Tag Archives: Umbria

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 ...

A Tidbit on Umbrian Culture

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

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.

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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!

Farmer in his Field

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It's impossible to describe all of the quirks and traditions of a culture in one blog post, the best way to learn ...

Travel Tips: Drink up in Umbria!

Its’ Umbria – Drink Up!  Traveling in Italy the wine flows as easily as water at some tables. And although Italian wines from all regions have an established reputation, we’re pretty partial to those that come from Umbria. And it’s hard not to be. Once you’ve traveled there and toured some of the vineyards, you’d be loyal to them as well! Here’s what Marco Palermi had to say when we asked him about what to taste in Umbria:

Ah! The wine and beer! Umbria is unique for its small family-run farms, and extensive biodynamic and organic wineries. There are many areas for wine production in Umbria, including Orvieto, Montefaclo Torniamo and Assisi, just to name a few.

The most grown type of grape is the Sangiovese, and Umbria is the center of production for this type. The Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes make delicious white wines, but when talking about wine in Umbria, one cannot miss the Sagrantino from Montefalco. This jewel in the crown of Umbria is the most delicious and prized wine in Umbria, and will change how you view red wine!

Bill and Suzy, your hosts at our vacation rental house, are both wine lovers and wine aficionados. Not only will they make sure you get to sample the full range that Umbria has to offer, but they are a wealth of information, and can answer any questions you may have about the wines – including how best to drink them!

But wine isn’t the only thing to indulge on in Umbria. Umbrian beers have grown in popularity recently, drawing from the monastic traditions of brewing that were popular in Umbrian history. San Biagio beer was one of the first breweries I’d heard of and tried, and they are definitely worth a taste. Lots of breweries thrive near Colifiorito, which is famous for its pure water springs, that enhance the taste and production of beers in the area.

In fact, actual Benedictine Monks brew beer up in the monastery in Norcia, and it is possible to buy that beer all year long, or plan a trip around August 15th, when they open the monastery to the public. Now if Norcia is too far away for authentic monk beer, definitely make a stop at Casa Norcia in Santa Maria Degli Angeli in via de Gasperi and try some a little closer to the villa. Other great breweries to try are: Birra Perugia, Khan beer, Birra Dell’Eremo (a close stop between Mt. Subasio and the villa), and Flea Beer.

The popularity of beer in Umbria has definitely gone up recently, and with good reason, the beers are truly delicious, and excellent paired with a slice of pizza or a torta al testo!

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Its' Umbria - Drink Up!  Traveling in Italy the wine flows as easily as water at some tables. And although Italian wines ...

Say “Cheese”

Ruzzolone 012I have been vaguely aware of the existence of an Italian game from the countryside called ruzzolone for some time. I don’t know where I first heard of it, but I wish I had heard about it sooner.

Giovanni - ruzzoloneLucky me!  About a year or so ago, while doing a google search on a particular winemaker we wanted to learn more about I came across his image in front of his winery. In the picture Giovanni Dubini was launching a huge wheel of cheese down a dirt path. With a few admirers cheering him on. This was Giovanni playing ruzzolone. The image of this sophisticated winemaker joyously playing farmers’ game captured my imagination and made me want to learn more about the game.

For the past year or so I have been joking with Albertino Pardi that I wanted to learn all about ruzzolone and transport the sport to America. Albertino, whose family owns and operates the Cantina Fratelli Pardi winery and who is a friend and colleague of Giovanni started my ruzzolone education on the spot, teaching me all that he knew about the sport, an ancient game that by some accounts traces its roots back to Umbria’s Etruscan forebears. Despite its origins, though, it is a game that was made for the country, for rustic folks, for Umbria.

 

Ruzzolone antica

Ruzzolone antica3 Ruzzolone antica2

Ruzzolone 009Ruzzolone is the answer to the question, “how can I entertain myself if all I have is a wheel of cheese, a belt and a country road.” The sort of question that no doubt comes up often in rural Umbria. Today’s modern game has substituted a standardized wooden disk for a wheel of cheese (which no doubt was too valuable to waste on sport), but still uses just a cloth strap and a country road. Players wind the cord around the disk and rock back and forth several times in a stylized, ritualistic windup before heaving ho in a motion not unlike a professional bowler, but putting all manner of English on the delivery of their disk to enable it to curve around corners, hug the edge of the road and, as is the object of the game, travel the farthest distance possible. And how it does travel! On a good throw for hundreds of yards, wending its way around curves, ricocheting off of hillsides, rolling ever forward for upwards of 20 to 30 seconds.

