday.

Monteluco is an area which covers about 7,000 hectares of lush, holm oak-wooded mountain. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the hilltop on which Spoleto is perched, the two are joined by the the city’s iconic medieval aqueduct Ponte dei Torri, which dramatically spans the valley between the them like a bridge joining two islands. By crossing the bridge and following the hiking path number 1 uphill, you can scale the mountain from the bridge to the summit along the medieval aqueduct and past a series of hermitages and sanctuaries.

hike spoleto umbria

The name Monteluco comes from the Latin lucus, meaning a sacred grove dedicated to Jupiter. This historic Sacro Bosco still stands at the top of the mountain, where it has been forbidden to cut trees for at least four millenia. Though the ban was ostensibly established for religious reasons, there was also a more pragmatic explanation: the thick forest acted as a filter between the disease-laden air emanating from the stagnant swamp which covered the valley floor on the far side of Monteluco at one time and the populace of the city of Spoleto. Indeed, a marble stone still stands at the entrance to the sacred grove inscribed with the Lex luci spoletina in ancient Latin reiterating this ban (a copy—the original is in Spoleto’s Archaeological Museum).

franciscan sanctuary spoleto

The mountain’s sacred history continued through early Christianity as Monteluco became home to a colony of religious hermits—primarily Syrian–who used the natural caves and grottoes found on the flanks of the mountain and in the sacred grove itself as places of spiritual retreat and contemplation. One of these became San Giuliano, and the picturesquely crumbling Romanesque church (built in the 1200s over a pre-existing shrine from the 5th century and subsequently abandoned by the Benedictines in the 1500s) dedicated to his memory can be seen from the panoramic lookout in the Sacred Grove (it can also be reached by car from the valley; there is now a small restaurant/pizzeria at the site with one of the prettiest views over the Spoleto Valley.)

umbria hike spoleto

With the expansion of Christianity, Monteluco endured as a spiritual destination for monks from a number of religious orders who sought to live according to their vows of humility and poverty. Of these, Francis of Pavia (who died here in 1454), Bernardino of Siena, Bonaventure, and Anthony of Padova. The remains of the abandoned monastery and church dedicated to Saint Anthony can be found about halfway up the hiking trail, and his grotto is still intact in the Sacred Grove. The most famous of all religious sites on Monteluco, however, is the Convent of Saint Francis on the summit of the mountain.

monteluco sanctuary spoleto

In 1218, Francis was granted the small Saint Catherine Chapel adjacent to the Bosco Sacro by the colony of hermits, which he and his followers expanded into a small monastery and church over the following decades. The convent is still active, and Mass is often held in both the original church and the larger, more modern addition. Some of the older parts of the complex are open to visitors, including the tiny cells (one of which still holds the Saint’s stone bed), original frescoed chapel, and Saint Francis’ Well, the spot where legend holds that Francis was miraculously able to summon a flowing spring from the rock near the grotto where he was living at the time.

hiking trail near spoleto

All of this I learned from my hiking companions as we climbed the switchback trail through the thick woods from the Ponti dei Torri, past the photogenic Monastero di Sant’Antonio ruins, and, finally, to the Sacred Grove and Monastero di San Francesco at the summit. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and parts of the trail seemed like a sporty version of Spoleto’s Corso as couples with children and seniors with dogs on leads took advantage of the first warm days of spring. We stopped often to take pictures and, as the trail began to climb in earnest toward the summit of the mountain, to catch our breath and take in the view.

hiking in umbria

Our prize was the overlook at the top…from here you can see the Umbrian Valley from Spoleto past Assisi, with a series of hilltowns dribbling down the mountainsides and a patchwork of olive groves, fields, and vineyards in the valley. Our prize was also an excellent lunch at one of the three seasonal hotels at the top and would have been a nap on inviting green which covers the summit, had it not been for the walk back down to town.

All told, not bad for a Plan B. Not bad at all.

A special thanks to my hiking buddy and all-round Umbria informant Armando Lanoce, who is always full of perfect Plan Bs and beautiful photos.

 

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

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From Tours to Tables: Umbria’s Farm Bounty

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

Italy Blogging Roundtable

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

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

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

 Umbria farm tour

 

Agriturismo (Farm Holiday)

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

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

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

farm tour umbria

 

Farm Visits

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

Wineries

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

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

Olive Oil Mills

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

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

Truffle Reserves

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

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

Meat Farms

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

Cheese Farms

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

Herbs, Jams, Saffron, and Other Special Things

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

 

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Farm Tours

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

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

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

farm tours umbria

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

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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.

