Tag Archives: travel

Cheesemongers Travel in Umbria

One of the little-known facts about working in the cheese business  is that there is a fair amount of travel involved. Visiting cheesemakers and producers is essential to understanding your products and being able to bring them to life for your customers. Lucky for us cheesemongers, most of these cheesemakers live in some pretty darn beautiful, idyllic places. This winter, I was lucky enough to spend time in one of these gorgeous locations – Umbria.

Flying into Perugia, I was full of excitement, not knowing what to expect. I had visited Italy before – Tuscany, Florence, Venice – but had never been to the “green heart of Italy” known as Umbria. As the plane descended, I was struck by the beauty of the Apennine mountains framing the central valley. Even though it was winter, the view was indeed green – full of silvery sage olive groves and striking, pin straight cyprus trees. This was going to be a good trip.
Having worked at Via Umbria since it opened in November of 2015, you could say that I have become quite familiar with Umbrian cuisine. However, experiencing this style of cooking – Torta al Testo, truffle covered everything, and lots and lots of pork – in its natural habitat was a truly one-of-a-kind experience. It was also fascinating to put these dishes into historical and geographic context. For example, Umbria is the only region in Italy to be completely landlocked, which meant that salt used to be very scarce. As a result, traditional Umbrian bread is still to this day made without salt.

Learning about the cheese culture in Umbria was equally captivating. Because of various importation laws concerning bringing cheese into the US, I was very unfamiliar with the cheese traditions of this particular region. I was lucky enough to be able to shadow Fabio Brocatelli, a local cheesemaker whose family has made cheese in Umbria for the past three generations. Following him around the dairy, I learned that because of the fairly rocky, local mountains, the soil isn’t rich enough to support the type of pastureland necessary for cows. It is, however, ideal for goats and sheep. As such, most cheese from Umbria is either a pecorino, or made from sheep’s milk, or di capra, or made from goats.


We stopped by and visited with one of the farmers who provides Fabio with sheep milk for his various pecorinos. Like most of the sheep farmers in the area, this shepherd was originally from Sardinia. As we sat at the large, farmhouse table, waiting for the espresso to brew and munching on traditional Sardinian flatbread with homemade cheese, I learned that after the devastation of World War II, many Sardinian farmers made the trek north to Umbria to continue their farming traditions. As such, the amount of sheep drastically increased, and pecorino became an ingrained part of Umbrian cuisine. As drinking espresso turned into drinking housemade wine and mirta (traditional Sardinian liquor), various neighbors started dropping by, filling the kitchen with warmth and laughter. Although my Italian is, in the best of circumstances, poor, and my Sardinian is completely non-existant, I felt charmed and welcomed by these people.

My time in Umbria flew by entirely too quickly. To say I ate well would be the understatement of the year. To say I had a good time would be equally inadequate. I am so grateful for the experience and it is one that I will certainly not soon forget.

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One of the little-known facts about working in the cheese business  is that there is a fair amount of travel involved. Visiting ...

Travel Tips: Umbrian History

Umbrian history is long and steeped in history and culture. The region of Umbria is crossed by two valleys: the Umbrian valley from Perugia to Spoleto, and the Tiber Valley, from Citta di Castello to the border with Lazio. Travel expert Marco Palermi tells us about his favorite places to visit.

There are many hills and historical towns in this area, such as Perugia, Assisi, Norcia, Gubbio, Spoleto, Todi, Orvieto, Castiglione del Lago and many other small cities. To simply wander through these beautiful hill towns will immerse you in their extraordinary history (from Etruscan to Roman, to Napoleonic), but there are a few places of note that are my favorites:

Ipogeo dei Volumni

The wall around Spoleto – A great example of classic, ancient Umbrian design and style

Ipogeo dei Volumni – An Etruscan archaeological site near Perugia with crypts, tombs and sculpted marble sarcophagi

Carsulae – An wonderful old Roman town on the way to Terni, and one of the most impressive archaeological ruins in Italy. It was even once used as a quarry for building materials transported to cities like Spoleto!

Trasimeno Lake – Roman history buffs will love to explore the battleground for the biggest Roman defense in response to Hannibal’s invasion from Carthage.

This only scratches the surface of the rich history Umbria has to offer, and during your travels to Umbria, you will most definitely find your own favorite corner of Umbria that will offer you a look into the past, as you stand in the present.

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Umbrian history is long and steeped in history and culture. The region of Umbria is crossed by two valleys: the Umbrian valley from Perugia ...

Bring on Grilling Season

I haven’t written much about my recent trip to Italy yet. There’s quite simply too much to say, if I wanted to convey how much I saw and learned on this expedition. Instead, I’ll focus on a single simple experience: watching my steak grilling – right in front of me.. Driving to Norcia, the walled town in southern Umbria famed for its excellent cured pork and as the home of some heady saints (Saint Benedict of Nursia and his sister Saint Scholastica), Chef Simone, informed me of a plan to stop for dinner on the way back north. But for now, we headed on to Norcia. This town was swimming in little butcher shops. Mostly selling the local cured pork and wild boar products, norcineria. The prosciutto here was so well-balanced: nutty, sweet, salty, that I was ready to write the USDA and complain about their importation requirements right then and there. And it sure didn’t help that we were trying this in a little restaurant on the main piazza in the shadow of St. Benedict and his church. I could go on and on, but we’ll save that for another time.

