Travelling around Umbria: Perugia – what to see, what to try
Together with Ksenia Smirnova who lives in Italy and is writing her dissertation on the language of medieval cookbooks we start the Big Gastronomic Journey around the Apennine peninsula: culinary specialties of each region, local specialties, addresses of cafes and restaurants, conversations with chefs and, possibly, even recipes. We start from Umbria.
Italians call Umbria the green heart of Italy. Why? Because it is located in the center of Italy, and if you look closely, on the map Umbria is shaped like a heart. And finally, it is the greenest region of Italy. Umbrian hills are not as famous as the Tuscan hills, but they are not inferior to them, and the height is even greater. And each hill, imagine, is proud of its local culinary tradition!
There are many hills in Umbria, as well as mountains, rivers and even a lake – you can’t see and taste everything at once. We will explore Umbrian, sometimes really bearish, corners piece by piece, long and detailed. So, be patient, get ready to fight salivation, and go!
The Magic Mountain
Perugia, the region’s capital, is spread out like a five-pointed starfish on a hilltop. The hill is quite high: over 500 meters above sea level, which in the Middle Ages, in its heyday, many times helped the besieged city to withstand the onslaught of the enemy. Today, Perugia is besieged only by tourists, but even those have to make a difficult climb to the top.
The best place to start is Piazza Partigiani. The square is like a square: a bus station, an underground parking lot, a couple of kiosks, and a roadside eatery. But this is where the ascent to the magical mountain begins. A string of escalators, including underground ones, leads to the central street through the very womb of the city. There, in the bowels of the hill, you pass the remains of an Etruscan wall and the dungeons of the 16th-century Rocca Paolina, where you can feel the chill of the grave even in the heat of August, and perhaps encounter a ghost.
But now you’re out of the icy embrace of antiquity and in the heart of the city. A wide avenue – corso Vannucci (we know Vannucci better as Perugino) – leads to the main square with a 13th-century fountain and the formidable facade of the Duomo. In general, Perugia, unlike its Tuscan neighbors, at first sight is austere and unapproachable. But it’s not: the tiny streets, ups and downs, steps and endless staircases – all of it fascinates the traveler.
If you’ve walked around the city, visited everything with the word “Etruscan” in its name (hint: the arch, the well and the archaeological museum with an amazing collection) and even managed to climb the Aqueduct stairs in the same breath (Scalette dell’Acquedotto – honestly, this is a real former aqueduct), then you definitely deserve an aperitif! You can go in the direction of Augusta Library (in the palace of Napoleon’s niece, via delle Prome 15), right behind it turn right and walk along the city wall to the secret garden, where L’Usignolo Bar is located (piazza Bilordo Michelotti 3). From here you have a beautiful view of the city walls and the bishop’s palace.
Or you can catch your breath at the Living Cafè (via della Rupe 1 – the entrance is right next to the elevator to the minimetro), and while enjoying a strong Negroni (it’s useless to tell – you have to drink it), admire the view of Assisi, the Subasio mountain and the valley buried in verdure (the most sighted look out for the Templar church).
Hell for the vegetarian
And now, with courage, it’s time to come face to face with Umbrian cuisine – a real hell for a vegetarian!
Let’s start with Italian “snacks” (everyone remember that it’s better not to eat for three weeks before a trip?). In piazza Matteotti, right next to the post office (piazza Matteotti 1), we find a stall with the sign Porchetta, we go to him confidently, and when we approach, very relaxed say the following: “Hi Matteo! I’m from Emilio. Could you make us a porchetta?”
And then with a large knife Matteo will cut off a generous slice from the piglet cooked on a spit in the wood-burning oven, stuffed with spices and herbs (there’s more, because you don’t throw anything away from the pig), put it all in a bun, ask if you want salt, and give it to you. It’s important to take a greedy bite right in front of Matteo, so as not to offend him.
Matteo has been making porchetta for God knows how many generations: his grandfather’s grandfather made porchetta, and his grandfather made porchetta, and so does Matteo. And fresh every day! Porchetta is a symbol of Umbria. They eat it all the time: on the go, on the run, at five in the morning after the disco, at one for lunch, at three in the afternoon… It’s the Umbrian hamburger, if you like.
