Photo by Federico Ciamei
Photo by Federico Ciamei
Forget Tuscany. You’ll find everything you want—natural wine, black truffles, and wide-open spaces—under the Umbrian sun.
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It was clear my Roman cab driver found my travel plans perplexing. “You’re staying in Todi for the week?” he asked incredulously, in a mix of Italian and broken English, hoisting my suitcase into his six-seater van. “Why not Florence?” With my limited Italian, I struggled to describe why I was so taken by Todi, a walled medieval hill town overlooking Umbria’s Tiber valley. I threw out the few words I knew. “Umbria . . . olio d’oliva! Farro! Tartufo e vino!” I also rattled off the names of a few other towns I knew I’d be visiting—Orvieto, Montefalco, Trevi—but his puzzled gaze confirmed that I already knew more about Umbria than he did.
His reaction wasn’t entirely surprising. Umbria neighbors Tuscany, which no longer requires an introduction. It’s been years since Diane Lane basked under the Tuscan sun, and foreigners still flock there with the dream of restoring a crumbling farmhouse—even though the only properties left have multimillion-euro price tags.
Umbria and its farm culture, on the other hand, have largely remained unknown. In fact, many people first learned of the region two years ago when earthquakes nearly decimated the town of Norcia in southeast Umbria. Modest development and relative obscurity aside, Umbria is home to an impressive number of ancient culinary traditions. Sagrantino wine, olive oil, farro, truffles, and salumi are among the delicious heritage products I was coming to try under the expert guidance of Elizabeth Minchilli, an author and a longtime resident of both Rome and Umbria. On one of Elizabeth’s new culinary tours, I was here to spend the week eating—and meeting the artisans keeping Umbrian culture alive.
“Well, there will be fewer people at least,” noted my driver as we began the 80-mile journey from Rome to Todi. We passed through the landscape that earned the area its nickname, Italy’s cuore verde (green heart): rolling hills and mountains, their valleys covered with olive groves and grapevines. He was right about the lack of crowds. Umbria has few tourists, another reason for my trip. With destinations such as Venice, Lisbon, and Dubrovnik battling the crippling weight of their own popularity, one way to be a responsible traveler is to venture beyond the trodden path and seek out culture-rich locales that welcome tourism, as Umbria does.
Having fewer people has meant the preservation of an older way of life. As we passed from town to town, I caught glimpses of cobblestone piazzas where kids were holding cones of pistachio gelato, not cell phones; of retirees in their finest threads holding court on park benches and café terraces; of farmers working the land.
“What’s attractive about Umbria is that there is still so much that isn’t new,” Elizabeth explained later that night, during our 10-person welcome dinner at her vine-covered farmhouse on the outskirts of Todi. (Another reason to love Umbria: You might be able to fulfill your restoring-a-farmhouse dream, if you act fast.) “There are still farmers making cheese on their own farms, pressing olive oil for their own consumption, baking bread—it’s a step back in time.”
We started the next morning at Montioni, a 40-year-old, family-run olive mill and winery located 40 minutes east of Todi in Montefalco. I smelled the woody scent of thousands of freshly picked green and black olives before I saw them. As we stepped into the workshop where the fruit is pressed—a two-room building with white tiled walls and terra-cotta floors that looks more like a gussied-up garage than a production hub—the scent intensified. Olives were everywhere, piled in colorful crates, awaiting pressing. Elisa, our guide for the morning, explained that the olives had just been hand harvested using rakes that wiggle the fruits loose and send them tumbling into nets, a method that ensures they’re bruised as little as possible.
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Elisa then led us farther into the pressing room, where a large hydraulic press was squeezing olives. As we entered, the liquid from the olives was being fed through a centrifuge, which separates water from oil, giving off an intense peppery fragrance that tickled our throats. It was like consuming the olive oil without actually ingesting it. We marveled as the final product—a nearly translucent golden-green oil—slowly drizzled from the centrifuge into a large jug. It belonged to an elderly man standing nearby, one of two local farmers who bring their olives to the mill to be pressed each year.
“They’re nervous we’re getting too close to their oil!” Elizabeth joked. The men were watching us intently, as if worried we might snatch some. There was reason for their concern. Though the terroir in Montefalco is well suited to olive oil production thanks to a trifecta of sun exposure, location, and temperature, a year of drought and other poor weather conditions had yielded a harvest 50 percent smaller than usual. There was less oil to go around. Still, that had no impact on the quality. The droplet of fresh oil that Elisa dabbed onto our fingertips tasted bright and intensely vegetal with a touch of acidity. It begged to be drizzled on top of pumpkin and farro soup, an Umbrian speciality.
Afterward, we climbed to the top of what Elisa insisted was “the most beautiful hill in Montefalco.” A silence fell across the group as we stared at the family land—a patchwork of 4,000 olive trees, vines, and prairies—as though to embed the memory of the sight forever. Elisa pointed out nearby towns and the long-lived olive trees within view, some nearly 100 years old.
“Like this one,” she said, turning her heels in the damp earth and directing our attention to one such relic looming large behind us. Dangling from half of the branches were black moraiolo olives, one of three varieties grown in Umbria. The trunk was thick and strong but faded in color in some spots and covered with moss in others, visibly marked by nature’s wear. “It’s rare to see such trees,” she said, breaking the collective silence. “There’s usually a deep frost every 30 years that kills them off.” This one had held on.
