My then sister-in-law Katherine was the first to spot the car screech to a halt in front of the restaurant. Out burst a young man carrying a very large fish (its pearlescent head hung out one end of brown paper and its tail still flopped about on the other end). He hurriedly disappeared inside what we assumed was the kitchen door.
Our group had been lunching on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking Lake Bolsena, the biggest crater lake of volcanic origin in Europe, for quite sometime. Finishing a delicious assortment of antipasti and beginning our second (or was it our third) bottle of Est! Est!! Est!! di Montefiascone, we were starting to wonder if the fish course would ever arrive. It was late September – the end of the season – and we were literally the only ones in the restaurant. The chef had most likely not prepared for any orders of “pesce inter alla griglia” (a whole grilled fish) and we guessed he did not want to disappoint his only customers, so when the order came into the kitchen he called the local fishmonger with an emergency order.
After discussing what we imagined was the chef’s “fish drama scenario” and then actually witnessing the arrival of our main course, we broke into hysterics. It simply added another layer of delight to our already wonderful day; perfect weather with soft warm breezes and a spectacular view of crystal clear Lake Bolsena. The company was excellent and we were in no hurry! Not long after our fish was whisked into the kitchen after its final (and first, we supposed) automobile ride, it arrived at our table golden brown, glistening with local olive oil and fresh herbs, surrounded by bright yellow lemon wedges and accompanied by my weakness; a large bowl of fried potatoes. It was most definitely worth the wait!
The year was 1994. I had been traveling Italy for almost twenty years, visiting every region, exploring famous cities, poking into little villages, touring vineyard after vineyard and continuing to learn and savor Italy’s diverse and delectable regional dishes. But for this journey I wanted something different; a more organic experience where I could stay put, prepare meals in my own kitchen and take little side trips whenever the spirit moved me. I wanted to be a “real” Italian for a few weeks, simply enjoying the process of just letting things happen.
My travel agent found a villa in Umbria that seemed to fit the bill. Selvamica, as it was called, was a recently restored rustic stone farmhouse situated in the middle of a majestic hilltop vineyard. I invited four friends to join me. “The girls” as we would come to refer to ourselves, included my sister Karen; my then sister-in-law Katherine; Marcia, a friend from college and her friend Marianna. All were experienced travelers and all agreed that the kind of experience I described sounded perfect. They were in!
Given my intention to emphasize a lot of hanging around time, I thought it important to travel with people who would enhance that experience – people with intelligence, curiosity, appreciation of food and wine – and more than anything else, people with a sense of humor. Without that, the rest didn’t matter. Laughter had to be a part of the equation.
Karen and I shared a father who had the best, most joyous laugh I have ever heard. His “laugh-at-life” sense of humor was contagious and Karen, in particular, inherited his ability to look for the absurd in any situation. Her quirky observations were always right on and extremely funny. My laugh connection with Katherine dated back to the early sixties when I first began dating her brother and came to stay in the family home during several college weekends. Late night giggles and gossip became a part of our routine after everyone else had gone to bed. Marcia and I possessed the same funny bone. Everything from navigating the perils of sorority rush to maneuvering young married life with colicky babies and “king of the universe” sixties’ husbands was lighter and funnier when I shared those experiences with her.
“The girls” met at Malpensa (the airport outside of Milan) on a late September day. We loaded up our rental car and drove to Selvamica, the lovely Umbrian farmhouse that would become our temporary home. As we drove into the vineyard and up to the front door, several tractors carrying loads of plump grapes passed us on their way to the winery. It was harvest time and the air was filled with the perfume and promise of what those grapes would become. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and the leaves were turning into my favorite earth-tinged colors. This was going to be magical.
Rita, the vibrant caretaker and her British “honey” Brian (all withered and sweet), greeted us and gave us a tour around the house and property. Beautiful vistas in every direction combined with the old world charm and modern conveniences of the farmhouse, promised a perfect respite; away from it all, yet close enough to the outside world to allow for a perfectly civilized experience.
