A taste of Italy

By Helen Jacobus, May 13, 2003
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We enjoy heritage, history, healthy food and heart-breaking scenery in a visit to Umbria

Throwing open the tall, shuttered windows in the morning, my eyes were dazzled by sunlight. Through the glass the countryside shimmered in a verdant haze.

Light flooded into the bedroom of the Umbrian villa where I was staying. If music had broken through the silence and credits had begun to roll revealing this was a Merchant-Ivory film, I would have been only slightly surprised.

To be accurate, the word “villa” is a complete misnomer. I was actually staying in a grand, 17th-century mansion, the summer palazzo of the neo-Classical sculptor Antonio Canova, no less, in the old hilltop village of San Gemini.

This cavernous, listed building with its distinctive, turreted tower — a local landmark — has been recently renovated by its owner, Michele Grandjacquet, whose family once produced the famous San Gemini bottled mineral water.

With the help of his cousin, an architect, Michele used local craftsman to restore the property for holiday rentals, keeping his palace tastefully simple, with ceramic tiled floors, painted walls and doors and rustic antique furniture.

There were delightful trompe d’oeils here and there: on my bathroom wall was a painting of the view from my window, as if the image had been magically captured and replicated on the stone wall.

On our first night, we were invited for an aperitif in Canova’s tower. With its traditional Italianate arched windows, the turret is the highest point in the village, rising above a jumble of ancient, terracotta roof-tops and overlooking the rolling landscape and a restored medieval abbey — also owned by the Grandjacquet family.

We tasted our first Umbrian canapés up there, too: truffles, a prized local delicacy, served alone as a paté or blended with olives or mushrooms and spread on tiny squares of toast.

Dinner was eaten at a long, wooden table on the terrace: there were several courses — “pearls” of pecorino cheese in amber honey; a vegetarian risotto cooked in red wine; black truffle tagliatelle — each served with a different wine. Still languishing in what seemed to be a Merchant-Ivory film set, we ate watching the sun sink in a pink and azure-washed sky. As the last plates were cleared, I half-expected a director to emerge and shout “Cut!”

Our chefs were members of the wonderfully-entitled Slow Food Movement. Founded by lovers of good food and wine, the SFM is part of an international backlash against fast food and half of its 60,000 members world-wide are from Italy.

My first lesson on this cultural and gastronomic tour of Umbria was self-taught. This was to eat no more than half of what was on my plate or it would have been impossible to appreciate all the different dishes. (Notwithstanding the million calories, or possible side effects, like not being able to get up afterwards.)

The chef was Andrea Tiberi who teaches a class in traditional and modern Umbrian cooking in the kitchens of a nearby 19th-century country house converted to a small hotel and restaurant. The secret of Italian cooking, he said, was to use generous amounts of home-made olive oil, never butter. He also reminded us that Italy has one of the lowest rates of cancer in the world.

The lunch-time cookery class wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated. Although cooking has never been one of my strong points, I felt that even I could make the sweet almond “snake” cake, trimmed with pine nuts, and dotted with two coffee beans for eyes.

We had a wine-tasting session in the dramatic ruins of the Roman town of Carsulae at dusk. After just a little coaching I was able to distinguish — and I reveal this with due modesty — between a 2001 and a 2000 Umbrian Chardonnay.

Our sommelier, respected wine writer Filippo Bartolotta, asked us to describe the wines in terms of adjectives or images which sprang to mind as we savoured the fine liquid. “Rebellious,” “youthful” and “like riding a bicycle,” were some of the words and phrases we suggested as we became more fluent in wine-speak. Or perhaps more inebriated.

Back at our villa, a jazz trio from Florence played for us while we ate our evening meal al fresco beneath the stars. Called Enojazz, the trio —friends of Filippo — comprised a brother and sister (Titta, the singer and Franco, the double-bass player) and pianist Stefano.

Filippo would ask us for an idea to describe each glass of wine, and Enojazz would then strike up a suitable song.

We all agreed their improvised version of “La Vie En Rose” was a perfect match for the pudding wine.

One of the distinguishing features of Umbria is its collection of ancient walled towns, each perched on a steep hill above valleys of olive trees, dark cypresses and fields of sunflowers. These distinctive fortresses are built on the remains of Etruscan and Roman settlements and are rich in architectural and artistic treasures from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Despite their original purpose, they are, like the surrounding countryside, essentially tranquil and bucolic.

The picturesque town of Orvieto, renowned for pottery and wine, is dominated by its unique cathedral. Construction began in the early 14th century but it took 300 years to complete. Thus the exterior is a mix of styles and periods, including the green and rose marble stripes reminiscent of Florence’s Duomo, alongside a Gothic façade and jewelled blue and gold inlay. Inside this colossal masterpiece is sweeter treasure: a fresco cycle begun by Fra Angelico.

We broke off our sight-seeing for lunch at Orvieto’s superb I Sette Consoli restaurant, where I sampled fresh tuna in a poppy seed and sesame crust, eaten — slowly, of course — with beans and onions.

Local art-historian Analita Polticchia was our guide for a day spent visiting Spoleto and Assisi. The first thing she explained was that Umbrians are genetically predisposed to dislike fussy and elaborate decoration. Visibly shuddering as we passed a Baroque church, she led us to the lovely Spoleto cathedral which was surprisingly devoid of tourists, allowing us to quietly enjoy the famous fresco by Fra Filippo Lippi familiar from innumerable poster and art reproductions.

The town is layered in history, from the Roman theatre to the massive, medieval bridge used for Sunday promenading. In summer, Spoleto is transformed into a natural stage-set for the Two Worlds festival of theatre, music and dance.

In nearby Assisi, the highlight is a majestic basilica with 28 frescos by Giotto. There is so much to see — frescos, sculptures and its ceiling, earthquake-damaged yet still marvellous — that you need enough time to linger and savour the beauty.

We also took in the open-air jazz festival in Umbria’s capital Perugia. But before I took my seat in the stadium for a night of music, I was determined to sample what, for me, is the true taste of Italy. It might not be slow food, but my mouth-watering pizza — hand made and freshly baked at a typical, open-air pizzeria — was absolutely bellisimo.

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