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Episode #223: Delicious Umbria’s most tasty food experiences

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In Umbria, known as the green heart of Italy, every meal tells a story of tradition, flavor, and local pride. Food experiences in Umbria reflect the rhythm of nature’s harvest and how the journey from soil to table is a cherished ritual. From truffle-hunting adventures guided by skilled hunters and their loyal dogs, wandering through lush vegetable gardens to hand-picking plump tomatoes and other crops ready for the day’s feast or to preserve for future delights, to festivals celebrating these food treasures in the region’s medieval towns and villages.

Show notes

It’s no secret how much we all love this central Italian region and its slow rural vibes and just love taking out Untold Italy Tour guests there to discover just how special this land is and getting them involved in all the local centuries-old food traditions in this special pocket of Italy, so in this episode, we welcome back Sarah and Salvatore who have run La Cuccagna, an agriturismo set in the beautiful Umbrian countryside near the medieval town of Gubbio, for 20 years, to share some of the food experiences and traditions you can take part in on a visit to Umbria. We talk truffle hunting, cheese making and the importance of seasonality.

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What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Sarah and Sal met in the UK when Sal was teaching Sarah as a paragliding instructor. They discovered they both had a love of travel and ended up traveling together all over the world, including some quite remote locations
  2. The thing that they loved most about traveling was meeting the real local people and getting invited into so many people’s homes, off the beaten track, so they decided that they would go home, and instead of going back to corporate machines, they would move back to Italy and set up a sustainable B&B and have a more positive impact on the planet. They wanted to open their home to share with people all the amazing, authentic experiences that you can have in Italy, because whilst Italy is well-trodden, there are still lots of amazing hidden gems and unique cultural experiences to be had that you can’t find in guidebooks
  3. Despite Sal being from the south of Italy, a beautiful area in the mountains southeast of Naples, Sarah was very particular about wanting to be in Tuscany – their search landed them over the border in Umbria where they fell in love and never looked back. They found a beauty and a pace of life that they hadn’t found elsewhere in Italy. The area is one of the the most sparsely populated parts of Italy and life still feels like 50 years ago to the rest of the world
  4. Katy finds landing in Umbria generally feels like such a relief. When you’ve been traveling around in the big cities of Italy –  you can just go and breathe in that beautiful Umbrian air, and get some much-needed space
  5. Sarah and Sal created their agriturismo La Cuccagna – which is definitely on the fancier end of agriturismi and is very beautiful 
  6. When guests are with them they’ll say “Oh, my goodness me, we’d forgotten what starry nights look like and how quiet things can be”
  7. You just hear the sounds of the countryside – the birds, the donkeys, the tractors etc – it’s very different for people coming from the cities and fast-paced life
  8. When Sarah goes back to visit England, she sits on the motorway and realizes she’d forgotten that that kind of traffic even exists
  9. They have lovely, open views, lots of hedges and some woods too. When you go into the woods and you look into the hedges in the dark of night, it’s like a fairyland with thousands of fireflies twinkling away
  10. When we recorded with Sarah and Sal it was springtime in Umbria and the weather was beautiful. Sarah and Sal were busy running around getting everything ready to open in March. Even though it’s hard work, it feels like they’ve created somewhere very special
  11. There is beauty surrounding La Cuccagna, whatever the season or the weather, It can be really stunning in the middle of a dramatic storm and then you have crisp blue skies, and the garden contrasting everything with lush green, and lots of red, purple, and pink blossoms. It’s very vibrant and colorful with everything waking up after sleeping for the winter
  12. Umbria is known as the ‘Green heart of Italy’ because it stays green for most of the year. They’ve been living there for 20 years now, and every single day, when Sal walks or drives around, he sees little details that he hasn’t seen before

