A Meal in Spoleto

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.

Il ristorante - Il Tempio del Gusto

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

The new oil

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.

Delicious potato ravioli

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.

Stringozzi

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.

Very elegantly served pork

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.

The Hill Towns class enjoys a hearty lunch!

An Italian Thanksgiving

By: Lucia Loeb (USAC student studying in Viterbo)

Thanksgiving for me is not so much about the origin of the holiday as I am not a big fan of wiping out indigenous people, for me it is about friends, family and of course wonderfully delicious and overly filling food.

This year, I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to celebrate with my family so my American roommate; my American friend and I decided we would make it for my roommates. At first my roommates were excited about the idea and decided the best way to get a turkey in Italia was to kill it ourselves. I am not much of a hunter myself but I am always up for an adventure so I agreed. Not only did I agree to go along but I also agreed to kill it with a bow and arrow and to sneak onto some-ones farm. This idea went on for about a week before my roommate told me it was all a big joke. Although I was a little disappointed, it is probably good that we didn’t go through with it. Our other option for turkey was to order it from a Macelleria and pay between 50 and 60 euros. We decided to use chicken instead.

Lucia and Katie with the birds!

As the days got closer, my friend Katie and I got more and more excited but when we talked about this wonderful occasion with my roommates they didn’t seem quit as excited. Not only that, but when I described the menu for the day, they made faces of disgust. So I was feeling a little frustrated and disheartened about the whole plan.

However, on the day of Thanksgiving, I was excited. We did some last minute shopping, picked up the bread for stuffing and went to the Macelleria per due polli. As soon as we returned home, the Americans dominated the kitchen. It was nice finally having the kitchen to ourselves, with no Italians looking over our shoulders telling us how to cook.

We started with the stuffing by ripping up the huge loaf of bread into small pieces. We toasted the pieces while frying up the celery, onion, garlic, mushrooms and spices together. When the bread was toasted we added it all together and added some chicken broth. We proceeded to stuff it into the chickens. We let my roommate Alessandro help with that part. We covered the Chickens with foil and baked for about three hours.

Katie's sweet potatoes in orange shells

Meanwhile we each worked on our own side dishes. Katie made sweet potatoes with brown sugar, orange zest and walnuts stuffed in orange peel bowls then baked. She also made classic mashed potatoes. Ace, my American roommate made the gravy with the chicken juices, as well as small biscuits.

I made a wonderful fennel dish courtesy of Christina. I started by cutting the fennel root into around 4 parts then boiled them for about ten minutes. Then I laid them in a baking tray, covered with breadcrumbs and baked for about twenty minutes. For the breadcrumbs, I used some that I had put aside from the stuffing mixed in with Parmigiano Reggiano, garlic, olive oil and parsley. I think the dish came out good for my first try but I think the oven was too high because the breadcrumbs were a little dark, I also should have boiled them for a little longer.

Lucia's Fennel

I also made basic string beans, steamed for ten minutes then sautéed with garlic. The pies were simple because I have been making a lot of pies lately. I made pumpkin pie and apple pie. The crust for both was simply flour, butter, ice water, a pinch of salt and sugar. I bought a piece of Zucca from Eden Fruits, baked it for about twenty minutes, then chopped it into small pieces and put in the blender with a bit of milk. After I achieved the right consistency, I poured the liquid into a bowl and added powdered ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon to taste. I used honey for sweetening although I usually use maple syrup. After I poured the mixture into the piecrust I baked it for about forty minutes. For the apple pie, I cut the apples into thin slices and mixed in a little honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange juice. I placed the apples into the crust and rolled out doe the cover the apples. I baked this one for about the same time as the pumpkin.

While the food was cooking, Katie and I ran out and collected festive leaves. This is a very important part of Thanksgiving to me; I have always been the leaf collector since I was young. The only ones we could find were grape leaves but they worked perfectly. When we returned the kitchen smelled wonderful and nothing was on fire, so, thus far the day was a success. We agreed we would eat at 7 after much debate. I tried to explain to my roommates that Thanksgiving is traditionally eaten between lunch and dinnertime but they were not so pleased with the idea. So we had agreed on 7. However as the time approached my other roommate Daniele tried everything he could to stall the dinner as much as possible. So we ended up sitting down at a quarter till 8.

The table laden with food

Before we dove in, we went around the table and each said what we were grateful for, which was surprisingly touching and sincere. Then we said Salute with our glasses of vino, Italian style, and a Buon Apetito. As we loaded up our plates and started eating, everyone fell silent which, I took as a good sign. Everyone enjoyed the food and the night was a success. I was stuffed after the first ten minutes. After dinner we had to wait a while until we could think about dessert. While we waited, we played games and had an absolutely wonderful time together.

Grazie a Tutti, Ciao Ciao Lucia

Making Cannoli at L’Altro Gusto

By Chelsea Lysne

It was a very lovely evening in Viterbo, when I was granted the opportunity to hand make cannoli in a small Italian restaurant. L’Altro Gusto was one of the quaintest restaurants I have been to during my stay here. For my Italian cuisine class I got to cook alongside chefs and make from start to finish cannoli.

Jessica making the second batch of dough

They had already made the dough  (but a second batch was made by Jessica) and we began by rolling it out and cutting the dough into 10’ by 10’ pieces. At that point we would wrap the dough end to end around a small piece of wood or metal. It was a unique experience standing there in a restaurant in Italy learning how to make one of my favorite desserts.

Chelsea rolling the dough

I had never thought that I would be cooking in Italy let alone in a restaurant kitchen. After we finished wrapping the dough around the small sticks it was time to place them in the deep fryer.

