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.
Perugia is the capital city of the region of Umbria in central Italy, near the River Tiber. The city is located about 102 miles north of Rome. It covers a high hilltop and part of the valleys surrounding the area.
The history of Perugia goes back to the Etruscan period. Perugia was an Umbrian settlement but first appears in written history as Perusia, one of the 12 confederate cities of Etruria. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Perugia was destroyed by Totila in 547; then it belonged to the Byzantine conquerors, and finally it became a powerful independent city allied to the Papal State.
The 14th century was characterised by violent struggles between Nobles (Beccherini) and Populars (Raspanti) and by the war against the Pope who wanted the Umbrian cities to be under his rule. The war ended with the Peace of Bologna in 1370, when Perugia was forced to recognize the Papal authority. However, the city continued to be divided by rival factions fighting for power for many years after. In 1540 Perugia was placed under the direct control of the Papal State. The papal rule continued until the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
Perugia today is a modern and cosmopolitan city known all over the world because of its cultural events and the universities.
Perugia is a well-known artistic center of Italy. The famous painter Pietro Vannucci was a native of Città della Pieve near Perugia. He decorated the local Sala del Cambio with a beautiful series of frescoes; eight of his pictures can also be admired in the National Gallery of Umbria. Perugino was the teacher of Raphael, the great Renaissance artist who produced five paintings in Perugia and one fresco. Another famous painter, Pinturicchio, lived in Perugia. Galeazzo Alessi is a famous architect from Perugia. The city symbol is the griffin, which can be seen in the form of plaques and statues on buildings around the city.
The city is also known as a university town, with the University of Perugia (about 34,000 students), the University for Foreigners (5,000 students), and some smaller colleges, located there.
Annual festivals and events include: the Eurochocolate Festival (October), the Umbria Jazz Festival, and the International Journalism Festival (in April).
The Food Of Umbria
Often called the green heart of Italy and home to many of the country’s most famous hill towns, Umbria is a rolling patchwork of olive groves, vineyards, fields, and forests. Food here is hearty and simple, and meat reigns supreme, especially pork and game, such as boar and hare. The pork butchers of Norcia are famous for their sausages and salumi. Umbrian food is a cuisine of the hearth, with meats and sausage slowly roasted or grilled over a wood fire. Black truffles appear in autumn, contributing flavor to pastas and other dishes. Like the Tuscans, Umbrians like their bread sciapo, or “unsalted” a fitting complement to the often highly salted food of the region. Notable Umbrian wines include Orvieto Classico, a renowned white, and Sagrantino di Montefalco, a lush, full-bodied red.
Some Perugian Specialties
Porchetta, a regional specialty that is now found throughout central Italy, is made from a whole pig that is boned, stuffed with garlic and herbs—usually fennel and rosemary—salted liberally, and slowly roasted until the skin is golden and crisp and the meat tender and juicy. Because home ovens are not large enough to hold a whole pig, the job is left to professionals, who sell porchetta by the slice in freshly made sandwiches at local markets and along roadsides.
Boiling and roasting with olive oil and herbs are common culinary methods of this region. Vegetable dishes are popular in summer and spring, while meat dishes are traditional winter cuisine. Umbrian grown flour-and-water pasta hand rolled into individual strands like thick spaghetti, often served with meat ragù or tomato sauce. Torta al testo, a flatbread cooked on rustic griddles, then split and stuffed with pork sausage, cooked greens, prosciutto, or other savory fillings. Bruschetta and crostini, toasted bread. topped with olive oil and garlic, tomatoes, or savory spreads, such as liver Ote, fava bean puree, or truffle paste.
Porcini mushrooms with a meaty consistency, are roasted or sauteéd and tossed with pasta. Lentils, Italy’s most famous tiny legumes, are grown in the high plains of Castelluccio.
The Perugina candy company takes its name from its hometown, Perugia, the region’s capital.
In November 1907, a group of four men in Perugia (including the son of the man who started the Buitoni pasta company) founded the “Perugina Confectionary Society” (Società Perugina per la Fabbricazione dei Confetti) and opened their doors in the historic center of town. The Perugina chocolate company, as it’s known today, grew steadily, but it wasn’t until 1922 that Perugina started producing the treat that is now known as – Baci.
Baci, those bite-sized chocolates with a whole hazelnut at their center, were the brainchild of the wife of one of the Perugina founders, a woman who had been instrumental in the company’s recipes and product line since the beginning. She first called her new candy “cazzotto,” or sock, but one of the other founders decided “baci,” or kisses, sounded more delicious. And those little love notes included in every Baci wrapper? They were there from the very beginning. (As a side note, purists may be dismayed to learn that Perugina was acquired by Nestlè in 1988.
