Cooking School? or Gastronomic Adventure in Umbria, Italy ….

The main reason my Mom gave to her son-in-laws, for taking her daughters to Italy, was for us to attend a ‘Cooking School’ in the Umbrian Region of Italy.  We were all in … but truthfully … this was more of a Gastronomic Tour than attending a Cooking School …. and it was FANTASTIC!

We left Florence on a morning train to travel to the Central Italian region of Umbria.  It is the only region of Italy that has no water on any border … totally landlocked.  Because of this, the region specializes in beef and pork, not seafood as found in other areas or regions. While speeding through the countryside, we were entranced with the vistas that flashed by.  Green fields, lakes, hills, farms and flowers …. the views were amazing.  Arriving in Foligno, we were met by our guide for the week and the driver of a private van specifically hired to transport our small group of six anywhere we needed to go.

View of the Italian Countryside between Florence and Foligno

View of the Italian Countryside between Florence and Foligno

Before I get started on what we did in Umbria, I have to tell you all about Marcello Tori of Bluone – Wine & Cooking Tours.  He is funny, smart and knows more than you can believe about the Food & Wine of both the Umbrian and Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy.  He was with us the entire week, stayed at the Bed & Breakfast and modified the pre-planned itinerary as needed to make sure we had the most fabulous week of our lives.  I can’t recommend him and his company enough.  Here’s a link to their web site if you’re interested.  http://www.bluone.com/

Central Plaza outside of the Cathedral in Bevaga, Italy

Central Plaza outside of the Cathedral in Bevaga, in Italy

View of Bevagna from our  Bed & Breakfast tucked in the Olive Groves above town

View of Bevagna from our Bed & Breakfast in the Olive Groves of the Umbrian Hills.

Our home base in Umbria was a Bed & Breakfast outside the small Italian village of Bevagna.  The view we had of the village was breathtaking and we had to hurry down the hill to explore as quickly as we could.   Bevagna is a very typical small town with a central plaza next the local cathedral, winding lanes through centuries old homes, really interesting shops tucked into the side alleys and, of course, ancient remains including the remnants of 2nd century Roman Baths.  This is an area of Italy that does not get as many tourists wandering through.  The local people were charming, friendly and very hospitable.  If you ever want to get off of the main tourist routes in Italy, this region is a must see.

The first night we had a quick dinner and our first experience with true Italian Gelato.  Have to say … I’ve been addicted to it ever since!  For dinner, Marcello ordered three appetizers, three main dishes (which were reflective of the local produce), a couple bottles of wine and two desserts.  Even though there were seven of us dining, it was plenty of food and was absolutely delicious.  Our Gastronomic Adventure had begun …………

Narrow & extremely steep lanes in Spello

Narrow & extremely steep lanes in Spello

Flowers galore spill off the walls in Spello, Italy

Flowers galore spill off the walls in Spello, Italy

The next morning we headed to Spello, a quirky village sitting high on a hill in
the middle of the Umbrian plains.  This is a charming town with extremely steep roads and spectacular views.  We got our morning exercise with a pretty high energy ‘walk’ up to the top of the town.  We stopped at a couple beautiful churches on the way …. and then enjoyed the view from the top.

Next up Trevi …. which included a tour of an Olive Oil factory and lunch.  To my surprise, I really enjoyed the tour as I had though it might be very boring.  We learned how the olives are collected and then how really good Olive Oil is processed.   I never knew that the best product is never heated during this procedure which results in the fact that it will not burn when cooking  This makes it perfect to use if you don’t want your dinner charred.  We also learned about lots of other uses for Olive Oil including adding it to lotions as a moisturizer.  After a shopping spree in their gift shop, we jumped in the van for a visit to the Arnaldo Caprai winery and then drove up the hill to spend the evening in the town of  Montefalco.

We arrived at a local restaurant in the late afternoon and were invited into the kitchen.  The owner/chef explained the menu for the evening and then assigned each of us a task.   One of my sisters made Tiramisu, which we learned is not really Italian, while the others prepared vegetables and sauces.  We got to see how the kitchen of a restaurant worked and learned lots about the basic preparation of Italian dishes.  After helping the chef get things started, we were seated at a table in the restaurant and enjoyed the results of our labors.

Truffles after being 'sniffed' out and dug up!

Truffles after being ‘sniffed’ out and dug up!

Truffle Hunter

Truffle Hunter

On day three we headed out into the country to a community were they ‘hunt truffles’, the Raccolta Tartufi  Riservata in the Comunita Montana dei Monti Martani e del Serano.   We found out that truffles are grown in the ground kind of like mushrooms or moss.  The dogs are specially trained to ‘sniff’ out the truffles so they can be dug up.  After watching them ‘at work’ we were invited to a sit down to a family style lunch.  After lots of food, including pasta flavored with truffle, of course, lots of laughter … and a little wine, we drove back off the mountain and set our sights on Spoleta.