From Matteo we go to the most student place in town, piazza Morlacchi. Here our destination is Bottega (piazza Morlacchi 4), a meter-by-meter establishment where, however, you can try all sorts of Umbrian cheeses and sausages, washed down with fine local wine.
Ask for Jerry and eat whatever he offers you.
An important word in Italian is assaggio. Assaggio is when you can try everything and the portion will be an elephant, if not two.
But it’s not a meal, it’s just a snack. For food we go back to piazza Matteotti 9 and go to YouGrifo. It’s a great option for those who want to eat quickly, tasty and inexpensive. Generally grifo – in Italian griffon, the symbol of Perugia, he is also the symbol of the largest dairy plant in Umbria.
In YouGrifo everything is strictly local, but the dairy products deserve special attention: caciotta cheese made of cow milk, pecorino made of sheep milk, milk and (oh my God!) whipped cream. You can buy the favorite here and at a very attractive price. Unexpected tip: I highly recommend you stop by the WC here – you’ll get the best view in town!
If you want to enjoy Umbrian food and have time for a leisurely dinner, I suggest going from Piazza Matteotti, via Floramonti and then left descending along Sant’ Ercolano steps to Corso Cavour and then to Borgo XX Giugno with a nice restaurant called L’Officina (via Borgo XX Giugno 56).
Do not sit at a table in the first hall – go farther, you’ll find it much more comfortable and moreover, various art exhibitions are held there. The menu is updated every month depending on the season. The chef reinterprets old Umbrian recipes in a modern way without violating the traditions of this age-old national cuisine. The faraona chicken deserves special attention, as well as the gobbi, the local name for thistle, which is used to make soups and lasagnas.
After dinner, it’s especially nice to go back to the main square and walk through Corso Vannucci – the illumination by the fountain is absolutely mystical, and Perugia itself makes a completely different impression than during the day.
After having lunch and dinner in Perugia, Ksenia Smirnova drives on. In a couple of days, read about what to see and what to try around Perugia.
Ksenia Smirnova: “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I really love to eat. It’s delicious. Everything I do is connected to gastronomy in one way or another. Being actually a philologist, both in St. Petersburg and in Italy I unscrupulously reduced any of my scientific work to systematizing buns, a story about roasting peacocks in the Middle Ages, and various gluttony. Now I’m writing my dissertation and teaching Italian at the university, where I torture students with articles from Gambero Rosso. I also have other interests: I really like Italian opera and I even teach Italian to future opera singers. So what do you think? The relationship between opera and food doesn’t end with the gourmet Rossini! Just think of the tableaux in La Traviata, or Già la mensa è preparata in Don Giovanni, or Puccini’s La Boheme, where three of the four acts are about food (or the lack of it). I also love to travel, but for me the pleasure of travel would not be complete without gastronomic experimentation. Yes, yes, and the proverbial “won’t eat until I take a picture” is also about me! I tried to fight myself. It was to no avail. In the end I realized that I would always suffer in the third circle of hell. Sad, but what company!”
Idea of the week:
Idea of the week: Bologna.
Ksenia Smirnova talks about Bologna, the cradle of bolognese sauce, bolognese cloaks, bologna shoes, and the Bologna process. She lives in Italy and is writing her dissertation. See below.
What to try in Umbria: the main dishes and products of the region
The Italian region of Umbria is not as well known to Russians as its neighboring magnificent Tuscany or central Lazio. The reason is banal – there is no sea here, and there are not so many mountains as Veneto or Piedmont.
However, as it turns out, the region is only for the benefit, because the principle: less tourists – more authenticity in Italy is always working if not 90%, 100%. Which, incidentally, is extremely positively reflected in the quality of local restaurants. This in the same Venice desire to find a trattoria, where delicious and inexpensive, inevitably turns into a full-fledged quest, but in Assisi, Spello and other Umbrian towns almost every institution is honest.
Of course, gourmands with a long experience or fans of shining Michelin stars can sometimes make a disapproving face, thinking that the local food is too simple. But for people who are not spoiled by the high refinement, Umbria is a gastronomic paradise. And in general, why show off! Fans of complicated dishes also sometimes like to indulge in unpretentious, but cooked to perfection, pasta or bean soup. The main gastronomic specialties of Umbria in my review today.
