Umbria: Amidst the scent of olives
November 23, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
The Italian region of Umbria doesn’t buzz in the ears of tourists, but it was more than worthy of a week’s visit. Dotted with millennia-old hill towns and blanketed by olive groves, Umbria easily catches a heartstring.
We are about a month behind on our blogging, but we promise to post everything. On October 15th, we took a train from Firenze/Florence to Spoleto (in Umbria) to meet Amy and Michael (Mitch’s parents) for a few weeks.
Two tips about Tren Italia: (1) for a regional train, wait to buy your ticket until the last minute and then buy it at the station, and (2) validate your ticket at the machine on the station platform before boarding. (Otherwise you end up paying an annoying amount of extra money, which we did.)
Agriturismo Villa at Pianciano
We spent a week staying at Pianciano, a collection of little farmhouses-cum-guesthouse a 15-minute drive from Spoleto. It’s super adorable, in a style that is lovely here but would be mildly tacky at home, with exposed brick and stonework, giant beams, and a covered patio out front.
It’s beautifully quiet here, with magnificent vistas of the valley. Most of the land in this valley is owned by the same family that owns this guesthouse (more on that later) and is primarily to grow olives for olive oil. The air is permeated by the perfume of the olives; this is the beginning of the harvest season and the fruit is ripe. The scent of the olives is somehow affronting, rich, and comforting all at once, and the taste of the olive oil is beyond anything we can buy in the States (without spending an obscene amount of money).
Beyond just the olives, here there is a small farm as well… so our first day here, we were left with some farm-fresh eggs (and able to go back to collect them each morning), homemade plum jam, and a freshly made (delicious!) vegetarian lasagna that we could pop into the oven and not worry about dinner our first day.
There is also a small vegetable garden, so not only could we collect eggs, but we also picked figs, tomatoes, parsley, zucchini, chard. After so many months in Asia without having any access to a kitchen, the two of us were so excited to have access to perfectly fresh produce and the ability to cook!
But higher priority, of course, were the farm animals. There are a couple of farm cats here, and we were adopted by a very sweet one who we decided to call Ewok. (He has a regular Italian name, but we didn’t remember it, and he looked so much like an Ewok that we couldn’t help ourselves.) He is very talkative, and would stroll over as soon as we opened up the door each morning (announcing his presence, of course) and demand a bit of attention – which we were happy to give him.
As soon as we sat down by the outside table to read or write, he would pad his way up onto our laps and curl up for some snuggles. We have fallen in love with Italian cats, which we think we need to import to train American cats how to be affectionate. They also have a very sweet, incredibly calm, beautiful farmdog named Luna, and on weekends Francesco (the owner) brings his much smaller dog to the country from Roma.
Cooking Demo & Pizza Dinner at Pianciano
In addition to the welcome-lasagna, we had two dinners organized by our hosts at Pianciano. One night, we had a cooking lesson (read: demo) with an Italian mama named Maria. She was the cook responsible for the delicious lasagna, and the dinner she prepared for us (with just a little of our help) lived up to the same standard. Melanzane parmigiana, fresh orecchiette pasta with veggies, and a ricotta pie for dessert. Recipes recorded, and we have already tried to recreate some of her food and use some of her tips. (For example, when boiling broccoli rabe, throw a piece of lemon into the water to cut some of the bitterness.)
And another night, they arranged a pizza dinner for us and some other guests. And by dinner, we mean feast. For a group of 9 people (including two children), they prepared 14 pizzas. 14, you ask? 2 olive oil and rosemary, 2 margarita, 2 mozzarella/arugula/olive oil, 2 anchovy, 2 white pizzas with zucchini (1 with ham), 1 potato/sausage, 1 mushroom, and 2 nutella/banana. Plus the salad, pastries, and wine that the guests had brought.
The House, the Oil, and the History
Francesco Bachetoni, the owner/manager of this guesthouse with this wife Claudia, gave us some recommendations for things to do in the area as well as information about the house in which we were staying. He also gave us a tour of the main house (small castle) on the property (on the other hill, across the valley), and introduced us to the family’s olive oil operation, run by his brother.
This property (this HUGE property) has been in the Bachetoni family for over 100 years, but it’s history goes back far longer. It used to be owned by the Pianciani family, which had their family castle on the hill where the guesthouse is. However, their family was in disagreement with the Pope’s rule of the region, and their castle was consequently destroyed. In the 16th century, they built a new castle, which now the main house on the property (on the hill across from where the guesthouse now is).
The buildings that now make up the guesthouse were apparently originally built hundreds of years ago to accommodate soldiers to monitor the whole valley. Somehow I jotted down that it was built in the 14th century in one place, and 500+ years ago in another place, so we don’t remember how old it is – but suffice to say, old. And regardless, it is crazy to think that the ceiling beams of the house where we were living and sleeping were original from that long ago!
