Category Archives: Umbrian Food and Drink

Bringing Home the Bacon

Spello, Artisan Sausages & Meats

Spello, Artisan Sausages & Meats

“There he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.”
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

Making sausages, salami and cured meats is truly an ancient craft. The techniques developed around the world in order to use the entire animal after slaughter in the days before refrigeration or other methods of preservation such as tinning or vacuuming. In France sausages developed into charcuterie and in Italy into salumi. 

The salumi (salami) is made using ground or coarsely chopped meat mixed with herbs, spices and seasoning.  The spices and herbs used vary from region to region; wild herbs, fennel, pepper and truffle are common in Umbria, whilst other regions might use cinnamon, nutmeg or orange peel. Recipes are often handed down through the family, and it is the art of combining the right proportions of meat, herbs and spices that distinguishes the industrially-manufactured product from the artisan one. Proscuitto – dry cured ham made from the pig’s thigh – is also extremely popular.

Artisan Meats, Spello

Spello has its own artisan producer owned by a mother and son, Teresa and Ascanto. They have been in Spello for 20 years, albeit they have recently moved premises to the lovely shop pictured above; you may recognise this photo from an earlier post – Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. 

Teresa: La Bottega di Teresa, Spello

Teresa: La Bottega di Teresa, Spello

The salami are made using pork or wild boar, both sourced locally, and they are produced by Spello artisans. It takes 6 months for the salami to mature and 18 months for the proscuitto. The best selling products in La Bottega di Teresa are proscuitto, palle de nonno (grandfather’s balls) and coglioni di mulo (mule’s testicles). The latter 2 are so named because of their shape rather than their content…or so I was assured!

Spello, salami shop

Classic Umbrian salami include Cacciatore (the hunter) made using ground pork, garlic, pepper and wine, Finocchiona with wild fennel seeds, and Tartufo with the gourmet taste of black truffle.

Ascanto: La Bottega di Teresa, Spello.

Ascanto: La Bottega di Teresa, Spello.

Spello, salami shop

Spello, salami shop

Spello, salami shop

As well as the traditional cured meats, the shop stocks a range of other products including regional cheeses, wonderful olive oils with truffle, porcini mushrooms, pulses and pastas. And at lunchtime queues form for the porchetta – whole young pig stuffed with offal and herbs, roasted on a spit until the skin is crisp, served sliced in crispy bread rolls. Truly tasty.

The Boar Hunting Song (extract from 19th century ballad)

This is our song

Dash, dash along

To chase the Boar

Streaming with gore

With fiery eyes

His bristles rise.

Maximum Consumption

Luca was very pleased when he saw Taking Care of Business. So pleased that he insisted we come to dinner at his house that very evening. We were very excited at the thought of experiencing a truly Italian family meal, so of course we said yes. The plan was to meet outside Luca’s shop at 8 o’clock that evening, then follow him in his car for about 5 kilometres. Easy, given that it was still daylight at that time, so I would be able to check out where we were going and simply reverse the journey in the dark.

What we had not taken account of was that Luca had invited a host of Italian friends, all of whom turned up late, so it was dark when we finally set off in a convoy of 5 cars. We just about managed to keep up, although there were a few scary moments as we raced down tiny, one-track (but two-way!) lanes with deep ditches either side. Eventually we turned into a gateway and parked between an elegant row of trees.

Friendly introductions were made all round, and we filed into the large farmhouse where a raging fire and a long table set for 15 awaited us. Luca’s brother, Emanuele, was the chef for the evening and he had the bread toasting on the open fire for a wonderful bruschetta appetiser with drizzled olive oil, salami and olive oil and rosemary crackers served with deliciously cold prosecco. You will note that the usual food photos are absent here; this seemed like too personal an evening to pull out the camera, so I hope my descriptions alone can do it justice.

We were invited into the kitchen where Emanuele was preparing the next dish, a mix of 4 grains including pearl barley and lentils, cooked for 2 hours in vegetable stock then drained and mixed with lots of olive oil (and then a lot more), chopped parsley and a little salt. It was delicious; the grains still had a bite to them and the flavour was superb. Yes, I know I am going to run out of superlatives before too long but bear with me…

The table was laid simply but elegantly, with colourful dishes produced locally, bottles of olive oil and vases of fresh rosemary and dried chilli peppers. Bottles of red and white Umbrian wine and chilled local filtered well-water were constantly refreshed. Our fellow diners included farmers, a doctor and a tractor driver and were a real mix of ages. They were chatty and friendly and the buzz of conversation got louder as the evening progressed. Luca was the perfect host and frequently turned to us to explain the conversation when it got fast and furious.

