Category Archives: Umbrian Food and Drink

Food Glorious Food

There are many reasons to visit Italy. It is a country full of history, art and magnificent architecture. It has an endless coastline with aquamarine seas, long stretches of untrodden sand and craggy cliffs. Its people are warm, welcoming, noisy and passionate. But if you love good food and wines, then perhaps that’s enough of a reason to come here.

Find a quiet bar with a fabulous view and pause with a prosecco….

….or stop in a welcoming wine bar to smell the roses….

….and taste some local meats and cheeses….

Try somewhere new, and sample olive oils from all over Italy. Peppery, lemony, spicy….

….perfectly matched with a panzanella that’s as pretty as a picture….

….or tender steak tartare with liver pate and tomato salad….

….and melting  artichokes like petal-strewn bells….

Pass the cutlery please!

With special thanks to Bar Bonci, Vinosofia and Extra Vergine OLeOteca, all proud Spello bars.

Supper’s Ready

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Italy is well known for its wonderful food, using fresh, local ingredients. When Mariella – a beautiful Italian mamma – offered to share the secrets of her kitchen, we did not hesitate.

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Mariella arrived carrying a huge wooden board, an enormous rolling pin and all of the ingredients required to make ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and spinach.  First she prepared the filling, using a hand stick blender to mix 300g of ricotta with a large handful of spinach, a good grating of fresh nutmeg, a generous pinch of salt and an egg.

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Next she heaped up 400g of Type 00 flour and made a well in the centre, into which she cracked 4 eggs. Using a fork she mixed the eggs into the flour at the speed of light, gradually drawing in the dry flour from the edges. Then she used the heel of her hand to knead the dough.

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The dough was formed into a ball and left to rest for 5 minutes before being kneaded a second time.

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One third of the dough was broken off, leaving the remainder wrapped in a tea towel. The smaller portion was rolled out, using only a light dusting of flour to prevent sticking. This was tough work, requiring long, fast strokes, keeping the dough moving. Not a pasta machine in sight!

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When the pasta is rolled as thin as possible, use a glass to cut out a small circle. Insert a teaspoon of the filling in the centre and crimp the edges together to make a half-moon shape. Line up the completed pieces of ravioli on a clean cloth. Repeat the process with the remaining dough. To cook, pop the lovely little parcels in boiling water for just one minute and serve with a sauce of your choice or simply with a dusting of parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Mmmmm. If you have made too many, freeze flat before storing in freezer bags. Don’t defrost when cooking: put straight into boiling water for about 2 minutes.

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It is all very well watching and learning, but getting similar results in your own kitchen can be a challenge. We followed Mariella’s instructions and made ravioli parcels, this time filled with a ricotta cheese and beetroot mix. These ones are ready for the pot and look pretty good for a first attempt….

Ravioli with beetroot and ricotta

Apart from the ravioli – which was, incidentally, delicious – I made a traditional Umbrian dish using Umbrian strangozzi pasta with slivers of fresh, earthy truffle….

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….and zucchini (courgette) flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs, gently warmed for 5 minutes in a medium oven then garnished with fresh peas, tomatoes and parmesan. A colourful feast for the eyes which tasted just like summer….

Zuccini flowers, stuffed

Thanks to Mariella for her inspiration and education. Recreating dishes you have eaten in particular places certainly brings back memories of sharing food, wine and happy times with friends and family.

Have you ever recreated food memories and, if so, how well did they turn out?

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Soul Food

Aperol Spritzer

Aperol Spritzer, Vinosofia Wine Bar

The little Umbrian town of Spello is fortunate to have many restaurants. Some are more upmarket than others but they all have one thing in common; regional, seasonal dishes and local wines. Lunch today was in Il Trombone, a rustic local trattoria with a stunning view from its terrace….

Spello, view from the terrace of Il Trombone

Spello, view from the terrace of Il Trombone

Muddled eggs with spinach and Parmesan to start….

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….washed down with the usual suspects: red wine, vino rosso della casa, and water, a necessary coolant!

