We will be returning to our farmhouse in Umbria in just two months time and as the days begin to count down I cannot stop myself from dreaming about our upcoming trip. I truly love everything about Umbria; the gorgeous scenery, the traditional Umbrian hill towns, and of course the warmth of its people. What truly draws me to Umbria however is its cuisine. The cuisine of Umbria originates from its Etruscan roots, and is characteristically simple, relying heavily on seasonal ingredients that can be found growing in its rich soil, swimming in the region’s lakes, raised on local farms, or discovered in the lush forests that cover much of the region. Umbrian cuisine is very rustic, often called “cucina povera”, or peasant cooking, which simply means it is built on traditional dishes created with minimal ingredients and methods of preparation that rely heavily on local products such as grains, vegetables, fresh herbs, and of course olive oil, Umbria’s liquid gold. The traditional dishes of Umbria have been handed down through generations and even today maintain those same principles of simplicity and freshness that originated in Etruscan times.
Umbria relies strongly on seasonal produce such as mushrooms, wild asparagus, and numerous other fresh vegetables, and of course on the highly prized truffles that grow throughout the region. Truffles play an important part in many Umbrian dishes, including appetizers such as crostini al tartufo, or crostini alla norcina, made using anchovies, truffles and chicken livers. Both pasta and risotto dishes are also served with grated black or white truffles, while in Norcia, the homeland of the black truffle, both fresh and seasoned cheeses, as well as cured meats are seasoned with this regional treasure. Black truffles generally come from Valnerina while white truffles are harvested from the Upper Tevere valley and Eugubino Gualdese. The truffle is so highly coveted in Umbria, that in the fall and winter there are numerous festivals and markets held to celebrate these precious nuggets.
Antipasti in Umbria also reflect this regions best, and can be as simple as a variety of bruschetta topped with olive or truffle pastes, a platter of grilled vegetables dressed with the region’s olive oil, or a selection of the region’s exceptional salumi, or cured meat specialties. The simple frittata is another popular appetizer, flavored with cheese, sauteed greens, fresh herbs, or leftover vegetables. In the spring, fava beans dressed simply with olive oil and Pecorino cheese are often served, while in the fall when olive oil is harvested, antipasti may include Pinzimonio, fresh vegetables dipped in seasoned olive oil, or Fettunta, grilled bread slices drizzled with new olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.
Probably the most typical Umbrian pasta dish are strangozzi, often served with black truffles, or a spicy tomato sauce from Spoleto. Other pasta dishes include umbricelli in salsa di Trasimeno, a fish based sauce made from lake perch filets, shallots, garlic and chilli pepper. Other heartier pasta dishes include pappardelle alla lepre, (wild hare ragu), seasoned with bacon and cloves, or tomato based sauces made with rabbit or duck.
Umbrian soups tend to be rustic, and include seasonal vegetables, dried beans such as favas, lentils and chickpeas, farro or spelt, and chestnuts. These hearty soups are served simply with a drizzle of good Umbrian olive oil and can take the place of a first course at dinner, or become a main course at lunch.
Umbria is known for an abundance of meat dishes, particularly lamb, pork, and game, either grilled over the fire or cooked on the spit with an abundance of herbs, but is probably most famous for its roast suckling pig. Though typical throughout Central Italy its origins are truly Umbrian. Cooked on the spit in a wood oven, the pig is stuffed with liver, heart and lungs diced with pepper, garlic, salt and wild fennel. Norcia has become so famous for its art of pork butchery and preparation of cured meats, that butchers across Italy now use the term norcino to indicate all kinds of meats preserved in this manner. Visitors to this small city in northern Umbria will be able to savour the extraordinary variety of cured meats, from cojoni di mulo to boar sausages, DOC and IGP denomination Norcia prosciutto, and Ciauscolo, made with the shoulder cut of the pork, bacon and pork fat all minced three times, which is ideal for spreading over bread. Among the region’s most traditional typical main courses is Terni’s colombaccio selvatico, or palomba (turtledove), generally cooked on the spit. The area around Orvieto also specializes in the gallina ubriaca (translated as drunken hen), which is simply chicken cooked in plenty of good Orvieto wine. Specialities from Perugia include roast lamb’s head and Torello alla Perugina. As well as farm reared meats, being a rural region, Umbria is known for its game, and everything from wild boar to wild hare, and even pigeon are prepared in a variety of different methods and can be found on restaurant menus across the region.
Being the only region in Italy without a coastline, Umbria is not very well known for its seafood dishes although the regional lakes, particularly Lago di Trasimeno, supplies a variety of fresh lake fish such as carp, trout, mullet, pike, and perch. The main fish specialities of Lake Trasimeno, are the Regina in Porchetta, carp cooked in a wood oven in the same way as “la Porchetta”, and “Tegamaccio”, a cross between a fish soup and a rich stew, made from all the types of fish to be found in the lake, cooked in top quality olive oil, white wine and aromatic herbs.
As well as playing an important role in the traditional Umbrian diet, a number of the region’s vegetables and grains have earned the prestigious DOP quality denomination label. These include Lake Trasimeno beans, Cannara onions, and Trevi black celery. Umbria also proudly boasts no less than five different DOP denomination varieties of oive oil including; Colli Orvietani, Colli Martani, Colli Amerini, Colli di Assisi-Spoleto, and Colli del Trasimeno. Umbria’s largest production centre for olive oil is in the area directly around Trevi which is covered with silver leaved olive trees as far as the eye can see.
