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In this episode, we head to Italy’s green heart – beautiful Umbria, where you’ll find beautiful green pastures, hills topped with ancient villages, and important Medieval cities and discover its wonderful dishes made with porchetta, pasta, panzanella, and more!
We talk to Letizia Mattiacci, a cookbook author who runs a cooking school in the region. She shares with you the bounty of the region, its dishes, and their importance to the local communities. You’ll learn why Umbria is a great place to visit for foodies, history, and nature lovers and what dishes to order when you get there including turkey, porchetta styles, a love cake, and cookies to dip into wine.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Letizia and her husband Ruurd, backgrounds are in Entomology, but they found even being out in the sticks of Tanzania, cooking Italian food brings people together and brings them joy. They then swapped teaching their friends how to cook the dishes they served them in various places around the world, to invite people to the cooking school and Agriturismo in Italy that they started 20 years ago – Alla Madonna del Piatto
- There are lots of cliches about Italian food – so many think Italians eat pizza, pasta, and tiramisu every day when, of course, that’s not the way they eat and there are huge regional differences from region to region and even town to town. There are very deep and very ancient traditions around food in each region and Italy didn’t even become one country legally until 1860, so the regions developed quite independently from each other
- Umbria has a fairly cold (for Italy) winter and has a very hilly terrain so the food is suitable for that environment
- A key ingredient in many dishes are ancient grains, like farro, which is something that has been cultivated since the times of the Romans
- Another ingredient is legumes, especially the lentils, that work well in the Apennine areas where you have high altitudes. The lentils from Castelluccio di Norcia, are world-famous among chefs and cooks. They cook quite quickly, only for 15 to 20 minutes and are very flavorful and not starchy. If you cook them with some aromatics and just put some good olive oil on them, you have a marvelous dish with minimal effort
- Umbrian olive oil is that classic peppery, grassy, green aromatic oil that you use to drizzle on almost everything. If you visit in Autumn/Fall, when there is olive harvest, it is amazing to taste
- Other ingredients you’ll find in Umbrian food are both black and white truffles and pecorino cheese
- Torta al Testo is a flatbread, not dissimilar to a Piadina or to a Mexican tortilla, in the sense that is scooped on a cast-iron disc, but it’s thicker (probably four times as thick as a Mexican wheat tortilla). Umbrians are very fond of this bread that the farmers who were quite poor, would make after working in the fields and didn’t have time to make a raised bread. In the past, the farmers would have it probably with vegetables, maybe a little bit of pecorino, but nowadays people more likely have it with prosciutto. A classical thing that you find at every garden party in the summer, is to have the Torta al Testo cut open and then filled with grilled sausages with cooked spinach or other steamed vegetables
- Torta di Pasqua is an Easter cheese bread – because Pasqua is Easter. It’s a big, thick bread that is consumed for breakfast on Easter day, together with a good plate of charcuterie, prosciutto, or salami, for example.
- The Umbrian ribbon pasta, Stringozzi, is very easy to make. Letizia makes them all the time in her cooking classes because people are surprised that they can make fresh pasta so quickly. A tradition recipe that has evolved with the local ingredients is the truffle carbonara. This is especially one to look out for in Trattoria’s in Umbria in the truffle season from October to January
- Cacciatore chicken is a hunter-style chicken with no tomatoes. You will find tomatoey dishes in Umbria, but they are not used in the truly traditional dishes as until around the 1950/60s, there were not many tomatoes grown in the region. The chicken is braised with onion and garlic, juniper berries, sage, rosemary, wild fennel (seeds if you can’t get fresh), capers, olives, and some white wine. In the past, this would not have been a chicken dish, as traditionally in Umbria they did not kill their chickens because the chicken was used by the farmer to produce eggs and sell them at the market. The dish would be for game such as guinea fowl, pheasant, or pigeon (which can still often be found). You finish the dish with a little lemon peel and a little lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, because that little bit of sour offsets the sweetness of the chicken
- If you come to Umbria, you will find many porchetta-style dishes and Turkey porchetta style is a great one and fantastic for parties. You take a Turkey leg, have it deboned, and then fill it up with a mixture of herbs and a little bit of guanciale or pancetta. The guanciale and the herbs then melt inside the turkey leg while you roast it slowly in the oven
- As a side dish in Umbria, they eat a lot of steamed vegetables of the season. You take something like broccoli, spinach, or swiss chard, blanch it or steam it and then simply saute with a little bit of garlic (without burning the garlic as you just want the aroma of the garlic in the olive oil), with possibly a pinch of fennel seeds
- Panzanella is a bit of a misunderstood term because it’s often used for any bread salad, but in Italy, Panzarella is not just a generic bread salad, it’s a salad made with tomato, onion, one crunch ingredient (which can be a bit of celery or maybe cucumber). There’s no meat, olives, mozzarella, nothing else except some bread, which should be nice crusty bread that has become stale, which you then quickly dip in water and break into pieces. You can also have bread that you have air-dried in the oven and tossed. It shouldn’t be soft bread. You really want nice ripe tomatoes and when you mix it with the juice, it becomes soupy. A great dish to have when it’s very hot. You just have panzanella as a side dish or as a full meal.
