Umbria is Beautiful
One winter’s day years ago when we lived with our children in the Italian region of Umbria, we were loading up our little car for a road trip to Venice. We told our Umbrian neighbor excitedly about our plans. She asked, “Why are you going to Venice?” We didn’t know how to answer. “Ummm . . . to see it? We hear it’s beautiful.” Her response? “But Umbria is beautiful.” Indeed it is, then as now.
We just returned to Puglia from a quick trip to visit old and new friends in Montone, a tiny Umbrian hill town near the Tuscan border. It was a strange sort of reentry since this part of Italy was our home for a year—the place where our children attended Italian elementary school and we became firmly committed to an Italian life. Yet nothing stays the same and homecomings are often bittersweet. The town where we lived, Umbertide, has sprawled well beyond its 1990s footprint, yet our children’s schools were unchanged, their windows decorated with a new generation’s artwork. There is much more diversity—something like 9% of Umbria’s inhabitants are now foreign born—but the man we called the mayor because he oversaw town activity from his stoop on the main street is still firmly in charge. And the Alto Tevere (the upper Tiber Valley) is still just as breathtakingly lovely as it was the day we rolled into town all those years ago.
Umbria is the only land-locked region of Italy. It’s located at dead center of the Italian peninsula bordered on the west by Tuscany, the Marches to the east and Lazio to the south. A stronghold of the Papal States, Umbria remained under the direct, sovereign rule of the Pope from the 500s until 1870. Not surprisingly, this legacy of sobriety endures today, inspired by the moral characters of famous Umbrians like monastic St. Benedict and humble St. Francis of Assisi. And Umbrians are justly proud of their region in an understated, reflective way befitting their history.
Umbria’s beauty is undeniable. From great expanses of rolling, green hills to medieval hill towns bathed in late afternoon sun, it’s not hard to lose oneself in the landscape. From our hilltop perch in Montone, heavy mists blanket the low-lying Umbrian valleys in the morning, creating a mystical stillness that gives way to full sun as the day unfolds. Yet much of Umbria is still quite remote, with switch-backed, single lane roads that climb for miles without encountering a living soul. Almost 40% of Umbria is covered with woodland area, yet cultivated fields fan out through the valleys, with wheat, tobacco, sugar beets, wine grapes and olives the dominant crops. Umbria is also Italy’s leading producer of truffles, which figure significantly in la cucina umbra.
Interestingly, a little less than half of Umbria’s tourists come from somewhere other than Italy. In contrast, our home in Puglia is a magnet for Italian tourists—about 85% of total tourism. And the impact of tourism is more palpable in Umbria. Based on these statistics that reflect the intensity of tourism (the number of tourists per residents), Umbria experiences a tourism intensity on par with Lazio, the region that includes Italy’s capital, Rome. Only Tuscany (Florence) and the Veneto (Venice) have a higher tourism intensity rate in Italy. It’s the highest in Europe—which is the most touristed continent in the world.
What does all this mean to visitors? Umbria is no less beautiful and the Umbrians no less welcoming, but we noticed a considerable focus on foreigners that is still elusive in Puglia. This is great news for travelers who expect to find restaurant menus translated into their own languages, plentiful accommodation and the opportunity to meet other travelers easily. It’s less promising for those who hope to experience Italian life close up, with the inevitable misunderstandings and serendipitous moments that make slow travel so memorable.
While we were visiting Montone, we met some fantastic people who have made Umbria their second home. We also chatted with some native montonesi about the series of earthquakes that struck nearby Citta’ di Castello during our visit. On our last night, we joined members of Montone’s expatriate community for a thoroughly delightful party, welcoming residents who were arriving for the summer while saying goodbye to those heading back to their homes (including us.).
We set out for the south early the next morning, motoring through mountain tunnels, then down the Adriatic coast to Puglia. The land opened up to wide fields of grain, centuries-old olive trees and the sparkling turquoise blue ocean. As we pulled into Martina Franca and jockeyed for a parking place in the centro storico, I heard the familiar sounds that call us back here whenever we’re away. Puglia lacks the postcard perfection of Umbria but delivers a true heart and a warm embrace. We feel a casa, at home, in every way.
We brought a little of Umbria with us, though, in the form of some black truffles and an elegant Montefalco from Fillippo Antonelli, a gift from our friend TomPene. Montefalco is a Denominazione Orgine Controllata region near Perugia that produces red wines made from sangiovese, sagrantino, cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. A perfect match for roasted meats, aged cheese and black truffles, the predominant aromas and flavors of this particular Montefalco are red fruits (think cherries and strawberries) with terrific acidity and a great finish. Already missing our new and old Montone friends, I made a decidedly Umbrian pasta today to pair with the Montefalco. If you can’t find this wine, a Barolo, Barbaresco or even a decent Montepulciano d’Abruzzo would be just fine.
Spaghetti alla Norcia—Spaghetti with Black Truffles and Sausage
1 lb. spaghetti (try to find an artisanal brand like Benedetto Cavalieri or Rustichella d’Abruzzo)
2 black truffles
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. best quality extra virgin olive oil
1 anchovy filet, finely chopped (if salt-packed, rinse and remove the backbone first)
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 or 3 thyme sprigs, leaves separated from stalks
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
2 Italian sausages (sweet, not hot)
8 ounces vegetable or chicken stock or a mixture of stock and white wine
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, grated
Clean the truffles with a brush to remove any excess dirt; finely chop them and reserve.
Add the extra virgin olive oil and the anchovy to a saucepan. Simmer on low heat and break up the anchovy with a wooden spoon. Add the chopped garlic and thyme leaves and continue to simmer for 5 minutes, taking great care not to brown the garlic. Add the chopped truffles and remove from heat. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil in a large sauté pan. Remove the sausage from its casing and drop it into the heated olive oil, then continue to break it up into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Sauté until golden brown. Add shallots and continue to sauté until the shallots are soft and translucent. Deglaze the pan by adding vegetable or chicken stock and reduce slightly. Add the anchovy, garlic and truffles from the saucepan to the sausage mixture in the saute’ pan. Taste and season with Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add abundant salt (the water should taste like the sea) and cook spaghetti until al dente. Drain the spaghetti, reserving some of the cooking water and add the spaghetti to the sauce in the sauté pan. Over medium heat, lift the spaghetti with tongs, swirling it into the sauce and adding a little of the reserved cooking water until the mixture has developed a creamy consistency. Remove from heat and toss with grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano to taste. Serve immediately.
Serves six as a first course or 4 as a main course.