Friday, March 20, 2015

Eight Days in Umbria, Italy - 2015

  
It seems that virtually everyone has been to Italy, loved the people and the food.  So is there anything new to say?  
Well, Umbria Italy exceeded all my expectations in terms of the food, and the people.
  
We had great good fortune in finding:
 1) Louisa and Francesco, who live what they believe and are such a cogent example of living in harmony with the earth and her creatures.
 2) A guide as intelligent, warm hearted and wise as Anna Maria Madaffari, so well versed in the history of the region and its wines.
 3) And lucky to have Sabrina Varani film us while in Orvieto, and at dinner at Cimbolello, where she was a verbal liaison (otherwise known as a translator) between the five of us and Francesco and Louisa.

 For more specifics: I studied eleven guidebooks or travel books, and as many online commentaries as possible about Umbria, the green heart of Italy, where we went. I suspect it was different from Rome, Milan, Venice, etc. There was only one large-ish city, Perugia, and we skipped it. Umbria is the center of environmentally oriented Italians, and we saw multitudes of solar panels together with olive groves
and  perfectly geometrically arranged grape vines.

 We visited a number of what were once little city-states:  communities built on small mountains and fortified by stone walls, to protect against attack by the next door city state. Many of these towns have histories that date back to the Etruscans.                                                                                                                                
The interior streets are narrow alleys, lined with potted cyclamen and primroses.

 
 

We stayed just outside one of these towns -Citta della Pieve. We visited Montefalco, Orvieto, Gubbio, and most beautiful of all, Spello. We also went to Siena in Tuscany.
  We were very fortunate on three counts. First, we somewhat randomly picked an “agroturismo” farm to stay in on the basis of a photo on Airbnb  of an oval stone fireplace in a living room/kitchen.
                         And so we happened on “Cimbolello”,

owned by Louisa and Francesco,   

vegetarians, who have devoted their lives to living sustainably, and in relation to their six sheep, two dogs and small flock of chickens. They are serious about their sheep milk cheese. (Pecorino), and we feasted on fresh ricotta and tasted older cheeses.
 
The oldest of the sheep is Ermione, the small black one is Nerina. There is Saltatrice (always jumping), Impassite (crazy), Daisy, Camilla, and the baby, Camillina. There is also the ram, Centro Euro (he was too expensive!)

Louisa and Francesco have built everything from scratch, including the outdoor ovens.
                                                                            
                                                                          Their storage built for the aging cheeses.

                                                                                 
As well as making their own limoncello, olive oil and wine in an immaculate kitchen and hand-built storage cellar, oils from rosemary and lavender. Passionate, committed people.

 
 Second, one of my on-line forays connected me to Anna Maria Madaffari ,

a sommelier who was our guide for the first two days of our trip.  She celebrated her 34th birthday on February 24 (the day before I celebrated my 80th). She was a delight, a fountain of knowledge who never stopped talking as she wove her way through Umbria and Tuscany. She was often witty and never boring. We learned a lot about wine from her, and with her.
Third, we had the good luck to meet Sabrina Varani,
an Italian Filmmaker, who spent two days with us, translating in between wielding her camera. Again the warmth and intelligence of our interactions far exceeded what we experience with strangers at home or in other countries.  Why? Is it the Italian nature? 
We wanted to learn more about Brunello wines and Anna took us to two Brunello vineyards in Tuscany. One was called Prime Donne (First Women). The vintner has hired women
to work for her, and she honors a woman of consequence each year. This past year an astrophysicist.
Second, Poggio Rubino was a beautiful site, owned by a young couple. The woman’s mother, Roberta cooked us lunch. Most interesting to me were three differently-aged pecorino cheeses, served with local honey, to taste with the Brunello wines. There was panzanella, a puree of stale bread and tomatoes, and an olive oil cake with a syrupy reduction of the Brunello wines. All lovely.

