Tasty discoveries, village by village.
By Hope S. Philbrick
You don’t have to be a sports fan to understand team rivalry. But UGA vs. UNC is nothing compared to the rivalry between neighboring villages in Umbria, Italy.
“I am from Bevagna,” explains tour guide Analita Polticchia as we navigate the cobbled streets of her birthplace. “My husband is from Foligno. My friends say, ‘Poor you, you married a foreigner!’”
I’m astounded; the two villages are a mere five miles apart.
She laughs, explains that traditions endure in walled medieval townships and then demonstrates how she and her husband even pronounce certain words differently; though I can’t speak Italian, the variation is distinct. But when it comes to food, Umbrians put their differences aside and celebrate flavor.
At Da Tagliavento, an artisan butcher shop in Bevagna where sausages hang like thick drapes from ceiling hooks, I’m treated to an impromptu antipasto plate after explaining that I’ve just stopped in for a look since I can’t take meat home with me to the U.S. Married co-owners Marco Biagetti and Rosita Cariani, who are third- and fourth generation meat producers, want me to taste even if I cannot buy. As I bite into savory slices of coppa (pork remnants boiled with gelatin and orange rind) and porchetta (a whole pig roasted with fennel and herbs), they haul various cuts of meat from their back room to prove that their products are all natural. “No preservatives,” says Cariani (through Polticchia who is translating). Depending on the variety, meats sit in salt or rest on hooks for up to one year maturing, are wrapped in thick brown paper to dry or ground into sausages. While cut and processing techniques make the difference between prosciutto and pancetta, other factors like the pigs’ diet and weather during the meat’s aging period can mean that one prosciutto will taste unlike another. “Details make the difference,” says Cariani, emphasizing that what I taste in Umbria will be unique. I share my culinary travel plans and my new friends are thrilled, even if it does take me into other villages.
An olive oil tasting at Luigi Tega in Foligno the next day begins like a wine tasting with a sniff of the glass. My first whiff is a mind-blowing revelation. If the extra virgin olive oil typically stocked in my home pantry smells like a deciduous tree in winter, this one is like a spring wildflower garden—the fruit notes are intense and intoxicating. No wonder Umbrians drizzle the stuff over nearly everything they eat, from their regional unsalted bread to pasta and roasted meats. Tega, a third generation producer, has won several awards including ‘best olive oil in the world.’ Not knowing when I might return, I want to stuff as many bottles as I can into my luggage. But Tega says (through a translator) that it won’t keep indefinitely: “The best thing to do is buy fresh olive oil every year.” I take it as an invitation to return.
When it comes to truffle hunting, a dog is man’s best friend. Pigs haven’t been used for truffle hunts in over a hundred years, except for certain media events, because “dogs are easier to move and train,” says Romina Papperini of Urbani Tartufi in Perugia. “Pigs are very good at finding truffles—even better than dogs—but it is more probable that pigs will eat what they find.” As we walk through damp woods behind truffle hunter Luigi, his well-trained mutt Diana zigs and zags with her nose to the ground up ahead. Umbria is “best known all over the world for the tuber melanosporum vitt or black winter truffle,” says Papperini. The culinary treasure seems to be in abundant supply: Diana unearths an average of one each minute and rushes them back to her owner.
Despite its delicious regional specialties, Umbria has long been overshadowed by Tuscany in the world marketplace. An indigenous grape could change that: Sagrantino is genetically unique to the Montefalco district of Umbria and its wine is storming onto the marketplace. Marco Caprai, a winemaker who took charge of his family’s Arnaldo Caprai wine estate in 1989 at age 21, produces balanced, rich, complex wines from this grape. His wines pair well with food—whether that food’s prepared at a restaurant in Umbria or at home in Atlanta. During my visit, Caprai does something that no other winemaker I’ve met has done before: he pours samples of his Sagrantino alongside several from neighboring wineries for me to taste. This way I can best learn the unique characteristics of the grape, he explains. It’s a generous, thrilling opportunity that not only shows he’s confident in his winemaking skills—he is the undisputed leader in the production of Sagrantino di Montefalco wines, and with good reason—but also that pride in Umbria trumps competition.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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