Glorious Sunsets Combined With Delightful Fish, Fowl and Truffles

Life In Umbria, Italy

Following a wonderful walking tour of Orvieto we found ourselves checking into la Penisola country resort and restaurant. The resort is situated on a small peninsula along the shore of Lake Corbara in the heart of Umbria. It is located about halfway between Todi and Orvieto. A wonderful place to rest after a long and exhausting day.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The drive to the hotel had been short but pleasurable. Slightly footsore from a day spent wandering the city and my mind overflowing with history and rich cultural imagery, we wound our way through the countryside passing old manor houses and rolling vineyards.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The hotel was located just across a narrow bridge opposite an old olive orchard. The lake served as a beautiful, reflective backdrop abruptly, but not unattractively, cut across by the low lip of the nearby dam.

Life In Umbria, Italy

After casually dumping my backpacks in my room and hastily checking e-mail I felt a glimmer of life still to be had in head and feet. Eager to enjoy the misty haze rising off the lake as the sun set I snagged my camera, hopped a fence and made my way back down by the road. I can’t remember the songs that were playing, only that they were vintage and from another era. The road was quiet, and the sunset combined with the empty road and blooming flowers left me at the mercy of the music which dragged me out of time and place.

Umbria in Bloom - Italy

While most roads are often a blight on nature and little more than ugly paved charcoal lines smeared unattractively across the face of the countryside, I’ve always felt that there are moments, special moments, where they can be something more. Roads are like the lines on a map or a door left slightly ajar. They are portals, conveyors that transport us towards new adventures and far off places while simultaneously bringing the exotic to our doorstep.

Umbria in Bloom - Italy

As I waded into a sea of yellow blossoms and carefully lowered myself until my face and shoulders were floating on a sea of yellow turned gold by the last rays of sunset I found myself grateful the road was there. With each photo I snapped it added to the charm, to the moment, and to the full bouquet of sensation.

Umbria in Bloom - Italy

Each piece of the whole added to the ambiance and captured my mood, but it was in the combined stimulation of each of my senses that I found myself swept away. The gentle tingle of a soft breeze teasing my hair, the potent aroma of the flowers and grass as I knelt, the charming notes of a long dead performer crooning in my ears, and then the chorus of color, lines, and shapes that filled my eyes and burned themselves into my synapses. This was Italy. This was life.

Eating in Umbria

As the sun slipped below the rim of the dam and the light gently faded I found myself slowly return and re-sync to the world around me. My throat was dry which reminded me that dinner would no doubt start soon. After washing up I made my way to the dinner reception that the resort a mixture of local business folks, and political functionaries had assembled for us. As I entered the dining room I was pleasantly surprised to find a gentleman playing a mixture of traditional and modern pieces on a narrow-bodied fiberglass violin.

Eating in Umbria

A beautiful table had been set and I found myself taking stock of my appetite. It had been a full day, an active day, but also a day that was already full of food. After the amazing three hour lunch I had enjoyed earlier in the day I knew that the meal they had planned would likely be a bit of a challenge to tackle. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the stark contrast. When traveling as a budget backpacker the never-ending series of monotonous kebabs, gyros and pasta that make up one’s diet is crushing. When traveling as a blogger and guest of the region the opposite holds true. Overwhelmed not by monotony and small portions, but course after course of delicious, rich Italian food.

Eating in Umbria

Never one to neglect the opportunity to embrace local food or turn away heartfelt hospitality I set to the delightful task at hand. As we gathered, there was a delightful mixture of Italian meats and cheeses set out, including a crispy suckling pig! The wild boar sausage, salami, and suckling pig were fantastic and could have easily been a meal in and of themselves. The gentlemen serving us were warmhearted characters and set to their task with attention and passion. The display and presentation was wonderful, with a mixture of local ingredients and objects from the surrounding countryside displayed in simple but elegant form.

