Umbria and the Strada de Sagrantino

Umbria is a part of Italy few Americans see. We are too focused on Italy’s great historic centers of Rome, Venice, and Florence. If we get beyond these sights, we head to Tuscany, to soak up some rays under their now-famous sun. Of course one of the advantages of living in Europe is exploring it bit by little bit, without having to worry about rushing from country to country in a hectic two-week tour. 
Upon arrival it’s like I stepped off of the plane, and out of the airport into a place that I was sure only existed in movies.
Into a place that I had never heard mention of, before planning this trip. Eyes that see, believe and my eyes are enamored of the sloping fields of olive trees and grapevines occasionally adorned by Italian villas with terracotta-tiled roofs. Twisty roads and steep hills fly by on the way to Torgiano, a small town in Umbria, a region known as “The Green Heart of Italy.”  I’m here to follow “La Strada de Sagrantino.” It’s a regional wine route named for Sagrantino,  a 500-year-old plus species  of vine that was almost lost forever.

Les Tres Veselle
I don’t really understand the hanging pillow things as a headboard…

Shiny bathroom, bidet and all….

and the bathroom is easily twice the size of my tiny kitchen in Barcelona.

After a luxurious dip in a bathtub as big as my kitchen table, I take the stairs down to explore the ground floor and the basement of the villa. Journeying down softly lit hallways lined with giant urns, or veselle, used to store oil and wine in the past, I am finally seeing a side of Italy I can fall in love with: its agriculture and tradition.
I finally arrive at the end of the passageway, which leads to a ballroom with French doors that open out to a terrace. The terrace showcases more of the views I so admired on the car trip in from the airport in Perugia, a city famous for a yearly chocolate festival. As I wander my way back up to the main floor of the hotel, I wonder what sites tomorrow will bring.

The view from my room (with a view) in Torgiano

Before snuggling into my gorgeous and gigantic bed for the evening, I decide to have dinner in the hotel Restaurant, as Torgiano is a very small town, and many businesses seem to be closed. I tell the server to bring whatever he would recommend, and he doesn’t fail me. First, he brings me a lovely appetizer of stuffed squash blossoms and then he surprises me with a first course of fresh portabella and black truffle pasta. While I have never appreciated mushrooms much in the past, this pasta drenched in portabella mushrooms, black truffles and cream changes my mind very quickly.

When I have all but licked my plate clean, yet another course appears, a thick and tender chunk of rib-eye marinated in wine and crusted with parmesan with a few vegetables and potatoes sautéed in garlic and extra virgin olive oil. As if the meal weren’t sumptuous enough, every so often, another elegantly attired waiter brings round a basket full of varied breads and rolls. Even for someone who likes to eat, like myself, the endless stream of food is overwhelming, and dessert is included in the menu as well, of course! Dessert has never been one of my weaknesses, and I would easily identify the dessert as the weakest element of the meal, for though the fruit and cheesecake confection is elegantly presented, I’d take a well-made Italian gelato over it any day.
All the same, I toddle to bed well-contented, and too full. Tomorrow is another day, and I’m eager to explore Torgiano before moving on to the next stop on “La Strada de Sagrantino.”
Torgiano is a small and peaceful town, whose economy depends heavily on the wine and olive oil industry in general, and on the Lungarotti wine and olive empire, more specifically. So it is not surprising that my amazing hotel, Le Tre Vaselle, its restaurant and the two main tourist attractions of the town, the Olive Oil Museum, and the Wine Museum, are owned by this family. After exploring all the wonders the two museums have to offer, I decide I’m much more interested in the tasting aspects of food and wine, and move on to the small tasting area next door to the wine museum where a nice, older lady shows me how to correctly “taste” wine, by swirling the wine in the light, sticking her nose down in the cup to sniff at it, and then puffing out her cheeks, and making some hilarious slurping noises.  But as she reminds me, this is not appropriate behavior at dinner in nice restaurants.

Torgiano’s Clock Tower

Goretti Winery

Now that I’ve seen most of what Torgiano has to offer, I can move on to Pila, and the Goretti winery, where I will try a fabulous dry Sagrantino red inside the stone walls of an imposing military tower. Continuing on the Strada de Sagrantino, only a little bit car-sick from the combination of early-morning wine-tasting and curvy country roads, I arrive at Cantina Perticaia, a small and charming winery. Founded in 2000, the winery benefits from the expert guidance of owner Guido Guardigli, former director of various wineries in Umbria and Tuscany.  

