By Hillary Kladke (USAC student studying in Viterbo) This was written as a final paper.
Umbria, a landlocked region situated between Toscana, Lazio and Marche, is very often called the “Green Heart of Italy” because of its combination of mountains, hills and flat terrain and its location in the center of Italy. Other than Perugia, the capital, Umbria is a relatively quiet region, the somewhat lack of tourism allowing the Umbrian cuisine to remain close to its roots. Umbria has many famous abbeys, monasteries and convents, such as in Assisi and in Montefalco. Simplicity, because of St. Francis of Assisi’s view of poverty, is favored in this region and that shows through in the many food dishes in this region. The people of Umbria are some of the most environmentally conscious Italians and much of the food grown in this region is the “healthy food” that Italians commonly consume. Part of the diet of Umbria includes many different types of vegetables, including peas, lentils, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, spinach, beans and eggplant. Ingredients in Umbria come from the surrounding land and, therefore, most of the dishes are fresh.
While traveling in Spoleto, a town in Umbria, for a Hill Towns Class, we ate a beautifully prepared six course meal at Il Tempio del Gusto, (translates as “A temple of Taste) a family owned restaurant.
The menu is a constantly rotating menu based on the seasonal ingredients available to the cooks. Lucky for us, we were able to try many of the different flavors that Umbria is known for because we came during a season in which olive oil was being harvested and roasted pig was at its best, according to the owners of the restaurant. The food in Umbria is known to be “simple, sober and homely, but it also has great elegance,” which can be seen in the following description of the filling and elegantly prepared meal that we ate in Spoleto
While waiting for our food, we tried two different types of olive oil on bread and on bruschetta. One of the olive oils was produced by the restaurant and the other was a generic brand of olive oil. The generic brand of olive oil was simple olive oil, probably normally used for cooking, for it wasn’t very good on top of the breads. However, when we tried the restaurant’s newly made olive oil, I was stunned at the difference that fresh olive oil made. According to the Cuisine book, the olive oil in Umbria is “jade green, fragrant, fruity and sometimes very lusty [and] it is among the finest oils in Italy.” While we were in Spoleto, the olive harvest was taking place, near the end of October. The oil is used in all types of cooking and the black olives from the trees are usually “marinated in oil with orange peel, garlic and herbs and served with wine”
The next course was a type of hardened crepe with different types of cheeses inside and a mushroom and tartufo sauce. Many of the ingredients found in the cuisine in Umbria are taken directly from the woods, like mushrooms. The king of all Umbrian mushrooms, according to Perugia Online, is the Porcino mushroom and the Porcino mushroom is frequently used in many dishes because of its abundance in the nearby forests of this region. Umbria also has a solid relationship with cheese-making, especially with goat cheeses that are produced seasonally and made in small, sustainable quantities (Veria.com). Goat cheese, one of the cheeses in this dish, has twice the protein, one-third the calories and half the fat and cholesterol of regular cream cheese, which makes this cheese more popular in this region due to the region’s love of health food.
The next course was a doughy potato ravioli, smothered in la ghiotta. La Ghiotta is a popular sauce made from cooking juices from the meat or fowl being cooked, plus olive oil, vinegar, anchovies, olives, lemon peel, sage, salt, and pepper.
For our next course, we had spaghetti col rancetto, a Spoleto specialty. The dish is made with pancetta and marjoram and long pasta strands, Stringozzi, which are made with hand-milled flour. When the area around Spoleto was part of the papal lands in the Middle Ages, the pope sent collectors to gather funds from people who did not pay their taxes. The people around the area of Spoleto who did not want to pay plotted to strangle the collectors with a long leather cord called the “strangozzo.” This is how the popular noodle of Spoleto came to have its name.
After that, we were given yet another type of pasta. The pasta were large, circular noodles in a tartufo sauce with sausage. The forests of Umbria are abundant with truffles, a flavor that is often used in Umbrian cuisine. The black truffles in Val Nerina, near Spoleto, are the most highly prized truffles in all of Umbria, which shows through in the cuisine in which nearly every dish is covered in tartufo. There are different types of truffles, ranging from jet black to white. According to the cuisine book, truffles are so abundant that they are used in nearly everything. Many times, they are grated or chopped up and used in various dishes, which to some, might seem like a disgrace because truffles are not abundant everywhere and, in many places, are considered a delicacy. In other regions, white truffles are more highly prized than the black truffles because they are claimed to less perfume, but Umbria claims that the black truffles have a much better taste. Umbrians use truffles all year round, but in the autumn, the truffles are sniffed out and taken out of the ground by truffle-sniffing dogs and pigs. In this region, this time of year is cause for celebration and many festivals are held in honor of truffles.
For our Secondi, we had beautiful cutlets of pork, covered in a rich sauce with potatoes and eggplant on the side.
The meat in this region is known to be some of the best. In Norcia, there are talented cooks that have few rivals; they are so accomplished that Norcia’s pork butchers have become a noun. A norcino is a top pork butcher and they can open up a place called a norcineria. Norcia is considered the gastronomic capital of the region — it is known for its cured ham, sausages and salami. Vittorio Battilocchi, who owns Dal Francese, thinks that the meat is so good in this part of the region because Norcia had the oldest school of surgery and the knowledge of human anatomy may have been able to be applied to the butchering of a pig. The men of Norcia, according to the Cuisine Book, are artists in the art of preparing the pig. The local ham of Norcia is lean and compact because the small black pigs are fed on acorns and chestnuts. The ham is very garlicky, stronger and more peppery than most other types of ham. Other towns beside Norcia use their own special breeds of pigs and have their own specialities. Umbria is very famous for porchetta, a whole roast pig that has been stuffed with garlic, wild fennel, rosemary and sage. One of the main features of Umbrian meat cooking is the grill and spit. Lamb is also another type of specialty.
For Dolci, we tried some odd new age dessert that I haven’t been able to identify. However, I know that it had pine nuts in it. Desserts in this region are often flavored with honey, chestnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts and almonds, all ingredients that can be readily found in the areas around the towns and in the forests, according to ItalianCook.ca.
The seasons, according to the Cuisine Book, are very noticeable in Umbrian cooking, especially the seasons for mushrooms and game. The people in this region catch migratory birds that, twice a year, stop for a month to feed on the olives and juniper berries. From these birds, they make cappelletti con sugo di tordi, which is stuffed pasta with a sauce of thrushes. Umbria also has many food festivals called Sagre, which feature seasonal regional food. Each season revolves around seasonal food and, apparently, we went to Umbria during one of the best seasons — fresh truffles, fresh olive oil and the best meat. From olive oil to truffles to excellent game, the cuisine in Umbria is beautiful, simple and well-worth eating.