1. BLACK TRUFFLE AND DISHES WITH IT
Black truffle or tartufo nero is the king of Umbrian cuisine. Not without reason, in central Italy in ancient times there was even a legend, as if the valuable mushrooms grow where lightning of the thunderer Jupiter hits. By the way, in the same Umbria truffle is not the same as truffle. The most valuable is called Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini. It is most often found in the commune of Norcia, around the town of Spoleto, in the areas near the river Nera (a tributary of the Tiber) and on the slopes of Mount Subasio. It ripens on clay-limestone soil and is found in oak and chestnut forests and beech groves.
In terms of size, the black Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini truffle is usually something between a walnut and an apple, it is irregular in shape, has dark red flesh with thin white streaks and an aroma so strong that it makes you dizzy.
Other varieties of truffle are less valuable. One of them is scorzonet, which is most often used for making sauces and salami. It comes in summer or fall because it is harvested from May to December and grows in sandy and clay soils of deciduous and pine forests. The taste and aroma of the mushroom is less intense than that of Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini, and in appearance they differ significantly from each other: the surface of the scorzonella is smooth, the color is brown, and there are barely visible veins on the flesh.
The last two varieties of truffles: black winter truffle (tuber brumale) and muscatum (muscatum) are found in Umbria as often as russets in the forests near Moscow. They are black on the outside and gray on the inside; however, in Umbria you can sometimes find muscatum truffles with black flesh. Both varieties ripen in winter. Oddly enough, the nutmeg truffle is less aromatic than the black winter truffle.
What dishes with truffles are worth trying? Pasta, of course. In Umbrian restaurants, tagliatelle or gnocchi with truffle sauce, generously sprinkled with shavings of fresh mushrooms, is one of the most popular dishes. Meat dishes are also often served with truffle sauce. For example, turkey or pork.
By the way, medallions can be additionally wrapped in a thin strip of lard for more flavor. And of course, a truffle sauce or olive oil with the addition of precious mushrooms in Umbria is worth buying for home culinary experiments.
2. OLIVE OIL
Inhabitants of every region of Italy are sure that their olive oil is the best. And Umbria is no exception. But in this case it is fully deserved. Not without reason the local extra virgin olive oil even received a mark DOP. The reason of course is in the natural conditions of the region.
Olive trees in Umbria grow on the hills, so their roots are deeply penetrated into the soil and get more nutrients from the ground, which is a positive impact on the taste of the oil. In addition, Umbrian olives ripen slowly, so they have low acidity.
Olives are always used freshly ripened for oil production: farmers do not harvest olives from all trees at once, but only ripe ones. As a result, depending on the farm Umbrian olive oil may have an aroma of freshly cut grass, fruit, almonds or artichoke.
When it comes to flavor, it’s more fruity than many of us are used to. It is not at all bitter. But it is very spicy. Many shops in Umbria offer olive oil tastings.
The process reminds many of wine tasting: first, guests are invited to inhale the aroma of the oil, and then dip a piece of white bread into oils of various kinds, close their eyes, and try to recognize the nuances of taste. I have to say, it’s extremely entertaining.
Forgive me if I am a vegetarian, but wild boar is another local specialty. Most often it is stewed and served as a stew with herbs. Alternatively, you could also try pasta with wild boar.
The meat is again stewed, and used as a condiment for tagliatelle, stragozzi or other homemade pasta. Also, boar in Umbria is often used to make sausages. The best are those produced in the municipality of Norcia.
4. PROSCIUTTO AND SALAMI FROM NORCIA
The prosciutto from Norcia even received a separate page in Wikipedia. Yes, in Russia it is not as well known as the Parma ham, but here it is not the quality of products, but the weak Italian PR. In fact, it is not inferior to Spanish ham.
For the production of prosciutto in Norcia they use the meat of white pigs, and as a preservative they use grained sea salt. The first salting lasts seven days, the second – fourteen, after which the salt is removed and the hams are not touched for two and a half months. Then the meat is washed again and the ripening stage begins. It lasts at least 12 months. As a result, the prosciutto is fatty, with a shamelessly rich flavor. It is recommended to eat this delicacy with red wine.