The landscapes make the food

  • What makes the food special in Umbria, is that they have all the greenery, rolling hills and mountains – so lots of fantastic pasture and good grazing. Umbria is known for pigs and cows, and they’ve also got forest and woodland as well, so lots of game – wild boar, game birds, rabbit and deer. All this forest and woodland also makes good fertile lands for mushrooms – particularly porcini mushrooms and truffles
  • Umbria, historically, hasn’t had a lot of outside influence. The French and the Spanish and other such invaders didn’t really leave as much of a mark there as they did on Tuscany or some of the other regions. So the region harks back to the older times of what life was like for people that lived in that region many centuries ago. A true reflection of old Italy
  • Wherever you go in Italy, you’re going to have great food, there’s no doubt about that. But food is very regional in Italy. Foreign food in Italy is lasagna from another region. You speak to any Italian man and they’ll tell you that the way that their mama cooks lasagna is undoubtedly the best way
  • Sometimes, a different village, only a few miles away, will have a different recipe altogether. In Italy, there are roughly 8,000 towns in the country, and so there are about 8,000 different ways of doing lasagna
  • As well as regional food, down to village level, the food is, of course, seasonal too. What you can experience in Spring is completely different to what goes on in Winter, Full/Autumn or summer

Sagra based on seasonal produce

  • One of the experiences that you can get coming to Umbria is throughout the year, in every season and almost every other week, there’s a local fest or sagra, which is always based around the food or the speciality from that particular village or town
  • There are all sorts of weird and wonderful, more unexpected festivals that you can find in Umbria. There’s a little village called Cannara, which is very famous for its onions, and Trevi is famous for its black celery. Another village will have a festa of the snails
  • There’s also lots that you might expect, like the truffles and wild asparagus. In Spring, it is lovely to wake up early in the morning and go on a wild asparagus hunt. Whilst you’re doing it, you’re also getting to enjoy the most fabulous views.
  • When we talk about food experience, it’s not just about eating it, it’s about engaging with it in marketplaces and socializing with people
  • Bevagna is one of the beautiful little medieval villages in Umbria. Twice a year, they have a big medieval festival. Sarah and Sal’s guests always come back having loved it. People are always dressed up in medieval costume and the village is full of big wooden dinner tables in the squares and streets –  it’s all about eating and drinking

Truffles

  • At the end of La Cuccagna’s season, going into Fall/Autumn, truffles are huge in Umbria. Sarah does say that as a caveat, everywhere in Italy they say that their region has the best or the most of things – but it is said that Umbria produces the most black truffle across the Italian regions. Umbria is famous for its black truffles, but they are also lucky to also have white truffles
  • ruffle hunting is a big thing in Umbria and Sarah and Sal’s guests love it when they go truffle hunting between  May and August. The official season is slightly shorter, but their truffle hunt is on private grounds, so they’re able to hunt outside of the legal dates for hunting on land that’s free to roam
  • Katy has had the opportunity to experience a few truffle hunts around Italy and has found some are a little bit more polished than others. However, she feels that when they are very polished, it can be a little bit suspicious because the reality is that you’re not going to find truffles necessarily every time you go out into the woods, and you’re certainly not going to find ones as big as golf balls every time – that can materialize on some hunts
  • Umbria is a region that’s relatively untouched by the tourism machine. Things tend to be less slick and there’s a real charm in that
  • La Cuccagna’s guests love their truffle hunts. Diego, their truffle hunter, comes up to the property to pick them up in his pickup. They introduce him and send out their daughter Rosa, because Diego doesn’t speak English, and our guests generally don’t speak enough Italian to understand what he’s talking about. So Rosa goes out and does a great job with translating. They get this really immersive experience because there is no problem with the language which in itself is an experience with Diego rabbiting away passionately and Rosa trying to keep up with the guest’s questions coming at her from different directions. At the same time, the dog’s sniffing things out and things are being dug up. Although it’s a calm experience, there is quite a lot going on
  • You’re going on a real experience. He looks and smells like the country and basically, you’re just going along to work with him
  • Normally when guests go out on a truffling hunt, they’ve normally asked Sal whether he can do a pasta-making course. You pick the truffles, bring them home, and then Sal does a pasta-making course, where you’re cooking something that’s just come out of the ground and is utterly delicious
  • If people aren’t doing a pasta-making course, then they often do a local specialty breakfast, of eating truffle grated on top of scrambled eggs
  • Egg and pasta are two types of produce which really enhance the taste of truffle. You can’t get better than an omelette or scrambled eggs with truffle or tagliatelle with truffle
  • There are various different truffle festivals throughout the season, depending on whether it’s black or white. When you go to the festivals, they’re serving truffle in all sorts of different ways that you wouldn’t imagine, and all sorts of different truffle products

