Eating Up Umbria
The Best of Umbria's Food and Wine (and where to find it!)
Umbria, the understatedly lovely region nestled between bustling Lazio and celebrity Tuscany, is beloved by in-the-know Italy travellers for a number of things: its gorgeous landscape, which goes from soft, undulating hills to craggy, dramatic mountain peaks; its postcard-perfect Medieval hilltowns, many boasting worldclass art and architecture which belie their tiny size; and its contemplative spiritual sites, deeply connected to one of this region's many saints, including Claire, Benedict, and, of course, Francis.
But let's face it: what everyone loves best about Umbria is this region's amazing cuisine.
This is a historically rural region, blanketed with pastures, fields, vineyards, and olive groves. And what comes out of that pastoral landscape to end up on the dinner table is some of the highest quality food and wine in Italy (a land of high quality food and wine, so the bar is high), genuine and unassuming, yet so simply superb that it is unforgettable. Much like the region, itself...
Sagrantino di Montefalco
Umbria's flagship wine is the tannic, full-bodied red produced on the hillsides surrounding the pretty town of Montefalco in the center of the region. Dotted with family-owned wineries, this area is the perfect stop for a day of touring and tasting followed by dinner at the excellent restaurant L'Alchimista, set directly on Montefalco's tiny main square and featuring both local wines and a number of Sagrantino-laced dishes. The gnocchetti in Sagrantino sauce is not to be missed, and the Barbozza al Sagrantino is said to have converted a number of vegetarians back to the joys of pork ;)
L'Olio di Trevi
The slopes ringing the Umbria valley are lined with olive groves as far as the eye can see, and the extra virgin oil produced here is of such high quality that the area has been dubbed "The Gold Coast". Sure, olive oil is full of aging and cancer-busting phytonutrients, but all we need to know is that it's incredibly tasty. The best places to sample some of the most sought-after oils are the pretty stone hilltowns perched on these hillsides, including Spello and Trevi, which have specialty shops and frantoi (olive oil mills) stocked with local pressings.
Le Lenticchie di Castelluccio
Really, all this fuss about the humble lentil?!? Well, once you taste these tiny, peppery legumes from the high plateau surrounding the hamlet of Castelluccio in the Sibilline National Park, you won't wonder anymore at their fame. Lovely cooked up in a thick stew and served with Umbria's fabulous local sausage (this region is also famous for its pork, especially in charcuterie form) and a drizzle of olive oil (see above), these lentils will remind you once again that the best dishes are often the most simple of comfort food.
Il Tartufo di Norcia
Yet another example of "you can't judge a book by its cover", one would never guess that the homely, warty, earth-encrusted truffle could deliver up such a divine punch of flavor once cleaned up and shaved over anything from fresh tagliatelle (a local ribbon pasta), scrambled eggs, risotto, or game. Head to the mountain town of Norcia (just a short drive from Castelluccio, if you are headed there for lentils), where the streets are lined with food shops hawking local heirloom legumes, wild boar salami, sharp aged pecorino sheep cheese, and jars and jars of truffles.
Wait, what? Here we are toting the fruits of the earth in their unsullied form, and we end with the most elaborate of foods?!? Well, you can hardly talk about Umbria's cuisine without at least a passing mention of one of the region's most famous products, and namesake of one of the two provincial capitals. Perugina is an historic confectionary company based in Perugia which has been making candy for over a century. Their most famous product, the Bacio, is a small hazelnut and chocolate "kiss", enclosed in its iconic star-studded foil wrapper together with a romantic aphorism-printed note. The Perugina factory and museum is located on the outskirts of this bustling city and open for tours.
Our Insider is Rebecca Winke
Our Insider is Rebecca, born in Chicago but quickly going native in beautiful Umbria, the central Italian region famous for excellent food and wine, bucolic landscapes, and postcard-perfect hilltop villages. Rebecca often shares her tales of life and travel in Umbria and Italy in publications and websites around the globe.
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