Journey to Italy Day Four: Umbria

28 05 2010

May 28, 2010

After some early morning blogging we headed off to Umbria in our “van”, a quick hour and fifteen minutes or so and arrived at the Hotel Villa dei Platani in Foligno http://www.villadeiplatani.com/it/camere_en.php, a really beautiful villa on the outside with swanky and trendy room furnishings inside.  Just about as different as you can get from the Grand Hotel Villa Medici, you could tell right away by the fancy lamp and very different fruit plate.

After a quick email check we headed out to meet Marco Caprai, son of Arnaldo Caprai in the nearby town of Bevagna.  This quaint Roman town is said to be the unique due to the two churches built facing each other, the first unfinished.  When we were greeted by Marco Caprai he told use we were going to go on a quick walk to get an aperitif, which of course doesn’t sound too bad after a long trip, but imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that this “aperitif” was pork based!  On the way I could not help but notice a gorgeous little bottega with photos of Frida Kahlo in the window, luckily I saw Marco greet the owner so I anticipated our return.

I could tell the minute I saw the Nocineria (place where they sell “carne suina”, i.e. pigs) that I would love it because of my love of everything swine…

We entered and our senses were overtaken by the rich smell of all the hanging meats.  I was of course in hog heaven.  We were treated by a selection of items, Pancetta made from a slab of the pig that is salted and then rolled and wrapped in paper and hung to age, Lonza, the loin of the animal, Ciauscolo which is a fattier sausage, Porchetta, and my all time favorite, a dry salsiccia aged with Montefalco wine that had a much harder and chewier consistency and incredible flavor.  Owner Rosita Cariani is a fourth generation producer of these products while her partner whose name I did not catch is only third generation, so basically it seems that she is the boss of the place.  They noticed how excited we all were to taste and so they sliced thinly some Coppa di Testa, basically a head cheese usually made in winter that includes all parts of the animal, the guanciale (cheeks), head, gelatin, etc. along with garlic, orange rind, lemon rind and nutmeg.  They were sure to come out and show us the type of garlic, red garlic, which seemed to be very important to the production of this product.  It had a melt in the mouth texture and was just delicious, I think the reason I haven’t enjoyed many head cheeses in the past is the chunky fatty globules that don’t seem quite appetizing, but this texture was just perfect.  We ended it off with a well-aged pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese aged and rubbed with olive oil.  And of course we had to accompany this with some Arnaldo Caprai Grecante.  The reception at this wonderful Nocineria was so warm and friendly, with that the wine and cheese and these amazing meats I would have been happy to stay there all day.  They also sold fresh cuts of Chianina beef and the local specialty, lamb.  When we shook hands I could not help but notice and feel comforted by the super soft buttery feel of these hands that not only butcher, but craft such exquisite and time honored recipes.  I have always loved salumi, but lately in San Francisco it has seemed overdone, but now I really understand the passion that is imbued in those who have visited an authentic Nocineria and understand their quest to emulate such a place.  It was truly magical.  And I was so proud to be wearing the jacket from my friend Stephen Gerike of the National Pork Board that features his own farm’s logo, Boris Max.  If you visit the store is called “Da Tagliavento”, Gran Maestro di Salumeria, Corso Amendola, 15/a Bevagna.

coppa di testa

Sad to leave the Nocineria, we stepped out to find that school had just gotten out for lunch break and little children were walking through the town excited to go and join their families for lunch.  This town of about 5000 inhabitants still operates much like it did in ancient times, and it was refreshing to see that this culture is still strong in Italy.  We headed over to La Bottega di Assu, the restaurant I had seen on the way in.

