In this series on Italian regional cooking, I have been working my way around the Italian peninsula. The series started with the northern regions and now it is moving into the central areas. Todays post is on Umbria, the only Italian region having neither a coastline nor a border with another country. The region is mostly mountainous and hilly and presents a landscape rich in forests, water resources and valleys. Lake Trasimeno is located here.
In literature, Umbria is referred to as il cuore verde d’Italia (the green heart of Italy). The phrase is taken from the poem, Barbarian Odes, by Giosuè Carducci, an italian Nobel prize-winning poet. The poem is one most familiar to Italian school children and is entitled “Le fonti del Clitumno” (“The Head-waters of the Clitumnus”), a description of that spot in the hills of Umbria where the Clitunno River had its beginning. Carducci wrote the ode between July and October 1876. It is generally considered one of Carducci’s best poems combining pastoral beauty with nostalgia for the glories of ancient Italy.
The flocks still come down to you, o Clitumnus, from the far mountains that move with the murmur of breeze-swept ash groves and fresh scent of sage and thyme in the damps of evening.
The young Umbrian shepherd immerses his reluctant sheep in your waters.
By a farmhouse a barefoot mother sits and sings, nursing her child, who looks to the shepherd and smiles.
The pensive father with goatish hair, at his painted cart, turns on his hips like the beasts of old, with the strength of a young bull, like those square of breast, erect and crowned by crescent horns, sweet in their eyes and snow-white, much beloved by gentle Virgil.
The darkening clouds hang like smoke on the Apennines: grand, austere and green from the spreading mountains, Umbria watches. Hail, green Umbria, and you the fount of god Clitumnus.
I feel in my heart the ancient home, my fevered brow touched by the olden gods of Italy.
The region is named for the Umbri tribe, one of the many tribes who were absorbed by the expansion of the Romans. The Umbri probably sprang from neighboring tribes in northern and central Italy, at the beginning of the Bronze Age. The Etruscans were the chief enemies of the Umbri. The Etruscan invasion came from the western coast towards the north and east, eventually driving the Umbrians inland. Nevertheless, the Umbrian population does not seem to have been eradicated by the conquerors. After the downfall of the Etruscans, Umbrians aided the Samnites in their struggle against Rome (308 BC). However, the Romans defeated the Samnites and their allies. The Roman victory started a period of integration under the Roman rulers, who established colonies in the region.
The modern region of Umbria is different from the Umbria of Roman times. Roman Umbria extended through most of what is now the northern Marche region. After the collapse of the Roman empire, Ostrogoths and Byzantines struggled for supremacy in the region. The Lombards founded the duchy of Spoleto, covering much of today’s Umbria and when Charlemagne conquered the Lombard region, some Umbrian territories were given to the Pope. After the French Revolution and the French conquest of Italy, Umbria became part of the Roman Republic (1798–1799) and later, part of the Napoleonic Empire. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Pope regained Umbria and ruled it until 1860.
Following Italian unification in 1861, Umbria was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy. The present borders of Umbria were fixed in 1927 and in 1946 Umbria became part of the Italian Republic.
The charm of Umbria derives from its fusion of art, nature, peacefulness and the inspirations behind its artistic masterpieces and small Medieval towns. Umbrians have a deep appreciation of art and, throughout history, the region has produced its share of talented artists. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Umbria was home to a well-respected art school (known as the “Umbrian School”) that taught venerated artists such as Raphael, della Francesca and Perugino. Old paintings and frescos can still be found all over Umbria, not just in famous museums (such as the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia) but on the walls of tiny churches in the quiet hilltop towns. Romanesque architecture thrived in this region at the beginning of the twelfth century and some beautiful examples that have survived the years are the Cathedrals of Spoleto and Assisi, St. Silvestro and St. Michele in Bevagna. The Gothic styles are also present in almost every city. The Renaissance movement can be seen in the region’s magnificent monuments.
When it comes to music, Umbria steps away from its traditions and embraces contemporary music. Each July, the region hosts the Umbria Jazz Festival, one of the most renowned international music festivals in the world. Famed musicians such as Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie have played at the festival and every year it attracts new talented artists.
The food industry in Umbria produces processed pork-meats, pasta, lentils, truffles and cheese. The other main industries are textiles, clothing, sportswear, iron and steel, chemicals and ornamental ceramics. Umbrian agriculture is noted for its tobacco, olive oil and vineyards that produce fine wines. Regional varietals include white Orvieto, Torgiano and Rosso di Montefalco. Another typical Umbrian product is the black truffle found in Valnerina, an area that produces 45% of this product for Italy.