We also went to the Petricaia vineyard in Montefalco (Umbria) to taste wines made from the Sagrantino grape, and when we visited Orvieto, we drank the Orvieto Classico (a blend) and a pure Grechetto that we really enjoyed.

Each little town had something special about it. Beautifully decorated pottery in Deruta, Gubbio and Orvieto, each its own particular style. White truffles with house made pasta or with gnocchi at Taverna del Lupo in Gubbio. Wow! Delicious! Amazing artichokes in Siena at Tratoria San Giuseppe. When we ordered seconds, the waiter told us how to make them: the trimmed hearts are soaked overnight in lemon water, then drained and braised slowly in olive oil the next day and finally finished under the grill.

Orvieto has the most amazing cathedral (The Duomo di Orvieto),  a great wedding cake of decorated tiles and bronze statues, built over a period of 400 years.
 
The door handles were huge, very sexy female angels.


Just like in Siena, the narrow streets surrounding the cathedral (in Siena, the Compo) were full of small shops displaying artisan ware.  In Orvieto; it was olive wood kitchen tools and sunflower pottery.
In Siena, there was a truffle store

that cost me a lot of euros!  
In Citta della Pieve, it was little packets of locally grown saffron, and in Spello, it was a shop that carried the castelluccio lentils, the almost extinct Risina beans, and a variety of chick peas called cicerchia.                                  

We ate at ten restaurants during our eight days in Italy.
The first was Il Margutta, in Rome;
 right after  we got off the plane. An all vegetarian restaurant which features a buffet for lunch, we feasted on many dishes, including mashed chickpea and potato deep fried balls in a thin pesto, sautéed artichokes with mint, and cabbage salad. Lunch was 18 euros including a glass of wine.

In Deruta, Umbria, after our shopping spree at the Mojolica pottery factory, Ubaldo Grazia,
 Anna took us to L’Antica Forziere, with a spacious lovely dining room,
run by three brothers, twins in the kitchen!  We had house made pasta tinted with beets (it looked like streaks of ham) in a leek and garlic sauce, very finely cut linguini with black truffles, a delicious risotto, and a
gorgeous dessert platter decorated with spun sugar.

The next day, after our lunch at Poggio Rubino, we went to Citta della Pieve (our farm where we stayed was about twenty minutes away) for dinner at Zeffrano,
a restaurant named for the saffron grown locally. Again, a spacious dining room and a waiter who had neither a snippy attitude nor a servant’s false humility, but who felt like an equal, a possible friend!  We ate another risotto, this time scented with saffron, a finely cut raw artichoke salad, and a “millefoile” of cabbage leaves rolled around vegetables and then braised. 20 Euros per person.

In Gubbio, we ate at Taverna del Lupo,

feasting on white truffles over house made pasta

and gnocchi.                                      Another beautiful, spacious restaurant.
Siena, in Tuscany, was busier with folks than the Umbrian towns. 

We ate at Taverna San Giuseppe,

where we had the aforementioned olive oil stewed artichokes, with dessert, a pear simmered in Brunello wine served with an excellent, not very sweet gelato.

In the evening we went to Chiusi, a town in Tuscany, just over the border from Citta della Pieve. And ate at La Solita Zuppa, justly known for their soups:  artichoke potato, and winter squash.  We had house made pici,  ( a very simple small pasta) with a spicy tomato sauce, and a mixed vegetable cake with walnuts.
Orvieto was another busy city. After looking at the fabulous Duomo de Orvieto and buying olive wood spoons, we ate lunch at  del Moro Arone, where we had a pecorino mousse with fava bean purée, spinach polpette (“meat balls”)
and the most delicious soup of the week, porcini and potato.

 

                                                                                        Rolanda,
                                                 the owner, gave us the recipe, and we are serving at Bloodroot to everyone’s  delight.










On our second to last day in Italy, we went to Spello. We visited a olive oil enoteca.
 
