Random thoughts and Details of Umbria…
Our Italian adventure continues 90 minutes southeast of Florence where we headed to experience a part of Italy we had never seen—Umbria—and even more importantly, to meet up with dear friends who have a home there.
SANTA MARIA NOVELLA:
The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels in Santa Maria Novella at the base of Assisi contains within it the Portiuncula (pronounced poor-CHUN-kohl-Ah). This was Saint Francis’ very first church…beautiful and tiny with only about eight wooden bench seats. This incredible work of art rests at the center of the huge cathedral, The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels.
The cathedral is simple, creamy white with nothing to distract you from the work of art that is the Portuincula which acts as the altar of the church.
Being in that tiny space, the overwhelming feeling is not one of the power or strength of God, but rather pure, overwhelming love. You feel it in every fiber of your body. It almost brings you to tears if you let it.
Perugia is a beautiful city. Even your breath slows when you are walking through the center of town. There is so much to see and to experience. There’s a laid-back elegance to this place that really makes me feel at home.
The Corso (or Main Street) is the center of life for the village on the top of the hill. It winds in a slow, curvy line through the entire town.
It was cold and rainy when we were there but that couldn’t dampen the power and beauty of this hill town — Even in the rain this place is magical. The architecture feels at once ancient and current. There is a timeless beauty about the city — and a simplicity of life here. “Do it or don’t do it.” No fulumfering about. Perugia is an interesting place to window shop and walking is a joy. You could spend hours just wandering up and down the Corso. It is a long, wide, and winding cobblestone street for pedestrians only so lingering could become a full-time hobby. Perugia is full of interesting things to see: architecture, boutiques, cafes, people…your eyes never stop roaming.
We ate lunch in a little restaurant called Fontanella di Porta Sole that locals love. Here the owner, Gino, serves only Perugian dishes which he cooks himself. Gino is a wonderful, boisterous, funny Italian man.
When you walk into his restaurant he greets you warmly, shows you to a table and starts pouring you wine and making you soup. Before we even ordered, he brought out three bowls of soup for each of us to begin. I repeat..THREE bowls of soup each. Not cups, BOWLS. The first was orange in color, blended into a purée and utterly delicious. I have absolutely no idea what it was made out of…could have been beans, could have been lentils. All I know is that it was as gorgeous to taste as it was to look at. The second bowl was a multi-bean soup — about 6 or 7 different kinds — grown by Perugian farmers. The third and last bowl was a Garbanzo bean soup. It was delicious as well, but by that point, I wasn’t surprised. For those of you who know my husband, Leon, you know that he hates beans…of any kind. Well, he totally dug this “trio of bean soups” from start to finish. That, in and of itself, was a little Italian miracle.
After the appetizer trio, I could have quit right there, but since this is Italy, I chose a homemade tortellini with pomodoro sauce as my main course, and Leon went with the grilled Italian cheese on bruschetta. Both were simple and delicate — perfect after the beautiful soups. I snuck into the kitchen to grab a quick photo of Chef Gino cooking. When he saw me, he laughed, grabbed something wrinkled and golden brown off the stove and thrust it at me to eat. “What is this?” I asked. He winked and said “grilled cheese.” I laughed out loud and popped it into my mouth. It was, of course, delicious, but more than that, the image of Gino shoving food at me with his bare hands while we stood in his kitchen is an image I will hold in my heart forever. (I love Italians!)
Orvieto is a much smaller and more medieval village than Perugia — set at the top of either a very large hill or a very small mountain. It is utterly charming and has a buzz about it. People are constantly cruising the Corso: teenaged boys hitting on teenaged girls, tourists from all over doing some Christmas shopping and seeing the sights while old Italian friends spend their time wandering slowly and talking about their days.
The Duomo in Orvieto is quite possibly the most beautiful duomo in Italy. The exterior is clad in horizontal stripes of black and white stone — just like the Duomo in Siena. But here in Orvieto, the frescoes are so vivid they feel as if they were painted just a few years back instead of several hundred. The front of the cathedral is covered in bas relief sculptures and frescoes, while gold leaf twinkles off the paintings, catching the sunlight from every angle. Once inside, the overwhelming feeling is one of peace and quiet. Perhaps because it’s huge and almost completely empty, you feel almost tiny by comparison, but in a very good way, if that makes any sense. You are cloistered by the grandeur of the place and your insignificance within it.
Let me just tell you about one dish from Orvieto because you really don’t need another reason to come visit. There is a little cafe called Montanucci which has a dessert they lovingly call “Torte Della Nonna.” Picture the lightest butter-crumb crust topped with vanilla custard, layered with Marcona almonds and then “snowed over” with powdered sugar. Have a piece of Torte Della Nonna with a cappuccino and your day is made…I guarantee it. Heaven on a plate.
The only souvenirs we bought here were a gorgeous Christmas ornament from Alessi of “The Old Man and the Sea” and a beautiful olive patterned ceramic sauce bowl with ladle. The main reason I bought that bowl is that it was the same pattern as our dear friends’ butter dish and I definitely wanted something to remember our time with them.
