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Postcard - My visit to Norcia, the pork capital of Italy

Chandi J. Wyant (RedRedWine)

November 2004, traveled by car from Florence to Norcia (located in the far east corner of Umbria). Stayed a total of about 20 hours in Norcia.

"The butchers here are famous for being the very best in Italy" Piero, the white-haired employee of the Grotta Azzurra Hotel in Norcia, tells me with pride.

"Hum," I wonder to myself, "Would I want to come from a town known for the best butchers?" Having been a vegetarian until recently and a person who can only kill mosquitoes and flies and nothing more, I wonder, now that I am here in Norica, what prompted me to seek out this town of butchers in the far east corner of Umbria.

I think it was the intriguing sentence in the Rough Guide, "Anything that can be done to a pig, Norcians apparently do," as well as my determination to appreciate all the gastronomic pleasures of Italy, even pigs feet. I tried pigs feet reluctantly at the urging of Florentine friends, and I'll admit, they are something I plan never to eat again.

Yet here I am in the pork product capital of Italy, not so much planning to "pork out" as to follow my yen of visiting and knowing the little known epicurean epicenters of Italy.

"Norcineria" - meat store in Norcia, November 2004

"Norcineria" - butcher in Norcia, November 2004

I am in the hotel's breakfast room. It is November, off-season, and no other diners are present. Piero brings me a cappuccino and I dig into the homemade ricotta, which I spread on bread, topped by apricot jam. Piero tells me that the word "Norcineria" (shops in Italy that sell pork products) comes from the name of the town.

I talk to Piero about other products for which Norcia is known. He lists the other food items that are part of Norcia's cuisine: "Funghi, tartufi, farro, lenticche ." (mushrooms, truffles, spelt, lentils) and he tells me that he particularly likes a Norcian sauce made with cream, prosciutto, mushrooms and ground sausage that is put over pappardelle noodles.

"Do you find the mushrooms and truffles in the nearby woods and fields?" I ask him.

"Oh yes," Piero responds with a gleam in his eye, "It is wonderful how the mushrooms pop up after a rain. Just a bit of rain and the fields are full of them! And the truffles, we hunt them with dogs of course, not with pigs like the French do. Pigs ruin the forest you see, so there is a law against using them here."

I notice a photograph of Nicole Kidman on the wall of the breakfast room. On closer inspection I see that she is standing in the same room that I am staying in at the hotel. I ask Piero about it.

"Yes, that is the room you have. We gave Nicole the best room of course. Her parents have been coming here for a few years. It was just this past May that Nicole came too. Nicole apparently had a wonderful time trekking the mountains around here. Because this area is so remote, there aren't a lot of tourists. In fact in the mountains most people you bump into are Shepards. So no one knew who she was and she was able to really relax."

My room, even if it was the best in the hotel, was quite simple with some out-of-place Chinese antiques and a 1980s style bathroom with alarming penguins on the bathtub curtain. In the large Jacuzzi tub I cannot get the jets to work but I am content imagining that Nicole Kidman stretched her long legs here, in this very tub. I am traveling on a strict budget and have to get a sense of luxury where I can!

Even if one can pay for luxury, there are no such hotels in Norcia. The Grotta Azzurra, a three star hotel, boasting the best restaurant in town and right next to Norcia's beautiful, and only, piazza, has to be the choice.

Founded by the Sabines in the fifth century BC, Norcia, nestled below the Sibylline Mountains in the far eastern part of Umbria, was known in ancient times as Nursia. Because of the skills of its medieval doctors and surgeons, "nursino" came to mean "one who cares for other people". Some historians trace the town's origin back to the Etruscans and state that the name Norcia comes from the goddess Nortia, the Etruscan goddess of fortune.

Federico Bianconi, a soft-spoken young man behind the front desk, tells me proudly that he is the fourth generation of his family to run the hotel.

"I love this town because it is so peaceful. We can get everywhere by foot, and we don't even have to lock our cars or our bikes."

He sits down with me in the breakfast room to tell me about the history of the hotel. I learned that it was once a charity house run by monks and nuns. Poor people would bring what they could find, linens, or tables, or jewels, to trade with the monks and nuns for grain. Federico said at the beginning, before being a hotel, their establishment was an Osteria selling wine and simple food.

"Our restaurant, the Granaro del Monte, is the oldest in the city. Here you can eat the typical dishes of Norcia. We are very attached to the town's cuisine" Federico explained. "In March we have a medieval festival for which we recreate medieval meals served in terra cotta, and we all wear medieval costumes."

The previous night when I had enjoyed a cozy meal at the Granaro del Monte near its large fireplace, I had tried the famous lentil soup. It was creamy rather like split pea soup and richly flavored but at the same time delicate. It was delicious. The menu was full of truffle and mushroom dishes as well.

The town is famous for its black truffles. It hosts an international Black Truffle festival in February, which celebrates not only Norcia's famous black truffles but also highlights the salamis and other pork products and the fresh and aged cheeses produced in the town.