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Sagrantino di Montefalco: Taming the Beast

Sagrantino_di_Montefalco_wine

Any conversation about Umbria and her wines must necessarily begin at the very heart of this region, both geographically and historically, which is to say at Sagrantino.

This hearty dry red (and honeyed sweet) is made primarily (or exclusively, in the case of the DOCG) from the indigeneous Sagrantino grape varietal—though indigeneous is relative for a plant that has probably been growing in this area for centuries. Did it come from Greece? Did French friars import it? Did, as the legend goes, Saint Francis bring back a cutting from the Middle East to use for sacramental wine? No matter, it’s Umbrian now.— which is cultivated in a limited geographical area surrounding the hill town of Montefalco. The micro-climate in this undulating valley is marked by hot, dry days, interspersed with nights cooled by the Tramontana breeze from the north, a long Mediterranean growing season, and clay soil…all of which form a perfect storm to turn out the dark, tannic grapes which define Sagrantino.

Which is where we hit our first glitch. Because I am about to commit the biggest blasphemy any lover of Umbrian wine can—a stab in her heart, so to speak—and admit that Sagrantino is not my favorite wine. It’s not the complex, earthy flavor—marked by dark red fruit, spice, and smoke—or the masculine boldness (these are big wines, but I’m a big girl) that I find unapproachable. It’s the incredible, suck-your-tongue-dry, let-age-a-minimum-of-a-decade, decant-for-at-least-twelve-hours-prior-to-drinking tannins. And by tannins, I mean Tannins. Sagrantino is one of the most tannic grapes in the world, and many young Sagrantino labels are lip-puckeringly tight and really only show their true colors after almost ten years of aging…and even then, the tannins don’t beat around the bush.

Which is cool if you are drinking Sagrantino with what it is meant to be paired with. Like marinated lamb chops. Or steak. Or a big chunk of braised cinghiale. It is not so cool if, like me, you are a vegetarian (another blasphemy in the region where Pork is King) and are limited to a thick bean soup dressed with peppery olive oil or hard aged cheeses. Which may keep the tannins at bay for while, but they are still nipping at you through the bars of their cage.

Montefalco copyright Xyance via Wikimedia Commons

The tannin question may also be behind the rise in popularity of this wine over the past generation. The traditional diet in Umbria—indeed in most of Italy, a poor, rural country until the 1960s—was light on meat and heavy on grains, legumes, and vegetables (none of which are particularly suited to a beast of a wine like Sagrantino). What is known here as la cucina povera and in the rest of the world as The Mediterranean Diet gradually began to change with a rise in standard of living through the 1960s and 1970s, with the consumption of meat moving to center stage rather than being limited to once a week or, the in poorest areas of Italy—including Umbria—feast days.

And, parallel to the growing frequency of strong meat-based dishes came the rise of Sagrantino, a wine that needs a plate of grilled sausages as its foil. Though Montefalco has a history of grape cultivation mentioned by Pliny, the Sagrantino grape itself had fallen into disuse and was on its way to extinction until the 1970s, when a number of cantinas around Montefalco “rediscovered” this historic varietal and embarked on a campaign of scientific research, rivitalization of both vineyards and wineries, and—most recently—savvy marketing and promotion. Sagrantino di Montefalco became a DOC in 1980 and a DOCG in 1992, and the prestige and quality of the region’s labels continues to grow. Combine that with the fortuitous economic reality of the rise of a meat-based cuisine well-paired to this robust wine and, voilà, a Cinderella story.

If you are like me, you may find yourself the ugly stepsister, but the meat eaters out there will probably discover themselves Prince Charming to this Princess of a wine.

Here are a few of my favorite cantine which offer visits and tastings:

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A Thousand Words for Norcia

There are words you are not supposed to use in quality travel writing. They are the Banned Words, and you can pretty much guess which ones they are. Gem, especially hidden. Picturesque, or simply stunning. Cozy, charming, and—close cousin—quaint. Off-the-beaten-path. Nestled. Mecca, especially foodie. And nothing must ever boast anything.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty tough to describe Norcia—incidentally, one of my favorite towns in Umbria—without dipping into the Banned Words pot. This hilltown-without-a-hill is, indeed, a hidden gem, picturesquely nestled in the stunning Sibilline mountain peaks. It’s an off-the-beaten-path foodie mecca, and simply oozes (Oops. Another banned word.) charm, with its cozy low buildings and quaint little shops. It also boasts one of the prettiest piazzas in Umbria.