There seems to be no dress code for participants, save dark clothing and caps. Shaving seems to be optional as well. Grunting, so loud and baying that it would put Maria Sharapova to shame is looked upon favorably as is the occasional uncontrolled spewing of obscenities and invective as the disk deviates from its flight plan and launches itself into a nearby field or up a bank into a thicket of trees.

Ruzzolone 008

But what a way to pass an afternoon. Especially on a beautiful spring afternoon as Albertino, his wife Jessica, his brother Gianluca and father Alberto and I did recently along a quiet country road outside the ancient borgo of Castel Ritaldi. Grunting aside, the only sound was the occasional disk clacking along the rough asphalt, eventually coming to a halt with a bang when colliding with the makeshift barriers erected along the course or with a wobble as it lost momentum and simply rolled over. If the sport of golf is sometimes described as “a good walk spoiled,” ruzzolone is a good walk made even better.

Ruzzolone 010No wonder country farmers live to be 100. They drink lots of red wine, eat pork fat and walk along country roads with their friends, playing a game that Seinfeld could have invented. After watching (and even trying my own hand at it) I am convinced my instincts were right a year ago when I vowed to Albertino that I was going to bring ruzzolone to America. Ruzzolone may be just what we need.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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I have been vaguely aware of the existence of an Italian game from the countryside called ruzzolone for some time. I don’t ...

A Walk in the Woods

Asparagus 002Italy has afforded us countless memorable experiences. Unique snapshots of time and place that simply don’t exist for us at home. A memorable meal under a moonlit sky with friends and family in tow. A stroll through the woods in pursuit of a truffle sniffing dog to locate and retrieve from its earthy hiding spot musty, aromatic truffles. Donning a protective suit and gloves to liberate a hive full of honey from our honeybees.

Italy is not so different from America. But it is different enough that each day brings the possibility of doing something, experiencing something that is truly unique. And so it was with my day of asparagus hunting in the woods of central Umbria.

I don’t believe asparagus hunting exists in America, unless you count pushing your shopping cart through the produce aisle in the supermarket and “discovering” bundles of green stalks, rubber banded together and standing upright, ready to be taken by the urban hunter. But for several weeks each spring the Italian landscape is dotted with Fiat Pandas parked on little country lanes, their owners combing every possible hillside for these delicacies that define the term “fresh.” We’ve buzzed by as families methodically scour roadside shoulders and we have been amazed to see groups of friends strolling through town centers with enormous armfuls of asparagus, showing off the bundles of their handiwork like it is just in a day’s work. And so I was not particularly surprised when the first words out of my mouth when I ran into Amadeo, husband of le Delizie del Borgo co-owner Ombretta Ubaldi, and someone known to me to be an avid asparagus hunter, “when are you going to take me out asparagus hunting?”

Asparagus 005Without much of a thought, Amadeo replied, “domani. Partiamo da qui alle otto e un quarto.” The die was cast. We were to depart from the restaurant at 8:15 the next morning. The only word of advice he gave me was to wear boots. To protect against the deadly poisonous vipers.

The next morning I was at the restaurant. At 8:10. And I had my boots, borrowed from Marco’s brother in law Alberto. It didn’t matter that they were a size too small and painful to wear. They were less painful than a viper bite would be.

Amadeo arrived on time and we had the obligatory morning espresso before taking off in his Panda to a secluded wood about 15 minutes from the center of Bevagna. Conversation was not exactly easy, as Amadeo speaks no English. I fumbled my way through Italian, asking questions about whatever popped into my head. It was a beautiful, sunny day with mild temperatures. It promised to be a great day whether we spoke or not.

