The Restaurant by Kroun – Exciting Nordic Cuisine in Copenhagen

Copenhagen’s culinary scene grows increasingly exciting with each passing month.  The once somewhat one-dimensional Nordic culinary landscape has been revolutionized over the last 15 years. While this renaissance has been most visible at the higher echelons of the local food scene, the diversity, depth, and breadth of culinary options in Copenhagen has gradually grown. The team at Noma which is most often credited for launching the New Nordic movement, now more commonly just referenced simply as Nordic Cuisine, deserves a large part of the credit. However, there have been other long-standing bastions generating fine food, excellent chefs, and fantastic Sommeliers for years such as Kong Hans’ Kælder, which has served as Copenhagen’s culinary benchmark since the 80s. Many of the most exciting new restaurants in Copenhagen are those which pull expertise from a variety of sources to craft an exciting new fusion that wonderfully walks the delicate line between too traditional and too creative, too artistic and too utilitarian, too complex or too simple, and overly formal or casual to the point of utterly lacking service.

Nordic Cuisine at the Restaurant by Kroun

Recently, the Restaurant by Kroun, which is the newly opened restaurant (March 2016) launched at Kurhotel Skodsborg, invited me to join them for dinner. The restaurant is a collaboration between head chef and namesake Erik Kroun, who honed his craft at Michelin-starred restaurants, including Kong Hans’ Kælder, Søllerød Kro and Sletten Kro, and Martin Troelsen who previously served as Restaurant Manager at Michelin-starred Marchal, situated in Copenhagen’s five star Hotel D’Angleterre and is a well recognized Sommelier.  The meal and overall experience lived up to their pedigree, making it easily one of the best meals I’ve had in Copenhagen.  Based on the experience I had during my visit, the quality of the food, flavor, and overall experience, I suspect that Restaurant by Kroun will be thundering onto the local culinary scene and you’ll quickly be hearing a lot about it.

Kurhotel Skodsborg

The restaurant itself is situated in a cozy carpeted room decorated with grand old deer antlers that pay homage to the hotel’s long-standing heritage as a spa and lodge. Kurhotel Skodsborg, where the Restaurant is located, is situated just off the northeast corner of the recently christened UNESCO World Heritage Dyrehaven (Deer Park) and previously served as a royal residence. Situated as it is, nestled between Copenhagen’s greatest green space and the calm waters of the Øresund sea, I was initially concerned that it would be somewhat inconvenient to access from Central Copenhagen.  As it turns out, the hotel and restaurant are perfectly situated. The sea is a 30-second walk from the hotel, the Dyrehaven just a minute away, and the Skodsborg train station is just a three- minute walk and a brief 15-minute ride from Norreport station in Central Copenhagen.

Nordic Cuisine at the Restaurant by Kroun

We left dinner in our host’s hands. This meant that we’d be doing their “Full On” menu – champagne, a signature eight course meal, full wine pairing, water, coffee and then an extensive selection of sweets. Before diving into the specifics, I want to reiterate how incredibly impressed I was by the wine pairing. In total, there were four of us at our table and every single one of us loved every single wine. The champagne was good, the whites great, the reds fantastic, and the sweet desert wines a treat for the senses. The wines were beautifully aromatic and none had the strong taste of new wood which I often find sours the wine. I also have a small quirk, where I like to keep a small portion of wine from the previous pairing in reserve from serving to serving  which I can use to compare and contrast. I’m sure some find it utterly ridiculous, but I find having the two side by side lets me compare their aromas and brings to life entirely fresh scents, nuances and flavors as I finish one round of wine and transition into the next pairing.

2014 – A Year of Travel In 65 Color Photographs

As 2014 comes to a close it is time to look back over the year and to highlight some of my favorite photography. In 2014 I traveled less far-afield than during previous years but simultaneously spent more time familiarizing myself with the intimacies and breadth of texture present within Denmark. The image above is of the the Sand Buried Lighthouse, Rubjerg Knude, in North Jutland, Denmark. I’ve started this post with it because it embodies the spirit of this post; the re-discovery and excavation of memorable photos that might otherwise get lost beneath the persistent march of the sands of time. With this post I’ll be dusting away the sand and re-visiting highlights from a gorgeous year. I hope you enjoy the photos.

Snow Covered Cappadocia – Weekly Travel Photo

Rock Formations in Cappadocia

In February of last year I found myself in the heart of one of Turkey’s worst cold spells in 25 years.  The bad news was that it was absolutely freezing (lows bottomed out at -21 C) but the upside was I had the chance to see the Cappadocia region covered in a layer of snow.  The stone spires that the area is famous for really looked magical as they stood against a partly cloudy but no less vivid blue sky.

