It’s impossible to describe all of the quirks and traditions of a culture in one blog post, the best way to learn about it is to experience it! Traveling in Umbria is such a unique experience, especially if you leave your tourist mindset behind. However, if you’ve never experienced it (or if you’re about to go for the first time!), here’s what Marco has to say about Umbria in a nutshell:
Umbria is a landlocked part of Italy, and because of that, the relationship to the land is strong and lasting. There is a lot of heritage in this region, and the respect for all parts of the natural world is an important thread that binds this area.
Of course the food and wine is excellent, but there is something to be said about the history of Umbria, and its close ties to St. Francis, who is not only important to Umbrian culture, but to the whole of Italy, as its patron saint.
When people think about St. Francis, they think about peace and kindness, and that is what you will find in Umbria. Not just the absence of war and fighting, but the pursuit of harmony with others and with nature. It is this feeling that underwrites and upholds most Umbrian people, and truly influence the culture. Pax et bonum! We say, as the Franciscan order’s motto, Peace and Salvation!
Today we sat down to chat with resident Chef and Certified Sommelier Vickie Reh. In addition to her work as Wine Director at Via Umbria, Vickie is the culinary powerhouse behind our Thursday Comfort Food dinner series. We talked about her favorite way to prepare a rare heritage grain, the place of comfort food within Italian culinary tradition, and what it means to cook with restraint.
In your opinion, what is comfort food really all about? How do Italian food and comfort food intersect?
Comfort foods are the foods you dream about, the foods that warm your soul. They aren’t necessarily winter dishes. They’re dishes that evoke memories and emotions. I think that one of the basics of comfort food is that there aren’t a lot of complicated ingredients. Comfort food centers traditional combinations that make people feel happy and because you are using very few ingredients, the ingredients themselves must be perfect. That’s how Italian, and in particular, Umbrian food works.
In a way, Umbrian food is humble. Umbria is a landlocked region in Central Italy and Umbrian cuisine eschews more luxurious ingredients like lobster for grains, legumes and vegetables. You can certainly find some rich ingredients there, like gorgeous black truffles, but for the most part Umbrian cooking uses foods that can be grown or foraged in the surrounding countryside. When I travelled to Umbria, I was particularly fascinated by their use of this stunning variety of vegetables, legumes and grains.
Did anything surprise you about how they used these ingredients?
When I travelled to Umbria with Bill and Suzy, we tried grains and legumes I had never seen before. Some of the Italian chefs I later spoke to hadn’t even heard of them either. One of my favorites, which we cooked with Ernesto Panziani from Cannara, is called cicerchie. It’s sort of like a combination of a chickpea and a fava. It’s amazing but very obscure outside of Umbria.Via Umbria is working to import it through Il Molino, an organic grain producer we visited just over the border of Umbria in Lazio.
Ernesto did something very interesting with the cicerchie. Typically, cicerchie are made into soup or served cold in salads. But Ernesto cooked them until they were quite soft and then sautéed them with shallots and garlic in this beautiful olive oil. I’ve done that now five or six times at Via Umbria as a side dish for lamb. It’s so beautiful. The texture is fabulous—because the cicerchie are cooked until fairly soft, the texture when sautéed is similar to that of homemade refried beans. It’s not crunchy.It’s got just a little chew, and this whole lovely chickpea-fava flavor mingled with the shallots and garlic. It’s such a good recipe. Although I serve it as a side dish, it could easily be a great main course for a vegetarian.
Your passion for Italian cuisine shines through in everything you do here. What makes Italian food special to you?
I love Italy and I adore Italian food.It tends to be simple and classical. Italians have adhered to their traditions and classical roots. You’ll notice that’s how Ernesto and Simone cook. And that’s exactly how I have always cooked. I always say, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel: I’m trying to make the perfect wheel.
For example, if I’m making Spaghetti with Cacio e Pepe, I’m not going to say, “For this new twist, I’m going to use a different type of cheese in my Cacio e Pepe!”Instead, I willuse exactly what is traditionally used—Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and black pepper.” I want to use as few ingredients as possible because that’s how it’s made in Rome. When you’re in Italy, you’re eating amazing food that doesn’t have 5,000 different ingredients. It tastes really good and it’s not complicated.
I think it’s actually harder to cook well with fewer ingredients. It is all about restraint.If you only have three ingredients in a dish, you have no room to hide. Each ingredient must be perfectly sourced, perfectly ripe. When I was head chef at Buck’s Fishing & Camping, I used to say, “Have the guts to buy a perfect tomato in season, add superb olive oil and the best sea salt, and call it a day.” One of my rules is to buy the best ingredients possible and get out of their way. To me, that’s what cooking is about. Letting the ingredients shine. I feel that’s very much an Italian concept.