They also escorted us to nearby Orvieto for another brief tour pointing out their favorite food markets, cafes and restaurants. We parted after thanking them profusely for their recommendations and guidance, did a little shopping, then returned to prepare our first farmhouse lunch. Everyone participated: Katherine poured each of us a glass of Selvamica wine (a stash – produced from the grapes growing right outside our house – came with the house); Marcia and Marianna set the table; Karen foraged in the garden and plucked several plump ripe tomatoes and a handful of brilliant green basil leaves; and I made a beautiful Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella we had just purchased in Orvieto, Karen’s veggies and some local olive oil drizzled on top of it all. This along with a platter of local salamis, cheeses and good crusty bread was our first meal, one of many enjoyed sitting around and antique wooden oval table in the kitchen of our temporarily adopted home.
We quickly settled into somewhat of a routine. Over morning coffee we discussed the proposed activities for the day. Sometimes we stuck together and roamed the Umbrian countryside as a group and some days we went our separate ways; lazing by the pool or strolling a nearby village on our own or as a couple. But most often we travelled as a group for our daily shopping trip to Orvieto. I love shopping in Italy. One of my first stops in any Italian city is the panificio (an Italian bakery), a small shop dedicated only to the baking of bread, not just a department in a larger grocery store. The one we found in Orvieto was one of my favorites, a tiny shop jam packed with fresh breads and savories that made it hard to choose just one loaf. Another frequent destination was the macelleria (butcher shop) where a very knowledgeable and friendly local butcher would always recommend the best cut of meat for our recipes and regularly give us pointers on how to cook it.
I had experienced this small store shopping when I lived in England where each category of food can be found in one location rather than as a department in a larger store. It exists in some parts of America (rejuvenated by the current emphasis on local and craft foods) especially in communities like Brooklyn with deep immigrant traditions, but for the most part I had grown up and lived most of my adult life shopping in large grocery stores, navigating aisle after aisle of product sometimes never finding what I was looking for. Shopping for food in Italy became a joyous adventure, not simply because of the quality and freshness of the food, but also because of the specialization which I believe amplifies vendors’ attention to detail and encourages culinary creativity.
For my sister Karen’s 50th birthday celebration dinner we all piled into the car and drove to nearby Orvieto. Katherine, Marianna and Marcia went to the salumeria (delicatessen) to select the antipasti, while Karen and I visited the outdoor market to purchase vegetables and flowers and then to a small pasta fresca shop where we watched our pasta being made. Karen chose the fresh capellini – long, very fine strands of pasta – her favorite. Finally we all met at the pasticceria (pastry shop) where Karen selected her own birthday dessert.
Cooking the meal also was an adventure. Duties were divided. I was usually the main chef but always assisted by Karen, Katherine or Marcia, all of who were incredibly competent sous chefs. Marcia claimed with her ever-present self-deprecating wit that she was a much better pot washer. “Scullery maid is in my genes”, she would say. Mariana assumed coffee duties and we all took turns cleaning up (despite Marcia’s regular protestations!).
Karen’s 50th birthday celebration dinner was one of those shared cooking experiences I absolutely love. Even the birthday girl participated. We began with an antipasti assortment that included Prosciutto di Cinghali (boar), Mozzarella di Bufala (fresh buffalo mozzarella), fresh tomatoes from our garden drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and oregano and Pomodori Secchi (sun-dried- tomatoes) accompanied by two breads – one filled with olives, the other with nuts.
The special pasta dish I made for our meal (recipe follows) was inspired simply by what looked good at the market that morning and ingredients I knew Karen liked; tomatoes, onions, arugula, basil and fresh olives. Good crusty bread, the ubiquitous Selvamica wine and much laughter all combined to make Karen’s birthday meal a very happy celebration.
