The Food and Cuisine of Umbria
Umbria cuisine is distinct from the others despite its small size. Visitors are drawn to Umbria because of the gracious nature of the locals. Having no access to the oceans has limited Umbria cooking to the land based food, but the variety of dishes is no less plentiful for it. Many of dishes rely on cooked and raw vegetables. Locally grown lentils, cardoons, porcini mushrooms and chestnuts are important staple foods in Umbria recipes. Cardoons are fried and then topped with a meat and tomato sauce in gobbi alla perugina. The region’s olive trees are responsible for making some of the best olive oil in Italy.
Fresh produce and fruity, local olive oil, foraged greens, mushrooms and truffles create luscious dishes without the need for additional ingredients in Umbria cooking. White truffles are a delicacy eaten fresh in Umbria cuisine. Norcia provides most of Italy’s black truffles. Umbria recipes use truffles to elevate the plainest egg, pasta or meat dishes to a gourmet meal. They are also made into a paste with garlic and anchovies. Black truffles are used in many ways, including to flavor local Pecorino cheese.
Shepherding is important to the local economy, so sheep’s milk cheese is an important staple food. Unlike most of Italy where Pecorini (plural for wheels of Pecorino cheese) are aged in salt, Umbrian cheeses may be rubbed with tomato paste or buried in ashes in terracotta urns to age. Some cheeses are aged in cool natural caves. Each of these aging methods gives unique texture and flavor to the final results. Generally this cheese is eaten plain or with preserved vegetables or meats, fresh fruits or simply out of hand with a glass of wine.
The local lentils are of especially high quality. Umbria cooking uses fava beans to make a hearty soup seasoned with pork rinds and rosemary. Onion soup is flavored with tomatoes, salt preserved pork, fresh basil and grated Parmesan cheese.
Fresh water fish is available for Umbria recipes. They are often made into a mixed stew called tegamaccio. This food combines pike, carp, eels and tench with garlic and peppers. Anguille alle brace marinates fresh water eels in white wine seasoned with pepper and bay leaves before grilling.
Meat is a large part of Umbria cooking. Poultry, wild game and roasts are cooked over pans filled with herbs. The drippings are collected and made into a sauce after the meat is finished cooking. Chianina beef, tender lamb, wood pigeon and free range chicken are commonly eaten food. Agnello arrosto takes baby lamb, smothers it with garlic, rosemary and sage and covers everything with olive oil in a roasting pan. This pan is placed in the dying coals of a wood oven and slowly cooked until tender. Wood fire roasted wood pigeons are dressed with a chicken liver, wine, vinegar and lemon sauce seasoned with rosemary and juniper berries in palombacci alla ghiotta.
Boar and hare are especially enjoyed in Umbria recipes. Lepre alla cacciatora braises hare in red wine and is flavored with garlic, sage and bay leaves.
Norcia is well known for the quality and variety of their cured pork products. Over time, Norcia has come to be the general Italian term for butcher, due to the quality of the meats from this area. In addition to the salame, Umbria produces mazzafegati, a pungent sausage made from liver and flavored with pignolas, raisins and orange rind. Porchetta from Umbria is also very highly prized. Proscuitto may as well be synonymous with the famous Prosciutto di Norcia.
Much of the dried pasta used as food in Italy comes from Umbria, but many handmade kinds of egg pasta are also eaten in Umbria cuisine. Tagiatelle with meat sauces are popular. Hand rolled ciriole and stringozzi look somewhat like the more familiar spaghetti. These are often enjoyed with a fresh sauce of black olives, tomatoes and garlic. Spaghetti alla nursina is served with black truffle sauce lightly kissed with the flavors of anchovy and garlic.
Bakers in Umbria use wood ovens to make giant saltless loaves of pane casereccio. Tore, springy pecorino or pork rind flavored breads, are made from an egg enriched wheat flour dough. Pan nociato are sweet rolls with pecorino, walnuts and grapes flavored with cloves. A similar bun, called pan pepato, is filled with almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts with raisins and candied fruit. Other desserts include torcolo, a sponge cake brimming with raisins and candied fruit, or claramicola. This meringue covered round cake is made with a rich eggy batter flavored with lemon rind and a spicy liqueur called Alchermes.
Fresh & Cured Meats:
Prosciutto di Norcia PGI, Salamini italiani alla cacciatora PDO, Vitellone Bianco dell’Appennino Centrale PGI
Pecorino Toscano PDO
Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia PGI