Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Gourmet Cuisine of Umbria: Fagiano all'uva, Palombacci alla ghiotta, Ciriole, Mazzafegati

Everything grows here. The combination of so many sources of clean, running water, fertile, varied growing conditions and powerful Mediterranean sun from early spring to late autumn, mean that if you plant and tend it, it will flourish. There are heavily wooded chestnut forests, which supply game, wild mushrooms, and Umbria's most famous and delicate white and black truffles. In the valleys there are cattle and sheep - lamb is a particularly popular meat here - and on the slopes, sometimes gentle, sometimes not, are olives, fruit orchards, and vineyards. The lakes and rivers produce an added bonus: plentiful, very fresh and unusual varieties of freshwater fish. One aspect of Umbrian cuisine which is constantly both innovative and typically 'careful' rather than frugal, is the different ways in which produce is preserved - drying, bottling, smoking - all add to the sense that you are often experiencing the rich essence of flavours enhanced and strengthened using preserving methods jealously guarded and passed on.

If you go north to Gubbio, take advantage of the surrounding wild, mountainous area, and try the local game: Fagiano all'uva (pheasant cooked with grapes) or Palombacci alla ghiotta (wild pigeon in a sauce of reduced meat juices, olive oil, vinegar, anchovies, olives, lemon peel, sage, salt and pepper). The slow cooking and rich flavours make these dishes powerfully aromatic, and they are often cooked quite saltily. The most famous mushrooms are porcini, the often-giant boletus variety, but there are hundreds of different edible mushrooms, which are gathered from the forests, and form the basis of both primi and secondi. If you can, pick them up at early morning markets.

The perfect wine with game and all this boscaiolo (forest) produce is the Rosso di Montefalco, made with mostly Sangiovese grapes, but also with some Trebbiano Toscano and Sagrantino grapes. If there is a chill in the air towards the end of summer, dinner outside on a terrace, but with a wood fire burning just inside, is a perfect time to join all this richness together. The Ristorante Federico da Montefeltro, Via della Repubblica 35 in Gubbio, has a menu which takes advantage of all the local hills can give, but also of fresh local vegetables. Try the Vernino Bianco dei Colli Altotiberini, from a good wine list.

Travelling south it is fun to stop off at Bevagna. During the summer festival, here you can sample exotica drawn from medieval recipes: Anguilla al succo di melagrana e arancia (eel with a pomegranate and orange sauce) and a raft of other sweet and sour dishes. For something more typically Umbrian and up to date, visit Ottavius in Via del Gonfalone 4, where the Strangozzi con fagioli (home made Umbrian spaghetti with beans) are especially good, and Agnello tartufato (lamb cooked with truffles) is a really good example of how versatile truffles are alongside so many different flavours. The restaurant is in the cellars of the Palazzo dei Consoli, and has atmosphere to match.

Local wine range from the Grechetto to Montefalco d'Arquata and a good source is the Azienda Adanti (Arquata di Bevagna).

Local olive oil benefits from the wonderful microclimate of Umbria, where fruit can mature longer. Cold pressed virgin olive oil is sometimes incredibly, shockingly green, and its flavor is full of fruit and low in acidity. Oil is an essential base-note in so much Umbrian cooking - in home made pasta like ciriole, rough versions of tagliatelle, and the strascinati - a kind of maccheroni, one of the best kinds is umbrici - great fat Umbrian spaghetti. Olive oil is also the most essential ingredients of so many wonderful sauces which accompany meat and fish everywhere - slowly dissolved ingredients in a base of oil, such as truffles, mushrooms, fresh herbs, dried herbs, dried mushrooms and tomatoes; the oil is the crucial starting point. At Bevagna you can go to L'azienda Petasecca Donati, Via Flaminia 30a, to taste and buy directly.

Just a few kilometres from Bevagna is Foligno, and a good stopping off point is the Albergo Ristorante Villa Roncalli, via Roma 25. You approach through an avenue of horse chestnuts, which hides this hotel/restaurant from the road. Among the good dishes here are the Terrina di gallinella e fave all'olio di oliva (light chicken terrine, with beans in olive oil), and many others that feature game and forest produce - very wonderful Asparagi di bosco (wild asparagus).