The central region of Italy is made up of a lot of low lands with hills popping up every few miles.  The towns and villages are surrounded by high walls and they were built centuries ago to sit precariously right on top of the hills to provide protection against any invading enemies.  Spoleta is a larger town than some of the others we visited and had several churches and piazzas.  In Spoleta we enjoyed the Ponte delle Torri, a striking 13th-century aquaduct and the Piazza Bernardino Campello, a large piazza filled with flowers and restaurants.   We stopped to rest, and while grabbing a quick refreshment, enjoyed some great people watching.

The Ponte delle Torri 13th Century Aquaduct

The Ponte delle Torri 13th Century Aquaduct

We returned to Foligno (where we had originally arrived by train) and enjoyed a walking tour.  After checking out the main piazza, the local Cathedral and a few shops, we headed to a small and quirky restaurant, which wasowned by a very entertaining chef.  He regaled us with stories of life in Foligno while we enjoyed a delicious three course meal … with lots of wine … of course.

 

Sausage Factory in Norcia

Sausage Factory in Norcia

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Norcia … a mountain town near the eastern border of Umbria.

Tuesday found us traveling a couple hours to the eastern border of Umbria,
high into the mountainous areas.  The trip reminded us all of driving through
the mountains in north-east Georgia.  Lots of hair pin curves and extremely
long drops.   We were headed to to Norcia, the Lentil Farm & Pork Capital of Italy.
This area is well know for their sausage & ham products.  The Patron Saint of
Norcia is Benedicto … and he is well represented with several statues in
the central piazza.  We had lunch at a small local restaurant and enjoyed a bit of local shopping.  We picked up lots of items to remind us of this unique area.

View down the main street of Perugia, Italy

View down the main street of Perugia, Italy

The next day we arrived at one of my favorite places in Umbria – Perugia.  This is a large town and is well known internationally for their University and their Chocolate.  We wandered around the entire town and down the long main street that is the Rodeo Drive of Umbria.  Lots of high end stores and shops, coffees & pastries, and cute little bistros.  For lunch we each picked a cafe with something we wanted to nibble on, and then met back on the street to eat at umbrella tented tables.

Sambuca Factory in Deruta, Italy

Sambuca Factory in Deruta, Italy

 

After our tour of Perugia, we stopped at the Sambuco Ceramics Factory in Deruta.  All of the ceramics made here are decorated by hand.  The work is extraordinary and the amount of detail is amazing.

Dinner was back in Bevagna at a local restaurant and then back to the B&B for an early night.  We needed to get to bed early because in the morning we had early tickets for a tour of the main Cathedral in Assisi.

 

 

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi

A visit to the Umbrian region would not be complete with going to the town Assisi, the birth place of Saint Francis of Assisi, and touring the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi.  Construction on the Basilica began in 1228, shortly after his canonization.  It is filled with frescoes and sculptures from famous Italian artists.  It is huge and grand … and is definitely worth the time and effort of a visit.

Entrance to one of the Fortresses from the piazza atop the hill!

Entrance to one of the Fortresses from the piazza atop the hill!

Assisi is also known for two medival forts that tower over the town.  One was build in the mid 1300’s, by the pope of that time, and was designed to intimidate the people of the area.

After touring the town of Assisi, we headed back out to another winery.  And this one was the best of the bunch.  Located in the low lands of Umbria, and with the owner Roberto as our guide, we had a fabulous lunch and a very information tour of the Dionigi Winery.  They specialize in the wines of the region including an absolutely delicious Sagrantino, made from the Sagrantino grape which is only found in the Province of Perugia.   We all stocked up on our Wine, literally, and loaded down our suitcases for the trip back home.

Dionigi Vineyard

Dionigi Vineyard

 

Dinner was at the El Tempio del Gusto restaurant in Spoleto, where we again assisted the Chef with basic preparation and then enjoyed the resulting meal. I made the spaghetti (from scratch mind you) and fun was had by all.

Piazza in Spoleta, Italy

Piazza in Spoleta, Italy

The next day we decided to head back to Spoleto to explore.  We had gotten there late in the afternoon the day before so didn’t have a chance at that time.  After lunch in a small cafe on the central piazza we headed back to the Bed & Breakfast where we were dining in.

The Owners of the B&B invited is into their kitchen to show us how to cook a typical Italian home style meal.  This experience was much more personal since it was only a group of 9.  The owners wife knew no English and we did not know any Italian … but the lanquage of food overcame all obstacles.  We learned that to cook like an ‘Italian’ you just had to start with ‘olio & aglio’ (Olive Oil & Garlic) and then add a little ‘sale e pepe’ (Salt & Pepper).  Then you just threw in whatever was in the pantry or the refrigerator.  I think this was the most freeing lesson of all.  My sisters and I all agreed that when we got back home we were much more at ease in the Kitchen and much more willing to experiment.  So …. the Gastronomic Adventure was a success and helped us with our ‘cooking’ after all.CIMG3045

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