Prior to last weekend, my concept of Italy was based on a precarious mix of films. I envisioned romantic scenery, with undulating hills and scattered bursts of brightly colored wild flowers, as experienced by Diane Lane in “Under the Tuscan Sun“. Soprano-esque natives would greet me with gold adorned fingers, bushy gray streaked pompadours and the occasional twitch of their shoulders wrapped tightly in black polyester shirts with the obligatory, “Hey, how you doin’?”. And finally, a perfectly soft and round grandmother smelling of grassy sweet olive oil and rustic Mediterranean herbs would serve me plates of handcrafted pasta. In short, my vision was an odd mix of cliches, interconnected by a deep and heart wrenching nostalgia experienced by friends and family alike who had stepped on Italy’s rich soils.
Oddly enough, my preconceived notions weren’t that far from the truth. Sans Tony Soprano, the scenery and food culture were almost spot on! However, though Grandma did exist, and spoke lavishly of her handmade pasta, I never did have the opportunity to taste her secret recipe.
Catavino landed on Italian soil last weekend, as we were invited to speak at an event organized by Media 140 at the Perugia International Journalism Festival - a massive and incredibly well organized 5 day conference now in its 5th year. Our particular event was set in a 13th century hall called, the Sala dei Notari, where the Perugian noble elite met under vibrant frescos depicting biblical scenes and Aesop’s fables. For our first experience in Italy, the setting was not only impressive, but downright humbling. And this doesn’t even speak of Perugia itself, a strikingly beautiful hilltop town of Etruscan origin that overlooks the lush and rolling hills of Umbria. Nor does it comment upon our hotel, the Brufani Palace, which provided us a jaw dropping perspective of Perugia, and its quaint rooftop gardens complete with gracefully positioned cats, far from the reach of their canine neighbors.
Of the 20 political region in Italy, Umbria is the only Italian region which is both landlocked and with no common border with other countries. Nestled up to Tuscany to the west, the Marche to the east and Lazio to the south, you couldn’t pick a more remote location for a conference. However, despite its rather remote position from any major airport, it was perfectly situated to give participants an authentic sense of both culture and place.
Where the true magic came for both Ryan and I was our trip to the Umbrian countryside on Sunday where we visited the sacred town of Assisi, the Cantina Novelli winery located in Montefalco, and the Melchiorri Olive Oil Estate in Madonna di Lugo near Spoleto.
I won’t speak too much of Assisi other than to say, visit it! If you’re a lover of art, passionate about beauty, obsessed with quaint medieval towns and desire a sense of awe, then you must experience Assisi for yourself. For someone who is neither religious, nor who appreciates gory religious scenes, as depicted in churches across Iberia, Assisi provides a completely different experience. Renowned as being the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in the 13th century, as well as the founder of the Poor Clares, Assisi exudes tranquility, peace and meditation. It’s a place of quiet thought, of cozy medieval shops and steep, windy roads. And if I had the opportunity to pack up my bags today and move for a stretch of time, I would gladly plant myself in Assisi where I could overlook the vineyards; smell the rich aromas of rosemary, thyme, marjoram, basil and mustard; taste freshly baked brioche and handmade pasta; and sip upon regional wines!
However, our memorable trip to the countryside would not have been possible if it weren’t for Giulia Luccioli, the Export and International Marketing Manager for the Cantina Novelli winery, who we met at our talk on Saturday. Kindly offering to be our guide for the following day, she and her son patiently drove us through the Umbrian countryside, giving us the occasional historical and cultural lesson whenever needed – which was frequent, and I’m sure tedious. She also gave us our first and only tour of an Italian winery.