Zigzag back across the river Tiber once again and you are in Montefalco, which produces Sagrantino Montefalco. This is a deep, powerful red wine, made almost completely from dried Sagrantino grapes. It is so good with grilled meat, strong flavours, even with seasoned cheese, like Pecorino or Parmigiano, or with puddings and tarts with fruit.

It cannot be avoided any longer. You have to go to Norcia. This is such a great town - where every aspect of food production and preservation is a source of local pride and competition. In fact the name Norcino no longer simply means someone from Norcia, but is now the colloquial word for butcher all around central Italy. All kinds of cured meats are produced here - salami, cured ham, sausages (both fresh and cured), specialist local versions such as Mazzafegati (sausage made with pork liver, seasoned with pine nuts, raisins, orange rind and sugar). At the Hotel-Ristorante Granaro del Monte, Via Alfieri 7, the antipasto della casa has an encyclopaedic selection for you to try - including Prosciutto di cinghiale (cured wild boar). It is not all meat - there is a primo of Fettuccine al sugo di trota (soft fettuccine turned in a sauce of fresh trout). Again, showing amazing versatility in using local ingredients, the Coniglio in porchetta (rabbit rolled in ham and stuffed with fragrant herbs) is another example of how slight variations can change flavours with wonderful results. Norcia is full of specialist food shops and delicatessens, bakeries with beautifully made sweets and chocolates. You can by local honey, oil, beans, the famous tiny delicate lentils from Castelluccio, which specialises in them, pastes for sauces made with herbs, mushrooms, truffles in particular. These are all easy to transport, and are indispensable once you have used them.

It is worthwhile making a detour to Preci, not far from Norcia, where at the Azienda il Collaccio, which also has its own restaurant - Il Porcello Felice, you will find olive oil infused with orange, along with other wonderful perfumery dishes like Trota in salsa di tartufo (trout in truffle sauce). The restaurant uses the products from the Azienda throughout its menu and you can buy them direct after lunch!

Orvieto. The home of one of Italy's most successful wines of the same name. More than half is exported but there are local versions, which are certainly 'kept back' which you can enjoy here. After taking in so much that the city can overwhelm you with, it is so good to stay for what anywhere else might be too long and share a bottle of Orvieto Abboccato, which is slightly sweeter than the famous Orvieto Classico, but still good with the right secondo, or dessert. At Ristorante Maurizio, Via Duomo 78, it is difficult not to have to make a second visit: apart from lamb, and many dishes influenced by profumi di bosco (fragrances of the forest) there is Nodino di vitello al genepro (fillet of veal with juniper). Archives have amusingly revealed that one of Orvieto's most famous influences, Luca Signorelli, who frescoed the Duomo, wrote into his contract that he should be allowed 'as much of that wine known as Orvieto as he could desire'. The Orvieto Classico is a light delicate yellow, and is made with Trebbiano, Grecchetto, Drupeggio, Malvasia and Verdello grapes from the sixteen comuni around the city. Only twenty-two kilometres from Orvieto is Bolsena: famously beautiful medieval town by a lake, which produces wonderful fresh fish, from its frighteningly deep-looking waters. A really special soup - Sbroscia - is made using water from the lake. Otherwise, La Sirenetta, Via Cadorna 10, offers a rich fish menu, including Anguilla (eel, with various sauces, or roast) Filetti di persico in salsa di champignon (fillets of perch with a sauce of button mushrooms), Coregone e trota alle erbe (trout and tench with fresh herbs).

Coming full circle, north to Perugia, there are endless opportunities to taste fresh-water fish at the towns around the Lago di Trasimeno. If your visit is in autumn, you can experience 'Eurochocolate', a festival that magically transforms Perugia into a giant chocolate orgy. There are tastings, exhibitions of chocolate making, workshops and more. Further north, to Cittࠤi Castello, in November, there is the Mostra del Tartufo, an exhibition not just of the most delicate white truffles, but also of so many other of the Umbrian products that we have described.

Umbrian natural ingredients along with the skills and traditions of its people make this area an inexhaustibly seductive location for anyone who loves to share good food and wine. It is an inseparable part of every day life, and brings you into contact with such wonderful, knowledgeable people, that as you sit at your table on a terrace overlooking the green of a mountainside, it all seems too fairy-tale good.

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