“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Galileo Galilei

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 “Everything you see, I owe to pasta“. Sophia Loren

What better menu choice is there when in Italy? This ravioli with ricotta, spinach and sage was a feast for the eye as well as the stomach….

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….whilst this dish was stuffed with ricotta and walnuts: utterly delicious….

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Leaving just enough room for passito e biscotti, a dark, sweet wine with nutty biscuits, grappa and coffee….

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At the risk of sounding like lounge lizards, yesterday we ate at the Osteria de Dada. Here there is no terrace, no view and no menu. At least, there was a rather untidily hand-written menu outside, before you entered through the macrame curtain but, once inside, the food on offer bore little resemblance to that advertised. But that didn’t matter as the food was great.

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We started with salad, as a nod towards healthy eating. Deliciously crisp with olive oil and salt, it whetted our appetite for the next course of sliced, tender duck and fried veal….

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Crisp courgette….

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….and, best of all, fried zucchini flowers….

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But this meal had quite a funny ending, which I am rather embarrassed to relate. One of the two lovely ladies who runs the restaurant is habitually to be heard singing “O Sole Mio”. I really have no idea what came over me (I had drunk very little wine!), but I joined in! As I didn’t know the words to the song, I spliced in a rousing chorus of “It’s Now or Never” in my most theatrical manner. (Have you ever noticed just how similar the tunes are?) Well, we got a huge round of applause from our fellow diners. But worse was to come! The chef pointed out that one of the diners was a Professor of Music. As I slunk back into my normal position of hiding in the background, he came over and congratulated me. It may have just been pity, but it was very much appreciated! We laughed all the way home….

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One Cup of Coffee (Then I’ll Go)

“Without my morning coffee I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat”  – Johann Sebastian Bach, The Coffee Cantata

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Coffee is a way of life in Italy. Aside from the obvious caffeine hit, coffee bars offer an opportunity to gossip with your neighbours, nibble delicious sweet cakes, take a break from shopping, meet a friend or read the newspapers.

Spello is full of coffee bars. I don’t drink the stuff myself, but I am always happy to while away the hours with a cool glass of water and some pastacini.

The Bar Giordino has a beautiful terrace with views across mountains and valleys. We’ve been there once, sitting in the shade of its spreading trees. But there are 2 coffee bars we frequent much more often.

Entering Spello from the top of the town, the first bar you come across is the Tabaccheria Romani Fiorella.

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This bar is a few steps from our apartment, so it has been our favourite destination for an early morning drink with croissants or sweet cakes, or, on occasion, a cool glass of wine on a hot day after a long walk.

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The bar is run by 2 delightful ladies, sisters-in-law Fiorella and Daniella who are always smiling and welcoming. Our conversations are still interspersed with mime, but they have both been patient and helpful with our halting Italian.

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You can buy everything here: sandwiches, cigarettes, handbags, very nice wines, hand-crafted earrings and a ticket for the lottery to name but a few.

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A tiny terrace with a lovely view is perfect for a leisurely stop, but we prefer to be inside where the chattering of locals and tourists is at its best.

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Should we turn right out of our apartment, heading for the town centre, then we will often stop at Bar Tullia.

Spello: Cafe, Tulia

Tullia is well placed for people watching. It faces the main street, is next to a school and opposite the lovely facade of the church of San Lorenzo, so the clientele is a mixture of locals, tourists, mums and the occassional cleric. It’s another family affair, run by a sister and brother team.

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The cafe culture in Italy is embedded in its society. It’s not so difficult to sustain with a sunny climate. Those of us from more northern territories just have to seize the day!

“Chocolate, men, coffee – some things are better rich.”

Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)

“Sir, I did not count your glasses of wine, why should you number up my cups of tea?” – Samuel Johnson

There are lots of watering holes in Spello, but we have found only two wine bars.

Spello: Enoteca Properzio

Spello: Enoteca Properzio

Enoteca Properzio is located next to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore on Spello’s winding main street. You can taste fine wines here – note the stacked cases of Krug – from all over Italy and beyond.

Spello: Enoteca Properzio

Spello: Enoteca Properzio: Ready for wine tasting.

