We’ve just come out the other side of a week of seriously sketchy weather. Days of driving rain or constant drizzle, punctuated by periods of clear enough skies to buoy false hopes that it would end sooner. Despite the weather, this last week ranks among our favorites, with the rain often being a catalyst for the best experiences.
On the last day of a 4 day tour of medieval hill towns, we camped in the front yard of a lovely octogenarian named Anna, who treated us to crostata, milky coffee, and long conversation, despite our formidable (but diminishing) language barrier. Just outside of Siena, morning rains cleared the normally hazy skies of The Crete, bringing the most classic of Tuscan landscapes into high resolution, hills of rolling amber offset by purple skies.
Our late start that same day caused us to stop short for the night in San Giovanni d’ Asso, where we had one of our best meals of the trip at a random roadside restaurant, including pici con cacio e pepe (hand-rolled pasta with pecorino cheese and black pepper). Unrelenting rain led us to depart early from Perugia, which we expected to love, but did not, for Assissi, which we loved without reservation.
Perhaps it’s that we’re just hitting our stride, but we are loving Umbria and its food more than we did Tuscany, which has been a surprise. Our Italian is improving, which helps everything, including the ability to find the most interesting things on a menu (Quale è il suo favorito? ), as well as the ability to decipher posters that announce local events. Perhaps most importantly, we can now ask for directions, and understand the answers we get.
A few fun details:
– Twice we’ve come across foraging families of cinghiale, the allegedly fearsome wild boars that are ubiquitous on the Tuscan restaurant menu. Both times they turned on their heels and ran.
– To officially call ourselves connoisseurs of Italian coffee would at minimum require that we drink only espresso (untainted by the slightest hint of milk), several times a day, and at least once before bed. We’re doing alright on the frequency – our average is 3x daily – though we’re still stuck on the morning cappuccino, and switching to macchiati after that.
– Most times we ask for recommendations in restaurants, we get a blank stare, and then the obligatory “tutto è buono”: Everything is good. But we always try. In Assissi, the trying paid off: Cappelacci con pecorino di fosso e miele: a small meat filled pasta dressed with butter and pecorino cheese and finished with poppy seeds and a drizzle of honey. Amazing.
– Either the gelato is becoming less good or we are becoming more discerning… It’s been over a week since Siena and Nannini’s excellent fig and creme caramel. I have high hopes for Rome, but for the time being, I am officially boycotting gelato out here in the sticks. There are much more interesting dolce to explore with three euros. Like panna cotta, for instance.
– In Umbria, the second course features meats grilled over a wood fire and served with little more than a squeeze of lemon. Huge wood-fired grills are central features of many restaurant dining rooms, where any table affords a good view of your lamb chops sizzling over the glowing coals. No more than thirty seconds elapses between the grill and your fork and knife. Today we ate ours with onions that were roasted directly on the hearth under a pile of coals.
– English translations by non-native speakers provide not only amusement (a country side hotel describes itself as a ‘perfect outhouse’), insight into our own butchery of Italian, as well as perfect, couldn’t-have-said-it-better-myself truth: a sign at the hermitage of St. Francis of Assissi marks a trail for contemplation and prayer as a ‘No Way Out Path’. Another at the entrance to the hermitage announces: NO PICNIC.
Tomorrow we’re heading out in the direction of Norcia. Ciao!