The next course was based on beans with florets of cauliflower and a tomato salsa, beautifully presented and very tasty. By now, the Calabrian contingent from the Italian south were arguing the benefits of cooking with fat rather than olive oil to enhance the flavour, whilst the Umbrians were strictly olive oil supporters from both health and taste perspectives.

Steaming bowls of pasta with tomatoes, broccoli florets and a hint of chilli arrived – a masterpiece of simple flavours, combining gloriously. This was followed by bruschetta with a chickpea puree with rosemary. The talk around the table had moved on to a debate about which town held the best festivals. Those from Bevagna extolled the glories of their annual Mercato delle Gaite festival held each June, celebrating medieval crafts with demonstrations of archery and crafts and a medieval market. The Assisi residents preferred their celebrations of Festa di Calendmaggio, marking the arrival of Spring with medieval costumed parades and theatre and the Festa di San Francesco, a major religious event. More wine, more chat, more buzz.

Luca took us out onto his terrace where we were able to see the hill towns of Assisi, Spello and Spoleto lit up and looking lovely. Assisi won that beauty contest as the basilica and the castle are so stunning when lit.

The final dish was a selection of warm cookies with jam made from the merlot grape. The grappa and coffee also made an appearance at this point, heralding various toasts to the hosts, the chef and the guests. We left shortly afterwards, following one of Luca’s lovely friends who pointed us in the right direction until we recognised something familiar. We arrived home at 1:45am tired but still buzzing about the brilliant night we had had. We felt truly honoured to be invited to share in such a wonderful evening.

Taking Care of Business

When we took our first, tentative steps towards learning Italian, and before we had met our lovely, patient Italian teacher, Jill, we listened to “Earworms”. It’s a hard concept to explain but it uses repetition, memory hooks and music to teach some basic phrases. It is why we still sing our numbers:

uno, due, tre,

quattro, cinque, sei,

sette, otto, nove,

dieci!

And it’s also why we think of all seven of the seven dwarves sitting on a settee to help us remember that seven is sette. You get the idea?

One of the Earworms chapters was about shopping, and it was here that we learned that the Italians do not say “a shoe shop” but rather “a shop of shoes.” We haven’t yet seen a shop of shoes in Spello, but what we have found are several artisan food shops, and I thought it might be interesting to feature some of them during the course of our stay.

CasAntonini is one such shop. Today it is fronted by the effervescent Luca Antonini, whose passion for his family’s products is evident as he explains with pride the origin and health benefits of the range of items on sale.

Luca Antonini and colleague outside the family shop, Spello.

Luca Antonini and colleague outside the family shop, Spello.

in 1854 Francesco Antonini – Luca’s great-grandfather, moved from Abruzzo to Scopoli near Folignio where he began cultivation of cereal and vegetable crops, using the seeds he had brought with him. Francesco’s children came to Spello and continued cultivation in the local area. In 1976 the family began using its stoneground flour to make pasta using family recipes which do not contain any fats, just the family’s own virgin olive oil. The traditional artisan method of lento lavorazione (slow process) uses much lower temperatures than industrial, mechanised processes and results in pasta that holds its shape and texture and tastes extremely good. Luca’s sister is head of production, and his brother also works in the business.

CasAntonini artisan products

CasAntonini artisan products

Other best-sellers include chickpeas, tiny shiny lentils, grains, jams and delicious savoury and sweet biscuits.

CasAntonio products

CasAntonini artisan products

The whole philosophy of the business is to offer high quality products that are healthy and provide that authentic Italian taste. Luca emphasises the importance of the health aspects, and advertises it prominently in the shop.

What the products of CasAntonini do and don't contain.

What the products of CasAntonini do and don’t contain.

We pop in to see Luca regularly as he helps us with our Italian and we help him with his English. We rarely leave empty-handed, so have sampled several of Luca’s products already: Contadini Classici pasta, Chicchi Bronzi Classici pasta – which is a little like orzo and can be used in risotto dishes – and plum jam, together with savoury and sweet nibbles. All have been utterly delicious.