Wine tastings are a feature here. The wines are paired with delicious cheeses, meats and pasta. This enoteca is renowned throughout Umbria and both its press and punter reviews are exceptionally good. We have been 3 times and thoroughly enjoyed both the food and the wines. But…there is somewhere else we much prefer.

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Vinosofia is situated in Via Maddalena, just off the main street through Spello. Husband and wife duo Brenda McLeran and Graziano Santucci, welcome you in to a tasteful, calm interior with soft music playing in the background.

Combining American flair and Italian style, Brenda and Graziano have created a fine space where you can pop in for a quick glass or spend a long, languid evening. We have popped in for a quick glass on more than one occasion only to end up spending wonderful long languid evenings here!

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Brenda and Graziano are trained sommeliers, and they are passionate about their products. They are extremely helpful in recommending wines and we have been delighted to taste some of their recommendations. They work well together, quietly ensuring that customers have everything they need.

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Wines are largely European, mostly organic and all are from small producers. The accompanying platters of artisan cheeses and organic meats are served with baskets of fresh bread – all delicious.

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Vinosofia also offers an excellent range of cookery books and gifts for the wine lover. We had to buy one of these wonderful wine measures – we had never seen anything like this before. As well as measuring the wine, it also aerates it. It is such a beautiful object.

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Brenda and Graziano pride themselves on being a green business, in everything from the products they sell to the materials used in renovating the building. They source food, wines and gifts locally and minimise their environmental footprint wherever they can.

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Spello: Vinosofia. A glass of man….or am I seeing things?

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

Wonderful liquor bottles…and they taste as good as they look!

Spello: Vinosofia

Spello: Vinosofia

A visit to Vinosofia is an experience not to miss if you ever have the pleasure of visiting Spello.

I Dug Up A Diamond

Some women lust after diamonds and pearls. Not me. What I really wanted was my very own fresh truffle: a “black diamond”. Or as the Italian composer Rossini called them “the Mozart of mushrooms”.

We were in La Bottega di Teresa (see earlier post “Bringing Home the Bacon”) choosing a little cheese, when Ascanto unscrewed the lid of a large glass jar and invited us to sniff its contents. It was an unmistakeable aroma: earthy, musty, black truffles. “How much would the smallest one cost?” I enquired in my best Italian, expecting it to be a very large number. “Four Euros” Ascanto responded.

And that is why yesterday I fulfilled my truffle-owning dream.

Spello: Black Truffle

Spello: Black Truffle

The truffle has long been prized. The Romans ate them, no doubt with a lark’s tongue chaser. Premium truffles are found in France, Spain and Italy. Umbria is the best known Italian truffle region, although they are found elsewhere in the country.

It is a subterranean fungus that grows amongst the roots of trees in dense woodland. Truffles are normally found buried a few centimetres underground, so they cannot be spotted with the naked eye. Pigs were commonly used to sniff out these treasures, however pigs like a nice truffle so they often ate their discoveries. Now it is more common for trained dogs – who don’t enjoy the taste – to hunt for them.

The fruit of the truffle is a tuber, covered with a tough but edible skin. Nine varieties are recognised in Italy as being edible, but the black and white truffles are the most widely known. Black truffles can be harvested for most of the year, but the Winter variety has a more pungent aroma and a stronger taste, so they tend to be cripplingly expensive. I assumed mine was a black Summer truffle based on the season and the reasonable cost.

We have eaten truffle in many different ways since arriving in Umbria. My only previous experience of them had been at superior restaurants where it was used as a garnish rather than an ingredient. Here in Umbria it is lavished in pasta dishes, added to salami and, in salsa form, spread thickly on bruschetta.

I soaked my precious truffle in cold water and cleaned it gently. I thinly sliced some of it and roughly chopped the remainder.

Spello: Sliced and diced fresh truffle

Spello: Sliced and diced fresh truffle

I mixed the chopped fragments with a good olive oil and seasoning, then tossed it into some fresh pasta. Finally I added the sliced truffle – e vai!  Eaten with a glass of crisp white wine. Four euros well spent.