But let’s pretend I didn’t just say all that. Given that a picture is worth a thousand words (Oh. One more rule: avoid overused aphorisms. Sorry.), I’ll show you a bit of Norcia and you can use your own words. I won’t judge you. Unless you use Tuscan. I hate that word.

 

Boar, boar, every where.

 

 

 

Signs of the Times

 

Artisanal mule balls. (Not kidding.)

Bunga Bunga cheese. (Not kidding.)

Ahem. Well, yes. This is a family show, so I won't translate these. They're pretty funny, though.

Huh. Peter Rabbit's black sheep cousin.

 

Food, Glorious Food

 

 

Around Town

 

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Finding Magic: Narni and the Convento del Sacro Speco

The late afternoon view from the Convento del Sacro Spreco

The thing about magic is that when you go looking for it, it doesn’t show. And then, when you’ve let your guard down, it sneaks up on you in the most unexpected places.

I went to Narni expecting magic. Perhaps even needing it a little bit. I had long heard the story of Narni being the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ mythical, magical land of Narnia—though, admittedly, the author never visited this dramatically positioned hill town himself. Overlooking the Nera River to the north (where the remains of the monumental Roman Ponte d’Augusto, so picturesque that a rendering of it by impressionist Corot now hangs in the Louvre, still make passersby draw breath) and the craggy peaks of the Valnerina to the west, Narni held the promise of bringing to life the enchantment and adventure that I so loved from Lewis’ epic, and that I had recently rediscovered in reading the novels to my sons.

The view of the Nera River valley, ca 1826.

Narni was lovely. It was. It has a fine historic center, a fetching pinacoteca with a Ghirlandaio and a Gozzoli, either of which worth the ticket price, and Narni Sotteranea, perhaps one of the most remarkable underground tours in Umbria. Plus, it had lots of lion imagery and a homegrown Lucy (the mummified saintly remains creepily displayed in the Duomo) and lush, striking countryside very much reminiscent of Lewis’ novels. But for some reason, it just didn’t click.

Perhaps part of that is the fault of Narni Scalo, a disheartening post-war industrial sprawl, complete with electro-carbon plant, which has gradually filled the valley below Narni itself (take a gander at Corot’s 1826 Le pont de Narni for an idea of paradise lost) and is the first sight to meet visitors. Perhaps part of that is the fault of my own inflated expectations for this unassuming, though attractive, town. Regardless, I left somewhat deflated and at a bit of a loss.

The cloister of the Franciscan convent in the fading light.

And then, magic. Instead of turning north towards home, I headed south on a whim in search of the Convento del Sacro Speco, a Franciscan site about 20 kilometers outside of Narni. I’m not sure why…I’m generally more of an art and architecture (with heavy doses of food and wine) kind of traveller, not a religion and spirituality sort of traveller, but this secluded sanctuary—founded in 1213 by Saint Francis but rebuilt in the 1400s—somehow compelled me, along with the legend of an ailing Francis once being soothed by an angel playing violin music here. The Saint often used a nearby cave to pray in solitude, and many of the friars who live here now do so according to the saint’s First Rule of silence and contemplation.

Parts of the sanctuary are closed to the public.

Not the friar–strongly resembling Disney’s badgeresque Tuck–who met me at the gate, and, taking my face in both hands, looked me kindly in the eyes and asked, “Daughter, why are you here? What are you looking for?” Which gave me pause, because I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself. I stammered something inane about wanting to take a walk around the grounds, and he stepped back with a smile, easing my discomfort with a welcoming, “Stay as long as you like. This is your home.”

I didn’t stay as long as I would have liked. It was late afternoon and the sun was already low over the forested hills, but I slowly wandered through the miniature stone convent, with its tiny chapel and creche-like cloister. I paused for awhile in the inner courtyard to drink in the stunning view, from the village of Calvi perched on the mountains to the south, across the plain with its handkerchief-sized fields, woods, and stone farmhouses, to Narni to the north (and rued the fact that my camera doesn’t have a panoramic setting).

Climbing the path through the oak forest to the oratory at the top of the hill, the silence was broken only by songbirds and the sound of my own footsteps through the dry leaves. Through the glass doors of the oratory, the simple, rough chapel inside was evocative of the spirit of the Saint and so much more authentic than many of the more visited Franciscan sites in Umbria. I sat for a few minutes at the mouth of Francis’ cave—now sheltering an altar used for outdoor celebrations—and felt myself meld into the woods around, the darkening sky, the crisp evening air, the softly rustling leaves. My reverie was broken by the sound of the bells from the sanctuary below, calling visitors to Mass and me back to reality. As others headed towards the chapel, I made for the gate knowing that my spirit had been filled already and I had found, in this casual side-trip, what I had been seeking. Just a little bit of magic.

