When I set out to sell a publisher on the idea of writing a book about Umbrian cooking some years ago, I was asked to sum up the cuisine in a short paragraph. Having just returned from one of my early spring trips to the region, the blue-green valleys and pungent aromas of field fennel and rosemary scrub still vivid in my mind, I wrote back, ”Its flavors are pure, assertive, honest, clear as glass. Wild herbs and aromatics are used lavishly, even extravagantly, but the cooking is natural and honest.”
Needless to say, I sold the idea to them and some two years later, Umbria: Regional Recipes from the Heartland of Italy was published. My field work consisted of eating my way across Umbria’s landscape, from the ancient, high-perched hill towns immortalized by Giotto, Lorenzetti, Perugino, and Pinturicchio, to the lakeside resorts of Trasimeno, to tiny villages that clung to the stark spine of the Apennines. In autumn, I ate a steady diet of black truffles. When in season, the precious tuber is showered over everything from buttery scrambled eggs to wood-roasted mountain trout to thick hand-made noodles called umbricelli, whether at rustic roadside eateries or more formal establishments. I gorged on Norcia’s celebrated fresh and dried artisan sausages, giant mortadellas and innumerable salumi.
Whole boned suckling pigs, or loins wrapped in a layer of pork belly, and dredged in wild fennel, rosemary, and sea salt were spit-roasted at large family gatherings on Sundays, or sold from porchetta trucks that dot the landscape, which are as ubiquitous as hot dog carts on New York City street corners. The food in the remote villages bordering Le Marche, earthy mountain cooking, sustained me throughout the winter months I explored the highland provinces: lentils braised in meat juices and topped with plump sausages, thick fava beans soups embellished with nothing more than a “thread” of strong local olive oil and a crust of chewy bread. At any time of year, I inhaled pungent “hunters’ stews” (“alla cacciatora”) of wild fowl, rabbit, or boar. And of course, I drank the wines, which bring the earth, the sun, and the soul of Umbria’s 5,000-year old viniculture to the table. The land has drawn me back again and again, which I explore from my base in Bettona. Through my school there, I hope to give some idea of the magic of the land and its irresistible cookery to people who do not already know it.
If there is a single dish that could convey the flavors of my Umbria, it might be cinghiale brasato, braised boar, a sumptuous oven pot roast in which the meat is both marinated and cooked, very slowly, in abundant red wine. I first tasted the dish in an isolated farmhouse on the outskirts of Orvieto where I stayed with friends one Spring weekend. Wild boar roam the countryside and decimate farmers’ crops and vineyards throughout central Italy. Every farmer hunts these brutes and their meat is savored as much as their presence is loathed. I never saw the actual preparation, but when I returned home, I reproduced the recipe by taste memory, substituting cultivated herbs for wild. The result was moist and richly flavored with abundant pan juices, excellent for serving over freshly cooked polenta or hand-made pappardelle. When it was time to compile material for the final manuscript, I found that I had many more recipes than could fit in the allotted number of pages. Boar meat was not so easy to find just a few years ago, so the recipe was the first to go. Now you can buy it from any specialty butcher, or order it online from trustworthy suppliers such as D’Artagnan. The recipe works equally well with other game, such as venison, or with pork shoulder.
A note about wines: Umbria produces some superb wines. The Sangiovese-based reds and Montefalco Sagrantinos are ideal for marinating and cooking boar. Anything labeled DOCG, DOC, or IGT are good bets.