Cappadocia is best known for its rock formations, underground cities and wines.  The soft but still solid nature of the stone has allowed people to build entire cities into, and beneath the area’s hills.  It is an incredible region and unlike anything I’ve encountered elsewhere in the world.  This photo was taken about 10 minutes drive outside of Goreme on the way to the Open Air Museum.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon IS 55-250mm lens.

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.

An Amazing Meal and Delightful Stroll in Baschi

Life In Umbria, Italy

During my time in Umbria I had the opportunity to enjoy a number of absolutely fantastic meals.  The local tourism board wined me and dined me until I was bursting and could barely move.   Needless to say it was a great chance to engage with Italian food in a way  I had not previously experienced.  As a lactose intolerant traveler with a light gluten allergy, Italy had always been a culinary destination I eyed with suspicion.  Granted, most of the food I enjoyed on this trip wasn’t the usual low-cost eats and street food that aligns with my budget, but it still managed to completely change my relationship with Italian food.  Of the places which treated us to a meal, the absolute best of the lot was Sala della Comitissa in the small picturesque town of Baschi.

Sala Della Comitissa Menu

The restaurant sits near the far point on a hill that looks out over the nearby valley. Access is gained through a long stairway off a small street that is just wide enough for a car to carefully navigate. The entrance is simple, clean, and cozy. With less than 15 tables, Sala della Comitissa makes no pretense about the experience they offer. Their aim is a cozy, elegant meal prepared and served with care and love. Some of the sparsely decorated stone walls are laden with old swords, candles and other distinctly medieval decorations. Others are painted in a natural beige plaster which helps highlight the beautifully set tables that fill the room.

Eating in Umbria

While relatively new, the restaurant was opened in 2010, the approach to tradition and culture is not.  Each table has three types of chairs at it.   Of these, one is gilded and ornate.  This chair is reserved for the guest of honor.  To further allow for guests to honor members of their group, two other chairs offer a second level of distinction in the form of arms, while the remainder of the chairs are comfortable and elegant but lack both the arms, ornate gilding, and rich upholstery of the seat of honor.

Eating in Umbria

Our meal started with a delightful toasted bread with a rich liver pate alla grappa and crushed hazel nuts. The pate was creamy, pungent and awash in flavor.

Eating in Umbria

Next up was a fresh and wonderfully healthy/velvety carrot and ginger puree with rosemary and olive oil-flavored croutons.  This dish was a universal hit around the table and it was fun to watch each of us eye our empty cups strategically, carefully analyzing if  (and hoping that) we’d missed a small spoonful that might be reclaimed.

Eating in Umbria

This was followed by a light and flavorful zucchini flan served with gently salted, perfectly ripened tomatoes, olive oil and crushed fennel. The small flan (though I’m likely misnaming it) was surprising in both its creaminess and lightness. Where I expected it to be dense its texture had more in common with whipped cream. Unfortunately, due to the high dairy content, all I was able to do was sample the dish. Luckily, in anticipation of my cursed lactose intolerant limitations they had a special surprise in store for me.

Eating in Umbria

In place of the dairy-heavy third dish, the chef prepared this special salad for me. What I initially thought was a purely vegetarian (and blissfully dairy free) plate ended up actually being a succulent mixture of shaved wild boar (what looks like cabbage), fresh oranges, olive oil and what I believe was fresh orange all topped with fennel. While I enjoyed all of the plates I had over the course of the meal this one was definitely the most surprising. The flavor was fresh, slightly zesty and simultaneously sweet and salty due to the wild boar. It lit my palate on fire and prepared it perfectly for the next course.

Life In Umbria, Italy

Before we dove into the next course, however, our host graciously invited us into the kitchen for a quick peak. The kitchen is small, cozy, and has just enough room for the three people who were hard at work on the meal. It was clean, orderly, and the focus on quality and freshness was obvious. Greeted with gracious smiles, the kitchen staff was in the midst of preparing a special type of traditional spelt pasta.

Life In Umbria, Italy

The spelt pasta dates back to ancient Roman times and was served with fave beans, little tomatoes, salted ricotta cheese, bacon and a fresh sprig of parsley.  The relatively neutral/subtle taste of the spelt highlighted the flavor of the fave beans, tomatoes and bacon creating a well balanced meal that was both delicious and felt slightly earthy and organic.

