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Winner of Contest 2006

Postcard - Ultimate Umbrian Experiences, Wine and Food

Colleen Kochman (ColleenK)

A Winery Tour and A Cooking Class, September 2005

On this trip to Italy, with my husband and three other couples, I thought it would be fun to include some tours/activities during our week in Umbria to provide us with a more in-depth look at the culture and traditions in "the green heart of Italy". Since food and wine are interests we all share, a winery tour and a cooking class seemed like a fun way to gain some insight into the local culture.

Paolo Bea Winery Tour and Tasting

I had read good things about the personalized winery tour at Paolo Bea in Montefalco on Slow Travel, so that seemed a good place to start. Giampiero replied promptly to my request for information about his tours and offered a tour of his vineyards and a wine tasting with stuzzichini (small food) for 30 euro per person at 5:30pm on a Monday afternoon. The rate per person fluctuates depending on the number in your group (more per person the smaller your group). Unfortunately, on the day we scheduled this tour, one of the couples was not feeling well and did not make the tour, so we ended up being six. This did not faze Giampiero, nor change the fee for the tour.

While in Bevagna earlier that day, we picked up the La Strada del Sagrantino Map from the Tourist Office in the main square that clearly illustrated the route to take to the Paolo Bea winery. Route SS316 was a very beautiful route and we were quite taken by the lush, green countryside. The winery is only a 10-minute drive from the center of Montefalco, making a tour here a good combination with exploring this lovely hill town.

The very charming Giampiero, an architect by training, who is responsible for all the commercial aspects of the winery, greeted us warmly as we pulled into the Bea estate. Although he claimed his English was poor, it was really quite good and his melodious Italian accent just added to the experience. His family has been on this small estate since the 1500s. His father, at 72 years of age, is the "guiding force" behind the production of their wines and his brother Giuseppe farms the vineyards. Giampiero (or, as we later referred to him, GP) told us that alternate generations have always had the names Paolo, Giuseppe and Giampiero. I guess they have a long line of males! In addition to their wine production, they raise farm animals and produce olives, olive oil, fruits, and vegetables. GP hopped in our car and took us out to view his beautiful 15 hectares, 5 of which are vineyards and 2 that are planted for olive production. Sixty percent of the vineyards are devoted to the Sagrantino grape, forty percent to Sangiovese and Montepulciano, and a small parcel for several white varieties.

Giampiero talking to the group.

Giampiero talking to the group.

The vines were bursting with almost fully mature grapes and were a sight to behold. While walking through the vineyards with us, GP's passion for producing organically grown grapes and using a "pure" winemaking process that doesn't try to "correct or improve what nature offers", thoroughly impressed us. They do not use herbicides or chemical fertilizers at Paolo Bea. He believes that wine is an expression of nature and looks forward to the differences in each year's harvest, knowing that nature will produce some great and not so great vintages over time. For his family, winemaking is an art, and their wines are produced in an old fashioned, traditional way. The grapes are hand picked and bottled without filtration. So you may very well taste sediment as you drink Paolo Bea wines. According to GP, this is a pure and real wine drinking experience that embraces the earth and soil in which the grapes are grown. GP thinks that the soil in this area is unique for growing grapes. He has a theory that the soil on his land is very similar to the soil in Armenia and believes his ancestors may have originated there.

After our tour of the vineyards in the beautiful countryside, we went back to view the stainless steel vats and hear a bit about the fermentation process. The Montefalco Rosso is bottled after 20 months, the Sagrantino Secco and Montelfaco Riserva is bottled after an additional amount of time. Then it was on to what we really came for - the tasting!

GP laid out a cluster of grapes as a centerpiece and lit some candles to set the mood as he proceeded to describe and pour the various wines. Mama brought out homemade pates and bread to dip into their delicious olive oil. There really is nothing quite like that spicy, green Umbrian olive oil! We started with his white wines and ended with a desert wine. I am not a wine connoisseur, so I can't tell you about the various wines' nose, or bouquet or describe their textures in my mouth. But I can tell you that I enjoyed them all, especially the 2001 Montefalco Rosso Riserva and the Montelfaco Sagrantino. They were smooth and delicious! With each taste of wine, more cheese or homemade tortas were offered to complement a particular wine, all of them a delight.

The wine and food tasting.

The wine and food tasting.

After we finished tasting all of his offerings (I really can't recall how many but at least seven different wines and vintages), GP sat down and chatted with us about more personal things such as why he wasn't married yet (too busy) and informed us about a good restaurant he knows about in the Boston area that serves his wine. I can tell you that the women in the group were totally enchanted and the men were having a great time.

