A highlight of a recent trip to Umbria, a hilly, rural region of Italy located between Rome and Tuscany, was the sampling of many fine wines and comestibles. Six friends gathered to experiment with the many superior house wines (and remarkably few duds) typically available in the in the small cafes and dining establishments of the various hill towns we visited. John and Linda, like my husband, Steve and I hail from Northern California, while Cindy traveled from Southern California, and Kelli traveled the furthest, from Perth, Australia.
Fondo Le Teglie
Our base was the lovely Fondo Le Teglie a 17th century stone farmhouse and stable lovingly reconstructed into a warm, comfortable and modern house, located near the hamlet of Sismano. Four large bedrooms, living room, dining room, family room and den provided plenty of spaces for our group of six adults to spread out and relax on “down” days, or come together for meals and activities to enjoy each other’s company. A spacious and well stocked kitchen provided the perfect foundation for cooking, or better yet, hiring Dina to cook for us. There were several outdoor spaces available for al fresco dining or lounging, including a lovely pool overlooking the Umbrian hills rolling away, dotted with vineyards, olive orchards and fields of sunflowers. Our hostess, American-born Susan, owner and operator, of Fondo Le Teglie, breezed in and out between business trips to offer suggestions, make arrangements for activities, and supply tips about the surrounding area. When Susan was in town she stayed in the adjacent self-contained apartment, which is also available for rental with advance notice. She stocked the “big house” with an assortment of local wines, which we noted on a checklist so we could settle up at the end of our stay. This gave us our first taste of the wines of the area, educating our palate and readying us to learn more.
Dina’s Delectable Delights
The first night in Umbria we met Dina, one of the highlights of our stay. A formidable woman of short stature, she epitomized our stereotype of an Italian nona (grandmother). She didn’t speak a word of English, and our Italian was limited to Spanish (meaning our Italian was non-existent, but there are so many similar words in Spanish that we could almost communicate), but that didn’t stop her from a stream of explanations about what she was doing and how she was preparing our meal. A natural ham, she instantly struck a pose when I pulled out my camera, proudly displaying the rising dough for the pizza. She ran back and forth between the kitchen and outside, and upon investigation I found her stoking the fire in the outdoor stone pizza oven, encouraging a raging inferno. When it came time to place the pizzas in the oven she spread the glowing embers to one side and placed large pans in the center of the oven. The bright, fresh colors of the tomatoes, mushrooms, cheeses, ham and arugula created an edible artistic canvas.
We sat out on the front porch sipping the light bubbles of La Gioiosa Prosecco, enjoying the view of the hills glowing softly in the setting sun when Dina brought us the first of many delectable delights. Deep fried onion rings surprised us with the sweetness of the soft onions contrasting with the crunch of the fried crust, but not as much as the unusual individually battered and fried sage leaves. Sage grows in abundance in this sun-drenched region, and the large leaves blushed luminously under the fried batter. The pungent herb flavor exploded in our mouths, leaving us all speechless and reaching for more. Then came the pizzas, one after the other, each unique, filling us to the brim, but tasting so good we couldn’t stop. My favorite was the sliced tomato and arugula pizza, as well as the stuffed bread with ham and spinach bursting forth. Susan had arranged for Dina to cook for us the first night, and we were so enamored we asked if she could come back at least one more time, to which she agreed.
My favorite restaurant of those we sampled was nearby Irossi specializing in fresh foods from the area. The homemade pastas were among the best we had that week, with fresh tomato sauces lightly caressing the slightly chewy ribbons. My thin strip of lamb was grilled to perfection, highlighted with fresh sprigs of rosemary, presented in the typical Umbrian way, on a plate devoid of the distractions of side dishes or garnish. We sipped the imminently drinkable house wine feeling more like we were in someone’s home dining room than a restaurant.
On a drizzly, overcast day we set off to Palazzone Winery near Orvieto about 45 minutes from Sismano, to meet with Giovanni, the owner and winemaker. We spent an enjoyable four hours with him as he walked us through the wine making process, interweaving his personal story with the history of winemaking in the Umbrian countryside. He and his brother live on the property, with Giovanni heading up the winemaking operation while his brother runs the inn they created out of the ubiquitous ancient buildings that seemed to be present on every large property, this one dating from the 12th century. We sat down to a luncheon of farro salad, a barley-like grain so ancient carbon dating has identified its existence in 1700 BCE in the Middle East, and still very popular in Italy. We also enjoyed cured salumi, pate and freshly baked crusty bread.