Eating in Umbria

As the last stragglers made their way into the room we filled our glasses with wine and gathered around so our hosts could introduce the region, the food, the wine, and the olive oil. Make sure not to miss my post about the olive oil tasting lesson we enjoyed.  Through it all the local wine flowed freely and I’ll admit that most of us were likely a bit tipsy by the time we assumed our seats.

Eating in Umbria

The meal started on a rather intense note with a fried pike and chub embellished with crispy zucchini flowers.  Which is to say, an interesting mixture of chunks of fish, zucchini, and whole fried minnows.  While somewhat common around the Mediterranean and in other parts of the world, the presence of whole minnows as part of a meal is quite unusual by American standards. In the past I had tried them sparingly, mostly in Spain, as a curiosity.  Those attempts had been met with mixed success as I found that most of the fish I had tried had tended to be far too strongly flavored for my taste.  The overpowering fish taste combined with the exotic visual nature of the dishes had left me somewhat hesitant to dive into the small mound of friend fish I was presented with.

Eating in Umbria

But…when near Rome, do as the Umbrians do…right?  So, I tentatively took one of the minnows by its battered tail and mouthed it. To my delight, the overwhelming wave of fishiness I had encountered in the past was nowhere to be found. Instead I was greeted by a wonderful mild fish taste with just enough salt to set off the flavor. In short, they were delicious! In short order I’d quickly leveled what had previously looked like a small mountain and likely relaxed visibly as the part of the meal I had been somewhat concerned about had turned out to be quite positive.  I’m not sure if it was the minnows used, that the oil was obviously quite fresh and pure, or the wonderful preparation, but I was quite impressed.  The pike fillets were also quite good, and again they were mild, fresh, and not over cooked.

Eating in Umbria

Located as we were beside a freshwater lake, the theme for the evening was local and fresh with a fish theme. The next course was, “A nest of water and flour Umbrichelli with perch pomodorino tomato and basil ragu”. After the slightly salty flavor of the previous dish, the salsa and ragu provided a wonderful sweet and slightly spicy contrast. The perch was fresh, had a wonderful taste and was perfectly cooked. It had subtle hints of garlic, a slight taste of olive oil, and the aroma of fresh tomatoes, a pinch of chili pepper and basil.

Eating in Umbria

By the start of our third course we were also well into our third local wine for the evening. With a slight rose hue taking to most of the group’s cheeks, voices grew louder, gestures began to become slightly more exaggerated and the group transitioned from talking exclusively about the fish, to discussing the region, life, travel adventures and similar stories. For the third course the chef left behind fish, temporarily, and instead offered another local delight – a fantastic black truffle tagliatelle. The tagliatelle used local black truffles harvested in the nearby town of Norcia for a delicious plate that did a wonderful job emphasizing the earthy flavor of the truffles. Of the different plates served over the course of the meal, I think that this was likely my favorite while the first course was the most fun. The tagliatelle’s slightly nutty flavor and the buttery rich, olive oil and salt undertones of the pasta combined beautifully.

Eating in Umbria

The tagliatelle and wine that had been paired with it soon gave way to the next course…. and the next wine. This was “Coregone in a a potato and rosemary shell on a piano bean sauce”. The Coregone is a type of (I believe) whitefish found in Europe and one of the local fish that is common in Lake Corbara.  The fish had a mild taste that was wonderfully accented by the rosemary bean cream.  The circular shapes you can see in the photo above are actually thin potato slices where were laid out and cooked on top of the Coregone fillet.  These did a lot to keep the fish moist and to help lock in the flavor.

Eating in Umbria

I hate to say it, but by the final course I was so full I could barely move and likely was incapable of properly appreciating the course. Despite this the rich scent of the “Roast Guinea-Fowl with traditional Umbrian stew and rustic crostone bread” left me little choice. Served with a side of parboiled asparagus salad the guinea-fowl was delicious. Cooked skin-on with a rich crust of salt, spices and bacon, each bite of the bird was an explosion of flavor. The wild asparagus was properly salted and had a slight hint of mint to set the flavor off. Both went well together and despite my better judgement I found myself clearing my 5th and final plate. The meal was prepared by the chef in charge of the resort’s Life School: Live Italian Food Experience and I have to admit, if I had the time, I definitely would have enjoyed a lesson or two.

