Thursday, April 26, 2012

Truffles in Umbria

The dramatic, mountainous landscapes of Umbria in central Italy have inspired some of the world’s greatest artists, including Michelangelo, Giotto, and Fra Angelico. Medieval and Renaissance towns tumble down its mountainsides like living history, many hiding exquisite art. In the fertile soil, hunters look for another Italian treasure: the knobby fungi known as truffles.

Beautiful enough to make painters of us all, Umbria seems to hide a masterpiece in every little church and chapel. It produced more saints than any other part of Italy, including St. Francis of Assisi, whose kind friendliness seems to live on in the spirit of Umbrians today. This landlocked region of Italy has witnessed the passage of marching armies, pilgrims, and traders over the centuries, but remains supremely hospitable to those wishing to admire its landscape, art, and rare, regional produce.

The culture and economy here are based on farming and hunting. In southeastern Umbria, the splendid towns of Spoleto and Norcia are surrounded by countryside, some carefully cultivated, some still wild and wooded as of old. From December to March, when dawn mists cloak the hills and valleys, a curious but well-rehearsed pas de deux performance takes place in this wondrous landscape. A solitary hunter sets out with his dog across a field of stubble lined with pale, pencil-thin birch trees. The animal sniffs the clay earth, its olfactory senses trained to pick up the scent from the prized Tuber melanosporum: the black truffle.
Unearthed and cleaned, these deeply aromatic rhizomes become a transformational ingredient.
The sophisticated Romans and ancient Greeks revered truffles for their therapeutic and aphrodisiacal properties, and believed they were created as a result of the sacred thunderbolts that Jupiter periodically hurled to Earth. In reality, the Umbrian tartufo nero (black truffle) is a rather dull, woody fungus that needs a light brushing to remove the dirt clinging to it. Its otherworldly qualities are not evident until it is cut and tasted – at which point the all-pervading aroma of the freshly cut tuber translates into a fleeting moment of gustatory heaven that is rarely matched.
Less prized than the white truffles of Piedmont, which have sold in the past for prices exceeding €100,000 per kilo, the aromatic black truffle is still a rarity with the capacity to amaze. Though never cooked, the raw truffle is occasionally warmed, and in Umbria it is popularly grated sparingly over simple, hot pasta, such as stringozzi, an Umbrian form of pasta that’s akin to spaghetti. The only other ingredient is a drizzle of olive oil, and Umbria boasts the best in Italy – all of its olive oils have DOP (“denominazione origine protetta”) status. Black truffle is also used sparingly in the region’s almost indefinably good meat and fish dishes, and in risotto – whose simplicity belies the glorious taste that awaits, courtesy of Umbria’s “black diamonds.”

Best Places to Eat Truffles

La Locanda di Cacio Re
The delights begin even before you reach the doors of this well-reputed restaurant, as the Locanda is set in the beautiful medieval village of Vallo di Nera, still ringed by old stone walls.
The restaurant itself is a refurbished 16thcentury farmhouse; in summertime, guests can relax over their meal on a spacious terrace overlooking the wild wooded valleys, and there’s a light-filled dining room for cooler weather. Three wonderful varieties of truffle are served – the black summer truffle, the winter “special black,” and the white. Chef Paolo Brunelli has put together a choice of four-course menus, one entirely devoted to the truffle. As well as being shaved over fresh tagliolini pasta, it accompanies smoked beef carpaccio, stars in truffled lamb, and flavors local cheeses such as caciotta. The signature dish is stringozzi pasta with sage, guanciale cured pork, and flakes of pecorino sheep cheese. Cooking courses, local products, and guest rooms are also offered.
I Casali di Vallo di Nera, Vallo di Nera; open for lunch and dinner Tue–Sun;
Also in Umbria
The Taverna Castelluccio in Castelluccio di Norcia (; moderate) is a wonderful institution, run by a welcoming host who is an expert on all matters local. As well as classics such as tagliolini al tartufo nero di Norcia (tagliatelle with Norcia black truffles), he serves violatri – wild spinach and hearty sausage stewed with organic lentils grown on the plain below the taverna. Also in Italy
In a lovingly renovated Piedmont farmhouse in Madonna di Como, Alba, Locanda del Pilone (; expensive) is a superb place to savor the white Alba truffles, as well as other Piedmont specialties. Desserts such as millefoglie with cocoa, chestnuts, and vanilla sauce are superb. Around the World
In California’s Bay Area, Poggio in Sausalito ( moderate) regularly gets rave reviews. The menu changes on a daily basis, but throughout the fall, diners are guaranteed delicate white truffles imported from Alba, which on request are shaved over pasta dishes such as gnocchi fashioned from Yukon Gold potatoes smothered with ultra-creamy Valle d’Aosta fondue. Organic vegetables are grown on site and the mozzarella is made in-house.
What Else to Eat
Norcineria roughly translates as “pork sausages.” These are a serious business in Norcia, as testified by the abundance of shops crammed with rows of weird and wonderfully shaped dried and cured salamis tied up in string bundles. The cremoso variety is soft and perfect for spreading on bread for your picnic lunch, while the richer cinghiale, made with wild boar, is more often used in cooked dishes. The tiny, sweet, nutty lentils from the vast grassed plain that surrounds Castelluccio di Norcia are famous throughout Italy. At other times of year, sheep graze there, and their milk is lovingly transformed into the tangy and instantly recognizable pecorino cheese.
Three Days in Umbria Umbria is an Italian Renaissance painting come to life. Its medieval hilltop towns and stunning countryside provide many opportunities for great sightseeing and dining.
Spend the morning in the lovely walled town of Norcia, birthplace of St. Benedict. Try the delis – the butchers here are so renowned they gave Italy its word for butcher: “norcino.” Take an afternoon bus to Preci, where pastel houses dot the steep hillside, and walk on to the splendid nearby abbey of Sant’Eutizio. DAY TWO
Magnificent Spoleto is dense with captivating buildings where the Roman, medieval, and Renaissance periods are pieced together. Unmissable sights are the open-air Teatro Romano and the Ponte delle Torri, a spectacular stone bridge.
Drive up to the breathtaking spread of the Piano Grande, the basin of an ancient subsided lake. It is crowned by the rugged peaks of the Sibillini mountain range in one of Italy’s newest National Parks, and pans out below the iconic village of Castelluccio di Norcia, the perfect starting point for a walk in the park.
GETTING TO UMBRIA There are trains and buses to the area from Perugia, the closest international airport.
WHERE TO STAY IN UMBRIA Fonte Antica (inexpensive) offers B&B within a 700-year-old farmhouse in the National Park of Monti Sibillini.
Hotel agli Scacchi (moderate) in Preci has home comforts and a swimming pool.
Hotel Gattapone (expensive) is a boutique hotel in Spoleto.

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