Spello: Pasta with fresh truffle

Spello: Pasta with fresh truffle

My Kind of Town

In a previous post (Red Red Wine) I wrote about the Sagrantino di Montefalco wine and the erstwhile pleasure of our visit to the Arnaldo Caprai winery set in the verdant Umbrian countryside. At the centre of the Sagrantino wine region sits the small town of Montefalco, perched high on a hill and enclosed within medieval walls.

Porta Sant'Agostino, Montefalco

Porta Sant’Agostino, Montefalco

The walls are pierced by 5 gates, and from each gate a narrow road winds upwards to the main square, Piazza del Comune, at the summit of the town. The Piazza is almost perfectly circular, and around its perimeter stand a number of grand buildings. The Palazzo Comunale dates from the 13th to 14th centuries, although it was restored in the 19th century. It is an imposing building with beautiful, crisp brickwork.

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Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Palazzo Comunale

Tall, thin and elegant, the former church of San Filippo Neri, built in the 18th century, is now a theatre.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Former church of San Filipo Neri, now a theatre

The tiny Oratorio di Santa Maria was used to hold public meetings during the Renaissance. It has some original frescoes and copies of other key paintings held in Montefalco’s museum and churches. Just as well, since the “no photos, even without flash” policy is common.

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Detail from a painting in Montefalco’s museum, reproduced in the Oratorio di Santa Maria.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Oratorio di Santa Maria

Leaving the square, we visited the church of Saint Francis and the attached monastery which now form part of a small museum which is renowned throughout the region. The museum houses a number of interesting paintings, largely by Umbrian artists including Francesco Melanzio from Montefalco. There are also some artefacts – ceramics, wooden statues, glass from Murano for example – and the ancient cellars of the Friars Minor of Montefalco, containing an enormous wine press!

The highlight of the museum is the former church itself. Built as a Franciscan church in the early 14th century, it houses a cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In terms of their subject matter, these frescoes are considered second only to those in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico, is best known for his wonderful frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. So, important art for a small town. The detail below shows Saint Francis giving his sermon to the birds.

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There is also a Nativity fresco by Perugino as well as various paintings by Umbrian artists of the 15th century. It was well worth a visit.

Continuing down the street, we reached a lovely piazza with extensive views across the Umbrian valley, vineyards, olive groves and mountains. You can appreciate why Montefalco is known as the “Balcony of Umbria”.

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The photo below shows Spello in the distance, perched on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Montefalco. View from Montefalco showing Spello

This photo shows Spello and Monte Subasio, the mountain we drove over (!!! See earlier post Stairway to Heaven) to Assisi which is just out of shot to the left of the picture. 

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And here is Assisi….

Montefalco. View from Montefalco, showing Assisi

You could still see snow on the highest peaks.

Montefalco. View from Montefalco showing snow-topped mountains

Everywhere you turned in Montefalco could have been a scene from the film “A Room with a View.”

Montefalco.

Montefalco.

Montefalco.

Everywhere you looked there was something of beauty, like this detail of a painting on one of the old buildings.

Montefalco. Detail of wall painting

And a more modern poster advertising an exhibition.

Montefalco. Via Ringhiera. Poster

After all of that culture and fresh air, there was nothing else for it but to head for lunch in the main square. L’Alchimista had come highly recommended, and its tables were filling up fast.

Montefalco. Lunch at L'Alchimista

We started with zucchini flowers, stuffed with ricotta cheese. Not only did this look divine, it tasted heavenly too. It was, without doubt, the best dish I have eaten during our entire stay – and that is saying something!

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I followed up with carpaccio of veal with goat’s cheese and truffle….

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….whilst mio marito settled on tortellini stuffed with porcetta and truffle with fresh peas and broad beans….

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….all washed down – inevitably – with a glass of Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Montefalco. Lunch at L'Alchimista

It was the most perfect lunch: local produce, zinging with flavours, beautifully prepared and presented.

Just as we left, the local Harley Davidson Hills (as in hill towns) Angels arrived, the distinctive throaty thrum of their engines preceding them by a short handlebar.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. L'Alchemista Restaurant