Cantina Novelli is a family run winery nestled within the hills of Montefalco. The vineyards, approximately 56 hectares strong are primarily located in the heart of the DOCG zone, Montefalco, and comprised of Trebbiano Spoletino, Grechetto and Pecorino for white varieties and Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, Sangiovese and Sagrantino for reds. The mission of the winery is to recover and promote native varietals of their region, becoming an ambassador for their cultural heritage through various projects. One of these projects, as explained by Giulia, is to recover and actively promote Trebbiano Spoletino with the support of Professor Attilio Scienza of the University of Milan. “It’s a quality grape that deserves recognition, and we need the support from the community in order to promote it internationally.”
What’s interesting to note, is that the ubiquitous white grape Grechetto varied tremendously for Ryan and I depending on where it was grown and who was producing it. Having tasted several versions over the course of the three days in Umbria, we found it to show incredible barnyard characteristics, emphasized by aromas of wet horse or hay, to lush ripe peach and citrus aromas. It was a grape that both intrigued and confused us. As Ryan accurately stated during the Umbrian wine tasting that evening, “I’m not sure if I’m amused by its peculiarity, or whether I actually enjoy its rustic personality.”
For me, the same held true for the famed regional red grape, Sagrantino. Like the Portuguese grape Baga, Sagrantino is capable of sucking any ounce of moisture from your palate with its larger than life tannins. Though capable of being tamed into an elegant and succulent wine, able to withstand the richest and fattiest of foods, it’s not for weakhearted. However, this very same grape can also be made into a killer rosado sparkling wine that is fabulous and worth looking into. Check out our impressions of Cantina Novelli’s wines here.
The olive oils of Umbria are equally as enticing and quality driven. Our adventure in the world of Italian olive oil took place at the Melchiorri Olive Oil Estate, where Rosanna Milone, a representative for the regional government of Umbria, became our second trusted guide of the day. She helped translate the history of the Melchiorri family who has been making olive oil for decades in the traditional method, and where 90% of their complete production is elaborated into extra virgin oil. Evidently, this is quite a feat!
We enjoyed 3 of their olive oils and a handful of their olive pastes; and to be honest, they were all incredible. Though both Ryan and I had a strong affinity for their black truffle paste which literally made us swoon; we also enjoyed the DOP Umbria I’Intenditore which showed a slightly bitter yet vibrantly grassy flavor.
We also happened to arrive on the day of their olive oil festival, which included a government licensed group of volunteers called, La Bufera, able to be contracted to play traditional Umbrian music. A sassy group of musicians, they never failed to delight with their handcrafted instruments, and the occasional tumble into the shrubs when overly moved by their music. And though we didn’t witness any dancing by my favorite grandmother of the Melchiorri family, nor from her 2 sisters or their 94 year old mother – a family I’m convinced is perfectly preserved by their olive oil – we were able to see a few toes tapping and some hips swaying to the very odd beat.
Now, before I buy a plane ticket back to Italy, I better wrap up this article with a final comment on the food. FANTASTIC! Similar to Spain and Portugal, people appeared to take immense pride for their regional ingredients and cuisines; however, Italians seem to take it a step farther. In part, I think it’s because of the vast regional diversity, where each city seems to not only have a distinct culture, but a fierce pride for their culinary traditions. We tasted fantastic black truffles in both salsas and pasta; sharp and insanely intense Pecorino Toscano cheese (DOP); the slightly pinkish colored Prociutto di Norcia (IGP), which is a salted and naturally aged meat from the rump of mature hogs; the Salamini Italiani Alla Cacciatora (DOP), made from cured pork and must not exceed more than 2.4 inches in diameter and 8 inches in length, with a maximum weight of 11.6 oz; one of my personal favorites, Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia (IGP), are delicious lentils made in various forms; and finally, Gamberoni al Lardo di Colonnata, which is a silky sweet lardon. Each of the regional foods I mentioned above have their own distinct region of origins.
In short, our trip was amazing, and if I haven’t enticed you to take a vacation to Umbria in this short novel, then I throw up my hands in defeat, all while hiding my broad smile knowing that there will be more for me when I return
If you’ve been to Umbria, what were the foods, wines and places not to be missed?