We concluded with the torte Karen had selected at the pasticceria – a dark chocolate pudding-like filling studded with pinenuts encased in pastry then sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Sister Karen’s Umbrian Birthday Pasta
1-pound capellini pasta cooked al dente
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup diced onion
1 clove garlic minced
1 28 oz. can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes diced
2 tablespoons fresh basil julienned
1/3 cup pitted kalamata olives chopped
salt and pepper to taste
2-½ cups fresh arugula (packed)
grated Parmigiano Reggiano
In a medium sized saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes until transparent. Add the tomatoes (broken into pieces) with the juice, the sun-dried tomatoes and the basil. Sauté over medium heat for approximately 15 – 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and the olives and sauté for another 5 minutes.
In the meantime, cook the pasta until al dente.
Toss the pasta with the sauce and arugula. Place in bowls and top with the grated cheese.
If we weren’t having lunch or dinner at our farmhouse, we ate in one of the recommended restaurants close to home or sometimes whatever restaurant or café we stumbled upon. Todi, an ancient quiet, lonesome town perched high on an Umbrian hill, was close by so we visited it several times. It was a pleasant surprise of a village. Ascending by foot through the ancient gate, we wound our way up to the center of town searching for a little restaurant, Ristorante Umbra, recommended by the owner of our farmhouse. It was lunchtime and we were ravenous. Another luscious autumn day allowed us to sit outside on the lovely terrace protected by the hot midday sun by an overhead trellis covered with a thick blanket of grape leaves. We ordered a bottle of Antinori Orvieto, the favored white wine of the region. Its dry clean taste was the perfect noonday wine.
I ordered a pasta dish remembered to this day. (Actually Convito sells a version of this sauce.) It combines two popular Umbrian ingredients – sausage and fennel. The name of the dish I ordered was Strangozzi alla Norcina. Stragozzi is nearby Spoleto’s traditional long and irregularly hand-cut pasta. Strangozzi translates as, “strangled priests”. The name dates back to the region’s rebellion against papal domination in the 14th century. (Either the inventor of this pasta had a sense of humor or was really pissed).
Naming a dish alla Norcina usually indicates that it either contains sausage or black truffles. Both ingredients refer to the Umbrian town Norcia, the black truffle center of the region as well as the area famous for its art of pork butchery and preparation of cured meats. This particular alla Norcina contained sausage.
Pork sausage paired with the strong flavor of fennel is one of those perfect combinations. In Umbria fennel fronds (especially wild fennel) are used in many meat dishes as well as soups and sautéed vegetables mixtures. We add an abundance of caramelized onions to our Convito sauce bringing a succulent sweetness to the overall dish and then the piece de resistance – cream. As Julia child once said, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” This dish uses both. Decadent.
Strangozzi alla Norcina
(Creamy Sausage, Fennel and Onion Sauce)
1 pound strangozzi pasta cooked al dente*
3 tablespoons butter
4 cups onions sliced thinly into half moons then again into quarter moons
2 cups fennel sliced into thin half moons
1 bay leaf
freshly ground pepper
1 ½ pounds mild Italian sausage (bulk)
1-cup beef broth
1 pinch nutmeg
2 cups heavy cream
grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium-sized skillet. Add the onions, the fennel, bay leaf salt and pepper and turn the heat up to medium-high. Sauté for approximately 10 – 15 minutes until browned. Add sausage, crumbling into the onion/fennel mixture. Cook for approximately 10 minutes until it has lost its raw red color.
Add the beef broth and nutmeg and cook for 5 minutes.
Add the cream and cook another 10 minutes.
In the meantime, cook the pasta until al dente
Toss the sauce with the pasta and serve with grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
* spaghetti or any pasta can be substituted for strangozzi
Surprisingly, we dove together on the roads around Umbria not in an Alfa Romeo or a Fiat, but in an American compact car. Our little black Ford served us well! Katherine, our designated driver, had no fear of the small winding country roads near our farmhouse or the sometimes crazy and crowded streets of the larger towns. We all appreciated her driving skills and were happy to assist by taking turns navigating.