Living off the land

  • Sarah and Sal enjoy living where they live and there way of life which includes living off the land. They have their vegetable garden and grow their own produce and there are certain things that they haven’t bought from a supermarket for two decades and are used to having wonderful quality produce
  • Sal starts his day in the vegetable patch and finds it soothing. He’ll wake up and do his rounds, taking a couple hours in the morning weeding a little and making sure that everything is growing the way it’s supposed to grow. As he goes along, he picks up a tomato or a few other vegetables for his breakfast which he normally eat in his breakfast in my vegetable patch
  • The produce is so much different to that which you could buy in a shop. They also make it last all year round. They make conserves as well as eating what they have picked fresh. Currently, they’ll be picking tomatoes every couple of weeks, bringing them in, washing them and making them into passata to store for all the year.  Same with beans
  • Their guests are also free to pick from their vegetable garden and you’ll often find them in the vegetable patch picking a few courgettes, aubergines or tomatoes for their supper
  • They have a friend, Sandro, who lives down the hill, and they refer to him as ‘the fruit and veg man’ to guests because that’s what he does. He has enormous fields, he grows fruit and vegetable, and he drives around and delivers to the locals. So their guests who have little kitchenettes can put in an order with him
  • Sarah and Sal produce most of their own fruit and vegetables but he fills in a few gaps now and then. Either way,  it’s part of their weekly routine that when he delivers on a Wednesday morning, he stops off to have coffee with Sal and what’s supposed to be a five-minute chat, normally turns into an hour
  • Sal said that the most important lesson he’s learned is to go with nature. Don’t try to force against nature which is so much bigger than us and so kind to us (even though we are often not so kind back to nature)

Preserving

  • The process for preserving things is to take the produce, wash it, cut it, and then dry it in a way that gets all the moisture out of the vegetables. After that, they add a little bit of vinegar to make sure that there is no bacteria growing on it. Then they cover it in oil and preserve it. You can add a little bit of herbs, chili or garlic – depending on who does it and their tastes. Some people like lots of garlic, some people don’t put garlic at all but use orange peel
  • Depending on the time of the year, their guests can take part in the preserving process if they’d like to – do a course on how to preserve tomatoes, aubergines or courgettes, for instance. Peppers, also they do filled with different things as is common in Italy. Some places they put capperi (capers), tuna, anchovies – a variety of things
  • Sal will go into their store room and alongside what has been picked fresh, find all these products and decide what to cook on that day
  • They have a variety of beans – fagolini, ceci, lentils, green beans as well as artichokes and even sweet things like strawberries or cherries. They normally do the sweet things in a little bit of alcohol to make it that little bit more tasty
  • You can preserve pretty much everything with two or three techniques that they use in Italy and  enjoy this food all year round
  • At La Cuccagna, they can’t really plan when they’re going to do things because it depends on what’s happening with the weather and the season as to what day is right for picking and what and where and when
  • They’ve also got fruit trees and they make their own jams that they serve in the dining room for breakfast
  • They’re a certified organic farm, so don’t use anything chemical. We keep it real so that you can really taste whatever it is being prepared
  • Umbria is not known for lemons, but they do have a lemon tree, and Sal makes limoncello every year from the lemons

Wine

  • Every Italian region has fantastic wines and all have their own protected and certified wines. There are many, many, many vineyards in Umbria, and another big food experience is wine-tasting
  • There are so many vineyards many of which are small family-run organizations. One in particular that Sal and Sarah use, which the guests love, grows only grapes that are indigenous to the area. They’re also completely biodynamic – they don’t use any chemicals. Each year, the wines tastes different because there’s nothing interfering with them other than nature. They don’t even use tractors to maintain the land as it impacts the earth – they use horses and geese. The guests are really tasting Umbria there because the grapes are just from only there and it’s evolved within the area
  • Guests often want to go in two or three different wine tastings which is nice because they can go to three different vineyards and have three completely different experiences
  • Katy has been listening to another podcast called The Ancients, where they are talking about the fascinating history of wine. The difference that one side of the hill can make to the taste of the wine compared to the other side and the winemaker’s knowledge of all these things – it’s so dedicated
  • When you travel in Italy, just tasting the different wines is a trip in itself. There’s so much passion out there and wherever you are, you should be able to find some really excellent products

