Under the Umbrian Sun

Vacationers heading to Italy usually think first of Tuscany. Go there if you like tour buses, hordes of curio shoppers, and high prices. If something about that doesn’t appeal to you, Umbria is right next door—undiscovered, relatively inexpensive and simply gorgeous.

We arrived at the villa we are sharing with friends on Saturday after the usual travel frustrations, which were quickly forgotten, erased by the charm of this hilltop estate located a half hour from Perugia.

IMG_3103Umbria is a region of steeply sloping hills thickly carpeted with oak and olive trees, vineyards, and bursts of color from the wildflowers encouraged by the late spring rains that are now receding in favor of brilliant, sunny mornings,  warm, hazy afternoons, and breezy, chill evenings.  The forests hum with life, the air permeated with the fragrance of rosemary and the scent of assorted blossoms, and birdsong drowned out only by the sound of your own footsteps. This is a different kind of travel for us—rooted in one place rather than dashing about, seeking repose rather than revelation.IMG_3095

After a day of rest and recovery my first activity was preparing a welcome meal in the Italian style—a multi-course dinner for six that unfolded over several hours and which included a variety of antipasti—roasted eggplant salad, salmon foam served over radicchio, and a bean spread and truffle-topped bruschetta—mushroom risotto, pork braised in milk with roasted potatoes, and creamy gelato drizzled with limoncello. Wine stars included a lovely Fiano di Avellino and a Taurasi,  both from Feudi  De San Gregorio secured by Adam and Joey on their brief tour of southern Italy.

But20190603_173506 this part of Umbria is known for its Sagrantino. My introduction to this little known varietal was a 2006 Della Cima from Villa Mongalli. Age had softened the notoriously tough tannins and this wine made a favorable first impression—it’s Chianti on steroids, cherry and earth but with muscle and concentration. The winery that figures out how to tame the tannins when young will put this varietal on the international stage.

Day three included a truffle hunt. It’s early June, several months away from prime truffle season. But in this part of Italy they harvest summer truffles—a less expensive, less flavorful version of the Burgundy black truffle which will not be available until September.IMG_3121

Female pigs were traditionally used to hunt truffles because they have a good sense of smell and respond to a male sex hormone which is part of the chemical make up of truffles. But the use of pigs here is outlawed because they destroy the truffle beds which must be preserved if the beds are to be productive in subsequent years. Thus, dogs trained to lay down when they smell the truffle are used instead.

I expected an arduous and likely unsuccessful trek through wilderness in order to find the truffles. But truffle hunter Massimo knew the general location where truffles are likely to be found and Yuma the truffle dog dutifully followed his commands, successfully discovering several truffles in the first half hour of our hunt. Yuma received a treat after each success but the dog seemed to need little encouragement, plunging into the hunt with tail-wagging enthusiasm whenever Maximo pointed at the happy hunting grounds.IMG_3124

Alas, despite the successful hunt and stimulating hike, the results were a bit disappointing. Summer truffles are not nearly as aromatic or flavorful as autumn truffles—they have a faint nut-like flavor and subtle earthy aroma but lack the explosive pungency of the black or still more powerful white truffles.

IMG_3127The culinary discovery of the day was actually the wild asparagus that Massimo harvested for us.

Cross-posted on Edible Arts on June 06, 2019.


2 responses to “Under the Umbrian Sun

  1. Dwight,

    Bravo! As you can imagine, after receiving your exciting and unexpected email from Umbria, I read your post with an unusual degree of enthusiasm and delight. The first paragraph immediately swept into your Umbrian adventures. It was refreshing to hear about a region in Italy than has not been obliterated by crass globalization and suffocating tourism. I definitely share your sentiments about the whole “Tuscan Sun” phenomena and have been a vocal critic for many years. It is bizarre how most people equate Tuscany with Italy, as if it were the ideal prototype and the heart and soul of the country. As we both know, nothing could be further from the truth. Tuscany has become one massive souvenir shop (especially Florence) with postcard-perfect imagery and a level of unrestrained tourism that quickly extinguishes any meaningful experience. Siena is more manageable than Florence in terms of cities. And I have a special place in my heart for Fiesole– the charming little hilltop town with a Roman amphitheatre. But, for me, Tuscany represents a romanticized image of a first girlfriend. I was awestruck at the time, but once disillusioned, lost all of my emotional attachment.

    I have never been to Umbria. I had a lot of undergraduate friends who went to university in Perugia on exchange. Apparently, the city is quite international and cultural as well as being affordable and relatively non-touristic (no over packaged bottles of olive oil or in-your-face postcard shops). I loved hearing about your wine selections–Taurisi (Feudi de San Gregorio) is good stuff. And Sagrantino! I have only had it a few times. I was impressed by its intensity and concentration and remember it being almost too overpowering. It sounds as if you had a smoother, supple version. I loved your description, “Chianti on steroids”–very original.

    Hearing about your truffle hunt just blew my away. I have always been fascinated by truffles and the whole industry. It is an intriguing aspect of Italian culture and cuisine that few people know much about. I knew a few famous chefs in SF in the 90’s and had the opportunity to try black truffles (once) and a risotto dish with white truffle oil. I could never afford any truffle dishes at the time. But the hunt and the ability of these pigs trained like geiger counters to zero in on hidden treasures buried in the soil is quite impressive. I did not realize Umbria was a truffle region. I guess Tuscany gets all the press on that. And I also had no clue that they have trained dogs to replace the pigs. This makes sense. Apparently, the pigs are very aggressive and can damage one’s property and soil in a hurry. If I am not mistaken, there are lawsuits in Tuscany for truffle poaching. The pigs just tear up the place. It is also a cutthroat business because it is very lucrative and many jealous truffle hunters have resorted to sabotage–poisoning his competitors pigs. Truth is stranger than fiction–especially when it comes to truffles. If the opportunity ever arises, I would love to make truffle risotto together. I will buy the arborio rice and do all of the shoplifting of truffles, you can do the cooking.

    Thanks so much for sending along your latest stuff from Roving Decanter. It has been quite some time since I read a post from it. By now, I imagine you are on your way to Alaska for a conference. I cannot imagine it has anything to do with Alaskan wines or truffle-hunting in Anchorage. Let me guess. Anything to do with King crabs or Sockeye Salmon? Are you and Lynn secretly training for the Iditarod dog race? I got it. You are doing a wine dinner for a Sarah Palin fundraiser? I give up.

    Enjoy the rest of your transcontinental adventure. Thanks for the inspiring little narrative about your Umbrian experience. When you return to San Diego, let me know when I can pick up the truffles and what kind of payment plan you are willing to arrange. Take care.


    Stephen Pacheco Lecturer, Philosophy Dept. University of San Diego 5998 Alcala’ Park San Diego, California 92110 Office: 619-260-7463 Mobile: 619-393-1400 pachecosm@sandiego.edu

    On Tue, Jun 18, 2019 at 10:47 PM Roving Decanter wrote:

    > Dwight & Lynn Furrow posted: ” Vacationers heading to Italy usually think > first of Tuscany. Go there if you like tour buses, hordes of curio > shoppers, and high prices. If something about that doesn’t appeal to you, > Umbria is right next door—undiscovered, relatively inexpensive and ” >


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