It did not seem to be a touristy town, but was quite beautiful, a jewel.

     As usual we got lost looking for La Bastiglia,
the hotel in which we planned to have lunch. Again a lovely, gracious space. We ate house made ribbon pasta with finely cut artichokes and a puree of fava beans.  There was a delicious lentil and bean soup, a bottle of Orvieto Classico, and a gelato lightly scented with cinnamon.  We saw the cook – Andrea,
who claimed he was not the chef, his uncle is, but since his uncle was away, he had made our lunch, and was it ok?    Yes, it was wonderful.

On our last day in Italy we went to a restaurant that had caused a lot of prior anxiety.  Before we went, I worried about making the supposedly essential reservations. We enlisted the help of our friend, Justin Galletti, who spends time in Italy, and learned that 2 or 3 of my best choices were closed in February. Then there was the expensive, 2-Michelin Star place. When Justin called and asked if they had vegetarian options, the answer was that they had a single, prix-fixe menu, 90 euros per person, with no vegetarian choices. However they would make us a special vegetarian menu at the same prix-fixe price if we desired.  I debated and worried about it all being too fancy (as well as too expensive) and finally decided, oh well,  80th birthday and all…..and so I said yes.  It was too scary to attempt driving the mountain roads at night for which our reservation was scheduled, and Anna helped us change it to lunch. On our drive we got quite lost (went up a mountain and down) but got there at last. We were the only lunch guests. Three Mercedes parked in front with us.
Well Vissani was everything I could have wished for if I had been optimistic, but since I was pessimistic, it was astounding!  Beautiful, with many rooms, on the edge of a lake. We were seated at a round table in a corner,
 
and each length of the wall held large windows with a view of the “L"
shaped kitchen, with 16 chefs preparing our meal (several were women). One part of the “L” was for making breads and pastries. The other “L” produced the rest.
 We were each given a hand-written menu of the meal prepared especially for us, but it was incomplete as there were three amuse bouche, and breads – a different little roll or biscuit with each course, and exquisite butter.  Three wines accompanied the food – one at a time, in different shaped wine glasses.  There was a Lalique glass figurine of a winged woman
centered on our table, the Hermes designed plates changed often. What to say. It all sounds extreme and unnecessary, but there was delight, and our two waiters were so not-stuffy, so warm and genuinely friendly that we couldn’t help but enjoy it all. I told them that I was in Italy for my 80th birthday, so they whipped up a Cassata Siciliana to go with dessert, and turned off the lights, and sang. 



Afterwards, we were escorted to the long narrow room overlooking the lake, with a lit fire place at the end, for coffee. Chairs were deep and comfortable.
We felt like we could stay forever. But Roberto wanted to show us the now empty kitchen, and so we went in to see beautiful marble tables and counters throughout, copper pots and pans and ramekins - a gorgeous array.

Touring the Vassani kitchen with Roberto
No question that it was worth it, a thoroughly grand experience.

I had thought that after a week of it that I would tire of the Umbrian cuisine. Well I didn’t, but the departures at Vissani were wonderful also, and very Italian – some from  Sardinia.  At different seasons they get wine from different parts of Italy. Today Greco in Calabria. The biggest full wine was Nero de Calabria. It was raining as we were leaving and Roberto ran out to get our car for us.  There was no feeling of servant/service. It felt like friendship, and of course there was talk of several of them coming to visit us.
The Vissani menu began with the Amuse bouche:  a tiny ratatouille, a small polenta with roasted yellow tomatoes, and 2 very small artichokes, one raw and one deep fried.
Sous vide egg with asparagus and yellow tomato caviar.
Lentil soup poured over chilled Montessio cheese with black truffles.
Black kale with parmesan  and bright green kale puree “prezzimolo”.
Fregola – tiny pasta from Sicily with  pecorino and tomato ice cream, blackberry puree around the ice cream.
And many desserts!

A TRIP WE WILL NEVER FORGET!

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