Francesco’s great-grandfather bought the main house (the second Pianciani castle) 100+ years ago from the Italian bank, which owned the house post-foreclosure, and paid half of the purchase price with a single painting, which now sits in a Boston museum.
The house through extensive modern remodeling in the early 1970s, headed up by Francesco’s father who had hired an architect of questionable-but-interesting taste. Apparently a large part of the Bachetoni family’s wealth of art was amassed by an Archbishop forefather/uncle (the two words are sometimes used interchangeably with Italy’s upper class). Francesco showed us a photo of his grandfather (?) owning the 2nd car in Umbria… it’s interesting how the symbol’s of the upper class change over time!
The tour of the interior of the house was interesting just because of the age and history of everything. But honestly, while the old books, paintings, furniture, and “stuff” are interesting for their history and craftsmanship, it’s just not our style. We always feel a little confused when people walk around and exclaim how beautiful a centuries-old set of dishes with dainty flowers on them is. Meh.
Worth noting, Francesco’s family used to be trophy hunters, and he seems to be very conflicted and ashamed of this history. There are giant elephant tusks on display, a table made of out of an elephant ear, and a photo of his parents proudly on an African hunting trip.
The majority of the estate is dedicated to agriculture… and while the land here is crap for most crops, olive trees grow super well. Francesco’s brother manages the olive oil business, but apparently it doesn’t make financial sense to harvest all trees each year because of the expense of harvesting (with the sloped land and all). Typically they just bottle 2,000-5,000 litres per year!
The older trees on the property are 250-year-old trees, and the newer ones are 25 years old, due to some major frost that had killed many of the trees in the mid-1980s. Overall, there are 16,000 olive trees on the property, and while Francesco didn’t know the acreage, it’s surrounded by 15 miles of fencing. The best way to keep the foliage down between the trees is apparently with donkeys, so they have a fleet of 25 semi-wild donkeys as caretakers.
On our last day at Pianciano, we decided to buy some olive oil to take back. The olive oil apparently lasts two years but has a stronger taste the first year. So we bought some of year. This year there was some giant moth-infestation (which we heard about from olive-growers all around Umbria and Tuscany), so their production was low this year. But, since this year’s oil has not yet been bottled, they bottled it just for us and we got to see some of the machinery.
The best local food
There are some phenomenal food options right near Pianciano. One local favorite was the little Trattoria de Gabrielle (or just La Trattoria, “restaurant,” because that’s all the sign actually says), which had an amazing flow of antipasti that just kept coming, and coming, and coming. Exceptional.
Nearby the Trattoria de Gabrielle is a new flea market, where there is just as much useless old crap (and new crap) as in any flea market in the States. There is also a little park where, for whatever reason, they had stocked the pond so people could fish for their own dinners, which seemed to appeal to kids and old people. While we were there, Mitch somehow lost a handkerchief into the fish pond and we asked a grumpy old Italian man to fish it out for us with his fishing net.
And possibly our all-time favorite pizza from our 3+ weeks in Italy was from a local little pizza place called Pizzeria da Sandro just a few minutes from the house. The place was super sweet, the family that managed it was awesome, friendly, down-to-earth, and welcoming, and the pizza was exceptionally tasty. Plus, it was the only place in Italy where we had tiramisu to rival my own! (I make a damned good tiramisu).
It is amazing that here in olive oil capital of the world, and truffle capital of the world, in truffle hunting season, you can get pasta or pizza al tartufo for just €2 more than without. (Comparatively, just 2 hours south in Roma, it’s €10 for a regular pasta but €60 al tartufo. Insanity.)
Italian food is really a force unto itself. We cannot tell you the number of times we would order a meal and decide that “of course” we cannot do without antipasti and contorni (the appetizers and sides which often have some of the best vegetarian, and not-vegetarian, food imaginable). And “of course” we need house wine with the meal. And then, even if we had committed to just ordering one course (instead of the epic-proportion of the primi piatti, or pasta/risotto/etc., secondi, or main course that is usually a meat dish), we would still be overwhelmed by food. And after all that, they would bring out the dessert menu… and that, my friends, is the true sensation of being defeated by food.
The nearest village to Pianciano is Campello, which was small and adorable and had a little grocery store. But the best thing about it was – surprisingly – the almond cookies at Campello Carni (translation: the local butcher/meat-market). The owner/manager there makes these fresh almond cookies every morning, and she said that they are very easy and just have almond flour, sugar (fine), and egg. They are a dangerous addiction, and I need to figure out how she made them before I go into serious withdrawal.