Just a mile away from Montioni, winemaker Giampiero Bea and his father, Paolo, who pioneered the natural wine movement in Italy in the 1970s, continue to shake up the wine world. The family has been making wine in Montefalco for 500 years, but for the past 40, they’ve taken the radical, non-interventionist approach of not using chemicals of any kind on their vines. “We don’t make wine,” Giampiero said. “We generate wine. We help the natural process.” His soft smile belied the intensity of his convictions. Giampiero has ruffled a few feathers in Italy over the years with his hard-line stance on organic winemaking and his belief that tradition is more important than business. “We want to preserve the identity and biodiversity of the land, and for that, we don’t add chemicals,” he told me.
That commitment requires creative problem-solving. For example, during one season Giampiero noticed that several of his vines were turning yellow. He tested the soil and discovered the pH balance was off. “We planted artichokes, for their iron levels, next to the vine, and managed to save it,” Giampiero said. Natural and good, he insisted, go hand in hand.
Unsurprisingly, Giampiero’s stone-walled winery is made entirely of organic materials. In the drying room, there are special shutters and windows that allow him to control the temperature and light during desiccation, the process by which water is removed from the grapes. Sagrantino grapes—a highly tannic varietal indigenous to Montefalco—make up 60 percent of the winery’s vines, most of which are used to make dry wines unique to the region. The winery also makes passito (sweet wine), which requires the fruit to be dried before using. He pulled open hulking wooden doors and led us inside, where the violet fruits of his recent harvest were shriveling like fingertips after a long bath. The grapes were laid out to dry on straw mats stacked on shelves that reached halfway to the ceiling. I was intoxicated by their faintly sweet aroma as I paced up and down each row, wondering what they’d smell like in 30 days, once the drying process was complete.
But the scent was nothing compared to the intense notes of dark berries, bitter chocolate, and ripe figs I tasted in the brick-red Sagrantino di Montefalco Secco Pagliaro offered at the end of the visit. Seduced by the wine’s complexity and silky finish, I was prepared to splurge on a few bottles when Bea sheepishly announced that production was limited and most of his stock is reserved for export. Umbria may operate under the tourist radar, but its products are in demand all over the world.
When it comes to feverish demand, few products rival truffles, the most prized Umbrian specialty. The next day, at Tenuta San Pietro a Pettine, a truffle plantation an hour from Todi, we met Brunello, a bespectacled hunter in dirt-encrusted boots and a camo jacket who has worked for the estate since 1969. With his dogs, Molly and Pucci, in tow, we set out to hunt for black Burgundy truffles, one of the three local varieties the plantation exports to chefs and restaurant owners around the world. “They grow in odd numbers, up to nine in the same area,” said Sara Zafrani, sales director for the estate, as we watched the dogs sprint off into the fields at Brunello’s command. “Hunters go out daily but never know if they’ll find any truffles, and if they do find them, if they’ll be ripe enough.”
Trailing the dogs, we discussed how difficult it was becoming for the plantation to meet growing demand. Operating in a niche luxury market (white truffles can sell for up to $3,000 per pound), San Pietro is up against not only climate changes that complicate the harvest, but also a sea of fraudsters and thieves. Still, the business soldiers on, the same way it has for generations.
“She’s got something!” Brunello shouted. Sticks and leaves crunched beneath our feet as we hurried to catch up with the dogs, whose snouts were buried deep in the earth, their paws frantically digging for treasure. Molly gingerly snatched a black truffle with her mouth and trotted back to Brunello for approval. “Sara, check this one!” he said, holding it in his palm for all to see. Sara shook her head. “It’s very soft and overripe,” she explained. “We’ll leave it here to fertilize the soil.” Brunello lifted it to our noses for a whiff. At first, all I smelled was earth, but seconds later I detected a potent mix of wildflowers and garlic that nearly knocked me off my feet. He smiled as my eyes lit up, then tossed the faulty truffle back into the earth.
After discovering a few keepers, we headed into the San Pietro kitchens to learn how to cook fresh tagliolini, a traditional egg pasta. We stood around the counter, rapt, as the chef rolled the flattened dough into a log and sliced with a sharp knife—right to left, then left to right—with swift, precise movements, dividing the log into ribbons the width of my pinkie.
The chef tossed the pasta into boiling water, and a few minutes later, out came the tagliolini, ready to be sautéed with a mixture of olive oil, pasta water, and—most important—crushed black truffle from the hunt. He gave the pasta one last swirl with his tongs and dished it onto our plates, finishing each serving with a sprinkling of truffle shavings.
I twirled the tagliolini around my fork and inhaled the smell of truffles that, just hours before, had been buried in the soil, then took my first bite. It was gloriously uncomplicated, but rich in flavor and place. Why spend a week here? my driver had asked. For the beauty of simple Umbrian moments like this.
When in Umbria, one must hunt for truffles. Tenuta San Pietro a Pettine is a truffle plantation in the village of Trevi, about an hour’s drive east of Todi. Visitors can book a truffle-hunting expedition with one of Pettine’s hunters, which concludes with a truffle-focused lunch at the plantation’s restaurant.
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