 

To visit the convent, set your navigator on the village of S. Urbano and follow the signs.

Opening hours are 9:30 – 20:00

Masses are Mon-Sat 11:00 ; Sunday and holidays 11:00 and 18:00

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The Future Surrounded by the Past: Spoleto’s Palazzo Collicola

Never was a room painted happier than this Sol Lewitt work. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)

Spoleto is a mecca for history buffs, the city a mash-up of architectural epochs from the Umbrii through the middle-ages. Strolling through town, you are as likely to have your eye caught by the austere Roman Arch of Drusus as the whimsical 17th century Mascherone Fountain.

But you know what? History, schmistory. Sometimes I get a hankering to see what’s coming next, not what came before, and Spoleto has a unique window into the future, as well. The excellent Palazzo Collicola Arti Visive contemporary art museum, completely renovated in 2010 (and, luckily, with a brand-new website, as the previous version was both graphically stunning and completely impenetrabile), is one of several collections of contemporary art in otherwise artistically stodgy Umbria, and perhaps its best.

Go on, blow on these Calders. You know you want to. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)

The permanent collection (Museo Carandente) on the ground floor houses fifteen rooms of modern and contemporary painting and sculpture, heavy on the Calder (I blew on a couple of mobile sculptures to see them spin and no alarms went off, so go right ahead. You didn’t hear it from me, though.), including scale models and period photographs of his monumental Teodolapio sculpture from 1962, which sits in front of the Spoleto train station, and the Sol Lewitt (I challenge you to stand in the Rainbow Room and not get a silly grin on your face. Try it.).

Unfortunately, the collection is light on explanatory notes; there are few posted in the individual gallery rooms and the map upon entering is a simple postcard with a floor plan. They would be doing themselves a service to invest in more complete descriptions (posted, printed, and in audioguides) so visitors would have a better historical and cultural context for the works. In the meantime, I can just talk at you like a normal person and tell you that it’s a lovely collection—the perfect size for a visit that doesn’t lead to art overdose and happily juxtaposed with the stately Renaissance palazzo with its original cotto floors and painted vaulted ceilings.

Leoncillo's massive ceramics are lovely and unsettling (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)

I was especially charmed by Calder’s lighthearted tiny wire people twisted from champagne cork cages (Yes, I can hear you saying, “But I coulda done that!” Well, chump, you didn’t. Which is why you are now paying €6 to see those who did.) and the beautifully disturbing (or disturbingly beautiful) Leoncilla ceramic works.

The ornate piano nobile upstairs is used to house temporary exhibition–primarily through the summer months–for a real look into the future of art. And don’t miss the works in the courtyard, which are easy to overlook—though the crazy graffiti-art-on-existential-high Santiago Morilla mural is an eye-catcher.

Whoa. This Santiago Morilla will stop you in your tracks. (Copyright Palazzo Collicola)

From this maelstrom of color and forms, it’s a bit soothing to step back into the historic stone streets of Spoleto and drink in its past. But a quick, bubbly sip of the future can be had in this stately city, as well. So, drink up.

Looking for more contemporary art in Umbria? Here are some suggestions from Arttrav: Contemporary Art in Umbria

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One Stop Wine Hop: Orvieto’s Enoteca Regionale

The enoteca is housed in the restored cellars of the convent, and charmingly decorated with works by Orvieto's historic Michelangeli workshop. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

If you think the closest you’re going to get to heaven in Orvieto is gazing at the Signorelli frescoes in the magnificent Duomo’s San Brizio Chapel, keep walking uphill.

Yep, up the Corso, across the Piazza della Repubblica, and through a series of steep, narrow alleyways (if an older gent stops you with a “Psst, Signorina, do you want to see my Etruscan cave?” go ahead and take a look. He really does have an Etruscan cave under his floor.) until you finally reach the highest point on the dramatic cliff which has been home to Orvieto for the better part of humanity.

Take a peek in the Palazzo del Gusto's pretty cloister, but for the good stuff head downstairs to the cellars. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Here you will find the former convent of San Giovanni, which is now the headquarters of the “Palazzo del Gusto”, an umbrella enogastronomic and cultural association which hosts a series of workshops, courses, and thematic dinners and tastings aimed at promoting traditional cuisine, Slow Food, and local wines.

