A Taste of Umbria
Tricia Welsh for Gourmet Traveller - 2001
Have you ever dreamed of spending time in the Italian countryside, living like a local and actually taking time to learn of the fascinating history and rich art of a region and discover the natural beauty and hidden charms of the picturesque centuries-old hill-top villages that dot the landscape?
Since 1988, ex-patriots Carol Searle and Neil Moore (www.neilmoore.it) have been living like locals with their young family in a restored medieval castle in a 13th century village overlooking picture-postcard countryside in the heart of Umbria. Through a natural willingness to share their wealth of knowledge -- aided and abetted by appreciative house guests, six years ago they set up cultural tours of the region, called appropriately Living Italy, based in the nearby hill-top village of Montefalco.
For Moore, a skilled and highly acclaimed artist, (www.neilmoore.it) and Searle, an accomplished musician, the concept was to bring these aspects of Italy alive, encouraging participating guests to ‘live Italy’ through not only its history, music, art and architecture, but also its rustic and hearty cuisine, fine wines and general way of life.
An invitation to join them recently on “A Taste of Umbria” tour in the Italian autumn, had me quickly packing sturdy walk shoes for truffle hunting, a swept-up velvety number for a night at the opera in Spoleto, a thick notepad and a healthy appetite for hands-on cooking classes and bathers and a good book for relaxing by the pool.
By the time I arrive – a few days late, the group of some 18 fellow Australians from nearly every state, have already met, mingled and made themselves at home at Camiano Piccolo, a agriturismo farm accommodation property that has been in the Fabrizi family for the past 500 years. Perched on a spur of the Montefalco hill overlooking the Umbrian valley across to the Appennines, the 50-ha operating farm boasts its own unctuous olive oil and range of fine wines made from estate-grown olives and grapes which we enjoy each meal time. Of particular interest, we discover, is the sagrantino – a merlot-style of red wine specific to the hillside vineyards around Montefalco, and a sweet, but not sticky dessert wine, passito.
Based centrally in the Umbrian countryside, we are within an easy drive to all of the major medieval towns and cities in the region. On a clear day from the terrace garden of Camiano Piccolo, we can see the ancient Etruscan city of Perugia to the north, the basilica and home town of Italy’s patron saint, St Francis -- Assisi, to the south the tiny hill-town of Trevi noted in the region for its fine golden green olive oil, and further south down the Vale of Umbria, the dramatically-positioned town of Spoleto, settled in the Bronze Age half-way up the Appennines and now known the world over for its celebrated arts festival held each July.
Each day we head off in a different direction in our own small private coach with Carol and Neil as our guides. One day it’s to Orvieto with its wonderful duomo, considered among the greatest of all Italy’s cathedrals with works by Signorelli – and ample sampling at lunch of one of the country’s most famous white wines – the Orvieto ‘classico’; the next it’s to Deruta, a major ceramics centre since medieval times and thehome of well-known Corso de ‘Fiori with lunch at a local olive oil mill.
A day-trip to Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict set high in the Sibylline Mountains, is a gastronomic highlight. This fascinating townships boasts such an abundance of pork butcheries, that it gives its name to the generic dictionary term for them, norcineria. Instead of the usual balcony flowers that often decorate Italian shops, these sport the curly-toothed heads of wild boar or cinghiali, from which they make their famed prosciutto, salami and other smallgoods. Here Carol has organised a tasting of the town’s traditional produce -- the highly-prized black truffles, tartufi, the local sheeps milk cheese, pecorino, various salami, and the piece de resistance, cinghiali prosciutto of wild boar that have actually been grazing on truffles!
But it’s the day of truffle hunting that has us all fascinated. We take extra jackets and woollen scarves in case it’s cold high up in the mountains above Spoleto. Owner of the property where we try our luck for the ‘black gold’ is Felice Bartoli who, with his dark heavy eye-brows, tanned skin and obligatory moustache, seems straight out of Central Casting.
He whistles up his three truffle-hunting dogs as our little group rugs up and with rustic walking canes, sets off around a hillside under the dappled light of lichen-edged oak trees. Soon, the canine snouts are in the ground, tails wagging excitedly as they paw the fertile ground. Felice helps release the scorzone, the winter black truffle from the compounded earth. It’s about the size of a walnut. The dogs keep hunting. According to Felice, scorzone can grow up to 900g each in weight. After an hour or so, he has gathered quite a double handful. As we approach Felice’s hilltop family restaurant, we can smell the distinctive earthy aroma of truffles cooking – liberally sprinkled through a hearty veal casserole which we wash down with a very pleasant domestic red.
The township of Montefalco which is home base, is noted for its fine linen work which we order up big and have shipped home. Its cobble-stoned village streets and gentle country lanes are ideal for early morning or late afternoon walks.
Several forays into the nearby township of Foligno prove to have a great selection of fashion boutiques – “without the city prices of Florence or Rome,” points out Carol.
Some evenings we have cooking classes in a former monastery kitchen in the nearby village of Castel Ritaldi. Local chefs demonstrate typical regional dishes which we later enjoy with local wines – perhaps boned rabbit filled with prosciutto and herbed omelettes, a pocketed whole veal skirt filled with minced meat, olives and pistachio, a tasty risotto of wild raddichio or a grape tart.
There is much to see and savour in Umbria – dubbed the belly button of Italy. And it’s easy to get around for, apart from Assisi, the hordes of tourists haven’t yet discovered its many historic, artistic and gastronomic treasures.
A Taste of Umbria is just one of the many specialised tours that ex-patriots Carol and Neil conduct each year in and around Umbria through their tour operations company, Living Italy.