Despite the low-lying clouds that at times laid their heavy mist on the vineyards surrounding our villa, we were determined to take our daily side trips. We went to Assisi, one of my favorite towns in Umbria. We visited Deruta, a major ceramic center where we actually toured one of the large factories. Our trip to Lake Bolsena included stops at little villages along the way concluding with a walk on the black volcanic sand along the shore. Mostly we poked into the small towns close to our farmhouse where we could have lunch or a coffee and take a leisurely stroll through the town’s center – arm and arm just like the “real Italian ladies” do.
But our go to location was the town of Orvieto, either for food shopping or walking “ceramic row” right off of the Piazza Duomo. The local ceramic shops featuring everything from cheap looking touristy designs to artisan originals lined the packed streets of the city. Nearby, the Duomo itself was magnificent, a gem of Gothic architecture that took more than a hundred years to build. Many people refer to particular churches as Il Duomo, a word that actually derives from the Latin word “domus”, meaning house. We poked our head into the vestibule or sat outside at one of the many cafes in the piazza, the majestic shadow of the Cathedral dominating the square. One of our last nights together we dined right off Piazza Duomo at Gigli D’Oro, a restaurant Piero Antinori – the famous Umbrian and Tuscan winemaker – recommended to me. It specialized in typical Umbrian dishes.
Our meal there was fantastic. Of course, we stated off with a bottle (or two!) of Antinori Orvieto, the winemaker’s signature white wine, which to this day remains one of my favorites. It’s a crisp, dry and stylish white wine with a slightly peachy taste perfect with the dishes we ordered. Even today a cold glass always reminds me of this special time with my friends and family. Umbria is also known for an abundance of meat dishes especially lamb and pork. We all ordered meat or poultry in one form or other including Oca (breast of duck with fennel and balsamic jus), lamb with a black truffle sauce, veal scollopine with tomato and herbs and a fantastic roast sucking pig. All were accompanied by delicious sides. With the oca came a most interesting side – a flan using black truffle oil. The height of black truffle season in Umbria is from October through December and we were there just a bit early. Although the black truffle is a very seasonal delicacy (mostly found in Norcia, it does not taste good out of season), there were always dishes available that used black truffle oil instead of the actual truffle to impart the flavor of the region. This was a delicious example.
The recipe that follows is one that Convito Chef Noe Sanchez developed. He often serves it as a first course but also as a side with lamb or beef.
Black Truffle Flan
2 cups heavy cream
6 whole eggs
½ cup Parmesan cheese grated
2 tablespoons black truffle oil salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Whisk together the cream, eggs, Parmesan and truffle oil. Pour into 8 individual 4 oz. ramekin dishes and place in a bain-marie. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 – 40 minutes until set at the edges. (It should still be somewhat “jiggly” at the center.
Serve as an appetizer or first course with a petit salad or as a side with lamb or beef
Sitting around the pool for a portion of each day gazing out onto the vine clad hills surrounding the property, became a part of our daily ritual. It was a soothing, relaxing and contemplative time. Marcia and Marianna usually read, I wrote in my journal (which is the reason I can still recall a good level of detail for these blogs), Katherine would begin her day with an early morning swim and my sister Karen painted or sketched in her sketchbook.
Unfortunately, our “real Italian” time, this organic, let things happen experience had to come to an end. Karen and Katherine left first, but Marcia, Marianna and I stayed for another week. And even though we continued to go on daily side trips, visited a couple wineries, even cooked a few more meals in our farmhouse kitchen the experience was never quite the same. That time with all the “girls” was really quite magical.
As a parting gift, Karen gave me one of the paintings she was working on – “Still Life with Apple and Stone”. She had collected the apples – somewhat gnarly and end-of-the-season – and the stone from our vineyard property. It hangs in my office today; a reminder of those lovely late fall days spent with my “girls” at Selvamica in the heart of beautiful Umbria.