Italy Day Six: Montefalco and Bevagna Redux

30 05 2010

May 30, 2010

Today we were greeted for our tour of Montefalco by an amazing tour guide, Annalita Pollicchia.  To explain how amazing she was I would have to add that I am currently eating traditional cookies from her hometown of Bevagna and her mother’s bakery.  Despite the rivalry between the towns of Bevagna and Montefalco, Annalita was still very fair in representing both cities fairly and in fact we spent a bit more time in Montefalco than Bevagna.

Bevagna (the city we visited earlier in the week, home to the Nocineria and Bottega Assu, was the second town on the Flaminia Road built after Spello and as such is considered a Roman town while Montefalco, built later in the Middle Ages, is from that time period.  Annalita described Montefalco as the “Balcony of Umbria” and spectacular views can be seen from all angles along the ramparts of this walled in town.

We got to town around 10 and the museum opened around 10:30 (i.e. 10:45 Italian time, add 15 minutes) so we grabbed an espresso and sat in the town square (unusual for a town square since it is round!) to see what life is like in the town on a Sunday morning. In fact it was rather quiet, but the coffees were great (four espressos and a plate of Italian style cookies for less than 4 Euros).  Then off to the 14th century church of St. Francis (San Francesco) where you can see the amazing frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli as well as the “Nativity” by Perugino.  Apparently this cycle of frescoes was comparable only to Assisi but contains twelve images only.  The colors of these frescoes are really amazing and some criticize their restoration saying that they cleaned them too much and that the green colors are exaggerated, but the impact is significant.  Gozzoli was painting these in a much different style than the frescoes painted at the Basilica of St. Francis and so the figures are much more attractive and often blond and fair skinned which was the trend at the time.  The museum that houses these gorgeous paintings also houses the ancient monk’s wine cellar with channels cut into the stone to catch the wine as it comes out of the presses and collect it into a trough.  We strolled through the medieval town noticing the incredible pride people have in their flower pots that surround the entryways of their homes.


Off it was to Bevagna, where the two Roman churches face each other across the square.  Bevagna was a border town between the empire and the papacy and as such there are thirty-five churches within the town walls.  While the population has grown to 5,000 the space within the town has not really expanded, so these churches have been reused as supermarkets and cinemas over the years.  The church of San Silvestro built in 1197 was consecrated at the time by an emperor, which was a challenge and an insult to the papacy, so they basically abandoned it and used it as storage.  This luckily means that it is in very good condition.  It also features very unique architecture thought to be brought by the Benedictines as they travelled on their pilgrimages.

The area of Bevagna is fortunate to be at the confluence of multiple rivers and was able to sell their production of hemp, eggs, and bricks to neighboring towns.  Within the town there is an amazing excavation of the Coliseum area.  This former stadium was in ancient times closed and divided and turned into what we would today call work lofts, craftsman’s shops on the ground floor and living quarters above where they were safer from attack.  We visited this Casa Medioevalle with our guide Annalita who helped restore one of these ancient work residences with a friend.  Amazingly they have recreated a water wheel machine that would have either pounded materials to make mortar, felt or paper or run a wheel that would grind flour or olive oil (here the machine does both just to show us, but this would not have been the case back then).  Upstairs you can visit a traditional Roman home where the kitchen it attached to the rest of the room in order to conserve heat.  Hearty stews were made with small pieces of lard that hung from the rafters, in fact everything was hung, meats, cheeses, etc.  Bedrooms were painted bright colors in the spring since throughout the whole winter they burned animal fats for warmth, you can imagine the smell, and most had tuberculosis so they actually had a tiny bed where they slept sitting upright in order to prevent suffocation.  These structures actually date back to the 2nd century AD, it was really interesting to try to imagine life back then.

After our tours it was off to a picnic at Arnaldo Caprai to celebrate the day of Cantine Aperte for Umbria (May 30, 2010)www.movimentoturismovinoit  The winery was bustling with lots of people there to taste and eat and overall the crowd was very young and seemed very excited to be there.  It apparently happens around Italy offering a chance for tasters to visit wineries for the day.  We enjoyed some amazing super fresh mozzarella, like Burrata, but small, super orange and sweet yet firm melon and some amazing prosciutto.  Lunch was of course a repeat of these items plus a pasta with tomato and chicken livers, super al dente in texture and delicious, then grilled local lamb and sausages from Bevagna, and Chianina beef.  We tried some of the experimental trials at the winery, a Syrah, Petit Verdot and Tannat, all 100% and all really amazing.  I was a real fan of the Petit Verdot which although tannic was really delicious and not as herbaceous as you might imagine.

Lunch was followed by a jaunt through the vineyards, and then some time spent relaxing and investigating the local style as we spent some time watching the attendees and enjoying some Grecante.   Arnaldo Caprai winery also hosted a jazz concert with Marco Marconi which was a great endcap to the day as the sun set behind us.  A quick saber of some Billecart Salmon by Marco and then our journey was basically, and sadly, over.  We had a quick bite in Foligno and an interesting beer (!) called 32 Audace and now it’s off to the airport for the grueling journey home.

Hotel Villa dei Platani Viale Mezzetti, 29- 06034 Foligno 39 0742 355839 f 39 3281654025

Bottega di Assu Via Gabriele Crescimbeni, 3- 06031 Bevagna, 39 0742 360059

Arnaldo Caprai Loc. Torre- 06036 Montefalco 39 0742 378802 http://www.arnaldocaprai.it, imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners http://www.foliowine.com

Transportation in Umbria: http://www.Autonoleggio-Umbria.it Gianni 347 3236404

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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!