Wesley putting the dough around the 'formers'

This was the more difficult task. I had to make sure to constantly turn the dough and try not to break the crusts. It was necessary to turn them every few seconds until all sides were brown. We all took turns because always turning the dough was a little tiring, it was very fun though.

Once we finish cooking the crusts we inserted the filling. The filling was made with ricotta, sugar, and chocolate. We squeezed the filling in by use of a small plastic bag that contained the ricotta mixture. This proved to be a rather messy process and I got this mixture all over my hands. It was a delicious mistake.

Fabiola piping the ricotta mixture into the cooled shells

Finally we placed a piece of candied orange on the very tip of the cannoli and with a sprinkle of powered sugar the cannoli was finished. The best part by far was enjoying them and watching all the others enjoy them as well. This was truly an experience I will always remember fondly.

The finished Cannoli - delicious

For the recipe in full click here.

L’Altro Gusto second class

For our second class at L’Altro Gusto we cooked food from the region of Sicily.
Though to begin we made Grissini (bread sticks), which though eaten in most regions are really from Piemonte.

Antipasti are not traditional in Sicilia but many restaurants make use of dishes from the fried foods shops which sold snacks in the past.  So for antipasto we made Arancini.

Jessica, Chelsea and Ricardo - it takes three to make Arancini

For primo we made Cous Cous with shellfish and vegetables – again not a dish you’d find in any other region of Italy but Sicilia inherited the habit of using cous cous from the Arab invaders from North Africa.  The cuisine of each region has been influenced by the invaders who ruled throughout their sometimes very different histories.
For secondo it had to be fish; Daniele the chef chose Pesce spada (sword fish).  Cooked very simply in the oven with quartered, seasoned tomatoes, it was delicious.

2nd chef Claudio checks the seasoning in the tomatoes for the sword fish

For dolce there was a difficult decision to be made; as there are so many delicious choices; Cassata, gelato, sorbets, biscotti made from almonds (another Arab influence) and Cannoli – we opted for these. (There will be a future most about making these).

Wesley folding the cannoli dough around forms before cooking

More recipes posted

As promised here are the recipes that were cooked at the L’Altro Gusto restaurant that weren’t already posted.

Olive Paté

Chicken Liver Paté (Crostini)

Mushroom Paté

Pappardelle with Wild Boar Sauce

I decided not to write the recipe for Castagnaccio.  None of the students actually liked this chestnut cake from Lucca; neither did Daniele, the chef nor I!

USAC at L’Altro Gusto

Students from the USAC programme were able to spend time at L’Altro Gusto restaurant on Thursday this week learning how to prepare some of the classic dishes from the region of Tuscany.

Spreading chicken liver patè onto bruschetta

Daniele, the owner chef also invited a colleague who demonstrated the art of cutting vegetables into amazing shapes and then encouraged the students to ‘have a go’  ……………

First stage of the flower

Deep in concentration!

....................with some amazing results

The menu included the following dishes: (follow the links to the recipes).  Wines Chianti of course and more unusual but delicious Vermentino from Tuscany (a grape usually associated with Sardegna.

Bruschetta with Olive Pâté; Mushroom Pâté and hot chicken liver pâté.

Ribollita – a delicious vegetable soup that makes use of Tuscan bread made without salt to keep longer (but also becomes hard very quickly).

Pappardelle al sugo di Cinghiale – Wide, egg pasta served with a sauce of wild boar.

And for pudding Castagnaccio – a cake from the mountainous areas of Tuscany bordering Liguria.  It’s made from chestnut flour associated by older Italians to times of poverty when wheat was either too expensive or not available as in times of war.

Pouring the batter over pinenuts, walnuts, sultanas and rosemary

Then we all enjoyed eating the fruits of our labour!

Buon appetito!

Gelato making

Everyone knows how good Italian gelato is! But when made by a small family business that really cares about quality it is really good for you too.

 

Roberto mixing cream into the basic mixture

 

I’ve posted before,about L’Antica Latteria my local cheese shop and dairy; they also make one of the very best gelato in Viterbo (maybe in the region).   This week students from USAC cuisine course were invited to see the gelato being made – and to taste it, just out of the machine.  Roberto who co-owns the business with his sister, Paola, told us about the procedure.  For the basic cream mix, a mixture of milk, cream, milk powder and sugar are mixed and heated (pasteurised) to 95° C, then rapidly cooled to 4° C.  This is the base for all cream-type gelato except chocolate where the chocolate is mixed and pasteurised with the other ingredients.  The machine will maintain a temperature of 4° C until the mixture is needed to make the gelato.

 

The finished gelato being taken from the machine

 

To make the most simple fior di latte (literally flowers of the milk), more cream is added and the sugar adjusted.  This is then poured into a second machine (Roberto’s machine is only 3 months old and cost a staggering €30,000) and frozen and whipped to add air – the correct mix has 30% air to give that amazing sensation in the mouth.  For fruit gelato he uses fresh fruit in season and sometimes adds a small quantity of highly concentrated fruit syrups, to intensify the flavour, and sugar – so a fruit gelato is really good for you so no need to deprive yourself!

In summer They make a quintale of gelato a day – that’s 100 kg or 240 lbs; this figure has already dropped to just 15 kg a day and Roberto will stop making gelato when the weather becomes cold.  When asked how much gelato he ate, Roberto responded that he usually had at least one a day, sometimes he will buy coffee from a local bar and add the gelato to that – now there’s an idea!

 

Thank you for making such good gelato, Roberto.