Bread

  • Sal has been known to say that the only two things that are missing in Umbria are the sea and decent bread. This is because historically Umbrians generally make bread without salt, which dates back to the salt wars, when the Church heavily taxed salt. Umbrians stopped using salt in bread and never got back to that practice on the whole (and Sal being from Southern Italy is used to lots of types of delicious bread – made with salt!)
  • That being said there is tasty bread to be found in Umbria, like Torta Al Testo, a local flatbread
  • In Gubbio, which is their nearby city and is one of the oldest cities in all of Italy, they call their version of Torta Al Testo, Crescia
  • La Cresciamia is a beautiful little rustic place, with vaulted ceilings that is a great place to go for your Crescia in Gubbio. It’s like going into a pizza restaurant – you have about 8 pages of different ways to fill the flatbread
  • The bread can be seen as more of a vehicle for the filling which is already a little salty and flavorsome
  • Lots of Saraha and Sal’s guests go there and enjoy it and Katy went too and loved it!
  • Whether it’s Crescia in Gubbio, which is made slightly differently to the standard Torta Al Testo which you can get in Perugia and around Umbria – it makes an amazing light lunch
  • At Easter, there’s a particular type of Torta made with cheese – Torta di Pasqua

Cheeses

  • Umbria is very famous for its Pecorino and it’s Fromage de la fossa. Over the years they’ve started to make many different types of cheeses, so you can find many types of Italian cheese made locally, but some of the really old cheeses are more like the Pecorino
  • Caciotta is a nice, light, fresh cheese and is always available at breakfast. Its lightness means it’s great for breakfast
  • In Umbria, they also like to have honey with cheese, which might sound strange but is really nice – particularly Pecorino or Caciotta
  • You’ll often find honey on the big antipasti platters you get in Umbria. These platters are one of the things Sarah love most about going out to eat in Umbria. These are always huge and contain all sorts of different types of local things

Visiting Umbria

  • A lot of the guests who visit La Cuccagna, come on part of a bigger trip/tour of Italy. Umbria is often the only place they come to that’s proper countryside. They’ll have done all the big tourist spots, and then they find this huge contrast
  • There are some bigger places to see in Umbria, – it is famous for Assisi and Perugia, but people actually tend to love the little villages most
  • When Katy recently had Jo Mckay, the owner of Bookings for You, on the podcast (episode 215) and they agreed that if time allows, if you can build some countryside time into your busy Italy schedule, you will never regret. It’s something that will be a special part of your trip and it will be such a contrast to other things you see and experience
  • What Sarah and Sal are trying to achieve at La Cuccagna is an off-the-beaten-track, authentic experiences. It’s not taking away from all those amazing wonders and sights that you have to see when you come to Italy, but it is not only beauty and tranquility but just real people and real lives
  • Their guests visit the nearby city of Gubbio and exclaim that they did not hear English being spoken at all – it is a real place, full of Italians living their everyday lives. People really enjoy getting a taste of an authentic Italy
  • There are lots of really lovely, rustic experiences that you can have and around Umbria, you can experience every single food group – including chocolate
  • Chocolate is big in Umbria – you might go to Perugia, to the famous chocolate factory, and the city also has the European Festival of Chocolate for 10 days in October
  • In Umbria, from the beginning of April until mid to late November, every weekend, there are about four or five different Sagras (food festivals) as well as non-food festivals, like Festival Medieval. There is a festival in Spello where they re-enact Roman times – at the beginning and the end of the summer. Spello also has its famous flower festival
  • Another amazing experience is to go and see the flowering lentil and poppy fields in Castelluccio di Norcia. That is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you go there make sure to try some of the excellent Pecorino cheese in the local restaurant in Castelluccio
  • Sarah believes there is no danger of Umbria, and Castelluccia di Norcia, ever being overrun. Even if they doubled or tripled the amount of tourists they get each year, it wouldn’t come close to visitor numbers in Tuscany or many other places in Italy
  • Umbria doesn’t market itself much as a region to visit. Earlier in the year Katy was in Berlin at a big travel conference, and there were stands to cover regions across Italy, but no Umbria

