Where have I been lately?
The short answer is in Italy. Last month, my sweetie and I took eleven days to eat and drink our way across Tuscany and Umbria—a trip I have been fantasizing about for years. It wasn’t until a few months ago, however, that the stars finally aligned: timing, travel partner, finances.
One of the many lovely things about my sweetie is that he is as food-centric as I am, so the decision to fly into Rome and then immediately leave the city behind to find deliciousness in farms and villages was quick and easy.
So was the good eating itself. Our first stop was Orvieto, where we stopped into a small market shortly after we arrived and bought salami, bread, fruit, cheese, and wine, thinking that this would cover us for lunch for a few days. The proprietor smiled when we saw our purchases and poked a bit of gentle fun at the Americans: “Il cibo pronto, eh?” Ha. Yes, fast food—the only way to do it in the birthplace of Slow Food.
And so it began. Our pattern quickly became to grab a pastry and a caffe latte in the mornings, nom on our market goods throughout the day, and then either find or prepare a feast for dinner. That is where it became interesting. I found myself bringing my own habits from home to our routine in Italy: what could we find that would be fresh, in season, inexpensive, and absolutely delicious?
We began with lessons from the pros. The region is having its coldest winter in about three decades, and it had been snowing like crazy. Most of Orvieto was closed—either because it was the low season or because no one could get to work. Staggering a little from the combination of jetlag and icy cobblestones, we tromped around until we finally found an open place—Ristorante Piazza del Popolo. A gentleman seated us, took our order, poured our wine, went into the kitchen and prepared our food, and served it to us. We were the only guests in the restaurant, and Jostino, the owner/chef, was the only one working. The menu and the staff were limited due to the weather, but the meal was simple and perfect—I had a fennel and orange salad on greens, followed by a tagliatelle pasta with cinghiale, the local wild boar meat. The flavors were fresh and uncomplicated and light-handed. There was no garlic (a surprise to us—we thought garlic was the defining flavor of Italian food).
So we learned: find fresh, don’t overcomplicate, don’t worry about the garlic. And a couple of days later, in San Gimignano, we picked up pancetta, an onion, tomatoes, pasta. I had bought some fresh pecorino with black truffles in Pienza earlier in the day after reading somewhere that the pecorino of the region is creamier this time of year because the sheep are eating grass instead of hay. I stole a sprig of rosemary off a shrub on the side of the road during a walk (yes, still a forager!). We had a small apartment with a kitchen, so we put it all together – complete with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar stocked in the kitchen.
We had a few more blowout restaurant meals (especially worth noting was the incredible seafood feast we had in Bracciano with a friend of mine from college and her family), but we enjoyed our self-catering just as much. Apples, pears, more cheese, cinghiale prosciutto, fresh bread, spinach, mixed salad greens, more pasta, more wine. We would just dig out whatever we had — sometimes even just sitting in our tiny rental Fiat Panda, to stay warm — and picnic.
At some point during our indulgences, I remarked to my sweetie that the way we were eating on this trip was not all that different from the way we eat at home—fresh, local, seasonal, unprocessed. The main difference was the flavors we encountered by virtue of the locale. The cheese was fresher and creamier, truffles were much more plentiful and affordable, and cinghiale is certainly not easy to come by in Decatur.
But since we returned home we have taken a definite Tuscan and Umbrian turn in the kitchen. I found my old pasta maker, dusted it off, and put it into the sweetie’s hands, along with some all-purpose flour and a bunch of my girls’ eggs.
He figured it out and cranked out some fettuccine, which we combined with fresh kale from the garden and some local sausage I had in my freezer (nope, no garlic).
We walked up to the farmer’s market on the square, too, where I picked up some carrots and cabbage for a minestrone with barley and some aged pecorino with black truffles from Antico Mercante, purveyor of cheeses and cured meats from you-know-where. (I tried out my Italian on Franco. He didn’t seem terribly impressed.)
I used the rind of the cheese in the minestrone. Then I grilled a slice of homemade bread and poached an egg to go on top—just like the soup we had in a trattoria in Orvieto.