I only really had a loose travel plan when I arrived in Italy. I wanted to leave things open so I could get recommendations from locals on where to go and what to see. I think this strategy has paid off, as I would have just ended up following the tourist route.
I was keen to experience some regional cuisine, so I decided to travel to the province of Umbria, a couple of hours north of Rome and a place where I had vivid childhood memories from a family vacation in Italy when I was 13.
Getting there was a bit of a mission, as my destination was a tiny town called Magione, situated near a beautiful lake. It’s a little off the beaten track. I took a train to a nearby town called Perugia where I planned to hire a car for the remainder of my journey. But after missing my first train, by the time I arrived in Perugia the car hire place had closed (only 5 minutes earlier). After a confused conversation with the bus company, and an English speaker sensing my slight desperation and translating, I got on a bus to take me to the tiny town I had chosen to spend the next couple of days. Once I got there, my travel pains were all worth it as I was rewarded with the most breath-taking sunset.
Umbrian cuisine is quite rustic and honest – the region is famous for things like wild boar and the highly prized truffles that grow in the area. Regional dishes are full of seasonal vegetables cooked in rough pieces and served in different types of meats, pastas and soups.
I was staying in a B&B just outside the town centre, and my very helpful host Rosetta recommended a local restaurant called Pappagloria for an authentic Umbrian experience. She was also kind enough to call ahead and explain to the restaurant my food “intolerances”.
The restaurant was easy to find, in that there would only be a handful of dining options in Magione. You know you’re a long way from home when you haven’t heard any English speakers for a while. If you want a truly authentic experience with no tourists, this is the place to come. It’s also the perfect place for a candlelit romantic evening – sadly for me it was once again “una travola per uno” (table for one).
The menu was in Italian, which I can normally navigate my way around knowing most of the standard food words and ingredients in Italian. However this menu was hand written and the script was difficult to decipher, let alone translate. I really had no idea what I was looking at. The waiter, knowing my food intolerances, came over to describe the things I could have, which seemed to include most secondi dishes (main meal) but a limited choice of antipasto and primi plates. I asked if there was a suitable antipasto dish that I could have, and the waiter asked if I liked salami and fish. The prospect of these two ingredients sounded good, so I ordered an antipasto plate of what he was describing.
I think my antipasto was a slightly adapted version, without bread and a few other substitutions. By far the stand out was the fish, which was cured in a little jar with some pickled lettuce leaves. I asked in Italian what type of fish it was, to which I got an Italian answer. All I could manage to understand was that it was a local fish from the lake. It’s hard to describe what it was like – it was soft and had a unique flavour. Whatever the fish was, it was incredible and memorable.
No sooner had I demolished the entire antipasto plate, I was presented with my main course – a traditional dish from Umbria – of wild boar with porcini mushrooms called Cinghiale con Funghi Porcini. It came with a rich gravy and felt a lot like the sort of meal that would be cooked lovingly by an Italian mother for her family. It reminded me a little of beef stroganoff – not so much in flavour but in richness and in the way it was served in a little casserole dish, very much home-style.
Aside from the food, I think the highlight of the night was most definitely the little boy behind me playing ‘eye spy’ with some dinner guests. It was a lesson in Italian vocabulary for me – we just about covered every word in Italian beginning with A, B and C!!
Umbrian food is as beautiful and colourful as the place itself. I am sourcing a recipe from a local for the wild boar dish, and I’ll also see if I can find out more about the cured fish. Rosetta also gave me some chestnut jam to try while I was staying in her home – although it was made with sugar, the chestnut flavour was simply amazing and when I return to Australia I will try to replicate her recipe replacing sugar with something else.
Next stop – Spain!