One of my friends commented later that as she was sitting there, she kept thinking that this kind of experience only happens to other people. She couldn't quite believe we were chatting away with this eloquent and dare I say, adorable, winemaker. Doesn't this kind of experience only happen to the "privileged"? No, you just have to do your research (including the great resource of the Slow Travel message board) and plan accordingly.

Before we knew it, three hours had passed and we needed to get on the road. Who would have thought a wine tour would last so long! We made our purchases of wine and olive oil and he discounted our tour fee to 25 euro each because of our purchases. Momma was in charge of handling the money and we complimented her on her stuzzichini, wine and most of all her gracious son. I bought four bottles, two of which we drank later on the Amalfi coast and two that made it home intact and are waiting for a special occasion.

We had all been to wineries in Napa, the Finger Lakes and Chianti but we unanimously agreed that nothing could compare to or be more special than our evening spent with the passionate Giampiero at Paolo Bea. We felt privileged to have had an inside look at the culture and tradition of a winemaking family that have been producing fine wine for centuries.

Alla Madonna Del Piatto - Cooking Class with a View

When I asked my female friends if they were interested in taking a cooking class during our week in Umbria and then have our husbands join us for the lunch we made, I got an enthusiastic and positive response. That it was a discounted class as a prize I won in the 2004 Slow Travel Anniversary Contest made it that much sweeter.

The incredibly accommodating Letizia, who with her husband runs Alla Madonna Del Piatto agriturismo just outside of Assisi, agreed that our husbands could join us for lunch for the very reasonable fee of 25 euro each. Not to be sexist, but there just wasn't enough room in the kitchen for that many cooks if our husbands joined us for the lesson. We agreed on a date, that just happened to be my birthday, and made arrangements to meet at the Assisi train station. Letizia brought another couple with her who were staying at her agriturismo and would be taking the class with us. Small world, they lived in neighboring New Hampshire and were lots of fun.

Our day began at 10am at Terra Umbra Antica, a gourmet food shop where Letizia would instruct us on the fine art of choosing top quality olive oil, pasta, truffles, cheeses, and meats. We would also taste many of these products so that we could choose what we wanted for appetizers for our meal later in the day. Our husbands were a part of this market tour and enjoyed themselves immensely. I am not sure which they enjoyed more however, tasting the delicious samples or interacting with the lovely proprietor Barbara.

As soon as we walked into this shop, there were admiring murmurs from our group on the artistically displayed gourmet products. The rooms are painted in warm and welcoming rust and orange hues and her products include exquisite chocolates, high quality olive oils and vinegars, dried seasonings to make your own delicious sauces at home, jars of wonderful sauces, truffles and truffle oil, a nice selection of wines and beautiful pasta. Her selections of cheese, meats and fresh bread were varied and delicious. This is a woman who cares very much about offering high quality goods and it shows in every aspect of her shop.

We started off with Letizia describing the various types of olive oil and why the DOP label insures a high quality product. To receive this Denominazione di Origine Protetta (or DOP label) the oil must meet strict guidelines on how and where the olives are produced and which types of olives are used. We tasted several extra virgin oils with the fresh bread Barbara sells and liked the spicy oil from Trevi best. Olive oil is best used within in a year of its pressing (it does not improve with age) and should be stored in a glass container, in a cool place out of the sunlight.

Letizia and the group in the gourmet shop.

Letizia and the group in the gourmet shop.

Next we tasted several pates and discussed the Umbrian delicacy, truffles. The black truffle ripens from November to March. The white truffle matures from October until December and is even rarer and therefore more valued. There is also a more ordinary scorzone, black summer truffle. We enjoyed the different tastes but of course did not try any of the very expensive white truffle. The tasting of the wonderful looking cheeses and Italian meats came next. My favorite cheese was the plain mild caciotta cheese but the caciotta with truffles was good too. The Pecorino Stagionato and Fossa cheeses were a nice accompaniment to the fabulous prosciutto, pancetta, salame, capocollo, and salsiccia samples. The group had a hard time deciding which delicacies we should bring for appetizers, so we had Barbara wrap up a selection of all of them.

Letizia told us that when shopping for pasta, the best tasting brands are made with bronze pasta machines and the packaging should say trafile in bronzo. She also said that pasta with a "rough" surface held sauces better and were therefore tastier. Finally we had a tasting of various desert wines including vin santo, grappa, limoncello, and some interesting rose flavored amarettos. Mind you, it was only 11am so we were careful to take small sips! We left Barbara's lovely shop with quite a few packages. If I had more room in my suitcase, I would have loved to have brought home more delicacies.