The entry to the Enoteca holds examples of local crafts...the approach to celebrating local products isn't limited to just food and wine. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Head downstairs to the restored cellars (the architectural history of which runs from the Etruscan era through the Middle Ages) underneath the convent, where you can take a guided tour of the “Enoteca Regionale”, a regional wine library which holds more than 120 different labels of the best DOCG, DOC, and IGT wines in Umbria.

The tasting rooms are tucked under medieval vaults and over Etruscan caves. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)

Different “packages” are available for wine tastings, or you can splurge for a prepaid “wine card” to sample up to 16 different wines from automatic dispensers. Between the dispensers and the handy information-laden touch-screens, you can almost throw together a DIY visit, but try to nab Graziella, Lucia, or Francesca, three walking local wine and food encyclopedias who have been involved in the Enoteca Regionale through its conception and expansion. Their passion for the gastronomic history and culture of the region is contagious, as they give a lively context to each wine, elevating it from the Enoteca’s evocative underground cellar to exalted heights.

For more information or to reserve a tasting, take a look at the Palazzo del Gusto‘s terrific website.

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What Lies Below: The Orvieto Underground

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

Cities–like people–have a face they show the world and a hidden, intimate side, where the scars of time and trials are revealed to those who have the patience and sensitivity to look past the surface and discover all the fascinating complexity beneath.

In Orvieto, this metaphor comes to life in a poignantly literal way. This stately town—proud of its outstanding Cathedral, crisp Orvieto Classico wine, and general cosmopolitan vibe—dominates the surrounding undulating countryside from atop the dramatic volcanic stone outcropping it has inhabited on and off since the time of the Etruscans. But to really get a feel for Orvieto and its millenia-long history, more than wander its streets and piazze you need to head underground to visit its caves—more than 1,200 of which honeycomb the cliff below the historic center.

Almost all of these man-made underground caverns and passageways are private property and not open to the public, but the Orvieto Underground tour takes small groups to visit the two which are owned by the city. I had been hearing about this subterranean tour for years and had been curious to check it out, being especially partial to exploring the quirky side of Umbria and unearthing offbeat museums and tours like these. And Orvieto Underground didn’t disappoint.

One of the largest caverns has been used over the centuries as an olive oil mill.

During the hour-long visit, we saw the very first underground tunnelings by the Etruscans in search of water roughly seven centuries before Christ. The precisely cut rectangular wells (with incorporated hand and foot-holds for climbing in and out) and peaked cavern ceilings resembling rooftops (probably remnants of pagan temples) are testimony to the engineering skill and aesthetic sensibility of this still somewhat mysterious people.

After defeating the Etruscans, the Romans sacked the town and Velzna—as the Etruscans called their city–was abandoned until the early middle ages, when the next signs of human life appear underground, as well. As Orvieto began to rebuild at the strategic top of the cliff, its citizens once again found themselved digging out the soft rock beneath their homes in search of water, temperature-controlled storage (the caves maintain an average 12-13° C), and—most picturesquely—pigeon cotes. The walls of these square rooms are pocked by orderly, square pigeon holes and have a small window for the birds to fly in and out during the day. Thus began a tradition of roast pigeon in Orvieto, which you will still find on most menus today.

The pigeons raised in these cotes kept Orvieto fed for centuries.

In the late middle-ages, as the city began to stabilize and prosper, these underground caverns were expanded and converted to also house workshops for the local ceramic production (cooling cisterns and the remains of a kiln can still be found) and quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement (which continued into the early 20th century). One of the biggest caverns was most recently used as an olive oil press, and the massive millstones and presses still on view make it easy to imagine the room crowded with pickers and workers pressing out one of Umbria’s most prized product each fall.

The final cavern of the tour was used as a WWII bomb shelter.

The final cavern of the tour brings visitors to modern Italy, as the bare room ringed with a low bench hewed from the stone was used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Orvieto proper was declared an Open City, thus spared from the most destructive raids, but the valley below was crisscrossed with rail- and road-ways and often the target of both the Allies and retreating Germans. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to sit for hours in the blackness of a cave meters below the ground, hearing the muffled sounds of explosions and the quiet rattle of tiny stones dislodging from the ceiling and walls…hoping desperately that the rock would hold.

Though the digging of further tunnels under modern Orvieto has been banned for years, almost all the palazzi in the center of town still use their private, undergound caverns–in most cases as a cantina—left for them by centuries—if not millenia—of previous inhabitants. Walking through Orvieto now, I know that the facades lining the streets are just the town’s game face…the true soul of the town lies in its secret labyrinth below.

A view over the surrounding countryside from the Orvieto Underground caves.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.