Eating in Umbria

This plate was followed by a more easily recognizable ragu.  The traditional ragu was based on the chef’s grandmother’s recipe and featured tagliatelle pasta accompanied by meat raised and butchered nearby.  It is worth noting that all of the ingredients used over the course of the meal were local and seasonal.  The plates we were served were designed to represent both Umbria and the area’s seasonally native foods. It showed in the freshness of the ingredients, their complex flavor, and the well rounded design of the meal as a whole.

Pork Neck in Baschi

Starting to feel more than a little stuffed, the final main course was served.  As a major fan of meat in general I was excited for the opportunity to try what the menu informed us would be pork neck-bones cooked and served in a light sauce with fresh pepper. The pork was so tender it virtually melted on my fork and as you might expect was jam-packed with flavor.  I traded my usual large fork-fulls for small delicate cuts to make each piece last as long as I could.  The neck meat was served with a mixture of local greens.  While they tasted a bit like well-buttered spinach, I believe it was a mixture of wild greens harvested and then steamed for the meal

Desert in Baschi

While the others were served what was by all accounts a wonderful local interpretation of the traditional zuppa inglese I dove into the house’s interpretation of traditional specialty pastries.  These were super sweet, light, and the perfect way to round out what had been a positively delightful meal.

Eating in Umbria

Now one thing I haven’t given nearly enough attention to – but which savvy observers may have noted on the menu – was the wine.  Each course was accompanied by a different local wine! Each of the wines was everything you would expect from a well-selected local Italian wine and went wonderfully with the meal.  The final wine, however, was the one that really caught my attention.  The Calcaia Dolce 2006 from Orvieto was, we were told, a mold wine. Yep, that’s right, mold.  An incredibly potent and sweet wine with an almost brandy or mead-like flavor and feel. The candy wine comes from grapes which are left to ripen on the vine to the point where a special type of grape mold called ‘noble rot’ sets in.  This helps with the fermentation process and results in a sweet desert wine that is the perfect way to round out a meal.

Life In Umbria, Italy

As we carefully stood to thank our hosts for their wonderful hospitality I think more than a few of us secretly loosened our belts a notch. The meal had lasted for three hours and we had delighted in every second.

Life In Umbria, Italy

As we made our way back to the bus we slowly meandered the streets of Baschi. The town embodies the picturesque nature that marks the region and despite a light rain was alive with people going about their daily business.

Life In Umbria, Italy

Situated on a hill, the views out over the nearby fields, forests and countryside quickly left me feeling like I was walking through a dream. Everywhere I looked I was greeted by fairy-tale images which seemed more like the fanciful oil paintings of blissful life in small-town Italy than reality.

Life In Umbria, Italy

With lungs full of fresh humid Italian air I found myself humming happily to myself as I snapped photos and walked the length of the town which took all of five minutes. Once back at the main road we climbed back on the bus and headed off to our next destination for the day: Orvieto…but that’s a story for tomorrow!

What is the best Italian meal you’ve had? Where was it?

A Video Tour of Cappadocia’s Mesmerizing Rock Formations In The Snow

There are moments as a traveler when you find yourself running headlong into some of the world’s most inconvenient or forbidding weather. While my trip to Turkey didn’t leave me facing down a hurricane or braving a tornado, it did land me smack center of one of the worst cold spells to hit Europe in more than 25 years. As the front swept across Turkey and into the rest of Europe more than 200 people ended up losing their lives. The cold front brought with it below zero temperatures, snow, and a glimmer of opportunity.

While the storm front and loss of life was a profound tragedy, it also provided me with the opportunity to experience parts of Turkey in a rare and unusual fashion. After having to cut my time in Cappadocia in half due to the cancellation of my initial flight out of Istanbul, I eventually arrived at Kaysari Airport.  Once there I made my way, late at night and in below freezing weather, to the small town of Goreme in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey. With just 24 hours to see the region I threw on every warm piece of clothing I owned and set to the task of exploring what is normally a desert landscape but which was transformed by the snow into a strange winter wonderland. I hope you’ll enjoy this video sequence which I shot during my time exploring the above ground parts of Cappadocia.

The video contains footage from the Open Air Museum, Pasabag (Monks Valley), Devrent (Imagination Valley), Goreme, and of a very traditional Cappadocian meal cooked in sealed clay pots. You can see footage from my tour of the area’s underground cities in this video.

If you enjoy this video please consider subscribing both here on VirtualWayfarer and to my youtube channel. Your support and feedback is what makes these videos worth it!

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.