Hanging Sausages

After leaving the dizzying array of hanging cured meats behind us, we headed to the mountainside town where dinner was on the agenda. There certainly wasn’t much to this town, a few cafes and restaurants, with a truffle museum being the only real tourist attraction. The restaurant destination was a little osteria that felt more like a basement than a restaurant. Vaulted stone sealing, maybe ten tables, and a raging fireplace. Flanking the fireplace, a table with a whole prosciutto, sliced only by hand, made by the chef from pigs he raised himself. Above that, links of his dried sausage. This was the definition of comfortable.

For our main course, we ordered a steak, rare. To cook it, he brought out a little metal grill, placed in front of the fire and started moving the hot coals underneath it. Before too long, there was a massive steak sizzling right there in front of us. I was beside myself. Here I am, on an Italian mountainside, watching my steak being grilled right in front of me: on the floor of the restaurant. And unsurprisingly, looking at glowing hot coals, my mind wandered and I remembered all the times we grilled growing up.

Sizzling Steak

Fortunately for me, with this memory in mind, it’s starting to warm up here. What I mean to say is, it is almost time for us to start grilling too. We may not be able to cook up a steak right in our fireplaces, but we sure can cook on the open flame. At the Via Umbria meat counter, we’re ready. Having seen this steak transformed from raw meat into delicious dinner right in front of me, I think we should translate that experience to our own backyards. Whether it’s a prime cut that you’ve heard of: the ribeye, the New York strip, the fiorentina, or an off cut you may never have tried before: the hanger, the bavette, teres major, let’s throw that beef over some hot coals (or gas flame, if that’s what’s available). I’ll likely never have that experience again, coming immediately from one of the meat capitals of the world to fireplace-cooked steak; but we can make something just as delicious in our own backyards. So come on down, get a steak. Bring on grilling season!


Scott Weiss
Scott Weiss

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I haven’t written much about my recent trip to Italy yet. There’s quite simply too much to say, if I wanted to ...

Deborah’s Italian Adventure

This week, we hear from Deborah, who has been combing every nook and corner of Italy for fabulous new products to stock the Via Umbria shelves.

For the past 12 days, I’ve been traveling the roads of Italy on a 19-day food buying tour. I’ve seen more of Italy then I ever expected to, and we’ve already traveled from the far northern edges to the very tip of the heel in Puglia. In a few days, we head to Sicily.

My companions on this journey have been quite interesting, and I’ve travelled with friends old and new. Scott, our butcher, joined me for the Northern leg of the journey, and I think he’s tasted more chocolate that he’s eaten in his entire life. Rissa, who has been instrumental in establishing our food program, is here with me in the South. 

This hillside view in Montepulciano, Tuscany is enough to make anybody jealous.
This hillside view in Montepulciano, Tuscany is enough to make anybody jealous.

I’ve also travelled with the Chef and owner of a restaurant in Traverse City, a restaurant owner in Nashville and his videographer, a Lithuanian with several different food-related businesses in Vilnius, and a woman from Northern Michigan who is earning her sommelier certification and working at a wine shop. Conversations in the van and around the table have covered everything from hiring to “what do you suppose is in this dish?” to “have you tried this wine?” The opportunity to spend time with everyone has been invaluable, and we’ve had a great time getting to know each other. I hope we will stay in touch.

Sampling delicious spreads by Villa Reale.
Sampling delicious spreads by Villa Reale.

From the start, Suzy and Bill have always emphasized the importance of the product. What’s in it, who made it, and ultimately, the quality. As a result, Via Umbria has shelves filled with amazing products made by people they’ve met personally, in facilities they have visited. That’s what I am doing on trip, and I’ve found it so humbling. For every producer we meet, this is very serious business. Careful thought and extreme care go into every detail of each visit and tasting. We have been feted in very small communities where restaurants and producers work together to find both creative and traditional ways of pairing their products with local, seasonal foods and wines.

Rissa gets a glimpse inside the facility at Gluti Niente, an organic, gluten-free pasta producer.
Rissa suits up for a facility tour at Gluti Niente, a gluten-free pasta producer in Salerno.

Almost every company we’ve seen is family-run, from the five generations of nougat and chocolate experts at Barbero to the brother-and sister enterprise Gluti Niente, a high-quality gluten-free pasta business entering its second year. And although it isn’t family-owned, Latteria di Cameri, which makes amazing gorgonzola dolce, is controlled by a consortium of dairy farmers who collectively set the standards for the cheese production. The stories of all of these producers are an integral part of their products, and it’s amazing to see the attention they devote to every step of the process, from the initial idea to the final packaging.

I can’t wait to share photos of the rest of my trip with you! Hopefully when you see them, you’ll feel a bit of what I do every time I step out of the van.

Ciao for now!


Discovering the finest foods of Italy Read more

This week, we hear from Deborah, who has been combing every nook and corner of Italy for fabulous new products to stock the ...