- The majority of the baked desserts in Umbria are originated from bread. They have very many very simple desserts. Traditionally they were bread dough, sweetened and enriched with other ingredients. However, nowadays many are also just made as normal cakes and cookies. Ciaramicola, translated in English is Fiance cake or love cake. This cake is like a ring cake and has a romantic history. The dough is made with a special liquor that you find in Italy (it’s a bit difficult to find outside Italy), called Alchermes. Alchermes is a liquor that was made already in the middle age with all sorts of strange ingredients. ambergris, pearls, gold leaf, all sorts of weird ingredients because it was considered a super special thing. It was colored with the shell of tiny insects, which were bright red, though the modern liqueur is not made like this (it now has red food coloring). You’ll find it in every shop in Umbria and in central Italy in general. It has a lot of spices – cloves, cardamon, rose water, vanilla, cinnamon. When you make the cake, because of the food coloring, the inside of the cake is bright pink, almost red, which signifies the heart and love. Outside it has a lemon meringue that signifies purity. This was traditionally given as a love gift for Easter – the girl would make it for her boyfriend for Easter week, as a symbol of love.
- Ciambelline cookies are also ring-shaped, in fact, Ciambelline means ring. Since it derives from bread dough, it’s much easier to cook something sweet with a hole in the middle – it cooks better. If you have vegan friends. This is the ideal dessert because it’s mixed only with olive oil and wine, with fennel seeds, flour, and sugar. It’s rolled in sugar for a very light sugar crust. These are the classic cookies that you find in all the wineries in Umbria to taste with local wines like Sagrantino. You actually dip the cookies in the wine!
- Umbria has been part of the Kingdom of the Pope for many centuries and there was never a royal court to bring in the sophisticated patisserie that you have in Sicily, Piemonte, or Naples for example. So sweets are very rustic and simple with not a lot of sugar. This is one of the reasons why you also want the wine with it, because often the desserts are quite dry
- There are a lot of options in Umbria for those that can’t eat gluten. With so many lentils it’s also great if you’re vegetarian. Letizia herself can’t eat wheat and never has problems going to a restaurant (polenta is a classic – made from corn). So there’s a nice balance of dishes and foods there for people who’ve got all different types of eating requirements in Umbria
- In a proper Trattoria, they will just have ‘vegetable of the day’ because it depends on what they find in the market. So in April that might be artichokes and asparagus – it shouldn’t just be spinach. One should always ask if you want more vegetables and a lot of beans or lentils
- There are also a lot of sauces that are based on seasonal ingredients which you will only find at a certain time of the year. For example, pasta with fresh fava bean. That comes up in April, and then it disappears.