Find out more, and see the lovely, calm video clip, at http://www.casantonini1976.it/index.php

Red Red Wine

Vines at Arnaldo Caprai's Winery, Montefalco

Vines at Arnaldo Caprai’s Winery, Montefalco

In 1955, Arnaldo Caprai set up a textile business which became one of the largest and most successful in Italy. A native of Umbria, in 1971 he bought a vineyard near Montefalco to fulfil his dream of reviving the fortunes of wine production in the area. Arnaldo’s son, Marco Caprai, took over the management of the Winery in 1988 and he has modernised production methods without losing sight of the traditional values and techniques. He also collaborates with Milan University on research and experimentation to ensure a sustainable future in an ever-changing climate.

Of the varieties of grapes cultivated here, the most revered is the Sagrantino, a variety that has been traced back 500 years and the one that produces the very finest of the Caprai wines. It has been said that the Caprai family has almost single-handedly reinvigorated the indigenous Sagrantino grape variety.

Today the vineyards under cultivation extend to 137 hectares and the Winery produces 700,000 bottles each year. Surely some of them could be ours? To ensure that this was the case (no pun intended!), off we went for a tour and wine tasting. The knowledgeable, patient and English-speaking Vivianne showed us around the fields and the production facility, explaining the history and cultivation methods.

Vats - Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Vats – Arnaldo Caprai Winery

French Oak Wine Barrels, Arnaldo Caprai Winery

French Oak Wine Barrels, Arnaldo Caprai Winery

There are around 20,000 barrels in use, mostly made of French oak. Not all of the wines are matured in oak barrels: it depends on what properties are required in the finished product. The bottling plant can produce 3000 bottles per hour, although it does not operate daily; the schedule is dependent on time of year (for example the period before Christmas is very busy) and the extent of orders. Although the Winery has continued production throughout the financial crisis of recent (and current) years, sales in Italy have shown a decrease, particularly for wines in the medium price range, but this has been somewhat mitigated by improved overseas sales.

That says it all. Arnaldo Caprai, Montefalco

That says it all. Arnaldo Caprai, Montefalco

And so to the tasting, accompanied by delicious meats, cheeses and bread. We tasted 4 wines: one white and 3 red.

Wine tasting selection, Arnaldo Caprai Winery. I'll play this hand!

Wine tasting selection, Arnaldo Caprai Winery. I’ll play this hand!

First up was the white Grecante, 2011, made from 100% Grechetto grapes and aged for 3 months in steel vats and a minimum of 3 months in the bottle. Fresh and crisp, slightly acidic with a grassy overtone and very delicious. Serve as an aperitif, or with fish or poultry.

Next we tried the Montefalco Rosso, 2010, a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino and 15% Merlot grapes. This is aged for 12 months in wood (70% of the time in Slovenian oak barrels and the remainder in French oak barrels) followed by a minimum 4 months in the bottle. The oak came through slightly but it was mellow with a subtle flavour. A perfect match with red or white meats, charcuterie or mature cheese.

Montefalco Rosso Reserva, Arnaldo Caprai

Montefalco Rosso Reserva, Arnaldo Caprai

We moved on to the Montefalco Rosso Reserva, both the 2007 and 2008 vintages. The Reserva is the same blend of grapes as the Montefalco Rosso, but  it is aged in oak for a longer period: 20 months in French oak barrels and a minimum of 6 months ageing in the bottle. Well-rounded, structured wine with subtle oak overtones and a long finish on the tongue. An excellent wine which would pair well with roasted meats, charcuterie and mature cheese.

Finally, the best of the bunch (no pun intended!). Collepiano Sagrantino di Montefalco. Made from 100% Sangrantino grapes and aged for 20-24 months in French oak barrels with a minimum of 6 months in the bottle. Robust, potent and rich in tannins, it exploded with flavour but had a velvety smooth finish.  Best accompanied by food; serve with good roast meats or game and mature cheeses.

Mio mario is very happy!

Mio marito is very happy!

Of course we liberated 2 cases of wine – 3 bottles of each one that we tested. Point of interest: in Italy a case of wine comprises 6 bottles not 12, in case you thought I couldn’t add up!  Time to reflect on our perfect day and to eagerly anticipate sharing the wines we took away with us.

Mini Adventures. Arnaldo Caprai Winery, Montefalco.

Mini Adventures. Arnaldo Caprai Winery, Montefalco.