We sampled several Palazzone wines and laughed at Giovanni’s amusing stories about some of the hurdles he and his brother encountered as the embarked on their business ventures. The Terre Vineate, a white wine characterized by bright, vivid citrus flavors with hints of vanilla and peach, was a table favorite, though we also enjoyed the Grechetto, which was full bodied with pronounced apple and pineapple flavors. The Pieviere, was a bold Sangiovese displaying black cherry, cola and chocolate flavors. This was an excellent example of the most authentic grape grown in this area. As the sun finally broke through the clouds and lit up the vineyards surrounding the winery we wrapped up our afternoon by touring the inn and purchasing olive oil and wines to enjoy back home, having thoroughly enjoyed the wines of Palazzone Winery, and the jovial company of Giovanni.
Umbria Cooks 4 U
Everyone in our group likes to cook, so one evening Tita and Nonie arrived from Umbria Cooks 4 U. They ran us through our paces as we created nine different dishes, each with several involved steps. We started with dessert since it needed to chill before baking, and we tried to keep our fingers from dipping into the melted chocolate as we prepared Melting Chocolate Cake. The rest was a blur as we made soup, mixed flour and water, kneaded and rolled dough, filled various concoctions with meats and cheeses and tried to keep everything straight. We took a short break and then impressed ourselves with our creations of parmesan cheese basket, carefully melting the cheese in a pan, then forming it over a small glass. When we sat down to dinner we were a bit subdued at first, overwhelmed with sheer number of dishes we created and the amount of instruction we received, but as we took in the fruits of labor and imbibed some good wine we made a full recovery, making a valiant attempt to keep up with the dishes that kept pouring out of the kitchen. We congratulated ourselves for creating such a delicious meal, pronouncing once again that we were so full that we wouldn’t eat the next day. Hah!
Later that week Dina came back, to Steve’s unbridled glee. By the time I came out to inspect she had a whole chicken on the rotisserie, stuck all over with sprigs of fresh rosemary, rotating slowly in front of a hot fire. She had laid a large bundle of newly picked lavender over the coals, perfuming the chicken with a heavenly scent. Back in the kitchen she had prepared the pasta dough, rolled it out and cut it by hand, simmering a rich, savory sauce for the small cubes of wild boar that formed the centerpiece of that dish. Steve ate two whopping servings of pasta, a few pieces of chicken, and three servings of light and delicate tira misu, endearing himself to Dina, who wisely started serving Steve first, while the rest of us groaned with satiety, wishing for more capacity.
On our last day, Susan invited us to join her in a volunteer effort to assist her friends, Rob and Janina Cushman, press their grapes. Expats who, like Susan, took advantage of an opportunity to own a slice of Umbrian joy, bought land and built Le Mandorelle, a beautiful stone house, as well as a separate guest house near Todi. Their ancient building, located within sight of the main house, is yet to be renovated. They have a small vineyard and olive grove, producing their own olive oil and wine. Making a complete circle, our friends John and Linda, having arrived one day prior to us, had picked the Cushman’s grapes the week before. The grapes had gone through fermentation and were ready to be pressed, but not by the traditional foot stomping. Rob had raised a bin to a comfortable height and we gently pressed the grapes by hand, pouring batches of the ruby red liquid into a stainless steel vat. After the first pressing Rob placed the remaining skins into a small wooden press, Steve positioned blocks of wood on the top, and then they cranked the press down to get the last bit of juice from the skins. We sampled the fruits of our labor, and even straight from the barrel we pronounced it quite drinkable, enjoying the blend of 60% Sangiovese, 20% Sagratino and 20% Merlot. We enjoyed our first wine pressing very much, washed the purple stains from our hands as best we could, and retired to the porch to drink some bubbly Prosecco. We nibbled on olives and felt pretty lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in a family winemaking operation, which we could now compare to the full scale winery we saw at Palazzone.
All in all, we couldn’t have enjoyed our Umbrian holiday more. The people were generous of spirit and shared their passion, whether it was cooking savory delicacies, crafting fine wine or making us comfortable in their country. Their knowledge of local history, and their commitment to continuing the traditional ways while introducing just the right touch of modern methods was inspiring. Most of all we loved the company and the fresh flavors that characterized the bounty of the land. Susan, Rob, Yanine, Dina and Giovanni—you’re living the good life!
Fondo Le Teglie (near Sismano)
Fraz. Sismano, 05020 Avigliano Umbro (TR) Italy
Business Phone USA: +1.404.345.2603
Business Phone Italy: +39.074.494.5062