Join us for Vickie’s next Comfort Food dinner on Thursday, March 31st at 7:30 pm. Her beautiful meal will feature tagliatelle Bolognese, meatballs, raviole (a jam-filled tart), and more. We hope to see you there!
Easter in Umbria means it’s time for Torta Di Pasqua, a rich holiday cheese bread unique to the region. Visiting chef Jennifer McIlvaine stopped by to bake a scrumptious batch in our laboratorio kitchen, and gave us her recipe. But because every Umbrian family has their own special way of making Torta Di Pasqua, we asked several of our friends for their recipes. Simone, Ernesto, and Marco and Chiara all chimed in, and each of their ways of making Torta Di Pasqua sound amazing. Try them out at home with cheese from our cheese counter and tell us which version you like best!
Ernesto’s Torta Di Pasqua
1T of oil or 1T of pork fat (strutto)
2 cubes (50g) fresh yeast
5 pinches of salt
100g gruyere cut into cubes
100g parmigiano grated
Mix together eggs, oil, yeast salt and parmigiano. Add flour until you have a soft dough. Add gruyere cubes. Fill a buttered baking tin just under half full. Let rise for one hour. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 180c.
Marco and Chiara’s Torta Di Pasqua
200 grams wet yeast
800 grams grated cheese (parmigiana, pecorino, swiss) – leave some in larger pieces
250 grams unsalted butter melted
30 grams salt
10li grams sugar
Water, oil and flour as needed
Separate the eggs. Whip the egg whites into stiff peaks. Mix the yeast with sugar, warm water and tablespoon of flour and let sit.
Beat the egg yolks until creamy, add the melted butter, salt, pepper and cheese. Fold into the egg whites. Add yeast. Mix in flour, water and oil until you reach desired consistency.
Butter the baking molds. Split the dough into four pieces, roll into balls and place into each mold (filling approximately half full). Cover and let rise (sitting next to a pot of hot water) for 3 hours.
When the dough reaches the top of the mold bake in a 160c oven for 30 minutes. Raise the temperature to 180c and cook for additional 10 minutes. When the top starts to brown cover with aluminum.
Simone’s Torta Di Pasqua
2.2 lbs pizza dough
1 cup parmigiano
1 cup Romano
1 cup strong pecorino grated
1 tbs yeast
1 cup butter
1 cup pork fat
1 cup olive oil
Work all the ingredients together. Add 00 flour until the dough is smooth and elastic.
Let sit for three hours and then knead it. Fill a buttered pan half full. Let sit again in the oven off with a pot of hot water (to maintain humidity). Wait until doubled. Bake for 2 hours at 325 degrees. Test with a tooth pick . When it’s ready, set upside down until cool.
Let us know how you Torta Di Pasqua turns out and send photos of your bake-a-thon to email@example.com. Best of luck!
Colombe cakes are a celebrated Easter treat throughout Italy, but did you know that Umbria has its own leavened Easter speciality? Today, chef Jennifer McIlvaine joined us to bake the region’s signature Easter bread, Torta Di Pasqua, before she returns home to Cannara. She gave us a little background on this delicious dish, as well as her own recipe. Here’s what she had to say about this beloved Torta.
Easter is the most important holiday in the Catholic church, so for Italians, Easter is the biggest holiday, even bigger than Christmas. In its earliest incarnation, Easter began as a Roman pagan tradition, which the Church turned into a Christian holiday to bring people into the fold.
During Carnevale, we make a lot of fried food because we have to use up all the fats, lard, and sugar in the house before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter. During Lent, tradition says you’re supposed to fast from sweets and meat. But then on Easter morning, we eat Torta Di Pasqua.
Easter is the only day of the year that we eat a salty breakfast. We’ve been fasting from heavy things, but Torta Di Pasqua, or Pizza Di Pasqua, has eggs, pork fat, and lots of cheeses. Eggs were considered very expensive, so anything that has a lot of eggs was a sign of richness. In fact, we eat the Torta di Pasqua with a hard boiled egg. Eggs are another old pagan tradition. They have always been a sign of spring, of rebirth and new beginnings. And that is why we have eggs for Easter.
Another traditional dish we eat on Easter morning with Torta Di Pasqua are the first salumi of the year. Today, farmers makes salumi all year long because we have refrigerators. However before refrigerators, farmers would only butcher pigs in November, December, and January, the coldest months of the year. The first salumi–smaller cuts like salami and capocollo–would age for three months and be ready to eat by Easter. So the tradition is that you eat Torta Di Pasqua, a hard boiled egg, and a slice of salumi. We always have lamb at easter, so we also eat Coratella, a lamb innerd stew, for breakfast as well. In Cannara, our town, we drink a sweet wine called Vernaccia with breakfast as well.
