Slow, sexy secrets of the Umbrian kitchen
Fertile lands of central Italy are famous for seasonal flavours and the simplicity of its cuisine, while boasting the cultural and historic treasures of the Western world, writes Debbie Oakes
Called the "Green heart of Italy", the Apennine Mountains to the north of landlocked Umbria roll quietly down into verdant hills topped by medieval villages. The mysterious Etruscans first groomed and farmed these fertile lands three millennia ago and, through the long ages, farmers have been rewarded with an abundance of seasonal flavours. Brazen tomatoes that grasp your tongue like a tempestuous lover, and seasoned cheeses and truffles whose earthy musky savours should be rated with an X. This is a land where pasta must be rolled by hand; ancient olive groves flirt with the sun; and saucy yellow sunflowers dance can-can with the summer breeze. If you have time to look up from your plate in Umbria, you will notice the artistic, cultural, architectural and historic treasures of the Western world.
Seasonal produce prepared with pots of passion and tempered with simplicity is the magic ingredient Umbrian cooks from mama to Michelin-star chef add to every dish. Robust flavours need little teasing to be coaxed from the freshest of ingredients. A dash of salt, a twist of pepper, splash of wine, and where would we be without the superlative virginal queen-of-green herself - cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil? With acidity as low as 0.01 per cent, Umbrian olio is the highest quality - pure, unrefined, unadulterated by heat or chemicals - with a table colour from autumn gold to bright spring green.
Umbria is the slow food, green-heart of Italy, so head off the beaten track to sample the authentic fare synonymous with the province. "When the produce is fresh, the flavours speak their own language," chef Massimo, of eponymously named fish restaurant Da Massimo, tells me. "And the simplicity of our dishes is the best way to highlight the natural taste of prime quality ingredients."
But fish? Not the first thing that springs to mind when contemplating typical Umbrian cuisine but, in fact, Umbria's Trasimeno teems with sweet water fish. Surrounded by hills, rolling countryside rich in olives, vineyards and local vegetables, it lies between the cities of Perugia, Assisi and Orvieto, ensuring the regional cuisine is as diverse as the landscape.
Da Massimo Ristorante is perched in a small hill-top village called San Feliciano with spectacular views over Lake Trasimeno. At lunch, magnificent head waiter Mauritzio, suggests primo piatto of Trasimeno Rissoto. The portion is generous as it is delicious - supple grains of rice laced with perch and base of tomato - fulfilling yet light. "Wait just a secondo," I nearly cry as three secondo piatto arrive. Firm, white, meaty strips of perch lightly crumbed, drizzled with olive oil and grilled on skewers over an open fire. Then Spiedino di capitone, moist, meaty and sweet. "Thank God I didn't know that was eel before I ate it," my companion mutters. But I love it. Filetto di pesico lightly battered and salted, shallow-fried strips of tasty perch complete pranzo. All washed down with the crispiest whitest Umbrian white, of course.
"Head to Citta della Pieve," advises Emma Cornish, padrone of the glorious inn, Villa leMura. "At Ristorante Silvana, they cook incredible produce right in front of you on the braccia-open fire."
Manuel Torini (most gracious host and Silvana's son) explains with passion and attention to detail all possible permutations of an Umbrian feast. Nibbling on fire-toasted bread served with raw rubbing garlic and olive oils, I can taste the meal in the description. "The selection is not huge," he says. "But the menu changes every single day. We have our own small farm in the countryside nearby. The animals are happy, well cared for … it is just big enough to supply the meat for our restaurant - and our family." After tossing around the tempting choices of chicken, lamb, rabbit, veal and beef, my companion chooses the drama of the braccia - fired beef steak.
Cringing in my confession, "no red meat for me", and without even the flutter of an eyebrow, Manuel offers other choices - home-made pasta with fresh seasonal vegetables and local pecorino cheese? Ribolitta? "Ribolitta - si!" Cucina Povera, age-old recipes handed down through the generations.
Peasant fare based on bread, cannellini beans, carrot, silverbeet cabbage (any leftovers) then drizzled with olive oil. So hearty, I hesitate to call it "soup". As the steak sizzled on the braccia, the red wine "evaporated" along with a delicious antipasto platter of Umbrian prosciutto (meat cured in the time-honored Norcia way), melted scormaza fumicata (like smoked mozzarella) on bruschetta, there was time to ponder the meaning of dolce vita.
A girl's got to eat on the beaten track, too. In Assisi, the birthplace of two of Italy's most important saints, San Francesco and Santa Chiara, the air is so thick with otherworldly spirits you could paste it on pane.
That might feed the soul - but not the stomach. Fortunate then, the discovery of Metastasio Ristorante. Sweeping views from the patio on Mount Subasio over the Umbrian plains, alfresco tables and attentive service make the voluptuous bruschetta and home-made pasta a meal to remember.
Confession: I find myself entering the delightfully picturesque garden of Perugia's La Rosetta Ristorante (in the hotel of the same name), only out of desperation. Its optimal central-piazza location, white tablecloths and elegantly clad waiters seem to shout "expensive", "tourist trap", "combination of both". Luckily, my hungry horde insist: "Not a further step without sustenance."
To their great credit, the patience of the friendly and professional table staff in the heat of Umbrian summer was the perfect accompaniment to scrumptious food. Of all the memorable delights served on this day, it is the side dish contorno: the king of the mushroom, fresh porcini with their meaty texture and earthy, sexy flavour, grilled, drizzled with fresh olive oil and chopped parsley that is entirely unforgettable.
Porcini's short season lasts from May to July, then in September the real season begins, lasting until winter.
Sustainable, local, organic, whole-food. Place yourself at the mercy of the waiter's recommendations. They will steer you in directions visitors rarely get their teeth into. A caveat to this advice is if tourists outnumber Italians, in which case you might be in the wrong Umbrian restaurant altogether. Restaurant hours are from noon-12.30pm to 3-3.30pm. Then 7.30pm to 10-10.30pm. Plan your day-tripping accordingly unless you want to eat a sandwich.
Bars in Italy serve everything from delicious coffee to aperitivo.
Remember in Umbria - all things seasonal - truffles are just not truffles in spring!
WHERE TO EAT
Da Massimo Ristorante
Via dei Romani, San Feliciano.
+39 075 847 6094.
Viccolo del Gesu, Citta della Pieve.
+39 057 829 8311
Via Metastasio 9, 06081 Assisi.
+39 075 816 525
La Rosetta Ristorante
+39 075 572 0841
+39 075 894 7782.
Via San Lorenzo, 06059 Todi.