Umbria – Top Ten Tips for Foodies | Posted: 25 February 2016
Gastronomic slow journeys through Umbria
Gastronomic slow journeys through Umbria
Gastronomic slow journeys through Umbria

Umbria has a special character, a combination of lyrical pastoral countryside and high mountain wilderness...

And, relative to Tuscany, its more illustrious neighbour, it remains peaceful and blissfully unfashionable. Landlocked and tucked into the very heart of Italy, first to strike you is its very greenness: wherever you turn there are woods, vineyards, fields, meadows and orchards. Simple and delicious food is served in generous, hearty portions, and by coming here, you are already in the Slow Lane: you encounter very little hustle or bustle, and have time to savour some uniquely Umbrian flavours. Here are some you shouldn’t miss.

Truffles abound in the Umbrian landscape and come in several varieties, but it is the famous black truffle (tartufo nero), growing in the hills above Norcia and Spoleto, that truly distinguishes the region’s cooking. Here, il tartufo nero is not treated with much regard for its value and rarity, and shavings – or even chunks – of this intense and aromatic fungus are liberally applied to everything from simple pasta to scrambled eggs and even pizza. And while this treasured tuber was traditionally snuffled out by pigs, its appeal was such that it became hard to stop these porcine hunters from devouring it for themselves. So now small and highly trained mongrel dogs seek them out, leaving these dark delicacies to fatten their owners’ wallets and enrich the meals of diners far and wide.

Delightful, food-oriented Norcia is a gem of a town which is famous for two things: St Benedict, its most revered son and the father of monasticism; and some of Italy’s most highly-prized gastronomic delights. Besides the delectable black truffle, it is equally celebrated for the prized salumi ham that comes from local, acorn-fed pigs. Literally synonymous with the pork trade (high-quality butchers all over Italy refer to themselves as norcini), the prosciutto di montagna here is about the best you can buy, and the soft and moist salsicce sausages are even preserved in olive oil so you can take them home without them drying out.

Varied soil types and an advantageous climate make Umbria a fine wine-producing region, but its wines remain something of a secret, certainly when compared to the celebrated Chiantis and ‘Super Tuscan’ across the regional border – meaning that you can enjoy an excellent tipple for a fraction of the cost. There are indigenous grape varieties here too, including the deep-red Sagrantino, which finds best expression in the DOCG red wine from Montefalco, offering an unmistakable blackberry bouquet.

Related Holidays & Further Information

Umbria – Italy's 'Green Heart'

From world-renowned Assisi to delightful, food-orientated Norcia and then on to the vast, rarefied plains of the Piano Grande, you cannot fail to be enchanted by this ‘green heart’ of Italy on a delightfully slow journey by car.

More about our SlowMotion journeys in Italy >

Sibillini Apennines & the Piano Grande

Alternatively, spend a week walking through these magnificent highlands, exploring the wild and remote Monte Sibillini National Park, while staying in the captivating towns of Norcia, Preci, Castelsantangelo and unforgettable Castelluccio.

More about our walking holidays in Umbria >

Shops offer giant dusty cheeses the size of tractor tyres, stinking truffles and hairy legs of dried ham. Stepping under a 2,000-year-old archway, we enter the main square, where some Spoletano in a van is cutting slices from a whole wild boar stuffed with rosemary.
Jeremy Atiyah – The Independent

Even remote, hill-top Castelluccio has its own claim to culinary distinction, and it’s from the Piano Grande (the ‘great plain’ or vast upland meadow surrounding the village) that its renowned lentils are harvested. Small, brown and underwhelming in appearance, they make a great soup or sausage stew and are perhaps the finest pulses money can buy.

In Umbria’s far west lies Trasimeno, the largest lake in this part of the country, and supplier of freshwater fish to kitchens across the region. On Isola Maggiore, on the lake itself, Ristorante Sauro serves up daily specials straight from the depths, such as queen carp baked in a wood oven, fillets of perch, or pesce di lago – the ‘lake fish’ which remains mysteriously anonymous. To accompany your fishy fare, it’s hard to beat an Orvieto white wine – crisp and delicately refreshing.

Chianina cattle, raised in Umbria for more than two millennia, provide meat that’s considered a real delicacy. A tender steak, usually served with herbs or truffles, and perhaps some of the area’s plentiful wild mushrooms, is just waiting to be accompanied by a glass of Sagrantino.

As well as an array of tasty mountain cheeses, Umbrians – in common with their neighbours in Le Marche to the east – are particularly fond of ewes’ milk pecorino. This comes in the form of dolce (young and sweet, eaten only 2-3 weeks after being made), or stagionato – matured for 4-6 months and typically displaying a zesty piquancy.

While visiting Spoleto – as you surely must – you could do a lot worse than reserve a table at Ristorante Apollinare, just a short stroll from the sublime Duomo (cathedral). You can enjoy excellent, traditional cooking here, and at under €25 per person for three or four courses, it’s eminently affordable for food of this quality.

The silvery olive groves that cling to the Umbrian hills and mountains are the source of an especially richly flavoured and intensely green olive oil. There are several museums devoted to the time-honoured culture of olive oil production, and a bottle makes an ideal purchase to bring home for special occasions.

This being Italy, there’s plenty to satisfy a sweet tooth. Besides some mouth-watering semi-freddo (semi-frozen) gateaux, Umbrian specialities include attorta (a kind of apple strudel), fried pastries such as frappe and castagnole, and serpentone delle monache cappuccine – a ‘snake’ of fruit-filled pastry made by nuns from Perugia that, once seen, will be impossible to resist.

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