As far as buying Torta Di Pasqua versus making your own, in my town the split is about 50/50. In Cannara, the baker opens up his oven to the people of the town, usually on Holy Thursday or Good Friday, and lets them bake their own bread. So many people makes the dough at home and bakes it in his big oven. The best Torta Di Pasqua is made in a wood-fired oven, so you’ll see people light up their ovens a few days before Easter and then everybody brings their dough over. It’s a community thing, so people cook them together. It’s nice.
Here is Jennifer’s recipe for Torta Di Pasqua, which she made fresh for us today. Snag a mini Torta or get your very own full-sized loaf before they’re gone!
Jennifer McIlvaine’s Pizza Di Pasqua
25 g brewer’s yeast
1 tsp sugar
100g warm water
300g ’00’ flour
500g ‘0’ flour + 100g for dusting
150g grated pecorino romano
150g grated parmigiano reggiano
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
5 Tbs e.v. olive oil
150g diced sharp provolone
150g diced swiss cheese
In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water. Slowly add the flours, little by little, alternating with the eggs. Mix well. Add the grated cheeses, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add the lard and olive oil. Knead well for about 10 minutes. Add the diced provolone & swiss cheese and knead until well mixed. Divide the dough into two equal parts and form into balls, folding the dough over itself. Place each ball into a deep baking tin that has been greased (with lard) and floured.
Let rise for about 2 hours or until dough has reached the top of the tin. Bake in the oven at 200°C for 20 minutes, then 180°C for another 40 minutes. The Tortas are ready when a test stick comes out clean.
Every family has its own Torta Di Pasqua recipe. Check back later for more variations!
Last week, I had a visit from Filippo Gambassi, the owner of one of our newest charcuterie purveyors, Terra di Siena. Terra di Siena is a Tuscan salumi producer. Over the last two years, they’ve started making their signature charcuteries in Virginia, more than 4,000 miles away from Tuscany. Lovers of Italian cured meat will ask, how is this possible? The pigs are different, they’re eating different food – even the air is different! Filippo, whose family has been making charcuterie for generations, understands that too. At his farm in Virginia, he has built facilities that replicate Tuscany’s rich environment. Additionally, he has worked with breeders, scientists and farmers to make sure that his heirloom pigs are authentic to the Tuscan tradition. And he’s made great progress.
Now, subtle differences aside, Filippo’s product in the USA is already excellent. Here at Via Umbria, we carry a number of different salumi and whole-cured muscles, including Terra di Siena’s prosciutto. And, let me tell you, it’s some of the best stuff in our case. So, stop on by and ask for a sample! Regardless of whether you ask for salumi or salami, you’ll be getting the best cut in town.
As we crack open a bottle of champagne for the New Year (or for a more Umbrian twist, how about some Scacciadiavoli Brut Rose instead?), we can’t help but think about the New Years resolutions we should and could be making…and then breaking.
An old Italian tradition, practiced more in the South than the North, is to throw your old unwanted dishes and any other small items out of the window on New Years. Out with the old! Better to break a dish than a resolution. (Yes, we realize we may be a bit self interested in perpetuating this tradition given that we sell ceramics, but hey, tradition is tradition.)
But kidding aside, it can be helpful to give some thought about what we want to metaphorically toss out the window, to shed in the new year. It’s a whole lot easier to get rid of something than to resolve to add something new to our already too busy lives. Instead of focusing on what we want to improve upon in the New Year (go on a diet, go to the gym, get up earlier, drink less!), perhaps it would be more helpful to recognize what is weighing us down, holding us back or cluttering up our life. And resolve this year to slow down a little.
Perhaps by sweeping away just a little of the bad, the old or the unnecessary we make room for just a little bit more of the good in our lives. As this New Year arrives, we are busily setting out plans for the ambitious 2015 that lies ahead of us. It promises to be every bit as busy, complex and financially risky as this year was – even more so. But part of our ambition is to make 2015 and the next phase of Via Umbria enjoyable – for all of us as well as our customers.
So while we can’t promise to exactly live the slow life in 2015, you should expect us to stay focused on the truly big things, the things that really matter and not to “sweat the small stuff.” And while you won’t find us throwing Geribi dishes out the window on New Year’s eve, we will be resolving how we can slow down and smell the espresso more in 2015 than we did in 2014.