The adventures in Umbria continue, with a new featured player experiencing the rustic countryside for the first time. My best friend Cal arrived just about two weeks ago and, after a quick acclimation in Rome to Italian time (both the time zone and also the way hours work a bit slower here), we took the scenic train ride away from the city and toward Umbria, the green heart of Italy.
Cal and I went to college together, are rock climbing partners, artistic collaborators, lived together this past year in Los Angeles and, perhaps most of all, share a similar ethic around the joys of preparing food with and for those we love. What better place to delve into this passion than in Umbria? We settled into our routine of adventure with immediacy and great delight, reveling in our early morning exercise, followed by a long and slow breakfast preparation with the eggs from our lovely birds and produce from the orto at the farmhouse. We take turns brewing coffee in the moka pot – one as we start to cook and a second batch just as we sit down to eat, making sure to steam our milk only if the clock still reads before 11am. The food scraps from the morning meal get walked over to the birds as an extra treat, then we linger at an outside table to work on the day’s crossword. As usual, any number of thoughtfully planned or curious and improvised adventures await us.
In these two weeks, Cal has ascended the ranks (i.e., supplanted me) in the kitchen at le Delizie del Borgo, our friend Simone’s restaurant in nearby Bevagna, effectively serving as sous chef and doing a damn fine job: a guest sent explicit compliments back to the chef for the Umbrian classic uovo morbido, the elevated Italian brother to our scrambled eggs – not knowing it was l’americano Cal who had executed the dish flawlessly on his first attempt! Meanwhile, I’ve ventured into the server’s world which has proved a highly encouraging environment to hone my Italian and let out my inner sprezzatura, a necessary nonchalance that all waiters in Italy are seemingly dripping with.
Outside of Simone’s kitchen, we have been spending heaps of time in … our kitchen. At the farmhouse, every meal can be envisioned just by stepping out into the backyard. We’ve strung together all manner of immediately fresh, holistically healthy (if you consider using a lot of olive oil healthy), unreasonably tasty meals in a setting that Cal has been describing as “magical” – when he has the words the express the feeling.
On our day off last week we took the bike path from Cannara to Montefalco which, given the fact that we got slightly lost, ended up taking about two hours. After having scaled some serious hills, we luxuriated in the beautiful square, walked the entire circumference of the town, sat and had coffee and some time to draw, and ran into just about every person I know with even a loose connection to Montefalco along with making some new friends at some of the local businesses. Among these happenstance visits were assorted members of the Pardi family, all of whom had eagerly been awaiting the arrival of Cal to set into motion an opportunity for us to all spend time together. We made the obligatory stop at the family winery to say hello to Albertino, the man who runs the business, and we unexpectedly left with plans for him drive a 60 gallon stainless steel fermentation tank over to the farmhouse to assist in a batch of beer we will be brewing in October, as well as talk of him contributing an oak barrel as well to age our sure-to-be spectacular beer.
Speaking of beer, the hops that I planted last year in hopes of convincing a local winemaker to help me make a beer here (thanks Albertino!) have just been harvested! The hops are now dried, vacuum sealed, and keeping fresh in the fridge, along with some green Italian figs (known as both dotato or kadota figs) being stored in the freezer that will be added to the beer after it finishes its first fermentation. Instead of buying yeast, we are going to collect a sample of local ambient yeast from the rich biodiversity of our garden at la Fattoria del Gelso, and we will use local barley and other grains as the base. After running the brewing club at my college (yes, I know, pretty sweet) and working in a brewery right after school, this situation is what I would consider the ideal. More news on that to come with the arrival of my brewing partner from college and tour guide of one of the best sour beer breweries in the US next month!
Not to miss out on the climbing while we’re in Italy, Cal and I managed to find one of the most unexpected experiences one could imagine. In the town of Serra San Quirico about two hours away, there is a yearly climbing festival that takes rope climbers onto the high cliff walls that surround the town. However, the locals also curate much shorter routes throughout the medieval architecture of the town, climbing on the old tower, in a brick archway tunnel from maybe the 1300s, or up the face of the town fortress wall to a window that was once used to shoot arrows at approaching enemies. We spent the day touring this unbelievable historic town while also climbing all over it. For many climbers, there is a challenging balance between spending time in the city and getting to climb outdoors – we got both at the same time!
We spent another day harvesting grapes, this time for our friends the Pardis. Seemingly, the crew didn’t account for what naturals Cal and I would be because all together we finished a supposedly 5 hour job in just under 3 hours. Thanks to a very early start, this left us with pretty much a whole day ahead and no real plans. With time to kill, one of our fellow harvesters, a friend of Albertino’s named Kwan, whom I had met last year at a lunch party in the winery offered to give us a ride to his parents’ property just on the outskirts of town. Although it was only a few minutes away, the ride transported us to a different place. We arrived to the gates of a reasonably sizable but very humble property and were greeted by a horde of dogs. Looking to the right, there were three comically obese Thai pigs that were very sweet and devoured whole apples with their hairy snouts. Out from the garden ambled an older man with a pronounced back hunch, leathered and weathered fingers, jet black heavy eyebrows and a frayed baseball hat with the bill torn off to fit as a skull cap. He looked like the idyllic Italian garden in late summer, in fact, much like the one from which he was just exiting. We proceeded to be inundated with generosity, sharing thoughtful and slow conversation across three languages, being taught how to crack a walnut with one hand (as evidenced by Kwan’s older father being much more capable than us two strapping young climbers, strength is not so much a matter in the equation as finesse), sampling and eventually being sent home with a bag of the best figs either Cal or I has ever tasted, and convening with all sorts of animals besides the pigs. Kwan’s father, it seems, spends every waking hour tending to one aspect of another of his farm, which includes the aforementioned pigs, figs, and walnuts, as well as a vibrant and active orto for produce, about two dozen goats, 100 or more birds, including turkeys, geese, ducks, and chickens of varieties I never knew existed, and three donkeys. Sharing that space, that time, and that company was a true lesson to me in the ethic of sharing – it was the kind of experience that keeps your breath stuck somewhere between your lungs and your mouth, a distinctive warmth that has your sensations fully tingling but your mind at complete ease and drawing out every moment. It really was hard to leave, but sure enough, we ended up back there the next day.
The routine adventure continues, and we continue to learn from getting lost, improve our finesse when ordering caffe at the bar, and make more genuine and generous conversation with the people we come by. Next week we set off on a climbing adventure in Croatia, taking off up the sea summiting cliffs of Split and Hvar and hoping to ascend to the top or face the humiliating splash of failure in the late summer ocean. Until then,