Get in touch with Sarah and Sal or visit La Cuccagna

  • Want to add the Umbrian countryside and the beautiful La Cuccagna agriturismo to your Italy itinerary? Visit their website lacuccagna.com to find all their contact details. They love hearing from people, and like to help make people’s holidays really special, even if sometimes that means they’re telling people to go elsewhere, depending on what they’ve said that they want to do!
  • Go and stay with them, and they’ll undoubtedly help you make some special memories

Untold Italy Tours in Umbria

If you would like to experience authentic Italy, beyond the mainstream tourist paths enjoying hidden gems and local connections, then look no further than the Untold Italy Tours to stunning Umbria. We take care of every detail for you and help you experience an Italy that many visitors don’t get to see. Discover destinations, culture, food and people that will lead to experiences and memories of Italy that will stay with you for a lifetime.

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About our guests – Sarah and Salvatore of La Cuccagna

English Sarah and her Italian partner Salvatore met while paragliding and discovered a mutual passion for adventure and sustainable travel. After many experiences around the world interacting with ‘real’ locals, being invited into their homes and being shown hidden gems off the beaten track, they decided to find a little piece of paradise in Italy.
At La Cuccagna, they open their own home to offer guests a unique and authentic experience in the best possible accommodation at an affordable price. They love the Umbrian way of life and all the sights and activities its countryside has to offer and it gives them great pleasure to help their guests enjoy the very best stay in the stunning surroundings.

They do everything possible to minimize the environmental impact of La Cuccagna, and observe sustainable practices wherever possible, working with small local businesses and tradesmen, local materials and natural-based products from the local area. Original materials from the house have all been re-used in the restoration project and around the grounds. The property has an under-floor heating and hot water system that is run by solar power in the summer and from their special boiler fuelled by olive nuts in the winter months.

Their suppliers are carefully selected for the quality of their produce but also for their impact on the environment and local community. Most of the fittings, fixtures and furniture are locally sourced. Their beds are made by the local ironmonger and much of their tableware and ceramics are from various local potters and artists. Where they have to go further afield from their local shops and markets, they use Umbrian suppliers to ensure their business stays within the regional economy.

When catering they use home grown produce whenever possible (they grow herbs, fruit, and vegetables and make all their own passata, wine, limoncello, olive oil, chestnut products, and plenty more) and as a registered organic farm all their produce is free-range and organic.

You can find La Cuccagna on these channels:

Food & drink mentioned in the show

  • fagiolini – beans
  • La Fagiolina del Trasimeno – ancient bean soup dish that is  one of the Slow Food presidia of Italy
  • capperi – capers
  • ceci – garbanzo beans
  • Torta al Testo – ancient Umbrian recipe of focaccia cooked on a flat plate filled with local meet or cheese
  • crescia – a cheese bread from Umbria, typically eaten at Easter
  • fromage de la fossa – ancient cheese matured in rock pits known as tufa
  • caciotta – a soft umbrian cheese

Places mentioned in the show

  • Gubbio – city in Umbria, located on the lowest slope of Mt. Ingino, a small mountain of the Apennines
  • Tufo – small town in Campania’s Avellino province where Katy’s mother-in-law is from
  • Cannara – town in Umbria known for its onions
  • Trevi – ancient Umbrian town on the edge of Mount Serano
  • Bevagna – beautiful, ancient Umbrian village with a twice-yearly Medieval festival
  • Castelluccio di Norcia – a village in Umbria, in the Apennine Mountains, famous for its fields of flowers blooming
  • La Cresciamia – great place to get Crescia in Gubbio

Resources

Resources from Untold Italy

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