Upon entering you immediately notice the organized chaos of the place.  It is tiny with only about maybe 10 seats at three tables.  We combined two tables and began to admire the charm of Maria Assunta, the proprietor (Assu is her nickname) and the incredible surroundings.  Marco explained that this spot is the place to be in town, famous for local Umbrian dishes, wines, but also sort of a mecca of culture.  Stacks and stacks of books line the shelves as they intermingle with the bottles.  Under the bar that hosts black truffles, bread and prosciutto you find boxes of pasta and ceramic ware.  And the left wall is covered with a scrapbook of photographs of Maria and her family, including the apple of her eye, her 9 month old grandson, who also made an appearance during lunch when his mother and father came in to help with the lunch rush (there are also four outdoor tables).  The eye darts from photo to photo and book to book while Maria carves some prosciutto and serves water, some Franciacorta and hearty wheat bread.  Those that have seen my house  and office will understand how comforting that type of controlled chaos is to me, but it is clear that everything also has its place.  When we asked about some of the photos of the family she grabbed a book, seemingly at random, and pulled out a photo of her mother in 1955, pregnant with her.  Then she ran off to continue to cook, and I carefully filed said photo back in the book and replaced it.  The tables are complete with flowers and colored pencils in case you get the urge to draw, which I did, and music fills the air.  We had a simple local specialty, basically bruschetta or grilled bread doused in olive oil and nothing else.  Marco explained that the locals did not use salt in their bread because the popes started taxing salt, so salt was very valuable and they saved it for the salumi (which I thought was very reasonable).  We enjoyed a very nice panzanella salad with fresh mozzarella, lots of olive oil, tomatoes, olives, red peppers and celery, and then Marco tempted (and dared?) us to have a “little” bit of pasta which we enjoyed with guanciale (cured pork cheeks, kind of like a fresher version of bacon).  Maria zipped around and expertly served the table, throwing in a few comments here and there and when I expect I looked like I was about to burst she jokingly wafted a plate that was headed outside in front of my nose, teasing that it was coming my way.  Her smile and vibrant personality was both infectious and addictive.  I really felt like I had walked into an Italian version of the movie Chocolat, she could have easily inspired such a story.  From her photos you can tell that she has a mischievous streak and the glimmer in her eye just shows her zeal for what she does.  Another amazing meal.  We enjoyed Marco Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva with lunch, and I was not taking notes so I do not even know what vintage it was.  I do know that we had about four bottles amongst seven of us (it was one of those the wine just keeps coming deals) and we left the lunch happy and fulfilled.  We chatted outside with a bunch of folks, some from Memphis, some from Pennsylvania, the gentleman had just run into a former student.  It was like this place had a magnetic vibe to it.  Just an amazing time.

So off we went, fat and happy, to Arnaldo Caprai.  Boasting a very slick tasting room the place has a stunning view.  We were treated to a tour of the vineyards where experiments are being conducted on various vine trellising systems.  Of course we then enjoyed a tasting of their wines.  Two whites, Anima Umbria Grechetto IGT 2009 and Grecante 2009, followed by a red Anima Umbria Rosso 2007 made from Sangiovese (85%) and Canaiolo (15%) before we were presented with the blockbusters.  Montefalco Rosso 2007 was a mix of 70% Sangiovese and 15% Sagrantino a really chewy rich wine with great balance but a large expression of concentrated fruit.  This was followed by the Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2005, super dense deep and earthy with gum gripping tannins but this was no match for the Sagrantino di Montefalco Collepiano and the Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 Anni.  These wines are MASSIVE.  Full of tannin that takes over your entire mouth and won’t let go.  Tasting them without food was tough but luckily later in the evening we had the chance to taste older vintages with dinner, only then can you truly understand the purpose of these wines that adeptly navigate the rich Umbrian cuisine.  We finished the tasting with Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito 2006, a dried grape wine that is really intense.  Both sweet and still very high in tannins I could not imagine what pairing would match it.  Marco suggested it was a little wine to “drink alone during the day.”  But he also suggested it was great with dessert.  I thought perhaps cheese and luckily he wanted to prove me wrong which he did by bringing out some 12 month old Pecorino and a 36 year old Parmeggiano (I was happy to admit my error in the pairing but the cheese was amazing.)  He said that cheesemonger has a limited number of molds so the cheese is very hard to get.

We finished up and after a quick nap at the hotel it was back to eating.  We arrived at the beautiful Villa Roncalli where chef Maria Louisa created an exceptional meal for us.  We drank the Arnaldo Caprai Nero Outsider, a lush expression of Pinot Noir with an amazing Chianina meatball with capers and shaved parmesan on super fresh lettuce.  Monkfish with tiny slivers of zucchini and fried squash blossoms with Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva 1998 was amazing, but the Farro soup with many drizzles of olive oil and ricotta ravioli stole the show along with the Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 1997.  This was where it became evident that although the soup was super rich the wine just lifted it and made the meal work.  Amazing that such a huge wine could be a delicate foil for a rich dish, but the tannins wafted away and you found that you could not help but drink the wine, food, wine, food, wine, bite, sip, bite, sip, the way it was intended.  Pigeon was served with a thick noodle and then a lamb (I got the shank) but by that time I was done.  Until of course we were presented with more Sagrantino di Montefalco passito with one of the best desserts I have ever had, pears delicately poached with a semolina type cobbler type thing on them sitting in a bed of zabbaglione served with what to me tasted like an eggnog type ice cream, no doubt just a rich egg base with some nutmeg.  And just like Marco said, it was incredible with the passito, amazing!  To top off the evening their dog came by to say goodnight and we retired back to the hotel where I slept like a log.

Today it’s off to Assisi, Perugia and Spello!

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