My quest to unlock the secrets of Umbria’s rural culture, traditions and foods often gives me the opportunity of new and interesting explorations. Nothing makes me happier than sharing all this with those who seek a deeper understanding of the locals and their customs.
This week I have had the pleasure to host food-photographer extraordinaire Jenny Huang. She has visited us to discover Umbria’s unique produce and foods as well as to get to know the farmers who were affected by last year’s earthquake in Norcia, Umbria’s veritable culinary mecca. We got to Norcia last Tuesday just in time to attend the harvest of the last few lentil fields in the Piano Grande di Castelluccio.
When Jenny contacted me, I was initially worried. The relentless media campaigns showing over and over again images of the earthquake-induced destruction has severely jeopardized the economy of the whole area. Umbria has been marked as ***dangerous**** in big bold letters. As a result, much of the region has been devoid of tourists this year.
What the medias don’t say however, is that there is presently ***no danger*** if you visit Umbria. No more than visiting California or Japan. No more than going to Rome. However, so many of us are staring at our empty rooms, shops and restaurants and just hoping the press will stop selling our misfortune and let us get back to our lives and rebuild.
Fortunately, Jenny was not looking into feeding negative emotions. On the contrary, she wanted to highlight the magnificent food and landscape of Umbria and to show the resilience of the farmers. She understood how important it is to drive more visitors back to the region rather than scaring them away. That’s why I picked up the phone to know if it was at all possible to visit the farmers in Norcia and that’s how we managed to meet a very special Umbrian pig.
If you come to Umbria and I hope you will do so soon, you must get acquainted with this humble animal who eats everything and grows everywhere, and has sustained the Umbrians for centuries. Even if you don’t eat it, you must appreciate that the butchers from Norcia have been famous for over 2000 years and revered by the Romans for their art of curing the finest prosciutto and sausages.
If you are vegetarian, keep reading please, there will be food for you. Our mountainous land produces some of the most divine ingredients in the world: sensuous truffles, fragrant olive oil, ancient grains, a cornucopia of beans and lentils. There is high quality food to please every taste.
The lentils of Castelluccio are so important that they even make beer with it, which is actually excellent. And, in a full circle of sustainability, the leftovers of the cultivation are used to feed the pigs, a tradition of millennia.
And now, back to the pig. Because the pig runs the show here, especially when you get to taste the prosciutto. You know Pata Negra? this is way better, heartwarming, melt in the mouth, royal, a king of the cured meats. Prepare yourself because this is a flavor you will not forget.
You don’t eat pork or beans? no problems: here in Umbria you will also find deeply delicious lamb and beef from the majestic Chianina cows. If you know where to look, eating local has never been so easy in rural Umbria. These gorgeous girls live down the road from us.
Back to our kitchen, Jenny’s introduction to the Umbrian ways was, obviously, a morning long lesson focussed on how to make stringozzi pasta. I hand rolled noodles, then we tossed them with a norcina cream sauce, made with fresh sausages (what else?) saute with onions and deglazed with white wine.
The next step was to know how sausages are made.
One of the funniest comments I have recently heard after one of my cooking classes was from a woman who especially appreciated my lecture on food quality. After a direct demonstration that better ingredients are the only way to better cooking, she mentioned: “now I understand why I need to have a relation with my butcher”.
Well, yes, I do take care to choose the best butchers.
Alessandro and Francesco have inherited the recipe of sausages from Mr. Pippetta, owner of one of the oldest butcher shops in our area. You will be surprised to see how incredibly simple it is and what minute amounts of condiments are necessary for several pounds of meat.
However, the young brothers have made several experiments to reproduce the flavor and texture of sausages a bygone time. For example, they smash the garlic slowly it until it looks like a semi-liquid paste. Alessandro says that the resulting flavor is better than chopping the cloves. And indeed, the results are superb.
I am sure Jenny will have a better video on her websites soon, but for now enjoy what I have been able to capture with my antique I-phone!
And please don’t forget: the true risks in visiting Umbria right now is indigestion. That is if you can’t stop yourself from tasting all this fabulous food. Thank you for your understanding :).