Umbria, often referred in literature as ‘il cuor verde d’Italia’ (the green heart of Italy), is the only Italian region that is not on the seafront or bordering any other countries. The name is derived from the ancient Italic tribe Umbri that lived in this area until the Etruscans conquered it. Throughout centuries, this region saw many conquests by different tribes and empires, including a brief period of falling under the Papal State rule. In the 19th century, following Risorgimento, Umbria became a part of unified Kingdom of Italy.
Today, Umbria is an undercover foodie paradise; the valued black truffles, finest quality olive oil and steady production of great grape varieties, this is the right region for the travelers seeking an off-the-beaten path Italian experience. Perugia, Orvieto, and Gubbio will most definitely satisfy the curiosity of history-enthusiasts, while Assisi holds a special charm for the religious. Having both the Apennine mountains and the valley of the Tiber River, as well as Lake Trasimeno on its territory, the nature is simply stunning. What more can one ask for?
What You Should See There
Small Medieval hilltop towns that combine the serenity of the nature with the fascinating history and beautiful architecture are Umbria’s forte.
Perugia as the capital of the region definitely deserves the number one spot. Its well-preserved fortification system, built entirely out of the travertine stones, can be admired during the visit. The Rocca Paolina is a sight in and of itself – this symbol of Papal power in the 16th century still leaves visitors in awe and was built out of hundreds of demolished houses, monasteries and churches per order of Pope Paul III.
Gubbio is a perfectly preserved Medieval hilltop town overlooking the Tiber Valley. It is by no means large in size, but it is most definitely rich in history. Here you will see the streets following the Roman layout from the Medieval alleyways and gatehouses to the noble Renaissance facades. The city is also known for artful ceramics, which you can see at the exhibition in Porta Romana.
Assisi holds a special place for all the Catholics in the world – this is the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi and the town where he founded the Franciscan order. Even if you do not have the religious pull, the town is worth paying a visit. Set atop a hill amidst a lush, green valley, the architecture is simply stunning and you can admire it walking through the narrow streets, visiting the Basilica, visiting the remains of a Roman amphitheater, and the Eremo delle Carceri complex outside of the town. No wonder Assisi earned its spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Orvieto is not a far drive from Rome, set in the Umbrian countryside, atop of the near-vertical cliff made out of the volcanic tufa stone. Most of Orvieto was built during the Gothic period, and the Duomo is a sight to see – the ornate facade is decked with golden mosaics, while the interior boasts frescoes by some of the most notable painters of that time. The underground Orvieto, carved into the tufa rock over the course of 2,500 years is a must-see!
What to Eat There
Umbria, just like other regions in Italy, is a paradise for foodies. Cured meats made out of pork are a delicacy in this region, and specialties made with the farro grain are typical – they use it in broths, as a side dish, in salads, and as a first course replacing pasta.
Considering one can also find black truffles, the locals use it quite often in their cooking, whether just to sprinkle a bit on top of a pasta dish, meat, or fish specialty or by adding it to their sauces for a more distinct flavor. White truffles are more rare, but they can also be found in the area and therefore used in cooking. Mature pecorino cheese and ripe goat cheese are also quite popular, while the region’s olive oil is so distinct and high quality that it was awarded PDO Quality Mark (Protected Designation of Origin).
Umbria, and more specifically Perugia, is the home to the Perugina factory of chocolates that make the well-known Baci Perugina – the Italian version of Hershey’s chocolate kisses with hidden messages of love.
The wine of this region is good in quality and it is gaining more popularity worldwide. Three most typical grape varieties are Sangiovese, Trebbiano, and Sagrantino. Falesco’s property is just a short drive from Rome and offers a visit and lunch in the vineyards. Antinori, one of the most well-known Italian wine making families, also has a vineyard in Umbria called Castello della Sala and the Terre Margaritelli vineyards are available for a combination of a winery visit and a cooking class.
Bring Umbria to Your Kitchen Table
This blog was a challenge for me as I have never attempted to make a meal focusing on a single region’s specialties. I picked up the products from Eataly and when I first got the Pearl Farro, I was thinking of making the typical minestrone of Umbria with it as a replacement for pasta. However, since it is still quite warm in NYC (surprisingly), I did not feel like cooking and serving a hot antipasto so I opted for a salad instead. After boiling the water, I added farro for about 25 minutes and drained it. I read once that Italian food is all about the simplicity of preparing and the quality and freshness of the ingredients, so I kept it simple – some extra virgin olive oil and aceto balsamico di Modena with some cherry tomatoes, capers, basil, shaved pecorino, and salt and pepper to taste – buonissimo!
The Truffle Cream was much easier to incorporate into a dish. Since truffles on their own are so flavorful and have a very distinctive taste, it does not take much to make it amazing. I did however make sure to buy fresh egg pasta which, although it has a shorter shelf life, is much better tasting than dry pasta and pairs well with a special ingredient such as truffles. Boiling the pasta was a no-brainer and mixing the sauce in was even easier. Some pecorino on top and it was ready to be served!
To pair with the meal, I got two bottles of Roca delle Macie – Orvieto Classico white. Dry, fruity, and fresh it paired well with the whole meal. The final verdict of my friends who agreed to test the experimental dinner – everything was excellent, but they liked farro the most! Surprisingly considering it is not wel known in the US and pasta is usually the crowd pleaser. 1-0 for Umbria!
@ItalyFoodies: Join our discussion – What’s Your Take
1. What is your thought on the uniqueness of the Umbrian cuisine – does it have a clear identity within Italy?
2. What other ways do you think are good to make farro?
3. What other wineries in Umbria besides the two in the Blog you think are worth visiting or their wines can be found in the USA?