Today Eating Italy goes to Umbria, or the Valle Umbra to be exact. We talk with Jennifer McIlvaine of Life Italian Style. American-born and now an adopted Umbrian, Jennifer offers active food & wine tours, cooking classes and private chef services for those visiting the region. She's thought of some really creative ways to both explore the Umbrian countryside while eating and drinking the best it has to offer.
I was a fan of her blog long before I met Jennifer. Of course I enjoy the Umbrian recipes she shares, but I especially love her stories about "Becoming Cannarese," her adorable Italian neighbors and the laugh-out-loud experiences she encounters while "integrating" with her community.
I finally met Jennifer in person recently. She invited me to join her active food & wine tour where we'd tour a winery on horseback. The weather didn't cooperate with us, so instead we opted for wine tasting at the same winery and then headed over to the picturesque hilltop towns of Bevagna and Montefalco. In Montefalco, she introduced me to a most decadent, Umbrian version of bacon & eggs (read on for more about this dish). That dish alone made me want to follow Jennifer around and find out more. Below Jennifer explains the Valle Umbra area and gives some amazing tips on where & how to eat your way around...
How did you end up in Umbria and what made you start Life Italian Style?
I arrived in Umbria after meeting my (now) husband Federico of Trampetti Olive Oil in Seattle. I fell in love with the region and haven't looked back since! When I first moved here, I worked at a popular osteria called Il Bacco Felice before opening my own restaurant Trattoria Basiliko' in Foligno. My business partner and I both decided to "enlarge" our families at the same time, and so we made the decision to sell the restaurant.
I started Life Italian Style three years ago, basically when passing tourists asked me to do a cooking class for them... and the rest is history! I have now expanded to include Food & Wine tours of the area as well as offering my expertise as a private chef for travelers who rent villas in the area.
Today we've narrowed our Umbrian food focus to the Valle Umbra. Where exactly is Valle Umbra?
The Valle Umbra is the heart of Umbria. It is the valley area in the central most part of the region, running north to south, basically from Perugia to Spoleto, and is comprised of some of the most charming medieval villages in Umbria: Assisi, Torgiano, Cannara, Bevagna, Foligno, Spello, Montefalco, Trevi, and Campello sul Clitunno (among others).
It is the area I always recommend for visitors to Umbria, as it is a strategic location to use as a base for touring the entire region.
What is distinctive and/or special about Umbrian cooking, especially in relation to other regions in Italy?
Umbrian cooking is uncomplicated peasant food. The traditional recipes are very simple, with the basis of almost every recipe being olive oil, a garlic clove, a hot pepper, and rosemary or sage. This method really lets the flavors of the local products shine through.
What tips do you have for visitors (the how's, do's and don'ts) so that they can fully enjoy and experience the food of this region?
1. Accept that the bread has no salt in it. It is a part of the culture here - if you need salt, top it with a piece of prosciutto like we do.
2. Don't ask for/expect butter in restaurants - this is an olive oil producing area - and olive oil is all we use!
3. Don't ask for balsamic vinegar - that comes from Modena in Emilia Romagna.... and definitely don't mix oil and vinegar on your plate for dipping bread! Olive oil is for drizzling over bruschetta or meat dishes.
4. Learn the "eating hours". Restaurants are open from 1:00-3:00pm for lunch, and reopen at 8:00pm for dinner. If you need a snack, grab a piece of pizza "al taglio" (by the slice) or some gelato!
What 5 regional dishes, desserts and/or wines would you say every visitor to the Valle Umbra should not miss?
1. First and foremost: Porchetta. Umbria is the pork capital of Italy... (maybe even the world!), and this local street food can't be beat. It is a whole pig which has been deboned, rubbed with herbs, rolled back up, and roasted all night long in a wood fired oven. It is then sold as panini in food trucks around the region.
2. Speaking of pork, our Salumi products: Prosciutto, salami, capocollo, salsicce secche, lonza, etc... The dry, breezy climate of Umbria is perfect for curing meats, and this art has been perfected in the town of Norcia where Norcini (salumi makers) have been practicing for over 1000 years.
3. Truffles. Black Truffles are very easy to find all over Umbria almost all year long, as there are 2 varieties, the summer truffle, known as Scorzone, and the winter truffle (more prized) known as Tartufo Nero Pregiato. In the late fall, the glorious Tartufo Bianco, or white truffle, makes a brief appearance as well - look for it especially in the towns of Gubbio and Citta' di Castello.