The nearby cities and towns
Spoleto is 15 minutes away and the closest city to Pianciano. We really liked it – it is cute, commercial, and lived in instead of just touristed. But at the same time, there are a ton of old buildings and artifacts, with some stones and foundations dating back to Roman times.
We really enjoyed walking along the aqueduct. Apparently there was a Roman aqueduct here, which was then ruined, then rebuilt in the 13th century, then abandoned… But regardless of whether it is one or two millennia old (what?!?), it is an impressive architectural feat in any situation and any time.
We also enjoyed a stop in their Duomo (main cathedral), which was super beautiful. But the two smaller side chapels in the duomo were the highlights for us – one with magnificent marble angel statues, and the other including nifty old family crests involving a scorpion. There is also an old Jesus on a cross displayed in the Duomo, which apparently dates back to the 12th century.
But – in addition to just wandering the adorable streets and hills of the town, our other favorite activity was (of course) eating. We had three lunches in Spoleto. Our first day, we had lunch at Cuore & Sapore, which was super tasty with a lovely ambiance in a tucked away back corner of the older part of the city, so great to wander around afterwards.
Our favorite meal (possibly in all of Umbria) was at Ristorante Apollianare. It was super fantastic, super fancy, somehow reasonably priced, with great service and phenomenal food.
And lastly, we had a lunch at Trattoria La Torretta, which was adorable and had good food – though paled in comparison to our two other lunches in Spoleto.
We took a daytrip to Norcia, a town known historically for being the birthplace of St. Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica and more commonly known for its Norcia sausage. It was a nice hill town with a touristy main center, but then it was super adorable to wander the small back roads. As usual for the area, the back streets are dotted with Roman water spouts, tiny fountains, cantilevered houses, and flowing impatiens off balconies and roses outside doorways.
Plus, we learned that plastic water bottles (like old soda bottles) filled with water on the front stoops keeps cats out of the house. Apparently they get freaked out by their reflections in them or some such – who knew! It’s kind of like how we learned in Rishikesh that plastic baggies filled with water can be tied to the ceiling to keep away flies, and in Ladakh that the tape from old audio cassettes can be strung up to keep away deer. Useful tips!
Perugia (and its chocolate festival)
Our daytrip to Perugia, where the Perugino chocolates come from, coincided with the first day of their annual chocolate festival. While the festival hadn’t fully kicked off, the streets in the town center were full of stalls with all sorts of chocolate gimmics – choco-kebabs, chocosoap, plus lots of relatively low-quality chocolate.
The town itself is super adorable but a bit larger than some of the others we visited. There are tons of churches, beautiful vistas of the surrounding valleys, narrow streets lined with stone walls, archways, flower planters, and all the usual Umbrian hill-town adorableness.
One personal highlight was buying a Torciglione. What’s that, you may ask? Aside from my new favorite thing, it’s an almond snake pastry that is classic for this region. The internet had told us that Sandri’s Pasticceria in Perugia was an excellent place, and it did not disappoint.
We had heard from a couple of people to check out Bevagna, another adorable old hill town. There, we saw a variety of old churches and buildings (of course). Some of the buildings dated back to the 12th century, and there were amazing structures, sizes, etc. Some of the churches had beautiful frescoed ceilings, or remnants of frescoes on the walls dating back to 12th century.
A wander around town took us by the old waterway and town laundry area, as well as a hotel that a friend of Amy & Michael’s told us to check out. The hotel (and its views) were pretty.
For lunch we found a great little place called La Trattoria de Oscar with lovely pasta, salads, bread, olive oil, etc., and a very lovable guy named Felipe. It’s been fantastic to taste all the house wines, which are so cheap compared to say – coca cola – and so much better than most wines at home.
On a whim, we went to Spello for our last day in Umbria, which is another adorable hill town. (Of all the hill towns, Spello seemed to be the one that could most capture a tourists heart.) It has a single main commercial street, where they have totally figured out how to cater to, sell to, and increase prices for tourists. For example, outside of shops, they have ladies in old dresses giving out cookie samples, while inside her husband talks about how his €8 (but very tasty) cookies are straight from their farm that has been in the family for generations, and made using his grandmother’s recipe. Beyond the main commercial street, there are a ton of adorable residential alleyways and historical churches and arches (as usual), plus gorgeous views of the valleys.
