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Foligno, Where First Courses Take First Prizes

Anne Robichaud

Medieval Foligno

"Tradizione e Innovazione" ("Tradition and Innovation") was the theme for the tenth anniversary celebration of one of Italy's most renowned food festivals, the 4-day I Primi d'Italia, which animates Foligno at the end of September. I Primi d'Italia ("First Courses of Italy") is Umbria's celebration of the most-beloved Italian first courses: pasta (and this year, gluten-free varieties, too!), risotto, gnocchi, polenta and soups. Though the primi are the core of the festivities - both the tastings of them and cooking lessons with world-renowned chefs who transform the first courses with innovative creative touches - wine-tastings, classical and jazz music, theater, films, art exhibits, cooking competitions, cookbook displays, and even fashion shows embellish the festival and draw the crowds.

The piazzas, medieval cellars, church cloisters, and palace courtyards of Foligno backdrop the many festival events. The fifteenth-century cloister of San Giacomo is encircled with stands showing and selling a vast array of herbs and spices, from the most traditional ones used in Italian cooking to rare ones which creative chefs marry to their first courses. The cloister also hosts the exhibit Gusto in Libreria ("Flavor in the Bookshop"), where the array of cookbooks astounds. In a marvelous juxtaposition of centuries, the Renaissance arches of the cloister backdrop the display of contemporary designer kitchen utensils and accessories.

A Warm Welcome

From here, the more esoteric can wander over to the magnificent cloister of the 15th-century Palazzo Trinci to see the astounding display of ceramic creations on the "pasta theme" and the sculptural pasta creations by contemporary artists from all over the country. Lovely young ladies in gowns created of countless pasta forms wander the exhibit, embodying a most unique marriage of fashion and food (and where else but in Italy!?)

Music, too, animates the festival: this year, Rossini and Ennio Morricone, voices from the past and present, accompanied the tastings of Umbria's top red wine, the prize-winning Sagrantino. The Sagrantino is not only the perfect accompaniment to many primi dishes, but is often also the star ingredient. On Saturday night, the jazz music of famed young Sicilian sax player, Francesco Cafiso, accompanied the tastings of typical foods of the nearby Marches Region, uniting palate and ear in ecstasy! This year, the children's section, Primi d'Italia Junior, enthused over 1000 children with cooking classes, games and musical entertainment on the primi theme. While the children learned to cook nutritious primi dishes, their parents could attend seminars on childhood eating disorders and nutrition in cooking for children.

The final days of I Primi - always a Saturday and Sunday at the end of September - bring an explosion of people to Foligno, so this year I headed there on Friday with other Americans living now in Umbria: Sam and his wife Michelle with daughter Maggie from Louisiana, taking a "year off" to live the Italian experience, and Laura, who left Texas to open a ceramic shop in Assisi. We took the train, a short ride from Assisi and a handy solution to parking challenges.

My new americani friends enjoyed their first walk through Foligno, window-shopping as we walked. Allied bombings devastated Foligno in World War II, leaving intact only vestiges of its medieval architecture. The main piazza, graced with the 14th century cathedral, survived the bombings and offers a lovely backdrop to the I Primi d'Italia festivities. We stopped here at the I Primi "INFO Point" to pick up programs and then mapped out our "culinary meanders", deciding to head to 2 or 3 ambiences hosting different pasta dishes, followed by risotto-tastings. Not easy to make choices: polenta and gnocchi dishes enticed, too, as did the soups, and I was curious to visit the taverna offering all gluten-free delicacies.

Altamura Taralli

Before we headed out to taste the primi, we wandered the huge food tent in Piazza Matteoti where regional specialties from all over the peninsula entice visitors to tastings at 50 stands. Greeting us as we entered the immense white tent was Michele, surrounded by huge loaves of the famous Altamura bread from Puglia, "heel" of the boot, with a smile quite nearly as wide as the loaves. The Altamura bread, baked in wood-fired stone ovens and remaining fresh for days, is made of durham wheat which gives the dough a light yellow color. The huge loaves were surrounded by packages of the crispy Pugliese taralli, doughnut-shaped savory crackers. Across the aisle, strings of hot red peppers and garlic braids dangled over sundried tomatoes, jars of patés and salami from Calabria, the "toe" of the boot. Packages of the famed Calabrian ciasculo, a fresh spreadable salami, took center stage at this booth.