4. ... And what goes better with pork than beans?!? Legumes are a very important part of the Umbrian diet. Chickpeas, Borlotti beans, Roveja (a wild dried pea), and the famous tiny, brown Lentils of Castelluccio are grown all over the region. Though not legumes, ancient grains such as farro and barley are also prolific and are usually added to soups with local beans.
5. Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Umbria, and specifically the zone around Trevi called Colli Spoleto-Assisi is known around the world for the production of high quality extra virgin olive oil. The main local olives used are Moraiolo, Frantoio, and Leccino, which produce a peppery, grassy oil, high in polyphenols and antioxidants.
What are your 5 favorite eateries in the Valle Umbra right now?
Antiche Sere in Bevagna. The chef/owner Luciano is from Puglia, and sneaks some of his southerly roots into the recipes of his adopted region of Umbria. (Located at Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, 10/phone: +39 0742 361938)
Perbacco in Cannara. Cannara is known for onions, and this product is featured in a few of the local dishes on the menu. The kitchen is traditional Umbrian with some unique modern touches. (Located on via Umberto I, 14/phone: +39 0742 720492)
Da Marisa in Torgiano. If you want a real Italian nonna to cook for you, then this is the place to be. Marisa is always in the kitchen, lunch and dinner, day in and day out. She always cooks seasonally and abundantly - I go for lunch because then I know I won't need to eat dinner later!
Parco del Clitunno in Campello sul Clitunno. This is a magical little place near the springs of the Clitunno river. They specialize in fresh water fish: trout, crayfish, and roasted eel. Go here on a nice sunny day when you can eat outside with the honking geese and ducks!
Osteria a Priori in Perugia. This is a great little place to have either a full meal or just a snack with wine. In addition to being a restaurant, they sell pretty much every Umbrian product available: local wine, beer, legumes, saffron, etc.
What is your favorite food season in the Valle Umbra and why?
This is a difficult question. Spring offers so much in the way of vegetables: wild asparagus, favas, agretti, artichokes... but then again, I think that Umbria really shines in the fall. The grape harvest leads to the olive harvest... then wild mushrooms, truffles, and chestnuts... plus, in this period everyone has their fireplaces lit and the smell of roasting meat is always in the air...
Which food & wine festivals of the region would you suggest?
Porchettiamo: a celebration of Porchetta in San Terenziano, takes place the 2nd weekend in May.
Cantine Aperte (wineries open): The last Sunday in May, all of the wineries open their doors and have big parties with food, concerts and... wine!
La Sagra della Lumaca (Snail Festival) in Cantalupo - this tiny little village between Bevagna and Cannara cooks up the local delicacy every which way the last week in August.
La Festa della Cipolla (Onion Festival) in Cannara - this is the big daddy of food festivals in Umbria. Thousands descend on my adopted hometown the first 2 weeks of September to feast upon the mighty onion!
Festa del Bosco (Montone) - this is a great fall festival. You can eat in one of the medieval halls and then shop till you drop for local autumn specialties.
If you were going to have your last meal in Umbria, where and what would it be?
Impossible question. I would have to spend the whole day driving around to "gather" my favorite dishes!
First, I would stop by L'Alchimista in Montefalco for La Barbozza al Sagrantino and Le Uova Strapazzate al Tartufo - basically the most amazing dishes of "bacon and eggs" you will ever have, ever. (guanciale slowly cooked in Sagrantino wine and scrambled eggs with truffles)
Then I would go to Fattoria Angelucci in Collemancio (above Cannara) for Sunday lunch - this is where I go when I really want to feel like I am in a big Italian family. ;-)
And for dessert, I would probably buy a porchetta sandwhich from one of the trucks in Costano, and just sit on a hillside near Bevagna and enjoy the magnificent view of the rolling hillside.
Thank you again Jennifer for all your great advice. Who's hungry and ready to go to Umbria? If you'll be visiting Umbria, I'm certain you'll eat well and have a blast spending the day with Chef Jennifer as your cooking instructor and food & wine guide.
Eating Italy is a new interview series focussed on finding out how locals eat throughout Italy. Once every few weeks we'll take a virtual food-lover's trip to a specific spot around the boot. I'll ask my food-loving friends to share their insights and tips on where, what & how to eat in their home city or region.
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