And so it was. Amadeo lent me a snipper, a sort of pair of scissors on a long stick that allows you to cut the asparagus stalk without reaching into the thicket because, as we now know, vipers may lurk there. The snipper cuts the asparagus stalk and grabs it, allowing you to bring the stalk to you and to add it to your bundle.

 

The difficulty in asparagus hunting is not the snipping, the harvesting. It is the locating. The seeing. For four hours Amadeo and I trudged through thicket, along hillsides and stream beds. I climbed over fallen trees, untangled myself (and my anti-viper boots) from vines and took a nasty direct hit in the eye from a branch that left me in pain and partially blinded for a day. But even before losing half my sight I realized that finding asparagus is not simply a visual exercise, it is an exercise in context. In that overgrown thicket there are simply too many things that look like stalks of asparagus – other plants, branches, vines. You have to know where to look, the particular sides of hills, along the edges of vegetation. You have to feel where to look. Then you have to find the telltale asparaghia, the thicket of spindly, spiny ground cover that is part of the plant and from which the stalks grow. But even then it is next to impossible to see the individual stalks that reach skyward. On occasion after occasion Amadeo would call for me and point and bark out a number. “Tre,” he would say, indicating that there were three stalks in a particular location. I would look, seeing none. Hinting at the location with his snipper I would still see none until he was touching the first one. “Va bene” I would exclaim, snipping the prize and taking it for my bundle. This would be repeated two more times as my mentor pointed out each individual asparago.

Asparagus 003But after a couple of hours your asparagus sense begins to sharpen and even the most unskilled americano becomes attuned to the woods and to where these delicious stalks of green freshness are hiding. I would not say that I ended the hunt at even the advanced beginner level, but my two large bundles of wild asparagus – the first I have ever cultivated in my life – left me looking forward to next spring, when I intend to follow Amadeo once again into the woods and into one of those adventures that makes the Italian experience so unforgettable.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

 

 

While we can’t offer you wild asparagus, Via Umbria is currently featuring fresh, local asparagus from Tuscarora Farms for sale.  Pick up a bunch today, while they’re still in season and try roasting them wrapped in pancetta or prosciutto.  Be sure to blanch the asparagus first and roast in an oven preheated to 425 degrees for four to six minutes (or until crispy).  And enjoy!  It’s one of the true treats of the season.

Buon apetito!

Asparagus 006

Difficulty in asparagus hunting is the locating. The seeing Read more

Italy has afforded us countless memorable experiences. Unique snapshots of time and place that simply don’t exist for us at home. A ...

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 ...

Travel Tips: Outdoor Activities

If you Google Umbria, the first result will be a Wikipedia article that says “Umbria is a region of historic and modern central Italy.” And while the article covers basic facts about the region, the best way to learn about the area is to talk to people who live, eat, and explore in Umbria. Every Tuesday, we’ll be sharing expert travel advice from native (or nearly-native) Umbrians so that you can live vicariously through their words, or take their tips to heart and travel to Italy yourself.

As spring rolls in with summer close on it’s heels, people are beginning to venture outdoors. And while you might be familiar with activities in your own backyard, trying to find something to do in a foreign country might be a bit daunting. Flipping through brochures or scouring the internet for travel guides is one solution, but if you ask a local, you’re more likely to experience the area like the locals do.

Marco Palermi, travel expert and your guide at our vacation house rental in Umbria, joined us in our Georgetown location last month for our Travel Tuesday cocktail event and shared his secrets to getting the most out of your Umbrian trip. Here’s what he had to say about outdoor activities:

There are a lot of different activities that people can do in the area. Hiking is very popular for guests. The trails through Mount Subasio are well marked, and there are many trails that follow the Topino river from the house. Those trails are very good because they are flat, which makes them easy for leisurely walking. This is great for families with young kids. The trails are also the best way to go bird watching–we see a lot of Airone (a kind of stork) walking in the water near the main bridge.

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Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi

People can bike on the trails as well, and if it’s something you’re interested in during your visit, we can suggest routes that will last anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half. For example, a favorite bike trip is from Cannara to the lower part of Spello, where a road takes you towards Santa Maria degli Angeli, and then back to the house. It’s also possible to take bikes on the train to reach some of the most popular and beautiful destinations for outdoor exploring, like Lake Trasimeno and the Spoleto or Trevi areas.

