Gastro UmbriaDiscover the 'green heart' of Italy with a gastro holiday
Italy’s so-called ‘green heart’ is a spiritual kind of place. St. Francis, Italy’s patron saint, once roamed its gentle hills, quiet forests, and tended olive groves.
His life is celebrated in churches everywhere, but especially in the Basilica frescoes in the hill-town of his birth, Assisi. St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine monastic order, St. Clare, and St. Valentine (yes, that one) are just a few more of history’s many canonized Umbrians.
But a trip here does more than just feed your soul. Umbria is a region that knows how to look after your stomach, too.
Game. Cinghiale (wild boar), cervo (deer), and piccione (wood pigeon) are often served as simple, tasty roasts, but also come whipped into a pasta ragù.
Lake fish. Umbria is landlocked, so traditional fish dishes pluck their ingredients from Lake Trasimeno. Persico (perch) is meaty enough to stand up to a hearty sauce, and occasionally comes fried ‘fish-and-chips’ style. It is an ingredient in tegamaccio, a tomato-based, mixed fish stew made from tench, eel, and other lake species.
Formaggio di fossa. It translates as ‘ditch’ or ‘pit’ cheese… because that is what it is. Pecorino (hard ewe’s milk cheese) is seasoned with forest herbs then aged in a pit, before regular cellar maturing. It is delicious on a cheeseboard (ideally with a robust red wine) or in a panino with a slice of salami.
Top places for Umbrian food
Not just the Umbrian capital, but also the chocolate capital of Italy. Perugia is the home of Perugina chocolate; book two weeks ahead to tour the factory that chocolate Baci (literally, ‘kisses’) call home. The factory-floor visit ends, of course, with a fistful of chocolate to try. If you want to create your own confections, book a day course at the Perugina Chocolate School.
Another key stop for cocoa-lovers is artisan chocolatier Augusta Perusia, in the centre. Perugia hosts the annual Eurochocolate Festival each October, with tastings and events around the city.
View Perugia Villas
This steep, medieval town wedged into the face of Monte Ingino is one of few places in Italy that the tartufo bianco (white truffle) grows.
The white truffle is more refined, more delicate, and (alas) even more expensive than its black cousin. If you want to go all out with some truffle-rich fine dining, book a table at the Taverna del Lupo. They don’t skimp on the fungus, the wine list is outstanding at the high end, and the bread-basket often comes with brustengo, a crispy, but firm, fried flatbread.
For a truffle-themed gift and all kinds of truffle deli items, shop at La Buca del Tartufo, on Via XX Settembre.
View Gubbio Villas
This little town is right at the centre of Umbria’s 21st-century gastronomic renaissance: it’s harder to find a bad restaurant here than a good one. Scottadito is one for the carnivores: brick vaults, a rustic, tiled dining room, and grilled meat… lots of it.
Things are a little more refined and nouvelle at La Trattoria di Oscar, on Piazza del Cirone, where every dish is firmly embedded in rustic, ingredient-led Umbrian cooking tradition. Bevagna is also the place to buy meat to cook back at your villa: Tagliavento, on Corso Amendola, is the best butcher for miles around.
View Bevagna Villas
Umbrian olive oil is up there with the best in Italy, and Torgiano’s Museo dell’Olivo e dell’Olio tells the story of the region’s relationship with the olive tree. Exhibits cover the span of human history with its fruit, from oil as a source of light, heat, and medicine to more recent gastronomic uses.
Torgiano is also the headquarters of the Lungarotti winemaking family—they run Italy’s best wine museum, the Museo del Vino. If you intend buying olive oil while you are in Umbria, look out for the ‘DOP Umbria’ mark, which signifies that the oil was produced according to the quality controls of the Denominazione di Origine Protetta.
Oil from the sub-zone of Colli Assisi-Spoleto has a particularly refined flavour—it’s almost good enough to drink.
View Torgiano Villas
This small Apennine town is known for its black truffles, but more than anything as Italy’s pork capital. (It has become part of the language: ‘norcineria’ is an Italian word meaning ‘pork butcher’.)
So, the birthplace of St. Benedict is a great place to stock up on salamis (from domestic and wild hogs), sausages, crudo (cured ham), and any cut of pork.
Nearby Castelluccio is where the castelluccio lentil grows—it is Italy’s ‘most famous, owing to a particularly delicate flavour,’ according to Italian cookery bible, The Silver Spoon. Farro (spelt wheat) is another nutty mountain pulse packed into in local soups and savoury dishes.