Eating in Umbria

The remainder of the evening was a delightful mixture of wine, music and conversation rounding out the 2.5-hour-long meal and what had been a fantastic and absolutely jam-packed taste of what Umbria has to offer. However, with an early morning ahead of us we all found our way to bed with full stomachs and heavily-laden eyelids. I suppose the glow of the wine in our cheeks helped as well.

10 Steps for Mastering the Art of Olive Oil Tasting

Eating in Umbria

Wine tasting has become an integral part of travel and recreational culture.  It is something most of us hunger to enjoy and which offers a complex set of fixed and casual rules and norms which can be more than a little intimidating.  The ability to decipher, identify, and properly sample various types of wine has even become a cultural indicator of alleged sophistication and class.  With its famed wines Italy serves as home to a plethora of vineyards and opportunities to taste wine.  However, you may be surprised to learn that there is a second, equally enjoyable type of tasting available.  On par in fame and reputation, as well as heritage, with Italy’s rich wines is the nation’s olive oil.  While each town, city, and even family may have their own line of wine, the same is often true of olive oil.

If you’re like many Americans, Canadians (and others), myself included, you’ve probably just assumed that the “virgin” and “extra virgin” labels on olive oil at the super market were marketing speak tied to quality similar to how other foods might be marked as organic.  However, you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that this isn’t the case.  Each of these terms has meaning, and if the advertising is accurate (often it may not be), can have a significant impact on the taste, color, and feel of the olive oil.  These classifications will impact how strong the flavor of the oil is, its rich color, and its scent.  All of which can have a surprising impact when the oil is paired with or used in the preparation of other foods.

You can see my first attempt at sampling olive oil in the video below.  I’ve included the individual steps in written form immediately after for quick and easy reference. You’ll note at the end of the video that the taste of the mid-strength oil I was sampling was quite strong.  Strong enough, in fact, that the taste actually had a completely unexpected (though pleasant) burn to it – enough to make me cough, and to make my eyes water. A hearty thank you to fellow travel blogger Mike Sowden of Fevered Mutterings for playing camera man.

How to Taste Olive Oil

  1. Select an assortment of olive oils based on different strength and potency.
  2. Pour a small amount of olive oil into a tasting cup (pictured above).
  3. Cup it completely in your hands and warm it, allowing the warmth to activate the oil.
  4. Make sure that when you cup the glass in your hands you cover the top trapping the aromatic scent of the oil in.
  5. Lift your hand slightly allowing just enough space for you to dip your nose to your palms and inhale the aroma of the oil.  Take a moment to enjoy the scents you’ll discover.
  6. Take a sip of the oil, not too large, but also not too small.  You want enough to get a proper taste.
  7. Take the oil into your mouth and swish it around slightly coating the inside of your mouth.
  8. Now, the next part feels a bit odd but is important. Part your lips slightly with the oil in the front of your mouth and draw the air through and over the oil.  Allow it to bubble.  You should make a loud sipping/sucking noise.  This stage is where you’ll start to taste the complex flavors of the olive oil and where you’ll start to feel a burn from the stronger oils.
  9. Pass the oil from the back of your tongue to the front of your lips once again and note the flavor.
  10. Swallow some or all of the oil.