The most renowned Umbrian pork comes from the black pigs of Norcia, an ancient town in southeast Umbria. Norcia has been the center of sausage-making and other pork dishes for so many centuries that pork butcher shops in Umbria are called “Norcineria.” Traditional Umbrian pork dishes include salame mazzafegati (a pork liver sausage made with orange peel, pine nuts and raisins) and porchetta, an herb-stuffed pork roast.
Greens are a very popular vegetable found across Umbria and commonly include rapini (broccoli rabe), bietola (swiss chard) and chicoria (chicory). Greens are usually blanched, drained and sautéed with olive oil, chili pepper and garlic. These sautéed greens are then enjoyed as a vegetable side dish or are used as fillings in sandwiches, to top pizza, stirred into eggs or tossed with pasta. Rustic tortas are made with blanched greens and eggs, flavored with onions, pancetta and garlic. The tiny lentils from the Umbrian town of Castelluccio are prized across Italy for their earthy, sweet taste and their ability to maintain their shape even after long simmering.
Umbrians are masters at grilling and it is not uncommon to find indoor grills in their kitchens. Bakers in Umbria use wood ovens to make giant saltless loaves of pane casereccio. Pecorino or pork rind flavored breads are made from an egg enriched wheat flour dough. Pan nociato are sweet rolls with pecorino, walnuts and grapes flavored with cloves. A similar bun, called pan pepato, is filled with almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts with raisins and candied fruit. Other desserts include torcolo, a sponge cake brimming with raisins and candied fruit, or ciaramicola. This meringue covered round cake is made with a rich egg batter flavored with lemon rind and a spicy liqueur called Alchermes.
Insalata Di Farro (Farro Salad)
- 2 medium shallots, minced or 1/4 clove garlic and 1/4 medium red onion, minced
- 2 tablespoons good olive oil
- 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar or 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard or 1/2 teaspoon minced anchovy or both
- 1 tablespoon minced capers or finely chopped, pitted black olives
- 1 cup (total) chopped fresh parsley, chives, thyme or basil (or any combination)
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 quarts chicken stock
- 2 cups farro
- 1 bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 medium tomato, chopped
- 1/2 cup grated ricotta salata or other firm or semi-firm cheese
- 1/2 cup mozzarella cut into 1/4-inch dice
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Squeeze of lemon juice
Combine shallots, olive oil, vinegar, mustard, capers and herbs in a bowl.
In a large saucepan, bring chicken stock to a boil.
Add the farro to the stock, lower heat to a strong simmer and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the farro is tender but somewhat chewy.
Drain and let cool until no more than warm.
Add cooked farro to the ingredients in the bowl and mix. Add vegetables, tomato and cheese and mix.
Salt and pepper to taste. Add more olive oil to taste. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and serve at room temperature.
White Lasagna with Besciamella (Lasagna in Bianco )
Makes 6 servings
- 3/4 cup minced shallots (about 6)
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 3 3/4 cups whole milk
- 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 cup dry Marsala wine
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 pound grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup), divided
- 12 (7 by 3 inch) no-boil lasagna sheets
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.
Cook shallots in butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 4 minutes. Add flour and cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, 3 minutes. Add nutmeg, then slowly whisk in milk and stock. Bring to a boil, whisking, then simmer, stirring occasionally, just until sauce lightly coats the back of a spoon, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and cool to warm, stirring occasionally. Stir in eggs, Marsala, sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 cup cheese.
Spread about 1 1/4 cups sauce over the bottom of an 11 by 8 inch baking dish. Cover with a layer of 3 lasagna sheets. Repeat layering 3 more times, then top with remaining sauce and remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Bake, uncovered, until browned, 45 to 55 minutes.
Umbrian Mixed Grill
This dish is often served with the region’s classic lentils.
- 1 pound boneless pork loin
- 1 pound boneless beef loin
- 1 pound skinless boneless chicken breasts
- 1 pound sweet or hot Italian sausage, cut into chunks
- 4 thick slices pancetta or prosciutto, cut in 1-inch squares
- Coarse salt to taste
- Coarsely ground black pepper to taste
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 medium bell peppers, seeded and cut into 2-inch squares
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- Small bunch of fresh sage, leaves only
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
Cut the meat, sausage and chicken into 1-inch cubes. Season the pork with coarse salt and pepper and rub with the garlic; season the beef with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the sage; season the chicken with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the rosemary. Set aside.
In a skillet, heat the olive oil and sauté the peppers until just crisp-tender. Add the wine and cook until the liquid is reduced by about half.