For those interested in running, you can use the same trails as for hiking and biking. During the winter, typically a Sunday in mid-December, there is a race called Invernalissima of Assisi that anyone can sign up for. Pros can run the 21 km course, and for those less used to running there is a 5km run. There is also a run from Perugia and Assisi every two or three years, so if that’s something that interests you, let us know and we can find out when it is happening. Finally there is the “Marcia Della Pace” every year between September and October, which is a peace march that anyone can join without pre-registering. It’s a great way to meet lots of people while walking from Perugia to Assisi.

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If you Google Umbria, the first result will be a Wikipedia article that says “Umbria is a region of historic and modern ...

Even More Easter Torta

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!

Ready for the oven, miniature-style!
Ready for the oven, miniature-style!

Ernesto’s Torta Di Pasqua

5 eggs
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
Flour

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.

Here's what you'll need to make you very own Torta di Pasqua!
Here’s what you’ll need to make you very own Torta di Pasqua!

Marco and Chiara’s Torta Di Pasqua

10 eggs
200 grams wet yeast
800 grams grated cheese (parmigiana, pecorino, swiss) – leave some in larger pieces
250 grams unsalted butter melted
30 grams salt
black pepper
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.
It's not fun unless you get a little messy.
It’s not fun unless you get a little messy.
Simone’s Torta Di Pasqua

2.2 lbs pizza dough

10 eggs
1 cup parmigiano
1 cup Romano
1 cup strong pecorino grated
Salt
Pepper
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 feedme@viaumbria.com. Best of luck!
 

 

 

An Umbrian holiday tradition Read more

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 ...

Myth, Magic, and Folklore

On Saturday, April 2nd, our sun-filled Galleria will open with an art exhibiti featuring the works of the celebrated Giuseppe Fioroni.

Fioroni lives and works in his native Perugia, the regional capital of Umbria. A self-taught artist, he discovered his lifelong passion for painting as a young man. He has described Umbria as “a land of calm, a beautiful land, a land full of vibrations.” The greennery of the region, he has said, “is especially unforgettable,” and his love for Umbria’s olive trees and vineyards, as well as the oil and wine they produce, are inseparable from the place itself. His art has brought him all over the world, but he continues to live in Umbria, the province where he was born.

As a child in Perugia, Fioroni grew up surrounded by Umbrian folklore, mysticism, and traditional music. These themes lie at the center of his art. His vivid oil and multimedia paintings, Fioroni explores fantasy, fable, and magic through maelstroms of color and emotion. Often, he marries traditional folk narratives with elements of reverie and daydream, demonstrating a fascination with the liminal space where esoteric culture and unbridled imagination intersect.

Giuseppe Fioroni, Il Medicante Orfano, 2003.
Giuseppe Fioroni, Il Medicante Orfano, 2003.

When he set out to paint full-time, he was president and CEO of a company with 1,200 employees. Although he had always been a skilled artist, Fioroni did not want to paint professionally until the age of 36. At first, he created small paintings, never with the intention to exhibit them. He simply wished to paint. He first exhibited work in 1978 at the San Severo Gallery in Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia. He has also branched out from painting to add drawing, sculpture, and ceramics to his repertoire, and has achieved international acclaim for his work.

In addition to his pursuit of the visual arts, Fioroni is also an adroit musician of several ancient instruments, including the barrel-organ and the bagpipe. At was 8 years old, he was already a solo accordionist, Across Perugia, his musical skill has earned him the nickname “Maestro.”  Music is an integral part of Fioroni’s quest to unearth the deepest spirit of Umbria’s folk traditions, and his love for folk music can be observed in the stunning lyricism of his paintings, drawing, ceramics, and sculpture.

Giuseppe Fioroni, Gli Sposi, 2005.
Giuseppe Fioroni, Gli Sposi, 2005.