Types of Olive Oil

  • Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: The good stuff. This type of olive oil has 1% acidity or less and comes from the first pressing of the olives. Though extra virgin oil can be found in most marketplaces there are growing concerns about the lack of standardization in the industry.
  • Virgin Olive Oil: Similar to Extra-Virgin, Virgin Olive Oil typically has an acidity of 1.5% and is made from olives which are slightly more ripe.
  • Olive Oil: Standard olive oil comes from the 2nd pressing or in some cases chemically refined olive oil. This type of olive oil is of a milder taste than virgin olive oil. This can be called pure or commercial oil.
  • Refined Olive Oil: Typically made from virgin olive oil this oil has little taste, an acidity of 3% or more and a less than ideal flavor and smell.
  • Mixed Olive Oil: Best avoided, these are made by mixing olive and pomace (recycled solid remains after previous pressing). They also often use a chemical extraction process which is counter-productive and undermines the benefits of naturally pressed olive oil.
  • Light & Extra Light Olive Oil: Deceptively these are not more diet friendly versions of olive oil. Rather, they just include some of the lowest quality combinations of chemically processed olive oils.

There’s much more depth to olive oil than I ever would have imagined. Of the oils provided for us to sample, I was absolutely shocked at how different the taste was from oil to oil. As with wine there is a wealth of terminology and steps for classifying the different flavors and sensations, but I’ll leave that for a future post. As someone who has always loved olive oil and uses it regularly this experience offered me an insight into an important, and previously overlooked element in many of my favorite meals.

This video was recorded while a number of fellow travel bloggers and I were guests at La Penisola, a beautiful country resort and restaurant along the shores of Lago di Corbara in Baschi, Umbria. While there they provided a most gracious introduction to the art of olive oil tasting as an introduction to their newly launched cooking classes which they’re calling Life School.

Fresh Food and an Italian Agriturismo

Umbria's Amazing Countryside

A few hundred (or perhaps thousand?) years ago the Italians figured out one simple truth: food is king.  At the end of the day if you want to win someone over you can offer them riches and fame with mixed degrees of success OR you can skip all that and feed them with an abundance of amazing food.  The more time I spend in Italy, the more convinced I am that Italy’s latest plan to re-conquer the known world stems not from boardrooms or council chambers, but rather small country kitchens across the country.

Umbria's Amazing Countryside

Our whirlwind tour of Umbria whisked us from the beautiful vineyards and olive groves I mentioned in my last post to a wonderful old villa and agriturismo in the countryside about 10 miles outside of Perugia.  Our hosts were the owners of the Poggiolo Villa who had opened their doors (and kitchen) to us along with a number of local business people, and poltico’s eager to share some of the area’s noteworthy attractions, foods, and wines.

Umbria's Amazing Countryside

As our bus rolled to a gradual stop in front of a large ivy covered gate I eagerly hopped down and out, skipping the last step and eager to dive into lunch. What greeted me was a tree lined gravel road that paused briefly at the gates before slipping through and winding up a cypress lined drive. As I paused to inhale a deep breath I was hit by a wave of rich scents. The flowers were all in bloom and the buffet of smells they offered were incredible. As I slowly inhaled – soaking up the fresh, natural scent, I found myself in one of those moments where you don’t want to pause to exhale, eager instead to keep gobbling down the sweet air until your chest refuses to take in and hold so much as another sniff.

Eating in Umbria

The sprawling villa was gorgeous; small fountains, green grass, flowers in bloom, vine covered walls, beautifully colored buildings. We paused briefly for a quick introduction in a small courtyard. Before long the general ambiance of the place left me itching to lay down on the grass, surrounded by a bed of small yellow flowers beneath one of the gorgeous trees heavily laden with bright purple blossoms. Instead, we were welcomed into the old villa and shown the way to a small living room. The ceilings were painted, the entire building decorated in traditional artwork, paintings and furnishings – it was as though we stepped back 2 hundred years into the past. Then as we passed into the next room we were greeted by a wonderful spread of locally grown food, all of which seemed freshly harvested. It included great breads, fresh tomatoes, spices, eggplant, beans, delicious shaved onions in olive oil, wild boar, and then a series of pasta dishes that left my mouth watering.

