1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy: Umbria, The Marches and San Marino

Originally Published November 1954
A foray into the Umbrian hills produces subtle treasures: black truffles, white wine, and chocolate from Perugia.

We're not going to thrash around with superlatives in describing the two regions which have been paired together to form the sixth of these epicurean jaunts. They are not the most spectacular parts of Italy, and the traveler in the custody of a guided tour barely glimpses them. A pilgrimage to Assisi, the shrine of St. Francis, an overnight stop in Perugia, and he's off to Venice, with hardly a glance at the Republic of San Marino over his left shoulder, and only a flickering acquaintance with the seductive wine of Orvieto and the black truffles of Norcia. And that's too bad.

The more leisurely visitor, especially if he has a midget motorcar to putter about in, soon learns how much his hurried compatriot has missed. Umbria, and most of the Marches, is just one verdant Apennine after the other, with a wealth of medieval hill towns to reward the adventurer. By the time he has seen such miniature Carcassonnes as Spoleto, Cascia and Urbino, and has visited the fantastic crow's nest republic of San Marino, he realizes that this region is one of the neglected treasures of Italy. He may have found a dearth of fashionable spots for the skier, the casino hound and the sun worshiper, but he has encountered good food and wine, and comfortable places to slop overnight-almost everything, in fact, except his fellow tourist. This travelogue, therefore, is definitely for those who yearn to leave the beaten path.

There arc rewards aplenty for the food-conscious pilgrim too, although he must do a bit of scouting to avoid the dullness of hotel fare. Umbrian cooking has no strong regional tradition, but there are a few local dishes revolving around truffles, suckling pig and wild pigeons which are quite exciting. A rustling, gray-green tapestry of olive trees covers these Apennine slopes, which means that Umbrian cooking basks in olive oil, and of a quality only surpassed in Tuscany. In short, there is nothing sparse or Franciscan about 'he cooking in Umbria, in spite of the chaste example set by its greatest citizen, St. Francis of Assisi.

The Marches, unlike Umbria, are not landlocked and rejoice in the superlative fish caught off their Adriatic shore, the most delicate and varied in Italy. The fish soup which results from this piscatorial plenty is called brodetto marchigiano, an Adriatic cousin which holds up its head proudly with the bouillabaisse of Marseilles and the zuppa di pesce of Genoa. Here is a regional specialty to rank with the finest in Italy, a rash statement which we venture only after tasting brodetto all' anconeiana at Passetto, Ancona's most celebrated restaurant.

A fine race of oxen thrives in the hills around Perugia, assuring the robust steaks and savory ragouts which you will find on local menus. It is more difficult to come upon an Umbrian specially called palombacce, but if you are here in March or October, it is worth seeking out. During these months the wild pigeons fly over these hills, and a good many of them are waylaid to end up on the matting spit as palombacce. They arc served with an aromatic sauce called la gbiotta, based on a learned ané savory Combination of olives, lemon peel, sage, anchovy, vinegar, wine, oil, salt and pepper, quite enough to disguise the indiscriminate eating habits of any vagrant pigeon.

A favorite family dish in Umbria is la porcbetta. This is young, unfattened suckling pig. spiced with garlic, rosemary and other aromatic herbs. His eatable spare parts are cooked in a separate dish in the same oven. Whether they serve him with an appetizing black truffle in his mouth we don't know, but it sounds logical, for Umbria is the Italian home of the black truffle.

In the late autumn the Umbrian farmer and either his truffle hound or his sow are familiar sights in the southern extremity of this region. Norcia, Scheggino, Spoleto and Cascia, picturesque hill towns all (the last named provided our title page sketch), are centers for the fragrant ebony tuber which now plays such an important part in the orchestra of any fine chef. There are many other varieties of truffle in Italy, of course: delicious white and lavender ones, best known in Piedmont, and some which aren't delicacies at all. There is a strong, handsome but malodorous one called tubero bituminato, for example, a too-coalish nugget which even pigs won't eat, and which is blackballed from the big city markets. Hut luckily the choicest black varieties, tuberomelanosporo and tubero brumale, flourish in these hills, as they do under the oak trees in Périgord. In years when the truffle crop is sparse in France, it seems logical to import from Italy. After ail. écrevisses are flown into France from Poland to garnish many a Burgundian dish. Just how many Umbrian tubers have been shipped to Périgord to become naturalized French truffles, and to appear imbedded in the divine foie gras of Périgord geese, is a matter of total conjecture. It has happened, however, and Italian black truffles have found a warm reception in New York and London restaurants as well. They found an even warmer reception two millennia ago when the Romans, ascribing aphrodisiac powers to them (“Pbiltrum quo vincere mulierem”), dedicated the templing tuber to Venus herself' There is an ancient saying that “those who wish to lead virtuous lives should abstain from truffles, but proof of such propensities, alas for the truffle trade, is dismally absent.

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