We had lunch and a wine tasting at Enoteca Properzio, which was cute and run by a family who has been selling wine for 7 generations (now a team of father Roberto and son Luca). At first, we were turned off by their hip press and presence, and the fact that you walk in and – knowing how to grab a traditional tourist’s heart – they cite how their wine shop was just written up in the NY Times and a stack of other magazines and newspapers. But then, we realized that despite their hype, their overcooked pasta (it was so sad, the one place in Italy where the pasta was not perfectly chewily al dente), and their high prices, the family really does just LOVE wine and olive oil. Not only can we not blame them for loving it, but their enthusiasm for wine and their family business is pretty infectious.
Other Food & Drink Worth a Mention
Arnoldo Caprai Vineyard
When we asked people where in Umbria we should go to see a vineyard and get a wine tasting, everyone suggested Arnoldo Caprai… so we went! Caprai became famous because they had one stellar year with a stellar, award-winning wine, but we were frankly unimpressed. Their wines were decent and totally drinkable, but paled in comparison to most of the standard house wines at most restaurants.
However, we realized that the reason for the recommendation is that they give huge tasting pours – akin to a half glass in a generous restaurant and a nearly full glass in a stingy restaurant. So after a free 5-wine tasting, we were all toasted.
Residence L’Alberata / Gastronomia Andrea
On our internet quest for great food, we kept seeing things about this place called Residence L’Alberata / Gastronomia Andrea, which is in the middle of nowhere and a 45-minute drive from where we were staying. They only serve dinner, only serve food 3 days a week, and their first seating is at 8pm. But, the interwebs said it was phenomenal so we decided to make a reservation and give it a go. As it turns out – interweb fail!
The vibe was generic, the food was adequate but not great by any means – too salty, not relying on the rich natural flavors typical for Umbrian food, etc. – and it was vastly overpriced for quality. Not only was it one of the worst meals we had, but it was also the most expensive. Unfortunately, we had high expectations from the reviews, were exhausted, tired from the wine tasting (we went the same day as the wine tasting at Arnoldo Caprai), and had a long drive to get home so we were in no shape to make the best of it.
Agricola Castelgrosso dei Fratelli Mancini
Thankfully, compared to those other two experiences, we had an adventure that led us to some of the best wine in Italy and a great day full of happenstance. Our hosts at Pianciano had left a bottle of wine in the house as a welcome, which was super delicious. So we asked Francesco where it was from, and he said that it was from the winery of some cousin, and that they didn’t really cater to tourists, but we could go look for it per the label on the bottle. So off we went in search of Agricola Castelgrosso dei Fratelli Mancini!
The Google Map placement wasn’t clear, so we drove through the closest town, doubled back, got directions in Italian from a guy on the street (which we flubbed thanks to our lack of Italian), and doubled back again. We found the local bar and asked there, where 5 or 6 people passed around the empty bottle (which we had brought to assist our Italian) and ultimately decided they had no idea. We doubled back again. While we were sitting in the car trying to figure out what to do, we flagged down a driver – a lovely older Italian man, who tried to give us directions, saw our confusion, and indicated to follow him.
It turns out the other driver’s name is Lelo and he is the nephew of a guy who had managed this particular winery for 60 years – lucky us. Since there was no one at the cantina (where they actually make the wine), Lelo took us to the family house, where we met Alberto Mancini (who was midnap when we arrived) and his father, who was quick to bring us his personal homemade grappa to proudly share. Alberto took us back down to the cantina, where we ended up spending the entire afternoon talking with him, drinking wine, and enjoying a beautiful day.
The vineyard has been in the family 300 years, and like the rest of this area of Italy, there is a long view of history. For example, Alberto talked about how Spoleto was the first town (after Roma) whose residents became Roman citizens because of the city’s resistance to Hannibal, which happened around 200 BCE. And then there are other stories told as though they are recent that date back to 800 CE or some such. But then, on the other hand, apparently this area just got electricity in 1964!
The winery itself small, producing about 50,000 bottles per year… but their wine is perfectly delicious (at least to our tongues). They produce just four types of wines, a tribbiani white, a sagrantino red (the typical grape of this specific area), and two red blends. It turns out that their wine has never been sent/sold to the U.S., so the wine that we decided to purchase is the first time it’s coming onto U.S. soil.
All in all, it was a remarkably lovely day hanging out at the cantina with Alberto like he was an old friend. And yet one more win for Italian cats. Bibi, one of the farm cats there, loved sitting on our laps, and was super sweet and adorable. She ended up kind of falling between Mitch’s legs and ended up with her little tush on the chair, and the front half of her body up on Mitch’s leg! So cute!
After the day at the cantina, we went back to Pianciano where I had a few phone calls for potential jobs (so far, nothing has materialized, but some of the leads are very exciting). And then we had invited Alberto to come join us for dinner, which was a perfect end to the day!
Here’s the full set of our photos from Umbria… there are plenty of ‘em, so feel free to scroll through and enjoy!