Perticaia’s Wine Fields

View from Perticaia Winery

Perticaia means plow and plow they must, for this cozy winery is surrounded by extensive fields of vine and olive trees. Here I am offered a simple, but very satisfying meal accompanied by Petricaia winery’s superb wines, in the company of Guido himself, his wife, and his energetic young son, who runs circles around his mother and father, as well as the other guests.  It must be the combination of fresh air, and pasta drizzled with fresh tomato sauce with basil and paper-thin parmesan shavings, because I’m sure I’ve never seen a happier, more beautiful child.

View from Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Of course, if bigger more established wineries are more to your taste, there is always the option of visiting the wineries of Arnaldo Caprai where you can take a guided tour of a very modern wine factory and finish off your visit with a wine-tasting in their elegant lobby. Since, personally, I am not very interested in machinery, I would recommend skipping ahead to the tasting. At Arnaldo Caprai, if you ask politely, you can taste most every wine the winery produces, but beware tasting so many wines on an empty 

stomach! While the lovely blond attendant behind the bar will surely offer you slices of bread with olive oil, I would highly recommend eating ahead of time, to avoid becoming too tipsy.
Here I tried a sweet Sagrantino and was pleasantly surprised. Though my preferences in wine tend to dry whites and reds, this rich and flavorful dessert wine made me think of port and winter evenings by the fire. After having more than my fill of all the wines Caprai wineries had to offer, I decided to explore nearby Montefalco. Montefalco is a beautiful city set upon a high mount with views of all of Umbria. Because of its altitude, its terraced, sloping streets, and its panoramic views, Montefalco is often referred to as the balcony of Umbria.

View from Montefalco

After ambling up the stone path to Montefalco’s main square, I break for lunch. Once seated, I ask the waiter what’s on special, and what he would suggest. While I’m not much enthused by the appetizer course, which is some type of Cornish hen gelatin that is very pretty, but kind of bland, the first course, gnocchi (Italian dumplings, often made with potatoes), is amazing. The fresh pasta is very satisfying, and the sauce, made of cream and saffron with a sprinkling of red and green peppers and prosciutto ham has become my new favorite. Thus I resolve to learn to prepare this dish. Following a second course of a prime cut of beef soaked in Sagrantino wine gravy, and a generous glass of Sagrantino wine to go with it, I’m still fixated on the first course, so I write down what I think it’s made of, in order to experiment with recipes after I return from my trip. I’ll be sorry to leave Umbria, and the gigantic bathtub in my hotel behind, but I’m excited at the prospect of recreating some of the food.
After a little bit of tinkering with ingredients here in Barcelona, I think I’ve got the recipe down. Luckily for me, and for anyone else interested in making fresh pasta, potato gnocchi is very simple to prepare. To prepare gnocchi you will need one medium sized or bigger baking potato per person you plan to serve, one egg per two potatoes, salt, and more or less a cup of flour per two potatoes, as well as an oven or microwave, mixing bowls, a potato masher or blender, and cookie sheets lined with baking paper.
First bake your potatoes until soft in the oven or the microwave as desired. Make sure to poke holes in them so they don’t explode! Then peel the potatoes and put them in the mixing bowl little by little to mash them, if you’re mashing by hand or using a mixer. If you have a blender, put the peeled potatoes in the blender and blend them until they’re about the texture of mashed potatoes.
Next mix in the eggs, little by little, about one per two potatoes, making sure that the potatoes don’t become too liquid. Then gradually mix in flour until the dough is even and easily formed into little balls without being too sticky. After you make the dough into little balls, place them on the lined cookie sheet, and if you like, press a fork or whisk across them to give them ridges to pick up the sauce when they are served.
Finally place the gnocchi in the freezer on the cookie sheet for a few hours, to freeze them individually. Then put them away in zip-lock bags or Tupperware in the freezer for later use.  To prepare, drop it into boiling water for about ten minutes.
Serve up the gnocchi with your favorite pasta sauce, and buon appetito!

Mmm, gnocchi…

For more information on traveling in Italy and specifically in Umbria, try these sites:

Copyright 2011 Chris Ciolli. All Rights Reserved. First Published in the Tipton Times unless otherwise noted.

A Very Picturesque Video (in Spanish) About Umbria:

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