Federico encourages me to come back in the spring. "In June there is a wonderful flower festival in Castellucio. The fields are covered in different colors, which change every week. We never know for sure when it'll be because it depends on what the winter and spring weather has been like."

He tells me that Castellucio is a small hamlet a short drive up into the mountains from Norcia where only a handful of people live. The town is famous for its lentils, which are said to be the smallest in the world.

Federico, as if he has all the time in world, offers to take me to the shop of the oldest butcher family in Norcia. As I walk a few short blocks across the quiet town with Federico, I notice that he greets, and is greeted by, every person he passes. In the Norceria Ansuini shop I meet Signore Ansuini who comes around the counter with freshly sliced prosciutto for me try. The shop, a gastronomic delight, teams with artisan foods and a sense of antiquity. Shelves groan with cheese wheels, salamis and jars of black truffles. Below them, on the floor, wooden barrels are full of tiny lentils, faro, and white beans. Stuffed baby chinghiale (wild boar) perch on top of wheels of cheese. From the ceiling hang long sausages called Corallina and Lonza, as well as the recognizable prosciutto.

Signore Ansuini takes Federico and me up the street to his cellar. Opening a door in the wall, we drop into a cavernous arched room below the street where on rough-hewn branches, set up in cross sections, hang his precious products. Signore Ansuini goes to the rows of Lonza sausages, and shows me the difference in the ones aged six months and nine months. The older ones have a yellow tinge and have shrunk in size. He pulls out one that has been aged for a year:

"No one ages these for a year anymore!" he announced. "I do it because I want to have the very best in case a visitor comes to the region asking for it!"

"Simple is best," he claims, "for the ingredients used in sausages. Just a bit of fennel, salt and pepper and of course the highest quality meat is extremely important. The meat for the prosciutto must also be of the best quality, otherwise it won't hold up during the aging process which lasts 3 years!"

I find myself wondering how someone originally decided to stuff a pig's intestine with uncooked meat trimmings mixed with salt and to hang it in a cellar for several months without knowing if it would be edible at the end. "Ah," but I tell myself, "they're Norcians. Anything that can be done to a pig, they know how to do." I imagine it is their birthright to know it.

Walking back towards the hotel, Federico stops in the main piazza. "This is the Basilica of San Benedetto, who was born here in Norcia," he says proudly, pointing to the Medieval Church facing the lovely circular piazza. On the facade of the church on either side of the door are statues of Saint Benedict and his twin sister, Saint Scolastica. Twins that were saints! And a female too with the odd name of Scolastica! Great material! I think to myself. But why I have I not heard of her? I reassure myself, that after all I wasn't brought up Catholic.

Federico suggests showing me the remains of the home of the two saints inside the church and I happily agree. I learn that they were born in Norcia , in 480 A.D. Federico proudly tells me that Saint Benedict was named Patron of Europe in 1964 by the Pope. I wonder what a Patron of Europe is and what role he'd play, but I don't ask. Rather I nod wisely and make a mental note to look up St. Benedict and St. Scolastica later.

I am curious about the female saint. I notice the prominent statue of her brother in the town's main piazza. I wonder if his sister has been honored in any way. "There is a church dedicated to her in the cemetery outside the city walls," Federico tells me.

I guess that is the best they could do given the times, I think to myself. Her brother gets the middle of the piazza as well as the main church on the piazza and she gets something outside the city walls in a cemetery.

I do a bit of studying and learn that St. Scholastica was consecrated to God since early childhood and lived in the shadow of her brother, though was not considered second to him in saintliness. "She was tender while her brother was austere," a web site in Italian on the Itinerary of Feminine Saints in Umbria informs me. St. Benedict, I learn, founded the illustrious monastery of Monte Cassino, north of Naples, where a temple dedicated to Apollo had stood, while his sister established a religious order there for women.

Norcia doesn't have the magical, narrow, cobbled, steep, intriguing streets of Assisi and Spello and Spoleto and Trevi - its better-known neighbors to the west, but hey, you can pork out on the best pig products in the country, and excellent truffles and lentils to boot, and just to keep everything in line are the twin saints, tender and austere. Tender like pureed lentil soup and austere like the Sibylline Mountains.

Resources

Contact information for where I stayed and ate:
www.bianconi.com: Grotta Azzurra Hotel, Via Alfieri 12, Norcia, tel: (39) 07-438-16-513, fax: (39) 07-438-17-342 - Granaro del Monte Restaurant, located in the Grotta Azzurra Hotel, open for lunch and dinner daily.

Slow Travel Italy - Umbrian Pork: All about meat in Umbria by Letizia Mattiacci and Tharani Sivananthan.


Chandi Wyant is currently a graduate student studying the Florentine Renaissance and also runs Sogni Italiani, a business offering "Weddings, Honeymoons, and Travels in the Italy of your dreams". www.sogniitaliani.com

© Chandi J. Wyant, 2005

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