Fioroni’s work has also been influenced by the mix of musicians who make the yearly pilgrimage from around the world to Perugia to participate and perform in the Umbria Jazz Festival.  His gallery in Perugia often hosts artists who visit the city.  In 2008, he was commissioned by the festival organizers to create the official Umbria Jazz poster for the celebration.  Much of his work reflects the influence of jazz in his life. Often, Fioroni will alternate between painting and playing music. “Painting serves my body,” Fioroni has said, “and music serves my spirit.”

Over the past 30 years, Fioroni’s vivid, original body of work has won him adoration, acclaim, and international renown, and we at Via Umbria are very proud to showcase his work in our Galleria. Over the years, Bill and Suzy have cultivated a special relationship with Giuseppe, and are thrilled to introduce him and his remarkable work to you.

Join us in for celebrating the work of Giuseppe Fioroni at our Gallery Opening on April 2nd from 5:00 – 8:00 pm. The event is free to the public, and light refreshments will be served. We hope to see you there!

 

Umbrian artist Giuseppe Fioroni Read more

On Saturday, April 2nd, our sun-filled Galleria will open with an art exhibiti featuring the works of the celebrated Giuseppe Fioroni. Fioroni lives and works in ...

Torta Di Pasqua

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.
Chef Jennifer McIlvaine kneading Torta di Pasqua dough.
Chef Jennifer McIlvaine kneading Torta di Pasqua dough.
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.
Fresh organic eggs! These hens must have known Easter is right around the corner.
Fresh organic eggs! These hens must have known Easter is right around the corner.
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!

Golden mini Tortas, now available at our counter!
Golden mini Tortas, now available at our counter!

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
  • 5-6 eggs
  • 150g grated pecorino romano
  • 150g grated parmigiano reggiano
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 50g lard
  • 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!

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Dishing With Chef Jennifer McIlvaine

Acclaimed chef Jennifer McIlvaine has lead a whirlwind of dinners and cooking classes this week at Via Umbria as part of our Terre Margaritelli Takeover. Today, we sat down to chat about camp grills, eno-gastronomic tours, and her transcontinental culinary journey.

How did you get your start as a chef?

Like most people, I started out working in French-based restaurants. Eventually, I worked at an Italian restaurant in Seattle, and then opened a street food business called Bruschettina. This was way before all of the food trucks. I was one of the first people doing street food in Seattle.

What made you decide to do that?

People would go to these hip, chic farmer’s markets all over Seattle to buy organic produce, but there was nothing to eat at the markets except hotdogs and crepes. So I had this idea to cook at farmer’s markets. I would get vegetables from the farmers, bread from the organic bread guys, and then I’d make toppings. I had camp grills, so I would toast the bread and then list the toppings on a little chalkboard saying where I got all the ingredients. It was huge, actually.

Jennifer working the camp grills.
Jennifer working the camp grills.

How did you get from Seattle to Italy?

While I was doing Bruschettina, I won an internship through the women’s chef association to work on an agriturismo in Tuscany. While I was there I would cook private dinners, which is how I met my husband, Federico. Like any good Umbrian, he was like, “No, you can’t be in Tuscany! Come to Umbria!” So on the weekend I would visit him and meet various producers. Then he worked a lot in Seattle after I went back, and eventually we moved to Umbria.

This way for Umbrian agriturismo !
This way to an Umbrian agriturismo !

And that’s when you started working at Il Bacco Felice in Foglino.

Right. I worked for a very well-known chef Salvatore Denaro. It was a crazy learning experience. I had to jump into the Italian way of cooking, which is completely different. Half the time, Salvatore would lay out ingredients and I just had to magically know what to do with them. And I didn’t know! I had no idea. And I didn’t speak the language. But that’s also where I learned how to work a fire grill. We don’t have those in the States unless you’re camping! It was great. After working there on and off for about a year, I opened up my own restaurant, Trattoria Basiliko.

What was that like?

My partner was a woman who had a restaurant around the corner in Foglino. I was in the kitchen and she was in the front of the house. We ran that for about two years. but we both got pregnant at about the same time, so that was the end of that.

How did you get into leading eno-gastronomic tours?