Scenes From an Italian Restaurant

The cuisine of Umbria uses regional and seasonal ingredients to produce its simple, traditional dishes. Its rich soil, extensive farms, lakes and woodlands provide a plentiful larder of splendid ingredients for its tasty, robust dishes. I have been pleasantly surprised by the excellent quality of the food and wine of the region, although I am sure I have a lot to learn over the next few months.

Cured meats or salami are a speciality, with wild boar, pig and donkey being popular. But are the Palle de Nonno (Grandfather’s Balls) made from authentic ingredients?

Spello salami - artisan shop

Spello salami – artisan shop

Wild Boar

Wild Boar

Vegetables too are in plentiful supply, fresh, huge and delicious.

Shiny red tomatoes

Shiny red tomatoes

Mixed peppers

Mixed peppers

Umbria also produces high quality red and white wines which are respected throughout Italy. It has not been possible in a week to sample a huge selection, but we have sampled a fine white wine – Orvieto Classico Superiore – made from grechetto grapes from the Orvieto region. At just over 4 Euros a bottle, that was good value.

Orvieto Classico Superiore

Orvieto Classico Superiore

The top red sampled so far is Sagrantino di Montefalco. The native sagrantino grape has been recently revived; Sagrantino di Montefalco, which contains only that grape, is fast becoming Umbria’s flagship wine. It has a distinctive flavour, powerful and complex. A bottle of the very best from the famed vintner Arnold Caprai is on the shelf, waiting for that very special occassion.

Sagrantino di Montefalco

Sagrantino di Montefalco

The bottle picture above was savoured with an excellent lunch at the Ristorante Porta Venere, tucked away in a medieval cellar. We ate fresh bread with local olive oil, followed by rabbit stuffed with wild asparagus and proscuitto. 

Ristorante Porta Venere: Rabbit stuffed with wild asparagus and proscuitto.

Ristorante Porta Venere: Rabbit stuffed with wild asparagus and proscuitto.

A few days earlier we had had a completely different – but equally good – dining experience at the Osteria de Dada. A tiny place, stuffed with rowdy locals, no menu or wine list, one chef and one waitress! It could have been a recipe for disaster, but the house wine was great, the roast lamb and pork loin were exquisite, and the singing chef and waitress made for a thoroughly entertaining meal.

IMG_0948

Rise

Easter Sunday dawned with church bells ringing and torrential rain, but nothing was going to dampen our spirits as we set off to town in search of a coffee. Bar Tullia has delicious coffee and pastries and a friendly clientele. The lovely Antonio and Paola were quick to introduce themselves and curious as to why we had chosen Spello for our extended stay. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming; a true community.

Back at the apartment we prepared the typical Umbrian Easter Sunday breakfast.

Traditional Umbrian Easter Sunday Breakfast

Traditional Umbrian Easter Sunday Breakfast

Traditionally, this is eaten at 9 o’clock in the morning, but to be honest we just couldn’t face wine at that hour, so we modified our plan and held out to midday.  The wine is an exquisite Vernaccia, made from half-dried grapes aged in small wooden barrels. Not quite a port; closer to a Madeira perhaps, slightly sweet but rounded and delicious. The wine was accompanied by Torte Pasquinale, savoury bread with pecorino cheese and salume, dried sausage with wild boar and mule. It was delicious.

The big event of the day was “running Jesus through the streets”, when a large statue of Jesus is carried at speed by several strong men, from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore to the Oratorio of Saint John the Baptist. The heavy rain of the morning had by now matured into a raging storm, and it raged on with lightening, thunder and sheet rain threatening to drown out the traditional celebration of the risen Christ. Mio marito declared that he was not, under any circumstances, risking drowning, being struck by lightening or by a heavy statue, but he relented when he saw me swathed in waterproofs and ready to go! So off we went.

Spello - Easter Sunday. The brass band leads the procession.

Spello – Easter Sunday. The brass band leads the procession.

I saw the procession approaching from afar. “There’s Jesus!” I squealed, a little too loudly and a little too enthusiastically, as if I had just spotted Elvis. A lone trumpeter ran towards the procession, clearly late on parade. On they came, until we could clearly see the pain on the faces of the men carrying Jesus.

Nearly there...

Nearly there…

Jesus returns in triumph to the Oratorio.

Jesus returns in triumph to the Oratorio.

Finally, Jesus was returned to his home in the Oratorio and after a few prayers and votes of thanks, the crowd dispersed. Inevitably the number of people attending was reduced due to the foul weather, but bravo to those brave souls who stayed the course.