Perugia was the obvious location for a chocolate festival and the EuroChocolate has grown into one of the biggest chocolate festivals in all of Europe, attracting almost one million visitors to Perugia every October. The 9-day festival includes chocolate vendors from Italy and elsewhere, classes on various chocolate-related topics, chocolate sculpture displays and live chocolate sculpting demonstrations.
Make Some Perugia Inspired Recipes At Home
Chickpea, Mushroom and Farro Soup
- 1 1/2 cups dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or 3-15 oz cans, drained and rinsed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small fresh rosemary sprig
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 6 cups vegetable stock or water
- 1/3 cup farro
- 1/2 Ib. fresh cremini mushrooms, brushed clean
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons dry white wine
- 1 fresh thyme sprig
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter
If using canned beans skip step 1.
1. Pick over the chickpeas and discard any misshapen beans or stones. Rinse the chickpeas under cold running water and drain. Place in a large bowl with cold water to cover generously and let soak for at least 4 hours or for up to overnight. Drain the chickpeas, rinse well, and transfer to a large saucepan. Add 8 cups cold water and bring to a boil over high heat, skimming off the foam that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the chickpeas are tender, about 2 hours. Remove from the heat. Drain.
2. In a soup pot over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, and rosemary and sauté until the onion is softened and translucent but not browned, about 6 minutes. In a small bowl, dissolve the tomato paste in 1 cup warm water and add to the pot. Stir in the chickpeas and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 3 minutes. Add the stock, return to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until the flavors have melded, about 30 minutes longer. Remove and discard the rosemary sprig.
3. Process the soup in the pot with an immersion blender. Return the soup to a simmer over medium heat, add the farro, and cook until the farro is tender yet still slightly firm and chewy, about 25 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, to prepare the mushrooms, cut away the tips of the mushroom stems. Thinly slice the mushrooms lengthwise. In a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until they begin to soften, 3-4 minutes. (They might stick to the pan for a moment before beginning to release their juices, but it is not necessary to add more oil.) Raise the heat to high, add the wine and thyme, and cook, stirring constantly, to cook off the alcohol from the wine, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are cooked and their juices have evaporated, about 15 minutes longer. Remove from the heat and discard the thyme sprig. Stir in the butter.
5. Add the mushrooms to the soup and stir to combine. Ladle the soup into warmed soup bowls, garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of freshly ground pepper.
Squab in the Umbrian Style
I substitute Cornish Game Hens for the Squab. A side of sauteed mushrooms goes very well with this entree.
Serves 4-8, depending on whether you cut the hens in half.
- 4 Cornish Game hens
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 large cloves garlic, bruised
- 6 fresh sage sprigs, 3 inches long
- 6 fresh rosemary sprigs, 3 inches long
- 6 whole cloves
- Zest of ½ lemon, in large strips
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- ½ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4-8 slices coarse country bread
Rinse the hens and dry well inside and out. Use kitchen string to tie the legs of each hen loosely together.
In a heavy-bottomed, wide, deep skillet or Dutch oven large enough to accommodate the 4 birds, warm the oil and garlic together over medium-low heat. Sauté until the garlic is golden, about 4 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic. Tie the sage and rosemary sprigs together with kitchen string and add to the pan along with the cloves and lemon zest.
Raise the heat to medium and add the birds; brown them evenly, about 15 minutes. Add the wine, vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the hens are tender, about 15 minutes longer, adding a few tablespoons of water, when necessary, to keep the birds moist. Be sure not to overcook them, or the meat will dry out.
Scoop out and discard the bundled herbs, cloves, and lemon zest from the pan juices and check for seasoning. Remove the pan from the heat and let the birds rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the bread. Remove the strings from the birds. Serve each hen on a plate alongside a slice of bread. De-fat the pan juices and pour over each serving.
- 2 bananas
- 12 fresh, ripe strawberries
- 2 pears
- 1 lemon,
- 1 ½ pound dark melting chocolate, chopped
- 3 tablespoons heavy cream, heated
- 2 tablespoons rum
Slice the bananas and pears into wedges and rub with sliced lemon to keep them from turning brown. Take care not to use too much lemon as it will alter the flavor of the fruit.
Melt the chocolate pieces in a double boiler. Remove from heat and add the rum and the warmed heavy cream.
Serve the chocolate sauce in a ceramic (or clay) bowl and arrange the fruit around it.
- Italy’s Eurochocolate 2012 in Perugia Umbria (vinoconvistablog.me)
- Umbria: Perugia (firenzemom.wordpress.com)
- Chocolate Love: Baci Perugina Italian Chocolate Recipes & Giveaway! (theartfulgourmet.com)
- TO-Umbria: Performing the Essence of the Heart of Italy (prweb.com)
- Umbria, The Green Heart Of Italy, Comes To New York City (prweb.com)
- Perugia underground (villainumbria.wordpress.com)