Despite its imposing majesty, perched on a high rocky plateau, Orvieto has a deep-rooted tradition of maintaining strong links with the surrounding countryside. The abundance of stunning artistic and architectural treasures have not displaced man as the central element of this fascinating town on the borders of Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria. The strategic position occupied by Orvieto in the centre of Italy has brought a number of influences from all sides that have ended up enriching it through the ages, from its earliest Etruscan settlers into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Orvieto’s magnificent skyline runs from the towers, palazzi and churches of the centre to the ring of fortifications that still encircle the city. But the most eye-catching landmark remains without doubt the Duomo, one of the most grandiose examples of Medieval architecture. The city has developed impressive structures both above ground and beneath. The San Patrizio well is a unique architectural feat 65 metres deep into the rock beneath the city, ingeniously designed using a double set of winding stairs ensuring that those descending with their mules to collect water never meet those coming back up to ground level with their load.
Underground Orvieto is in fact a maze of wells, walkways, cellars and chambers dug into the rock beneath the city, beginning in Etruscan times. They have been used throughout the ages to store wine, the wine that has made this city’s name known throughout the world. Vines have been cultivated in the countryside below the city for at least 2,500 years along with olives – factors that have shaped the landscape. The history of this city can not be appreciated unless one looks into its culinary traditions, so intricately bound up with the peasant life that ran its course in the valley below.
To this day families in Orvieto, although their members may live within the Etruscan town walls, have their own patch of land outside the city. The townspeople still grow vegetables and keep their own pigs, chickens and rabbits. And every family still treasures family recipes that have had no need to change through the centuries. This very habit of ensuring that certain ingredients are always readily available has enabled the local cuisine to retain its genuine qualities. Soups made with legumes or cereals, farro in particular, appear frequently and are often full-flavored thanks to a generous use of rosemary or sage. This region’s farro – which has been grown in Umbria since the Etruscans – is of a special kind that produces a dark, very tasty flour rather than the more common white and needs to soak in water for at least a couple of hours prior to cooking. A common and well-known soup is Farro al prosciutto, combining the bone and minced fat of the ham with farro, olive oil, grated cheese, carrot, celery and onion.
But the home cooking of Orvieto that also appears in the city’s restaurants includes chestnut and chickpea soup, potato gnocchi with truffles (the scorzoni variety is used more frequently in homes) and all kinds of home-made pastas with a myriad of sauces – often game sauces on account of the well-stocked surrounding countryside. Meats also appear frequently on the tables of the locals, reared pork or beef and other farmyard animals cooked simply but tastily. The so-called gallina ‘mbriaca – literally ‘the drunken hen’ – is part of the peasant tradition of wasting nothing. When a chicken grew past its egg-laying age, it was killed and left to soften for a night in wine before cooking. This dish is still very much alive in Orvieto, along with squab (palomba alla leccarda) or goose – all animals that would have been kept by the locals as livestock. This area’s cuisine also features freshwater fish from the nearby Lake Corbara, along with a host of mushroom varieties, fresh pork in winter or cured pork, which includes the tasty mazzafegato sausages cooked over the fire.
Pepper is one of the spices most used for curing meat in this area and therefore was available in almost every household as a left over. In the winter months, when scorzoni truffles were unavailable, pepper was used in their place, even in desserts. The traditional panpepato in fact is rich in pepper, which highlights the other flavors and should be eaten with sweet wines, liqueurs from the area or just with a cup of good coffee. Its ingredients are typically wintry – dried fruits, nuts or almonds, raisins, candied fruit all mixed up with honey and cooked grape must, seasoned with once-costly ingredients like cocoa and ground black pepper. Another version of the same dessert, pangiallo, is made with fruit jelly and almond paste.
Other typical desserts from this area are the frittelle di San Giuseppe or homemade ciambellone, eaten dipped in red wine at the end of a meal, as well as ciambellette con il vino made with white wine and ciambellette all’anice made with aniseed. Along with the usual focacce, a startling variety of bread cooked over wood fires still exists, enriched with nuts, seeds or raisins, while lumachelle (snack rolls enriched with cheese and ham) are on offer just about anywhere in the area as an accompaniment to before-dinner drinks. Although the traditional cheese breads are baked all year round, at Epiphany there are the pasquarelle, a slightly flatter, more peppery version once made in copious quantities by every family and exchanged as gifts – a sly way of seeing whose was best.
Today we tend to see cheese as the delicious conclusion to a meal, forgetting that it would often have been part of the snack brought from home by labourers in the fields, along with a good dose of wine. Orvieto provides a number of excellent cheeses, such as the cenerini that are stored under ashes, medium-mature pecorino and a variety of pecorino that is stored in tufa rock caves and which takes on a distinctive damp, mouldy aroma and taste.
Herbs and vegetables have always played an important part in the local cuisine. The habit of going on Thursdays and Saturdays to the four or five stalls selling wild salads and herbs in the open market of Piazza del Popolo has become a means of staying in touch with the tradition. The hors d’oeuvre known as antipasto all’orvietana is still served today and is made up of pickled vegetables such as broad beans, chickpeas, cooked cicerchia, beans or peas – all stored away, conserved in vinegar and oil, at times of plenty, to be eaten in less fortunate moments.
The entire area has now become iinterested in recovering its ancient fruit varieties, such as the susina scosciamonica plum, while on Monte Peglia saffron, once widespread throughout the region, is now being grown again.
As well as being the fulcrum of this vast culinary tradition, Orvieto is also an ideal starting point for a number of sightseeing trips to the historical and artistic wonders of south-western Umbria. Wine and food enthusiasts will find that this area is laden with wineries, oil producers, organic farms where it is possible to taste the products and hand-crafted goods. To the south-east stand the recently-restored Montecchio and Melezzole, as well as Tenaglie – perfectly preserved Medieval towns surrounded by vast chestnut forests that look out over the Tiber Valley. This is one of the boundaries of the Orvieto DOC wine producing areas.
Northwards, along the Chiani valley, are the castles of Parrano, Fabro, Carnaiola and La Scala, an area renowned for its prized Chianina beef but also a lively new wine-producing area, particularly Muffato, a particular kind of sweet wine obtained from the action of botrytis, or noble rot. On the fringes of this territory stand Monteleone and Montegabbione, where the tradition of working pork meat has prospered. Montegabbione also gives its name to a special kind of winter pear, grainy in texture, which keeps for up to 4 or 5 months and is excellent stewed. The tradition of curing meat has remained alive also in Ficulle, known as the città dei cocci, or terracotta. A special kind of lard, the groppone di Ficulle, is produced here and contains 40% fat in relation to meat. The zone is also dotted with olive mills.
The farming town of Allerona, with its nature park at Villalba, is surrounded by hills covered with beech, ilex and juniper. Every Wednesday a market selling local produce is held in town. San Venanzo, with its volcano-study park, and Parrano, are the two towns where saffron production is developing the most. Directly opposite the plateau occupied by Orvieto stand Castel Viscardo and Porano, on the borders between Umbria and Lazio. Along with Prodo and Titignano, these were strongholds strategically placed to defend the valleys below, and were at their peak during the Middle Ages, as was the entire zone. Baschi and Lake Corbara are included in the Tiber River Park and are known for their top quality restaurants that have breathed new life into Italian cuisine – a must for the gourmet traveller.