Discovering the gastronomic delights of Umbrian cuisine
One of the most amazing things about living in Italy is one’s infinite learning journey of the country’s food culture and cuisine. And so it was on my second visit to the historic town of Norcia, surrounded by the Sybilline mountains in the heartland of Umbria, that a new door of culinary traditions with a history going back to the Roman period was opened for me to explore.
Well known as a gastronomical paradise for food buffs, Norcia is particularly famous for its pork delicacies, lentils, truffles and now, most recently for its beer. So just like a truffle hog rifling through the fields in search of prized black truffles, I followed my nose through the streets of Norica to discover what this small and picturesque town could do to fulfill my Italian food obsession.
Lentils – Eat me for desert
Lentils are cultivated from a plant, from which the seeds have been used in cooking throughout the world for centuries. The lentils produced in Norcia are grown in the high plains of Castelluccio di Norcia – at about 4,500 ft above sea level inside the park of Monti Sibillini. They are also very different to other varieties because the unique climate and soil of Umbria produces lentil seeds that are not only lighter in colour, but are softer in consistency, with pre-soaking required.
Lentils are usually eaten as a savoury dish, but at the Ristorante Vespasi, they are used to sweeten the palate too. An odd concept I thought initially, which quickly faded away once I had eaten the first spoon full of my desert. The lentils had been cooked slowly in honey and combined in honey infused cream, delicately placed in a basket case of sweet-cooked pastry. The earthy flavours of lentils, in combination with sweet honey, are somewhat of a genius creation from the restaurant’s head chef Flavio.
Lentils are also seen as symbols of coins and are eaten especially on New Years Eve to bring wealth and fortune for the new year ahead.
The wild pigs of Norcia
At the time when method of preserving of food necessary for survival, the invention for preserving pork meat was started by the Jews who arrived in Valnerina after the destruction of Jerusalem. Because they didn’t eat pork themselves, they needed to find a way to preserve in order to trade it. However, it wasn’t until the 12th century that the “Norcino” pork butcher became a professional trade, where there was even the university of the pork butchers of Norcia and Cascia and of the Norcian empirical pork physicians. Since then, the salting and curing of hams has endured its renowned reputation, through hard work and dedication local of local family businesses such Giuseppe Fausti.
Since 1997 has been producing high quality “prociutto” in a very unique way, not standard by Norcian traditions. Four kilometres away from Norcia, Giuseppe’s 250 pigs are reared in the wild by feeding on plants, acorns, almonds, fruits of the forest and anything else nature can offer depending on the season and spring water. Free to walk around in over 100 hectares of land, Giuseppe emphasises that the quality and taste of his prociutto are unique because of his rearing methods.
Giuseppe has a shop in the centre of Norcia where you can buy three varieties including “Rosa” and “Grigetto” prociutto and the most superior called “Cinto brado di Norcia.”
Norcia beer brewed by Benedictine Monks
St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order, were born in Norcia in the year 480, and where monks would continue to visit to pay homage to his birthplace, until they were forced to flee in 1810 under the laws of Napoleon. Fasting foward nearly two centuries, the Benedictine order was reformed in Rome and then moved to Norcia in 2000 in the vacant monastery. The monastic community live for the community and are extremely well respected and admired by the Norcians.
Aside from prayer and community work, they were also eager to resurrect an old monastic tradition of brewing beer that had faded away following Napoleonic wars. And thus Birra Nursia (Latin for Norcia) was founded by adapting Belgian monastic traditional brewing methods with the gastronomic culture and palate of Norcian cuisine. It is only one day a year on August 15th that the Benedictine Monks open their doors to the public to offer tastings of their most recent production. All revenues go towards helping to the less privileged.
To make the most of this neighbourhood, stay at the boutique hotel, Palazzo Seneca, Norcia Umbria