Eating in Umbria

Before we devoured our meal, however, we were introduced to two house specialties.  They were thick juices – the type you’d get at a juice shop…almost pulpy, thick-but-smooth.  They were fresh and frothy. It was obvious that they had just been pressed. Sweet. Refreshing and the perfect way to re-hydrate.  Our hosts explained that they were packed with natural vitamins and every bit as good for us as they were delicious.  I quickly noticed that my glass was empty and couldn’t help but go back for 2nds and thirds.  Then, we were introduced to each of the different plates displayed artfully on the table nearby. Introduction complete it was time to sample the local wines, fill our plates, and to dive into lunch and rich conversation.

As we enjoyed our meal (which was fresh, flavorful, and embodied the spring weather we were enjoying), a light storm blew in offering us a wonderful view of the Umbrian countryside. The light rain combined with a soft breeze to enrich the scents of the nearby fields and served to magnify the sweet, potent scents of all of the blooming flowers located around the villa.  Somewhere over the course of the meal, I made a mental note that at some point in the future I’ll have to return for a a few days – enough time to relax, slow down, unwind, acclimate and to properly soak up the complete experience.

For those unfamiliar an agriturismo is typically an agriculturally based facility which has been expanded to include hospitality options for visitors.  In Italy these usually include old converted villas, farms and ranches. Often the food made available is grown/raised/picked either on the spot or in the immediate area.  Many have started offering organic options, and they offer a chance for wonderful local food in a fresh and very personalized way.   While not always super budget oriented, they offer a great option for people looking for a more intimate experience and interested in enjoying Italian food in a truly natural environment.

I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to our hosts for their wonderful hospitality, sharing their local cuisine, and a fantastic taste of another aspect of Italy’s rich culture.

Young Wines and Ancient Fields

Umbria - Italian Countryside

A trip to Umbria is incomplete without at least a few hours spent wandering the region’s maze of wonderful country roads. While the Romans may be well remembered for giving us the sterile albeit easy to navigate Roman grid, incredible aqueducts and grand highways it is no doubt that it was Italy’s winding network of country roads that spawned the oft repeated phrase, “all roads lead to Rome”.  Though the mixed clouds that had plagued my visit to Umbria continued to threaten light rain, they gave way fairly quickly to a (mostly) sunny day. Eager to soak up the sun and to see more of the Italian countryside several fellow travel bloggers and I hopped on board a coach and eagerly prepared for a two and a half day tour put on by the region and a number of local businesses.  They had extended an invitation to wine us, dine us, enlighten us, and to showcase and share a brief taste of their region.  A region they were incredibly proud of. A region so jam packed with rich experiences to see and and live that even with the two and a half jam-packed days we had, I feel as though we only just left a smudge on the surface of what’s out there to see.

Umbria - Italian Countryside

Our first stop was the Monte Vibiano Winery located in Mercatello, Italy. Our tour started with a brief introduction just outside the vineyard’s main building and tasting center, before we hopped into several hulking electronic golf carts and set out towards the vineyards.  Though only an 8 minute “drive” away, our path took us up through the small town’s winding streets and along an old country lane where we paused briefly to chat with several local townspeople who were out taking advantage of the sunny weather.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

With knee high boots and snake sticks in hand they were slowly working their way along the hill’s steep incline searching for the fresh asparagus which grows in the grasses around the roots of the ancient olive trees.  The sight brought back memories of my early childhood. Though we moved to Arizona when I was six, I have vague memories of walking the ditches with my Dad near our home in Cortez, Colorado.  The house sat at the end of a long dirt driveway near the end of an old gravel county road. We were off the grid and had to haul our own water.  It was worth it though as the trade-off was 10 acres sandwiched in the midst of another several hundred of wild southwestern land mixed in with a patch-work of fields.  In spring, when things were growing and the snow melt fed the local vegetation, it was often possible to find wild asparagus. We’d pick it and while some made it home for dinner – I remember happily nibbling away on most of it there, on the spot. Though I didn’t get to try any of the Italian asparagus that moment, it wouldn’t be long before I had the opportunity to sample  it as part of some of the local cuisine.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