However, prosciutto is not the only one. Producers from Norcia are excellent at making all kinds of sausages, and pork neck, and other delicacies that appear in Russian culinary guides under the silly name of “sliced meat”. By the way, salami here is often made from wild boar or mule meat.
There are also “indecent” varieties. For example, in the shops of Spello you can often see sausages with the amusing names Palle del Nonno and Coglioni di Mulo. The translation of the names may shock the unprepared tourist: “Grandpa’s testicles” and “Donkey’s scrotum. But it’s all about the distinctive shape of the sausage. In the production of this type of salami no grandfather has ever been hurt. True, the same cannot be said of mules.
And, of course, where to go without delicious carbohydrates! Arvortolo is just one of them. It’s a fried pizza that in Perugia is traditionally cooked on the occasion of city holidays. Arvortolo comes in sweet or savory flavors.
The dough is based on flour, oil, sugar, or salt. The pizza is fried in oil in the manner of doughnuts. They also taste a lot like doughnuts, and they are a classic street-food pizza and should be eaten on the go.
6. “TEXT” PIE.
Textus pie or torta al testo is a dish that is almost two thousand years old. In fact, it’s just an Umbrian variant of focaccia, and in the region it was already being actively cooked in Roman times. It got its name because of the cooking surface, which in Latin was called with a simple word testo or text.
Today, torta al testo is often filled with prosciutto or cheese, but the recipe for the dough itself has hardly changed over the centuries. It still consists of water, flour, soda and salt, which in ancient times and the Middle Ages was a rare and very expensive product.
A local variety of fresh homemade pasta that would fill many a fatty fettuccini. It is considered one of the main specialties of the towns of Spoleto and Foligno. Most often strangozzi is made with black truffle and pecorino cheese, but sometimes you can find minimalist versions on restaurant menus as well: for example, pasta with garlic and olive fat.
By the way, although Umbria is small, but no one has cancelled the local dialects. This is why different towns in the region might call Strangoczi Strangoczi or StrIngoczi, but changing the first vowel of the pasta name doesn’t affect anything.
8. BEANS AND ROVEJA ARE RARE FIELD PEAS
Even Italians who do not live in Umbria often have no idea what roveja is. Meanwhile, roveja is a field pea that came to Europe from the Middle East back in Neolithic times. Today it is still actively cultivated only in Umbria and the neighboring Marche region.
Roveja is used to make flour, and field peas are a main ingredient of farrecchiata, a dish based on pea flour with added warmed olive oil, garlic and sage. By the way, legumes in the region as a whole are very popular. Dishes of boiled beans, called here by the common word impastoiata, are often served with polenta, and beans are also used in winter to make stews.
9. PORCHETTA AND GRUTTI CICCOOTTO
Porchetta, or oven-baked pork, is an all-Italian delicacy, although the people of Tuscany consider it their specialty. The neighbors from Umbria don’t argue with them. They simply make porchetta in their own way: incorporating local herbs and spices into the recipe. Grutti ciccotto, on the other hand, is a strictly local specialty. It is made with the parts of the pork carcass that were not used for porchetta.
They are thoroughly washed, crushed and tamped in a pot, which is placed in an oven heated to 200 ° C for 12 hours. The main trick here is this. The pot is placed right under the baked porchetta, and as a result, the fat and sauce that runs off it becomes a condiment for the grutti ciccotto. The dish, as the description suggests, is poor, but delicious. Meat eaters and desperate giblet lovers should appreciate it.
10. ROASTED PIGEON.
Pigeons aren’t just eaten by the French. Palomba alla ghiotta is another traditional Umbrian dish. After plucking and cutting, the bird is oiled, rubbed with rosemary, and strung on a spit. The head, neck, wings and legs of the pigeon are ground together with capers, olives, bread and ham, and then the resulting mixture is placed on a tray just under the rotisserie with the carcass.
The rest is just like the grutti ciccotto. The fat on the offal drips off the spit and you get two dishes in one, as the roasted carcass is placed on top of the mixture cooked with it when you serve it. You can try the dish in the town of Assisi, where, by the way, lived St. Francis, who liked to talk to birds about the meaning of life. I think he would definitely not approve of this attitude to pigeons, but the residents of Assisi are not too concerned about this.