Thread the skewers in this order: Pork, bell pepper, chicken, pancetta, sage leaf, beef, bell pepper and sausage. Do not crowd the pieces. Place the skewers in a nonmetal dish large enough to hold them in a single layer and drizzle the lemon juice and olive oil over them. Let them marinate for several hours in the refrigerator, basting and turning them often.
Heat the grill and lightly oil the grill rack. Remove the skewers from the marinade, place them on the grill, and baste with the marinade. Grill, turning and basting the skewers, until done to taste, about 8 to 12 minutes.
Apricots with Amaretto Syrup
- 10 firm-ripe large apricots
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2/3 cup Amaretto liqueur
- 6 amaretti (Italian almond macaroons; if paper-wrapped, use 3 packets), crumbled (1/3 cup)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped pine nuts for sprinkling
Peel apricots with a vegetable peeler, then halve and pit. Finely chop 2 halves and set aside.
Heat butter in a 12-inch heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat until foam subsides, then cook sugar, stirring constantly, until golden brown. Stir in Amaretto (be careful; syrup will spatter) and simmer, stirring, 2 minutes.
Working in 2 batches, poach apricot halves in syrup at a low simmer, turning, until almost tender, 5 to 10 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer apricots, hollow sides up, to a platter.
Add crumbled amaretti to syrup and cook over low heat, crushing cookies with back of a wooden spoon, until melted into a coarse purée.
Stir in reserved chopped apricot and gently simmer, stirring, until syrup is deep brown and slightly thickened. Cool syrup slightly.
Spoon syrup over apricots and sprinkle with pine nuts. Serve warm or at room temperature.
February 20, 2015 at 8:52 am
Umbria is such a wonderful region. I have so many fond memories of summers at Universita per i stranieri. Recipes look perfect! Thanks.
February 20, 2015 at 11:44 am
Thank you so much Holly. I appreciate your first hand references. What did you study there?
February 20, 2015 at 11:56 am
Literature, language, history…with a major interest in food, shopping, exploring.
February 20, 2015 at 11:58 am
February 20, 2015 at 8:55 am
Love this one Jovina. I’ve been fascinated by Umbria since I watched the movie “My House In Umbria”, or something like that. It’s been a long time since I saw it, but it was fascinating. I printed the recipes out for later use, and will sure give them a try. You haven’t steered me wrong yet.
February 20, 2015 at 11:42 am
Thank you so much Angie for your gracious comment. I saw the movie also.
I find each region is so different from another and yet they are all part of the same country.
I hope enjoy making the recipes.
February 21, 2015 at 2:26 am
I’m sure I’ll enjoy making them Jovina. I was able to make pasta sauce yesterday, using my slow cooker. It took a long time that way, but the result was delicious. A friend made the pasta for me because the arm isn’t strong enough to drain it just yet, but I have enough for another meal. It will work out okay, while I enjoy my trips thru Italy with you as the guide.
Heidi Dawn Medina
February 20, 2015 at 9:09 am
I want a bite of that beautiful pork roast in the picture and a little of everything else as well. I certainly enjoyed the black truffles while in Italy. We were there right at the beginning of the season and truffle was served on everything. Beautiful food in Umbria.
February 20, 2015 at 11:39 am
Oh you had had great timing for your trip. Thanks Heidi – I love you can tell us about your trip to the region I wrote about.
February 20, 2015 at 10:33 am
The lasagne sounds wonderfully simple.
February 20, 2015 at 11:37 am
It is easy to make. A small square makes a great first course, if you are having a traditional Italian meal.
Marisa Franca @ All Our Way
February 20, 2015 at 1:59 pm
I love the simplicity of the cuisine. Years ago we would grow leaf lettuce and my parents really enjoyed the bitter bite of the lettuce. Then we were more used to head lettuce – now all we think is yuck!! And using fruit for dessert is such a welcome change to a rich heavy meal ending. Your description of Umbria region is right to the point. Mille grazie Jovina
February 20, 2015 at 4:49 pm
Thank you Marisa. I like fruit for dessert and also hearty greens rather than iceberg lettuce. All much better for you.
February 20, 2015 at 4:38 pm
Can’t wait for apricots to come in season to try that simple dessert recipe!
February 20, 2015 at 4:50 pm
It will be lovely when stone fruits are in season again. Thanks Karen
February 22, 2015 at 10:30 am
A lovely post on Umbria, Jovina. It is a wonderful section of Italy to visit, especially during the black truffle season.
February 22, 2015 at 12:47 pm
Thank you so much, Karen. Those truffles are amazing