One thing that caught me by surprise was their caution, and mention of vipers. Though they’ve played a somewhat prominent role in Italian history I have to admit that their concern and mention of the small snakes took me by surprise.  That surprise didn’t last long, however, and quickly gave way to fanciful thoughts of Cleopatra, grand stories of love, adventure, empire, and history.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

I was pulled out of my musings by a call to re-board the carts.  We hopped in, strapped in, and then resumed our climb up the hill before turning down a shrub lined gravel path which cut across the olive orchard towards an old vineyard.  Our host explained that some of the olive trees were hundreds of years old and a quick glance at their gnarled roots quickly confirmed it. It’s amazing to think what those trees have survived. Harsh winters, changing climates, world wars, recessions, the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the space race…and all the while they’ve sat there slowly churning the soil, soaking up the Italian sun, and gorging themselves on the region’s clean water.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

As we rolled to a gentle stop I hopped out of the back of the cart and quickly did a 360, nearly tripping over my own feet in the process.  As we paused, circled around our host in the shade of a large tree, we found ourselves on top of an old retaining wall.  On one side there was the olive orchard.  On the other a relatively young vineyard awash in color and surrounded by old, crumbling stone walls that bespoke great age, but also constant care and repair.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

As it turned out we were standing on an ancient road which dated back nearly 2,000 years and had been used to transport goods overland to the sea. The orchard we were looking at, and quickly set to exploring, had recently been replanted, some 4 years previous, but had been in operation off and on by different groups for several thousand years as well. The rock walls, though often repaired, were of a similar heritage.  We spent a good 20 minutes relaxing and enjoying.  It was gorgeous.  The view out over the vines offered a great panorama of rolling hills and blooming flowers.  The paths between the vines were covered in the vibrant yellow of blooming flowers periodically broken by the white blooms of wildflowers.  Back near the stone walls red poppies and other vibrantly colored wild flowers were also in bloom.  Everything felt fresh.  Alive.  Delightful!

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

Then, as is the way with these types of things it was time to return. We wound back down the gravel lane, past the asparagus pickers, past lazy cats lounging in the doorways of the small town, and then parked next to the vineyard’s main building. Before long we were standing surrounded by walls of large stainless steel vats full of wine in a temperature controlled room and learning about the region’s specialty – the Sangiovese grape, as well as Monte Vibianos wine making process.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

From there it was on to the good stuff….down a winding hallway, set of stairs, and through a magical set of doors to the wine cellar where the wine was eventually taken to age.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

For me, it was a first. While I’ve spent time around old bottles and like to think that I’ve waged a fairly successful lifetime war against full bottles of wine, it was my first time down in the cellar with the casks, which was a fun experience. The air was slightly cooler than I expected and even though it was spotless, the room carried the light scent of young casks accented by the soft twang of young wine.  We paused again briefly as our guide explained the process, some of the grapes used, how long the wine ages, how many times they re-use a cask, and other interesting insights into the wine making process, before heading up to the tasting room to sample each the vineyard’s wine selection.

Umbrian Vineyard - Italian Countryside

The tasting room was beautiful with a wonderful bar back made out of stained wood with inlaid recesses showcasing the vineyard’s wine.  After a quick walk through to visually soak in our surroundings we settled in to comfortable chairs and relaxed.  Before long our hosts served us fresh bred accompanied by their own line of delicious olive oil.  The oil was great, the bread was good, and it was the perfect mid-morning snack to ease us into wine sampling.  A few moments later we were introduced to the first wine, which was also their youngest.  As we slowly worked through samples of each of their other offerings, working our way up to their premier/flagship wine I enjoyed each sample thoroughly.  I found of the five I had a slight personal preference towards their rich reds, which aligns with my general preferences. The chance to taste the wine where it had been made, to walk the vines, and to connect with the history of the area made for a rich experience and one which was extremely enjoyable.

Eventually it was time to tear ourselves away from the olive oil, bread and our emptied glasses of wine. We said our goodbyes and prepared to resume our trip across Umbria’s rich countryside.  It was only a bit past 11:30AM…the day had just begun.