Side dishes in Umbria usually include seasonal vegetables, grain dishes such as farro or polenta, and legumes such as lentils from Castellucio di Norcia. Farro is produced in the area of Monteleone di Spoleto. Due to its harse winters, the farro grown in this area is firmer than farro grown elsewhere in Italy and is enjoyed in soups, salads, or braises. Umbria is also famous for its lentil production from Castellucio, a small hamlet in northern Umbria which harvests small light green to tan colored lentils that retain their texture no matter how you prepare them. Other ancient dried bean varieties that are now once again popular in Umbria are fagiolo dall’occhio (beans with eyes), grown around the Lake Trasimeno, and cicerchia, or chickling peas, which are a type of grass pea. Cicerchie are different from chickpeas, or ceci, as they are smaller, and oddly shaped but can be used in the same way chickpeas are prepared. Cicerchie have a flavor that is a cross between a fava bean and chickpea. Also worth mentioning are the red potatoes of Colfiorito which are harvested around Colfiorito di Foligno in limited production and are used to make gnocchi or bread.
Umbrian cheese is produced from both cow and sheep milk and includes such varieties as fresh ricotta, caciotta, raviglio, pecorino, and a variety of truffle flavored cheeses. Pecorino cheese of Norcia which can be matured in as little as 60 days to as long as 1 year, is one of Umbria’s most popular cheeses and can be used in a variety of dishes or simply enjoyed on its own with a glass of robust Sagrantino wine.
Bread varieties change from region to region across all of Italy, but also vary greatly across a specific region. Umbrian bread varieties are numerous, but many are saltless which originated from the 16th century when the Pope imposed a salt tax on the people who refused to pay it. One bread widely enjoyed across the entire region of Umbria is torta al testo, often called torta sul testo. This is a flat, thin bread cooked on a griddle pan that resembles a piadina and is often stuffed with cured meats, sausages, or sauteed greens. Another bread that was traditionally served at Easter is a cheese bread, often called Torcoletti, is made with Pecorino cheese and is baked in a ring shape.
Generally reserved for special annual festivities or religious ceremonies, traditional Umbrian desserts are almost always baked in the oven, and traditionally include such ingredients as almonds (or other nuts), honey, spices, or candied fruit. Many traditional sweets are associated with specific religious holidays or celebrations, and often their name reflects that. Umbria’s two largest cities, Perugia and Foligno are both famous centers of pastry and sweets. Two of the most famous pasticcerie, or pastry shops, include Sandri on Corso Vanucci in Perugia, and Muzzi in Foligno. Among the many delicious desserts of note are Torciglione, a serpent shaped sweet made of ground almonds, flour and sugar, Baci di San Fransesco (kisses of Saint Francis), Biscottini delle Monache (little nun’s cookies), and Ciaramicola, (sweetheart cake) which is a pink cake flavored with Alchermes liqueur and topped with a meringue frosting and colored sprinkles. This cake is associated with both Easter and love, and it is traditional for a young woman to bake this lovely cake for her sweetheart. The Rocciata di Assisi, a spiral looking pastry made similar to a strudel, is also made in slightly different versions in both Foligno and Spoleto. Frittelle di San Giuseppe are typical of Orvieto and are baked for the city’s patron saint whose feast day falls on March 19th. Other Umbrian sweets include Brustengolo (cornflour cake), Macaroni Dolce (sweet pasta), Pinoccate (pine nut cookies), and Panpepato (spiced fruit cake).
Umbria also has a long standing history in the production of chocolate. Founded in 1907 by the Buitoni family, the Perugina chocolate factory rose to international popularity and fame with its famous Baci chocolate, made with ground hazelnuts and dark chocolate. Initially, it was named cazzotti, but Baci were re-baptised by the decadent Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. The original machinery used in the production of Perugina chocolate is still on display at it’s museum devoted to the history of the factory that opened in 1997 called Museo Storico Perugina. In 1988 Perugina was incorporated into the holdings of the Swiss multinational Nestlé, and it’s factory can now be found in San Sisto, not far from the city center. Each year the city of Perugia holds Eurochocolate, an international chocolate fair that draws folks from around the world.
Wine plays an important part in Umbrian cuisine and due to the region’s optimal growing conditions, the production of wine in Umbria can be traced back to ancient times. Umbria’s most famous wine may be its white wine produced from grechetto grapes which are largely found in the Orvieto area, but Umbria’s red wines, particularly the Sagrantino di Montefalco is quickly catching up in popularity. Some of the more popular brands of Orvieto whites exported outside of Italy are those from the Antinori and Lungarotti wineries, while red wine vintners in Umbria such as Arnoldo Caprai, Colpetrone, Anronelli, Bea, and Tabarrini are rapidly bringing Sagrantino di Montefalco to the attention of the rest of the world. There are 12 DOC regions in Umbria that include Assisi, Colli Alto Tiberini, Colli Amerini, Colli Trasimeno, Colli Martani, Colli Perugini, Lago di Corbara, Montefalco, Orvieto Classico, Rosso Orvietano, and Torgiano.
As you can see, Umbrian cuisine is about good flavor, freshness, and simplicity. It’s rich soil provides its residents an unlimited number of amazing seasonal ingredients which are simply prepared to highlight the true flavor of each dish. The traditional methods still used in the production of such typical ingredients as Norcia’s cured meats, regional artisan cheeses, regional wines, and farm raised meats ensures the absolute best quality of these products. Umbria is birthplace to the ancient art of butchery, and home to the treasured black truffle. It’s cuisine is unique to the region, and authentic to it’s origins. The cuisine of Umbria is healthy, hearty, and born from “cucina povera”. Umbrians have always relied on the natural resources harvested from their fields and forests. It is honest, Italian home cooking at it’s very finest!
Deborah Mele 2011