Umbria, Italy: Cook, Eat, Drink, and Repeat
Rain pelted the Umbrian region of Italy the day before I arrived. Fields were flooded, trains didn’t run, roads were closed, but I would have never known it from the blue skies above Chiusi Station.
Emerging from a green Land Rover and running towards me was Alina, one of the owners of Il Fontanaro. Although only a few minutes late, she was a bit frazzled due to the area’s road closures, as much of the rain had yet to subside. In the very back of the Land Rover were two giant chocolate labs, no doubt relishing the short road trip. I managed to get my over-stuffed and over-sized suitcase into the car and eagerly climbed into the front seat.
In the short, thirty-minute drive through the spectacular Umbrian countryside, Alina pointed out flooded fields, old churches, and small villages, including the one she grew up in, Paciano. As we made our way through the narrow, rural roads, I felt as if I’d seen it all before. This was quintessential Italy to me, the stuff of movies, but so much better. Despite it being early winter, I imagined the fields filled with sunflowers looking like a yellow blanket over the rolling hills.
Driving through the iron gates of Il Fontanaro and seeing the farm made me want to call a mortgage broker and buy my own Italian dream just like Diane Lane’s character in Under the Tuscan Sun. The gravel driveway led to the rock and brick farmhouse, which looked nothing like the Texas farmhouses I was used to.“If this is what being an Italian farmer is like then sign me up,” I thought as I surveyed the property. A nice-sized vegetable garden, green house, and villa were set off to the side, but the centerpiece, besides the spectacular surroundings, was the beautiful main house.
Throughout the immediate property were pockets of heaven, places where you could imagine spending a lifetime. Plants in terracotta pots lined brick ledges, a hammock hung from trees, and cozy tables and chairs provided the perfect spots to relax and take in the views. Pomegranate trees held on to their last remaining fruit and olive trees were ready to be harvested. It was love at first sight for me.
Just steps from the main house was my villa. Named Leccino after a type of olive grown in central Italy, it was perfect. A large living room decorated with yellows, greens, and blues greeted me. A ceramic wood-burning stove provided some warmth from the slight nip in the air. On the kitchen table was a bottle of wine, honey, and olive oil, all organic and made at Il Fontanaro. I lugged my giant suitcase into the bedroom where I lamented the fact that I was only there for one night. After a week on the road, I appreciated the home-like feel.
Alina gave me a little time to settle in, but Walks of Italy arranged a cooking class and there were six courses on the menu. Between my house and the villa was a small stocked kitchen where the classes are held. Lucia, Alina’s mother, had my recipe book and apron ready to go. On the wooden table in the center of the kitchen were various Italian meats and cheeses to stave off my hunger and a bottle of wine to wash it all down with. Had I known the veritable feast I was in for I think I would have not been quite so gluttonous with the starter.
Fresh fruits and vegetables from Lucia’s garden were scattered throughout. It reminded me of being in my grandmother’s kitchen. In the summers, we always had home-grown food from the garden. I’d forgotten how much I missed the sight, smell, and taste of that. Lucia pointed to a bowl of freshly-cut apples and a pile of resting dough. The first thing we cooked was an apple strudel, which struck me as odd. Lucia explained that she had family near the Italian-Austrian border and she’d grown up eating the dish.
The table was cleared and flour was spread onto the cutting board top. It was time to make homemade pasta. Unsuccessful in previous pasta-making attempts, I had a feeling of slight trepidation. Alina guided me through the process and let me in on her little secret: add sparkling wine and premium-quality olive oil, but leave out the salt. I blended and kneaded the ingredients until Alina’s approval was given then sliced the dough into ribbons. This pasta would be used for the ragu sauce.
Three kinds of meat all with distinct white marbling were unwrapped from the butcher paper. I could tell this ragu sauce would be super rich. Tomatoes, fresh herbs and spices, wine, and who knows what else were poured into the pot and left for hours to simmer down into a thick sauce. I’ll tell you that of all the things I ate during my month in Europe, that this dish was my absolute favorite.
What would an Italian meal be without multiple courses filled with carbs? Using fresh pumpkins, next we made a risotto. This is where things start to get a little foggy. Since Alina is a sommelier, the wine was flowing. It would have been rude of me not to try everything she presented, right? I do, however, remember the taste of the sweet roasted pumpkin mixed with the creamy risotto. Delizioso!
Lucia pulled out the beautiful piece of tenderloin after browning it in a skillet and laid it on a piece of plastic wrap. Surrounded by a bed of fresh rosemary, she began to sprinkle whole red and black peppercorns atop the meat. Lucia continued to pile fresh herbs onto the tenderloin before wrapping it up in the plastic and tying the ends with string. Into the oven it went where its delicious smell would tease me for the next hour.
A good five hours of cooking, eating, and drinking had passed. Alina still had food on her mind. After all, she hadn’t made her famous carbonara yet. I only slightly pleaded with her not to make it. I’d missed having good carbonara since I’d left Rome two years earlier and despite my full stomach, still had an appetite for the rich pasta dish. I watched Alina work almost mindlessly making her special dish. It was inherent, and I could tell she’d made it a million times. In less than twenty minutes, the steaming bowl of carbonara was on the table ready to be shared. I relished the flavor that the pig jowel brought to the dish. I imagined that it was the key ingredient.
On our fifth, sixth, or seventh bottle of wine, Lucia, Alina, Lola, and I all relaxed around the family’s table in the main house. By this time we weren’t just customers paying for their private cooking class. We had become friends. It’s amazing how breaking bread and sharing wine can do that to people.
The four of us chatted for hours at that table. Lucia shared the history of the farmhouse and how she and her husband developed it into its current condition. Alina spoke of how she’d been born in Rome, but that her family wanted to raise her brother and her in the country. They both talked about the people they welcome from all over the world. Many are now friends and return each year.
Listening to the mother and daughter talk I realized that Il Fontanaro is not just special because of its surrounding beauty. The place is special because of the family that built it. The olive oil, honey, and wine produced is made with pride and love from the area. It’s an editable snapshot of the culture and tradition of the families that have lived there for generations. The fact that I was fortunate enough to experience this made me feel blessed.
After a round of espressos, Alina wanted to show off her pride and joy. With a flashlight in hand, she led me down a flight of stairs under my villa. Behind the heavy, wooden door was the most impressive private wine collection I’d ever seen. As I mentioned, she is a sommelier, and her collection showed that. There must have been over 2,500 bottles of wine from around the world. The room was meticulously organized and each bottle was placed with care. Some were tagged, and I figured those must be the extra-special bottles. I wondered how long it took her to amass this many bottles and how she decided on just what to buy. This room was simply fascinating.
I’d only gotten to the farmhouse hours prior, but I felt like I was home. Lucia and Alina made certain I felt that way. I look forward to seeing Alina in New York City in a few weeks and returning to Il Fontanaro in the summer for some more of Lucia’s tenderloin and apple strudel. Next time I hope to be a little more helpful in the kitchen. After all, I’ll be returning as a friend, not simply a customer.
Thanks to Walks of Italy for providing the private cooking class. I was a guest of Walks of Italy, but as always, the opinions are true and my own. A special thank you goes to Alina and Lucia for welcoming me into their home.