Medieval cities, ancient hamlets, castles and abbeys, Etruscan and Roman remains – Umbria has a wealth of history to offer its visitors, all set against some of Europe’s finest countryside and with qualified regional guides to ensure you get the most out of the experience.
It is a territory which is characterized by hills warm as the ploughed land, green as the Mediterranean bush, embellished with urban centres small, but all perfect as for city planning, and their burden of history. Visiting Umbria one can see clearly the presence of man starting from the Etruscans, or the Umbrians, to the Romans and their wealthy villas, the Middle Age with its many fortresses and castles, the Renaissance and its fabulous paintings and the elegance and eurhythmy of its courtyards.
This superimposition of ages doesn’t create disorder. On the contrary, melting with the naturalistic beauties, it produces serenity. Umbria is an ideal territory to move around in Centre Italy, to reach beautiful places, and visit the main sights in the “Beautiful Italy”. If you stay for enough days in the Umbria you’ll notice that the environment is unpolluted and far from chaos and the cuisine is excellent.
The most noteworthy characteristic of Umbrian cuisine is its simplicity. It relies strongly on seasonal produce such as mushrooms and wild asparagus, on wild delicacies such as truffles, on vegetables, cereals, regionally reared meat – particularly lamb, pork and game – either cooked over the fire or worked into cured hams and salami. Among the region’s most typical main courses is Terni’s colombaccio selvatico, or palomba (turtledove), generally cooked on the spit.
Clearly truffles play an important part in many Umbrian dishes, starting from hors d’oeuvres such as crostini al tartufo– made with black truffles, crostini alla norcina – made using anchovies, truffles and chicken liver, and chicken liver crostini– made with chicken liver, capers and a squeeze of lemon.
The region’s bread varieties, such as pan caciato, pan nociato, pane di Strettura and the unsalted bread of Terni are also much appreciated.
Probably the most typical Umbrian pasta dish is spaghetti – or strangozzi – with black truffles. Other pasta course highlights include umbrichelli in salsa di Trasimeno – with perch filets, shallots, garlic and chilli pepper, spaghetti col rancetto – with bacon, cherry tomatoes and fresh pecorino cheese, pappardelle alla lepre – with hare ragout, bacon and cloves. Ciriole alla ternana is a variety of pasta made using just water and flour, and is usually served with a garlic, oil and chili pepper.
Besides an abundance of meat dishes, generally either grilled over the fire or cooked on the spit with an abundance of herbs, Umbria also boasts two particularly tasty soups: one made with chick peas and the other with chestnuts.
Generally reserved for special annual festivities or religious ceremonies, traditional Umbrian desserts are almost always baked in the oven, with a predilection for ingredients such as almonds, spices or candied fruit. Among the best known are the Torcolo di San Costanzo – a typically Perugian dish traditionally prepared on January 29th, the feast day of St Costanzo, one of the city’s three patron saints. Panpepato is a form of Christmas ‘biscuit’ common throughout Central Italy, while the ciaramicola is a speciality unique to Perugia and is traditionally baked for Easter. The Assisi rocciata, a spiral kind of pastry sausage vaguely resembling a strudel, is also made in slightly different versions in Foligno and Spoleto. The classic rustic bread known as brustegnolo derives from Umbria’s peasant tradition and can include dried fruit in the mixture.
Norcia’s fame as centre for the production of cured meats has even produced the term norcino, used in the Italian language to indicate all kinds of meats preserved in this manner. Visitors to the city in northern Umbria will be able to savour the extraordinary variety of cured meats, from cojoni di mulo to boar sausages, DOC and IGP denomination Norcia prosciutto and ciauscolo, made with the shoulder cut of the pork, bacon and pork fat all minced three times and ideal for spreading over bread.
Norcia is also the homeland of the black truffle, which is exported throughout the world along with the white varieties of Città di Castello and Gubbio. These tubers are ideal both for the preparation of tasty appetisers and with pasta, and are also used in fresh and seasoned cheeses from the area – particularly in Umbrian pecorino cheese or the local formaggio di fossa, seasoned in the soil.
As well as playing an important role in the traditional Umbrian diet, a number of the region’s vegetables and cereals have earned the prestigious DOP quality denomination label. These include Lake Trasimene beans, Cannara onions and Trevi black celery. In terms of extra-virgin olive oil, Umbria boasts no less than five different DOP denomination varieties: Colli Orvietani, Colli Martani, Colli Amerini, Colli di Assisi-Spoleto, Colli del Trasimeno. Umbria’s largest production centre for olive oil is Trevi, around which visitors will be able to admire entire mountain sides given over to the cultivation of this legendary tree.
Surprisingly, Umbria also has a long standing history in the production of chocolate. Founded in 1907, the Perugina chocolate factory rose to international popularity and fame with its Baci, made with ground hazelnuts and dark chocolate. Initially named cazzotti, Baci were re-baptised by the decadent Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Considered among Italy’s most prized exports, Umbrian wines and the region’s vine-growing industry thrive on a combination of favourable factors such as the soil and the mild but continental climate.
As a way of helping wine tourists find their way through the enormous variety of labels on offer, the regional administration has instituted no less than four Wine Trails, all of which are also a way of discovering the magnificent Umbrian scenery.
All of excellent quality, Umbrian wines also offer fairly good value for money. The reds are best with meat or game, while the whites are more suited to pasta or fish dishes. The region’s rosés, sparkling whites or passitosweet wines are perfect for desserts.
Umbria’s unique landscape has made it an ideal vine-growing region since antiquity. Until recently the region has remained fairly isolated, thereby ensuring both that its centuries of tradition in this field remained intact and that the wine industry developed late compared with neighbouring Tuscany or Lazio.
Umbrian wines have now reached excellent standards in terms of quality, along with an international reputation that enables them to compete with more established labels from across Italy. The jealously guarded secrets of the region’s vine-growing traditions, passed down through the centuries, have ensured that a startling variety of uncontaminated autochthonous Umbrian varieties of grape – both red and white – have survived. Some prime examples are Ciliegiolo, Sangiovese and Sagrantino, as well as Drupeggio, Grechetto, Malvasia, Procanico, Trebbiano and Verdello.
The careful combination of these local vines with other varieties has produced quality results, of which perhaps the best known is the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) denomination Sagrantino di Montefalco, produced also in passito form, and the Torgiano Rosso Riserva.
Among Umbria’s DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) denomination wines are Assisi, Colli Altotiberini, Colli Amerini, Colli del Trasimeno, Colli Martani, Colli Perugini, Lago di Corbara, Montefalco, Orvieto, Rosso Orvietano and Torgiano.
The region’s IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) denomination wines are Allerona, Bettona, Cannara, Narni, Spello and Umbria.
Axel Ritenis, Editor, Connoisseur Magazine