Umbria: Italy's Green Heartland
One of Italy’s smallest regions, Umbria tends to get short shrift, overshadowed by its illustrious neighbor, Tuscany. But in Italy it is known as its “cuore verde”, green heart, where it maintains long-standing traditions of agriculture, art, and spirituality. Umbrians believe that because it is in the center of the Italian peninsula, it is the center of the world! It has been muse to writers, poets, and painters throughout the ages with an inherent mystical link noted as far back as the Etruscans.
The cooking is simple in Umbria. It has a relaxed approach and serves whatever happens to be in season. The menu this week highlights its plethora of vegetables, freshwater trout and of course the chocolate from Perugia.
Chef's Travel Notes
One of Italy’s smallest regions, Umbria tends to get short shrift, overshadowed by its illustrious neighbor, Tuscany. But in Italy, Umbria is known as its “cuore verde”, green heart, where it maintains long-standing traditions of agriculture, art, and spirituality. Umbrians believe that because it is in the center of the Italian peninsula, it is the center of the world! It has been muse to writers, poets, and painters throughout the ages with an inherent mystical link noted as far back as the Etruscans. The region is full of their tombs and underground tunnels where farmers can still find ancient artifacts in the soil.
It is a region of saints where Benedict first founded western monasticism and Francis of Assisi underwent a spiritual conversion to live an ascetic and simple life as a man of God and nature. Franco Zefferelli lovingly crafted the saint’s life story in his 1970s film “Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna”, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. I recently rediscovered it and was delighted by its era’s hippy undertones, with old familiar folk songs written and performed by Donovan. The film is strangely timeless though, and if nothing else should be viewed for the exquisite and authentic Umbrian landscapes. Here is the link to watch.
Umbria is the only region in the Italian peninsular without a seacoast, but it does have one of the biggest lakes in the country, Lago Trasimeno, and numerous rivers and well stocked streams. Its unspoiled natural environment guarantees pristine fishing with an abundance of freshwater fish. It is blessed with fertile river basins, perfect for the cultivation of vegetables, grapes, and olive trees. These sheltered valleys plus rocky hills with good drainage are the perfect setting to produce exceptional olive oil that some believe is the best in Italy (don’t mention that to the Tuscans!).
The cooking is simple in Umbria. It has a relaxed approach and serves whatever happens to be in season. Vegetable dishes predominate in spring and summer, while autumn and winter sees the influence of game hunting and the famous black truffles of Norcia. Our menu starts with Insalata Umbra, with lentils as the main ingredient. Lenticche di Castelluccio are Umbria’s famous plump, tiny lentils cultivated on its high plateaus. That, together with farro, has seen a recent resurgence of popularity and is being used in new and imaginative ways. Sedano nero di Trevi, its deep emerald native celery from Trevi, also is used in salads for its pale green and tender heart. We toss it all with the addition of grapes, red bell pepper and hazelnuts for a refreshing, flavorful beginning.
Pasta alla Norcina is, without a doubt, Umbria’s most famous pasta. The pork, cured meats and sausages typical of Umbria are predominately made in the Norcia area. The high altitude and fresh mountain air also are ideal conditions for curing prosciutto. We extrude our fresh rigatoni pasta and combine it with a simple sauce of fennel sausage and parmesan cream with a touch of truffles for good measure.
Trota ai Funghi con Patate alla Porchetta takes Rainbow trout fillets and sauces them with a savory mix of crimini, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, served with baked fennel and potatoes, two vegetables widely cultivated in the region.
Our Budino al Cioccolato pays homage to the famous confectionary industry in the city of Perugia, home to the famous international chocolate festival. It is a baked chocolate pudding garnished with Chantilly cream and chocolate shavings.
Located on a rock composed of volcanic turf, Orvieto is known for its papal palaces, magnificent churches, deep wells, and white wine. Our featured wine, Campogrande, Orvieto Classico, is a blend of indigenous Umbrian varietals, Procanico, Grechetto, and Trebbiano. It is slightly spiced on the palate with a fresh perfume of pears and apples - a great pairing with our Umbrian Spring menu.
The expression, “Green Heartland of Italy”, is a reference to a famous poem by Giosué Carducci, Italy’s first Nobel Laureate. Most Italian schoolchildren know it by heart, roughly translated it means, “Salve green Umbria……. I have felt in my heart the ancient home, my fevered brow touched by the old gods of Italy.” In the movie, Donovan goes on to say, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon, I seldom see you, Seldom hear your tune, Preoccupied with selfish misery…”
Words particularity meaningful after this long, cold winter. If we can’t be in Umbria, at least we can look forward to the warm, fragrant days of Spring and reacquaint ourselves with the natural beauty that surrounds us. I can’t wait to be outside again!
Andiamo fuori al verde!