Speaking of friends, now to the highlight of our entire vacation…
First impressions: The minute our train rolled to a stop at Fabro-Ficulle, we saw our beautiful Jan, waving like crazy and yelling “Buone sera!” We drove for a few miles to the top of a very tall rolling hill, and finally pulled up to the beautiful home overlooking their olive orchard. Honestly, it looks like something out of a story book: exquisite stonework and faultless attention to detail, right down to the white roses and the antique olive wagon in the front garden with the pale pink wagon wheels.
Our first night Rosenda and Jan made a phenomenal floor picnic by the fire: red wine, bresaola, pecorino cheeses (three different ages), a crusty whole grain bread, tear-drop tomatoes and the biggest, greenest olives I’ve ever seen. To me they looked like dragon eggs.
Breakfast every morning was pretty much the same: eggs, freshly sliced toast, yogurt, homemade jam and coffee with freshly squeezed orange juice. Then we would start our day with some sort of long walk or day trip to another city.
The Truffle Lady:
OK. Hands down the cutest Italian we met so far was the truffle lady of Monteleone. She just looks like she ought to have her face on a bottle of spaghetti sauce — the stereotypical Italian “Nonna” who wants to feed her babies. I loved this woman. She runs the “Tartuffo Store” in Monteleone and cans and jars many of those sauces herself. Of course, while we were there, we bought a couple of jars of truffles preserved in oil to take home for dinner on a cold night in London.
Our Beautiful Friends:
This entire trip was planned so that we could spend time with our friends Rosenda and Jan. I had met Jan at Kalari Rasayana when I lived in India. In fact, there are a couple of articles about Jan on this same website. The minute I met Jan I felt like he must have been a brother in another life. He was a soulmate…a perfect gentleman who loved me instantly and wanted only the best for me. When he found out I was going to Dubai after I left the spa, he said “You MUST meet my beautiful wife Rosenda. You will LOVE her — and she will simply adore you.” So the next weekend, Rosenda and I met up in Dubai and spent an entire day wandering from gallery to gallery, eating lunch together, touring a chocolate factory and falling in love with our new friend.
Leon met Jan and Rosenda for the first time on New Year’s Day this year when we drove to Paris to see our other friends, Florence and Pascal. We celebrated New Year’s Eve with them and then spent all of New Year’s Day with Jan and Rosenda. Before the day was out we were planning to fly to Italy to help them with their olive harvest and the pressing of their own oil. In Italy Olive oil is life…it is very personal and it is something to be shared with your friends. Jan and Rosenda have about 250 olive trees so the harvest usually takes about 10 people about five days. So we immediately signed up to volunteer. For one reason or another, Jan and Rosenda decided to let the trees rest this year and not collect the olives for pressing. So instead we just spent our time together sightseeing and telling stories.
The highlights were plentiful: Leon gave Jan a dancing lesson, teaching him to waltz. The next morning, Jan came downstairs smiling that beautiful smile saying he dreamed he was dancing all night long in his sleep.
The four of us spent hours upon hours together over the past week just talking, laughing, walking, drinking wine and coffee — and telling the stories of our lives. We laughed, we cried, we cooked together, we ate together, we even fell silent and simply shared the space. And when we parted, it was more as family than as friends. And then the most amazing thing happened.
Jan and Rosenda’s friends, Mike and Penny Cartier came to stay for the weekend and we loved them too! They are funny and smart and easy-going. Mike has over 30 years as an ExPat from Minnesota and he and his wife, Penny (a Brit) live in the south of France right now and came to visit the olive trees — and of course, Rosenda and Jan.
We made each other laugh — a lot. And one of the best parts of the weekend was watching the Bromance the three boys fell into. They even went to the local cafe to get espressos on Sunday morning…no girls allowed. It was so adorable watching the three of them walk off together like schoolmates that I took a quick photo to remember the feeling that all three wives had watching them stroll off together. We definitely hope Mike and Penny come visit us in London. We would love that!
Rosenda is Italian — born and raised not more than 100 kilometers from Monteleone. Rosenda knows Italian food. She made us so many beautiful dishes while we were there: freshly-made tagliatelle bolognese, rack of lamb with garlic and rosemary, truffle risotto, vegetables and two beautiful picnic dinners in front of the fire and on fine linen. But the real joy was cooking with Rosenda, sharing the space, tasting and chatting and drinking good wine while we cooked. Cooking together is such an intimate way to be with a friend — and we treasured every moment of it.
Saying goodbye to our friends, new and old, was difficult. But we know we’ll see them again soon. There’s always the olive harvest next year!
Quote of the day:
Non si fa! (Translation – It’s just not done!) Rosenda, being Italian, jokes that Italians are the “Taliban” of Food. There are many rules that Rosenda considers absolutely non-negotiable. ALWAYS use the very best olive oil you can get. You can NEVER get good olive oil from a factory…It’s made with olive dust. NEVER eat gelato in the winter. NEVER serve pasta at the same time as the main dish. ALWAYS serve wine with a meal. NEVER add tomato sauce to your beef ragu. (The list goes on and on.) Every time Leon or I would try to deviate from the proper procedure, we heard, “Non si fa!” (It’s just not done!) I love that phrase. (I predict I’ll use it a lot in the future!)
Nothing could have been more wonderful than spending time with our beautiful Rosenda and Jan. We are so blessed to have such remarkable friends.