It started very organically. About a year after my daughter was born, somebody was visiting and asked me to to take them to a farm, because when I had my restaurant I was one of the few people who actually went to the farms to buy the meat and produce. Then somebody else asked me to do a cooking class. It started slowly, through word of mouth, and just kind of took off. When people rent villas, especially Bill and Suzy’s house, I cook for them and teach cooking classes. I also do food and wine tours of the area. Lots of cycling, hiking, horseback riding. It’s active stuff, but there’s always food and wine involved. So maybe after cycling, there’s a picnic lunch in the middle of the valley, or after horseback riding we have lunch at Federico’s winery.

The perfect spot for a late lunch.
The perfect spot for a late lunch.

How do you like to cook at home?

We live in the center of an old medieval town, so we have a fireplace in the middle of our kitchen. In the winter, it’s going all the time. I do a lot of cooking on the fireplace … meat, fish … I’ve done pasta over the fire. It’s not easy, but it’s great if you have time.

Learn the tricks of the trade from Jennifer before she leaves town at our Hands On Pizza Party this Sunday! And if you’d like to meet her in Umbria, you’re always welcome to stay at the Via Umbria villa.

 

 

Jennifer's culinary journey Read more

Acclaimed chef Jennifer McIlvaine has lead a whirlwind of dinners and cooking classes this week at Via Umbria as part of our Terre Margaritelli ...

Wine Wednesday

Nestled in the verdant, rolling hills of Umbria, the Terre Margaritelli estate was founded in 1950 by Fernando Margaritelli. The Torgiano vineyard simply produced grapes until 2005, when Fernando’s grandson met winemaker Federico Bibi. Soon, they were working to transform Terre Margaritelli into one of Umbria’s premiere organic wineries.

In preparation for Via Umbria’s Terre Margaritelli Winemaker Dinner this Saturday, we sat down with Federico to learn what the winery is all about.

“The idea,” Federico explains, “is to produce innovative wines without losing the tradition and the history.”

Umbria is a farming region known as the green heart of Italy. “Fifty, seventy years ago we were very poor,” Federico says. “The wine was not just a drink — it was actually a big part of the meal. Wine was the easiest and cheapest way to add calories to a meal, which would often be lentil soup, or chickpeas, and sometimes bread.” The region’s naturally sharp, acidic wines, Federico notes, were also used to disinfect drinking water.

A snapshot of the harvest at Terre Margaritelli.
A snapshot of the harvest at Terre Margaritelli.

As winemaker, Federico makes sure that Terre Margaritelli’s selection is both accessible and in keeping with Umbrian tradition. “We have very interesting blends. All of our wines are easy to drink, no matter the structure. I say I love to make complex wines, not complicated wines, because I love to finish the bottle.”

The grechetto, a Terre Margaritelli specialty, is the traditional white grape of Umbria. It’s an acidic, alcoholic grape without many perfumes. “Many people ask me, ‘then why do you use it?'” laughs Federico. “It’s considered indigenous, and in Umbria you will find it everywhere. Its beauty is in its strength.”

The grechetto is used to make Terre Margaritelli’s Greco di Renabianca, a rich, full-bodied white which ages for 3 months in oak barrels, called barriques, and then at least a year longer in the bottle, which balances the wood with the strength of the grape. In turn, the wood gives the wine a hint of perfume.

Wine barrels made of French oak.
Wine barrels made of French oak.

To develop the barriques, “we went to twenty different forests in France and tried out the wood from each one,” Federico recalls. “And now we have barrels made of French oak from the forest of Bertrange. It’s a very old forest, and a very light wood.” The oak barrels help to mitigate, but never dilute, the strength of the grape. They also allow the wine to maintain a low level of oxidation and remain fresh.

From start to finish, the Terre Margaritelli process is marked by a tireless commitment to vision. The vineyard’s organic farming methodologies are developed with extensive research. “We don’t fertilize the soil. We will grow fava beans to replenish nutrients and rest the fields, but we don’t need to add anything to the ground. It’s already there. We start from the vines. It’s just about the grape.”

A Terre Margaritelli tell-all with Federico Read more

Nestled in the verdant, rolling hills of Umbria, the Terre Margaritelli estate was founded in 1950 by Fernando Margaritelli. The Torgiano vineyard simply produced grapes until 2005, when Fernando's ...