No matter where you dine in Italy, the food is simply delicious, every ingredient infused with sunshine and minerals from fertile soil lovingly tended for centuries.
I was reminded of this fact time and again during a June visit to Umbria as a guest of the Italian trade agency and Rome-based Cia, which promotes the interests of Italian farmers. This rugged, land-locked region of central Italy is less well known than elegant Tuscany next door, yet it has much to offer in terms of beauty, art, culture and culinary delights.
As we drove north from Rome’s Fiumicino airport we passed medieval hill towns atop distant hills. Rocky outcrops and oak forests soon gave way to grape vines, some neatly pruned, others threatening to escape their trellises.
Trading the highway for winding roads, we drove up and up until we reached Agriturismo L’Elmo, one of many farm vacation homes scattered across rural Italy. These unique settings, from rustic to five-star, offer visitors a chance to taste fresh, local “Made in Italy” products and allow the farmers — who are as poorly paid as Canadian growers — to preserve ancient traditions while earning extra income.
Sitting by the pool, under blue skies overlooking groves of oak, hazelnut and olive trees, we tasted our first glass of crisp white Orvieto Classico.
That night we slept in simple apartments carved into the old stone farmhouse, and dined on local ingredients, from traditional homemade pasta with wild boar sauce to smoky lamb chops with wild chicory, all cooked by the young manager’s mother. At breakfast, we slathered Elmo’s signature chocolate hazelnut spread on homemade bread.
Off to Tenuta di Salviano, where manager Guido Orzalesi works hard to create quality wines that elevate the Orvieto name to its former glory. Today 80% is sold in bulk to a few big bottlers. After another wild ride up hill and down – Guido’s car had met a wild boar here the previous week and the boar won – we arrived at Salviano’s sister property, the medieval castle of Titignano, whose history dates back to 937AD.
Titignano’s 40 comfortable rooms were once farm workers’ cottages, and the estate has its own chapel, popular for weddings. From the sun-dappled terrace the view is breathtaking, overlooking 2,000 hectares of forest, vineyards and olive groves and man-made Lake Corbara.
Here we sipped a handmade sparkling Brut and Salviano’s whites and reds, matched with extraordinary dishes that just kept coming, including crepes layered with fresh tomato, crostini of fava beans, wild fennel and artichokes on toasted bread, guinea fowl with an anchovy caper sauce and tagliatelle with shaved black truffles.
Onward to Palazzone, just outside Orvieto, to meet owner and winemaker Giovanni Dubini, who cycles through India for fun when not home making fine wines with traditional grapes like grechetto and procanico and once-forbidden imports like viognier. Giovanni also found time to transform a crumbling palace on his property into a stunning inn, and is proud of the all-natural wine he produces by hand in the Etruscan cave near his home.
Another terrace, another superb meal as the sun set over the vineyards. Bring on the beef carpaccio, zucchini-flecked lasagna sheets topped with a zucchini flowers, beef tenderloin strewn with wild asparagus and gorgonzola panna cotta for dessert, paired with Palazzone’s sweet late harvest Muffa Nobile.
Though I’d never been to Orvieto, I knew I’d love this small medieval city of 5,000 perched on a cliff in Umbria. It’s actually two cities in one, with a famous Duomo and other attractions above ground and more than 1,000 ancient caves and tunnels below carved into the soft volcanic tufa stone by the Etruscans thousands of years ago.
We first headed underground to the Labyrinth of Adriano, discovered by chance in the 1980s while the owners were renovating their famous pastry shop. After more than 20 years of excavation, the cool, dark cellars on three levels reveal remnants of everyday life so long ago.
Back outside under the hot sun, we walked to the Palazzo del Popolo, home of the weekly farmers market, before wending our way through medieval streets crowded with homes, their wrought iron balconies festooned with flowers. We visited the oldest church in Orvieto, the romanesque Chiesa di San Giovenale, which reopened three years ago with its remaining frescoes restored. From the thick city wall we looked down, down to the modern city below, and beyond to vineyards and farmers’ fields. The city’s main streets are filled with restaurants and tiny independent shops but there was no time for doddling, the massive Duomo awaited.
Grand barely describes this massive 13th century cathedral, its black and white striped exterior and mosaic facade opening into a vast empty space of polished marble floors and famous frescoes. A stunning white marble sculpture of Mary holding her dead son, cut down from the cross, shows an older, agonized Mary, not the youthful Virgin Mother we so often see.
The frescoes of Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgement from 1500, considered his masterpiece, dominate the cathedral’s Cappella Nova chapel. In one panel the artist paints himself as a grey devil in Hell manhandling his naked wife, apparently after discovering that she was having an affair in real life.
With the clock ticking to lunch, we had one more stop. Walking briskly down a cool, tree-lined avenue, we arrived back at the parking lot where cars and buses are forced to stop. A leafy path led us to a round stone building containing the 16th century Pozzo or well of St. Patrick. This feat of medieval engineering consists of two spiral staircases, one heading down 50 metres and another heading up, built around a central well shaft lit by 70 windows cut into the stone. The 248 steps in each direction were built for donkeys carrying water to the surface. Let’s just say the walk will test your fitness level, and we were all out of breath and pleased to reach the top and breathe fresh air.
Though Locanda Rosati, our lunch stop, is just a few kilometres outside Orvieto, it feels like you’re out in the country. Relax by the pool and stay the night in one of nine rooms. The wood oven in the cosy dining room turns out the most delicious roast pork, accompanied by a glass of Orvietano Rosso. Vegetables come from the inn’s garden and the pasta is homemade. After lunch we walked past a grove of hazelnut trees to the wildlife pens, alive with excitable guinea fowl, ducks and chicken all destined for dinner one day.
Of course no Italian dish is complete without a drizzle of green-gold olive oil. In June the olives on the bushy trees at Frantoio Ricci in Montecchio were the size of a pea. By now they’re fat and full of oil, and political journalist Alessandro Ricci will be home to help his father bring in the crop and press it using the latest stainless steel equipment, imported from Scandinavia. The family’s award-winning oil bears the DOP designation (Protected Designation of Origin) so buyers know it has been locally grown and bottled in Umbria.
We arrived in Montecchio in late afternoon to find Alessandro’s parents carrying bags of groceries into the kitchen. Several hours later, as we sat at a long table clinking glasses with new friends, his mother began bringing out yet another non-stop feast, from thin-sliced sella, Umbria’s prosciutto, to bruschetta with the reddest tomatoes, roasted peppers and more homemade pasta. Made with Ricci oil and plenty of love.
IF YOU GO