Cannoli

Calabria is near Sicily, so appropriately, the next stand was piled high with Sicilian sheep's milk cheeses as well as the caiciocavallo, a Sicilian cow's milk cheese. Cacio con pepe (Sicilian cow's milk cheese studded with black peppercorns - one of my favorites) caught Laura's eye and she bought a chunk. Michelle took home a jar of the fragrant oregano of the Sicilian mountains. Across the aisle was another Sicilian vendor, stuffing his large crispy cannoli ("little canes") with sheep's milk ricotta (the only "true" cannoli!) mixed with candied fruits. The five of us shared one of them.

Fourteen-year-old Maggie's favorite stand was the one next to the Sicilian delicacies: here she bought a brown paper cone filled with a Marches region specialty, hot olive ascolane. The huge green olives are pitted, stuffed with a mixture of ground veal, Parmesan and bread crumbs, and then rolled in bread crumbs before frying. Maggie wandered the stands happily munching her hot stuffed olives. A nearby stand festooned with strings of hot red peppers offered huge vats of varieties of Puglia olives and the vendor proudly offered us tastes. I tried ones I had never tried before, but my favorite remains a black schiaccata con peperoncino ("crushed and with hot red pepper").

The Gang with a wild boar head in back

We passed Umbrian olive oil producers, offering tastings of fresh bread dipped in olive oil. Salamis, capocolla, prosciutto, and dried sausages hung in procession above hot Umbrian cheese breads and crispy porchetta (roast-suckling pig), star elements of Umbrian rural cuisine. Nearby, a mounted wild boar head crowned with laurel leaves and draped with strings of dried wild boar sausages received a tickle under the chin from Sam.

Artisan Chocolates

And then, from the savory to the sweet, as we came upon Eleonora's little chocolate confections booth hidden away in a back corner of the huge food tent. Young Eleonora is an artisan. She opened her chocolate shop in Brescia in northern Italy (not far from Milan) just the week before the opening of I Primi Piatti in Foligno. Daughter of a gelataio (ice-cream maker), Eleonora veered off from her father's ice cream passione, developing a love for chocolate confections. Her chocolates embody her creativity: chocolate with rosemary or sage and slivers of edible gold on top (!), chocolate confections laced with lavender and chocolates with raspberry and champagne, spiced with nutmeg or with hot red pepper. A young Cuban friend, Jo, helped her serve us and was as enthusiastic as Eleonora in telling us about their creations. No better topping on our "tasting explorations": at Eleanor's chocolate stand, we certainly did find THE treasure at the end of our culinary hunts.

From the "tastings tent", we set out in search of our first primi piatti tastings, passing world-class chefs teaching cooking classes in the piazza. Future chefs, the young students of the nearby Spoleto scuola alberghiera (catering school) in bowties and sport coats, dished up steamy plates of two pasta tastes in a medieval cellar: our first pasta-tastings stop. Sam and Michelle tried the pasta with pistachio pesto and Laura tried an Abruzzo spaghetti, chitarrine, topped with meat sauce seasoned with a bitter chocolate. Maggie's olives had filled her up and the tastings had satiated me, so we simply enjoyed the scene and the enthusiasm of the Italians all around us.

Pasta with Tomato

Next pasta stop for our group was in yet another medieval cellar graced with beautifully-restored 14th-century vaults, where Laura ordered the pasta with a sauce of tomatoes, tuna, capers and olives. Sam tried spaghetti aglio, oil, peperoncino, a classic of Italian poor man's cooking: spaghetti seasoned with only olive oil, garlic and hot red pepper. When cooked right and with the best ingredients, this simple dish is a winner. Sam hit a winner.

We wrapped up our culinary explorations in the risotto tent. The risotto with cabbage and pancetta (Italian salt-cured bacon), cooked perfectly al dente ("to the tooth"), was delicious, and the flavors were enhanced by the wines served as an accompaniment (wines are selected carefully to accompany each of the many primi piatti served during the 4-day festival). The tables in the risotto tasting area were full and some people also enjoyed the risotto flan with crispy crust and desserts featuring risotto. Tables on the sides of the risotto tent displayed different varieties of rice, and a rice-grower from Vercelli, Italy's rice-growing area, was there to answer questions.

Vercelli Risotto

By the time we left the I Primi d'Italia festival, lines were longer and the atmosphere more boisterous and jubilant. It was only Friday night and the Saturday and Sunday events were still to come, with tastings of the first courses also continuing, logicamente, on both days. As the founder of the festival, Roberto Prosperi remarked with satisfaction at the closing of the festival this year, "a small city in a small region...for four days, Foligno has become the Italian capital of taste, flavors and gastronomical culture, attracting an army of gourmets who have peacefully invaded the city".

We were glad to be part of that invasion!

 

 

 

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Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2008. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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