Small Umbria is a casket that collects characteristic gastronomic jewels all along its territory. It is possible to trace the guiding principle of this region’s gastronomic traditions in extra-virgin olive oil civilization and in lard’s culture.
Extra-virgin olive oil
One of the prominent features of the green hills of Umbria are the groves of olive trees. The very long-lived but slow-growing olive well represents this region’s capacity to lovingly preserve centuries-old traditions, handed down from one generation to the next, and the flavourful extra virgin olive oil from Umbria represents the best of regional cuisine, consisting of simple, down-to-earth dishes made with wholesome, tasty foods. The extra virgin olive oil produced in five communes of Umbria can make use of the “Umbria – Colli Martani Protected Designation of Origin,” which is for one of the five sub-zones into which the region has been divided. The main cultivar in the Colli Martani area is San Felice, a local variety that is sweeter and thus allows the Colli Martani extra virgin olive oil to compensate for the typical pungency of Umbrian olive oil coming from the “Moraiolo” olives grown almost exclusively in the rest of the region.
The raising of pigs and consumption of pork is a very strong tradition in this area. This is especially true in the winter months, starting in mid-January when the pig is traditionally “ready” to delight our palates with grilled pork chops, spare ribs, fegatelli (pig’s liver), slices of fat and lean, and all parts of the animal not used for preparing prosciutto, salami, etc. are frequently found on tables in this area. A different matter altogether is the preparation of “porchetta” or whole roast pig.
The well-known hearty flavours of Umbrian cooking come not only from the foods themselves, but also from the use of seasonings and condiments. Lard, which is pork fat, was often used in the past in the place of olive oil in the preparing of soups and sauces, because when it was beaten together with herbs and spices, it would give them a decided flavour and, at the same time, it provided a significant amount of calories. Strutto, or rendered lard, was used in roasts as a pillotto, a kind of lardoon (it was inserted along with herbs and spices into cuts made in pieces of meat), and it was also spread over meat as it turned over a spit.
This exceptional subterranean fungus grows to a size varying from that of a walnut to as large as an apple. At least two species are found in the woods of Umbria: the more valuable species, the black winter truffle (Tuber melanosporum), matures from November to March in the vicinity of oaks, hornbeams, hazelnuts, ilexes and rockroses, and has a black or blackish skin, which is wrinkly but does not have the coarseness of other species with a blackish skin. Its pulp is a purplish-black colour, with thin veins of white that turn reddish-brown at the sides. This species grows in soils that are crumbly or calcareous, pebbly, tending to be arid, at elevations from about 250 to 1000 meters above sea level.
The other species found is the black summer truffle (Tuber aestivum), which matures from May to August, in symbiosis with broadleaf trees or some types of conifer. It has a black, very coarse skin and is brownish-white inside.
This cereal grain – also known as spelt – is the oldest grain of all to have survived to our times. The variety Triticum durum dicoccum is grown mainly on the many organic farms in Umbria. For many centuries the rural diet made extensive use of emmer wheat: rich in carbohydrates, calcium and phosphorus, it was used together with legumes to make hearty “poor man’s” soups that were substantially comparable to meat for the amounts of protein and other nutrients they provided. Recently, the increased interest in organic products and the search for healthy natural foods has led to the rediscovery of emmer.
This is the name given in this area to pasta made from water and flour, common all throughout the region of Umbria but given different names, such as pici, bigoli, cordelle, strozzapreti or, of course, strangozzi. The name may change, but not the good taste of this dish, which is one of the oldest in Umbrian cooking. It is made with a “poor” dough, i.e. without the use of eggs, and it is generally covered with meatless sauces, based on tomatoes, red pepper, truffles, asparagus, or mushrooms.
The production of honey depends on the presence, distribution and healthiness of the bees in the area, but not everyone realizes that the quality of honey is also influenced by the quality of the flowers from which these busy insects draw the precious nectar. In Umbria, one of the Italian regions with the lowest degree of air pollution due both to the scarcity of industry and to the low population density, the honey is naturally of the highest quality and preserves all of its nutritional value and therapeutic properties. Most of the honey produced is the “millefiori” (“thousand flowers”) type, but unifloral types, i.e. made from the nectar of a single flower species, such as clover, sulla clover, sunflower and acacia, are also produced.
Article written by Staff Correspondent – Connoisseur Magazine