Here I am on my yearly trip to Cucina della Terra in Umbria, Italy. Cucina della Terra, as I’ve mentioned in past posts, is the small, lovely culinary school that my friends Gerri and Jack own in Castiglione del Lago, a beautiful town situated above Lago Trasimeno, one of the largest lakes in Italy. Umbria is the region directly in the middle of the country, northeast of Rome and southeast of Tuscany. It is known as “the green heart of Italy”, and it certainly is – green, I mean. The rolling hills, farms, olive groves, and vineyards make it one of the most picturesque places in the country. It bears a resemblance to Tuscany, but only up to a point- there is no “chi-chi” or snob component here, few tourists, and more of a “real life” feel.
I love coming here for many reasons. I reconnect with Italy – the food, the land, the scenery, and the lifestyle. (Okay, the wine too…) I get to cook and bake using the pure earthy ingredients that are the basis of real Italian food, which is very simple and wholly depends on the terra from which it came.
There are 35 olive trees on the property, and the bright green olive oil that comes from them is strong and peppery- we use it for everything. The fruit and vegetables are incomparable- autumn brings cipollini onions on the stalk, all manner of squash and pumpkin, fennel, porcini and a load of other fragrant mushrooms, black kale, lentils and beans grown on the shores of the lake; plums, pears, apples, and figs that are bursting with juicy flavor.
Umbria, with no coastline, is famous for its more earthbound delights like truffles and game. Venison ravioli, braised duck, grilled marinated quail, and wild boar sausage are all dishes to be savored here – and we do, of course. Pici al ragu di cinghiale is a dish, prevalent in Tuscany and Umbria that really exemplifies the cuisine: hand made pasta (like a very fat spaghetti) with a robust and aromatic sauce of braised wild boar and tomatoes. As soon as I arrive in Umbria, my mouth starts watering, looking forward to a porchetta panini- a sandwich of whole roast pig stuffed with wild fennel, garlic, and herbs. Speaking of fennel, I do love greens of any kind (I don’t know any Italian-American that doesn’t). Umbria grows its share of greens and then some. The open market in Castiglione had this beautiful escarole and leafy broccoli (almost worthy to be the subject of a watercolor).
Baking is wonderful too as we use the freshest, fluffiest eggs whose bright orange yolks infuse everything with a saffron hue. Cream, milk, mascarpone, sheep’s milk ricotta, aged parmigiano, all types of pecorino — the dairy has a purity that is very palpable. I make marmellata (fruit preserves) with anything and everything – green figs from the fig tree in the back of the Cucina are my favorite.
We make gelato and sorbetto as well as all kinds of biscotti, making the most out of the fresh hazelnuts that come from Piemonte, the amazing dried and glaceed fruits that are available at open markets all over the Mediterranean, and of course, the chocolate (more about that in the next post).
The food and wine lovers that come to Cucina della Terra get to hunt for truffles, taste fantastic wines at beautiful vineyards, pick olives and watch them being milled into that fragrant green elixir know as extra virgin olive oil, and visit some of the famed scenic hill towns of the area like Orvieto, Montepulciano, Pienza, Assisi, and Bevagna. The landscape, cuisine, people, and culture of Italy are so diverse. Umbria is certainly captivating, though each region is worth discovering on its own!