- Letizia tells people is that the real food is found in the countryside. There’s a variety of small villages where you have way better food than in the very center of more touristy places. Asisi has been a pilgrimage place for 700 years, it’s absolutely gorgeous and you have a couple of really nice restaurants, but if you want extraordinary, you have a little to go a little bit out in the hills, ask the locals what their favorite place is for a specific meal
- You’ll find very nice Trattorias in the area of Bevagna and Montefalco, which are in the wine area
- In the area of Valnerina, one of the valleys that is south of Assisi towards Spoleto, you just find these little villages with specialty products like fresh trout. There are villages that just go out and they have the stream and they get the trout and they cook it on the fire for you and they serve also that with truffle. Even where Letizia lives you can’t buy this trout and she’s only 45 minutes away, so it’s a very small production
- Letizia buys her meat from a butcher in the town of Santa Maria de Angeles which is just down the hill from Assisi. The cows he breeds, are from just around 5 km out of town and they’re happy cows. It’s very specialist and local. She doesn’t eat a lot of beef, but if she does, it has to be that beef
- They’ve produced Saffron in Umbria since the 1500s – coming from the saffron plant (Crocus sativus) – which are beautiful, purple flowers
- If you come to Umbria, you should try to see the countryside. Unfortunately you do need a car to visit these areas (but otherwise, you miss the best). There are beautiful medieval towns, stunning countryside and places to stop have fabulous meals
- In the Sibillini Mountains, which are part of the Apennines there is a plateau that in the early summer is completely covered by a rainbow of flowers. People come from all over the world to see it. From spring to the early summer, we have flowers everywhere in Umbria
About our guest – Letizia Mattiacci
She previously worked as an academic – an exciting and fulfilling experience, but at a certain point she realized that even the most splendid career is not everything. So she looked at her life and asked: when am I the most happy? what do I truly love to do? What am I good at? As it turned out, both Ruurd and Letizia were quite good at hosting friends and family and sharing great food and recipes at the kitchen table.
And that’s why they decided to give their dream a try and open their home and kitchen to people from all over the world. They are still doing this with joy after almost 2 decades. They love good, simple food. Fresh, seasonal food that can be made in a short time at the end of a busy day.
People who come to their cooking classes and/or to stay with them come back again, often becoming friends. They come for the food experience but also for the storytelling and for the human interaction. This year, Letizia and Ruurd are celebrating 20 years of running their Agriturismo and cooking classes.
You can find Letizia on these channels:
- Website: www.madonnadelpiatto.com
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/madonnadelpiatto
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/letizia.mattiacci
- Pinterest: www.pinterest.it/madonnadp
Places mentioned in the show
- Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi – the mother church of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor Conventual in Assisi
- Perugia – the capital city of Umbria
- Castelluccio di Norcia – a village in Umbria, in the Apennine Mountains, famous for it’s lentils
- Orvieto – hilltop city with a gorgeous cathedral and fascinating past that is an easy stop on the train between Florence and Rome
- Bastia Umbra – small town near Peruglia
- Bevagna and Montefalco – towns in the wine area of Umbria
- Valnerina – the valley of the River Nera, to the southeast of Spoleto
- Spoleto – ancient city on a foothill of the Apennines
- Sibillini Mountains – part of the Apennines
- Santa Maria degli Angeli – town south of Assisi. The name of the city was used by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries as the name of Los Angeles
Food & Drink
- Torta di Pasqua – Easter cheese bread
- Torta al Testo – Umbrian flat bread
- stringozzi – long ribbons of pasta from Umbria. The name of the pasta comes from its resemblance to shoelaces, as stringhe is Italian for strings
- truffle carbonara – Umbrian twist on a classic carbonara
- chicken cacciatore – hunter-style chicken with no tomatoes
- stuffed roast turkey porchetta-style – stuffed turkey leg, porchetta style – great for parties
- Umbrian panzanella salad – bread salad done properly
- ciaramicola (Fiance cake) – colorful cake with a special, romantic history
- ciambelline cookies – Umbrian cookies that you dip in wine
- cacio e pepe – a delicious pasta dish originating in Rome. Meaning “cheese and pepper” in several central Italian dialects – the ingredients of the dish are: black pepper, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and spaghetti (or traditionally tonnarelli)
- leavened bread – uses a rising agent
- piadina – a thin Italian flatbread
- Pici – Tuscan noodle-like pasta
- Guanciale – Italian cured meat from pork cheeks, taking it’s name from guancia, the Italian word for ‘cheek’
- Alchermes – liquer prepared by infusing neutral spirits with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla, with other herbs and has a striking scarlet color
- Bistecca alla fiorentina – steak from the chiannina cows from the Val di Chiana in Tuscany
- Sagrantino – Umbrian wine grape variety
- St Francis of Assisi – an Italian Catholic friar from the 1100s and one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity
- Entomology – study of insects
- Tsetse fly – large biting flies that inhabit much of tropical Africa
Resources from Untold Italy
- Learn more about the wonders of Italian food in Italian food facts and about the hidden gems of Italy and Umbria in Beautiful small towns in Italy
- Listen: to our other episodes on Umbria in Episode #065 Uncovering Umbrias towns and villages and Episode #019 Wine and wandering in Umbria
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.