Ten minutes later we were climbing the dirt road up to Alla Madonna Del Piatto. We drank in the spectacular views from Letizia's terrace. You can see the town of Assisi in the distance. The surrounding countryside brings new meaning to Umbria being billed as "the green heart of Italy". Picture postcard perfect!

Our husbands departed to scout out Assisi and it was time for us to get to work. We donned aprons and began preparing our desert first as it would need some time to chill. The panna cotta was really quite simple to make although it called for the leaves of unflavored gelatin, a product I don't think I have seen in the States (regular gelatin can be substituted). The gelatin was placed in 1 1/3 cups of whole milk until it softened (about 15 minutes). Steve (the only male in the group - poor thing) whisked 1 1/3 cups of whipping cream with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1/4 cup + 1 tbsp of caster sugar. We then added the gelatin mixture, stirring until dissolved. Next was dividing the mixture into dessert bowls, using about 3/4 cup for each. They were allowed to cool uncovered then covered and refrigerated until set (approximately three hours). We used the freezer for some of this cooling in the interest of time.

Making the pasta for our main course of Ravioli with Swiss chard and mozzarella filling was next. Although Letizia is a traditional Umbrian cook, she does not shun modern conveniences and used a food processor to blend the flour and egg mixture to form balls for rolling the pasta dough. This saved us about an hour and we needed the time as we had a lot of ravioli to make for our group of 10. Rolling the pasta dough into the correct size and thickness was not an easy task, especially for this rather clumsy cook! The dough needs to be folded and fed through the pasta machine as many as eight or nine times, changing the settings until the narrowest setting is reached and the dough is at the correct consistency and shape. We each had at least two turns at the pasta machine. Happily, my friend Beth was the most skillful at this task, so she kept at it while others of us prepared the filling, and began filling and cutting the ravioli into the correct size and shape. The filling consisted of washed Swiss chard leaves, cubed fresh mozzarella, 1 pinch of nutmeg, 1 egg and grated Parmesan cheese.

Filling the ravioli was my favorite part of the cooking lesson. We put teaspoons of the filling about 6 cm apart on the long, thin strip of pasta dough and then folded it over the filling to make a "parcel". After lightly pressing the dough together to seal it, we used a pasta cutter on 3 sides to further seal and cut each piece of ravioli. Voila, a masterpiece!

The finished ravioli.

The finished ravioli.

Of course during this process, there is much laughter and sipping of wine as Letizia cajoled us into creating a great meal. Not only is Letizia a great and patient teacher, she has a terrific sense of humor. We had an absolute ball in her very well equipped kitchen. We were having so much fun in fact, that when our husbands returned we were not close to being finished, so some of them joined in the ravioli making and more laughter and picture taking ensued. My friend Mark really got into making the ravioli and had to make sure that each scoopful of the filling was a work of art. So much so that Letizia asked if he were Japanese, as those are usually her most disciplined and artistic students. When we finally made enough food for our group, Letizia sent us out to her spectacular terrace with wine as she and a helper, the charming Carmen from Holland (who coincidently also works at the nearby Brigolante,a SlowTrav favorite), finished preparing our feast.

Our late lunch is served at a long table in the cozy dining room. And it is indeed a feast! The excellent local Sagrantino wine is flowing, our antipasti of the cheese and meats we had selected is delicious and the fresh, spicy Umbrian oil to dip our bread in is wonderful. Our ravioli with a simple butter and sage sauce and Parmesan cheese is melt in your mouth delicious if I do say so myself. Laughter and good conversation fills the air. Our panna cotta is served with Letizia's homemade cherry compote from her garden. Mine is served with a birthday candle. It is one of the most fun birthday celebrations I have ever had.

We leave with printouts of our recipes and memories that will last a lifetime. Because our wonderful day with Letizia lasted much longer than we anticipated, we arrived in Assisi at the perfect time of 4pm when all the crowds have left for the day. So we got to enjoy this stunning town with its breathtaking sunsets in relative peace. But that's another travel postcard!

Resources

Colleen Kochman's Member Page: The articles and trip reports that Colleen has published on Slow Travel.

bea@informanet.it: Email for Paolo Bea Winery.

www.incampagna.com: Alla Madonna Del Piatto agriturismo and Letizia's cooking classes.

www.terraumbraantica.it: Terra Umbra Antica, a gourmet food shop in Assisi.

www.stradadelsagrantino.it: La Strada del Sagrantino, information about wineries and restaurants in Umbria (English version)

www.movimentoturismovino.it: Wineries in Italy (in Italian).

www.montefalcodoc.it: Montefalco tourist information (English version).


Colleen Kochman lives in Cambridge, MA, is a pediatric nurse practitioner who loves all aspects of travel.

© Colleen Kochman, 2005

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