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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

Balsamic vinegar in Emilia Romagna

A Citrus History of Sicily

Lambrusco - Another taste

Norcia – Umbria

Parmigiano Reggiano – a cracking good cheese

Sweet Valentines - Etruscan Chocohotel - Perugia

Umbria’s Autumn Gastronomy with Valentina Harris

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Travel Reviews
- Italy

On this page:

Balsamic vinegar in Emilia Romagna

A Citrus History of Sicily

Lambrusco - Another taste

Norcia – Umbria

Parmigiano Reggiano – a cracking good cheese

Sweet Valentines - Etruscan Chocohotel - Perugia

Umbria’s Autumn Gastronomy with Valentina Harris

Lambrusco - Another taste

Lambrusco - Another taste If you are of a certain age then even the name ‘Lambrusco’ will likely raise a smirk. Once the smirker’s composure has been restored then he/she will probably deny ever having tasted the stuff. One has one’s oenological credibility to consider, after all! Wouldn’t be seen quaffing anything so viticulturally base!

Where exactly is Lambrusco, my dear geographically-challenged reader might ask. It’s not a place but just a wine. Emilia Romagna and Mantova are often referred to as being in the ‘Lambrusco region’ but that just describes the wine typical of the area. Lambrusco is the name of both a red wine grape and an Italian wine made principally from the grape. They originate from around Emilia-Romagna and the central provinces of Modena, Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Mantua.

The grape isn’t a new variety but in fact has a long history, with archaeological findings showing that the Etruscans cultivated these same grapes. The Romans enjoyed Lambrusco and prized it for the high grape yield of its vines.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s that infamous sweet Lambrusco was one of biggest selling wines in the US and UK, and it was offered in both white and red. Both made with the same grapes but the must, or grape juice, for the white wine stayed in contact with the grape skins for less time than for the red.

It’s mostly sparkling wine but not usually made using the ‘Champagne method’ (metodo classico). It is typically made using the Charmat process (like prosecco) where a second fermentation is undertaken in a pressurized tank rather than in the bottle.

Lambrusco - Another taste Most Lambruscos are made from more than one Lambrusco variety and often mixed with a number of approved blending grapes. The grape itself is not particularly sweet but many of the commercial Lambrusco wines are sweetened by either partial fermentation or with the addition of concentrated grape must. There are different levels of dryness or sweetness; the wine is noted for high acidity and flavours of blackberries, strawberries and cherries.

Reggiano is the largest Lambrusco-producing region and the origin of the majority of the exports of that DOC-designated wine. The four Lambrusco grapes that can be used are Maestri, Marani, Montericco, and Salamino. Up to 15% of added Ancellotta grapes are allowed for this DOC, too.

It’s hardly surprising that these better quality Lambrusco wines differ from the cheap supermarket bottles with which we were afflicted a few decades ago. They’re more potent, having an alcoholic content of between 11 and 12 per cent, as opposed to four per cent for those over-sweet and half-hearted wines that gave Lambrusco such a bad name.

Lambrusco - Another taste These days Lambrusco is much drier, with a touch of tannin, and well balanced, being rich and juicy as well as displaying freshness and fruitiness. It still has that deep crimson colour that looked so delicious all those years ago, but now that expectation is more often realised. It’s still sparkling and offering those same pink bubbles when poured, but it’s often the best Lambrusco that’s now exported and enjoyed by people outside Italy.

Lambrusco is attractive, refreshing and goes well with so many foods. It’s best served chilled with canapés, light summer salads and even cheese. It’s well worth another look; but beware - there are still bottles out there that too closely fit the profile of those previous horrors! It’s not always a matter of ‘you get what you pay for’ so it’s perhaps worth going to a reputable wine merchant and even asking for a taste if you intend to buy a case or two.

‘A case or two?’ I can hear you cry with loud incredulity. Well, yes. A good Lambrusco is hard to beat when the sun shines, so set aside wine snobbery, buy some bottles and boast that you have discovered the next big wine trend.

Learn more about Reggio Emilia here

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Parmigiano Reggiano – a cracking good cheese

Parmigiano Reggiano If we are sent on a mission to buy a flavourful hard cheese we will likely want to buy Parmigiano Reggiano. If we are looking for parmesan cheese its possible we won’t get Parmigiano Reggiano but an inferior cheese with an Italian flag on the packaging. It’s the same issue with balsamic vinegar and even wine, but imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, after all.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese takes its name from the region where it is produced:  the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna (but only the area to the west of the river Reno), Modena, and Mantova in Lombardia (but only the area to the south of the River Po). Only cheese produced in these areas may be labelled "Parmigiano-Reggiano" and have those words imprinted on the rind.

The real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has been around for 800 years or so and is made, broadly, in the same way in the same region and sometimes by the same families who have been making cheese for generations. During the Great Fire of London of 1666 diarist Samuel Pepys buried his cheese: "I did dig another hole, and put our wine in it; and my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things" to save them from the approaching inferno. The cheeses were used as prestigious gifts: in 1511 a Pope made a gift to Henry VIII of one hundred Parmesan cheeses, and in 1556 another Pope made gifts of "eight great Parmesan cheeses" to Queen Mary of England.

This king of cheeses is made with milk, non-vegetarian rennet, heat and the skill of the maker. There are around 450 small artisan dairies and nine thousand milk producers who have to work 365 days of the year, as cows don’t have holidays. Traditionally, cows have to be fed only on grass or hay to produce the milk for this particular cheese.

Parmigiano Reggiano The whole unpasteurised milk of the morning milking is mixed with the skimmed milk of the previous evening's milking. This skimmed milk is made by resting milk in large shallow tanks to allow the cream to separate, resulting in a part-skimmed milk. This milk is pumped into copper-lined conical vats. Starter whey is added, and the temperature is raised to between 33 and 35°C. Rennet is added, and the mixture is left to naturally curdle for 10 minutes or so. The curd is then broken into small pieces. The temperature is raised to 55°C and the curd is left to settle for about an hour. The curd is scooped up in a large piece of muslin and hung to drain for a few minutes before being cut in half and placed in stainless steel moulds to drain still more. At this time each cheese weighs around 45 kg.

After a couple of days a plastic belt embossed with the words Parmigiano Reggiano, the producer’s identification number, and date of production is put around the cheese and buckled tight. After a day the wheel is removed from the embossing mould and is put into a brine bath to absorb salt. It stays there for 3 weeks and is turned frequently. After brining, the cheeses are moved to the aging room and left there to mature for at least a year. Each cheese is turned every week to allow for even maturation.

After one year, an independent assessor evaluates each wheel of cheese. He does this by tapping each one with a special hammer. The assessor listens for the change in sound indicating whether the cheese has aged properly. The cheeses are then branded with the distinctive oval Consorzio Tutela Parmigiano Reggiano certification mark. Those rare cheeses that do not pass the test used to have their rinds marked with lines or crosses all the way around to inform consumers that they are not getting top-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano. These days the rinds are usually removed altogether.

Parmigiano Reggiano The cheese tester also determines whether further aging is required for a particular wheel. Some are best eaten between 12 and 18 months. Most cheeses are aged to between 18 and 36 months, typically 24 months. Those labelled stravecchio have been aged three years, while stravecchiones are four or more years old. This extra aging allows the cheese to develop its fullest flavour. The younger Parmigiano has a hard texture with a slightly fruity and nutty flavour and a sharp finish. The older cheese has a more crumbly texture with crunchy crystals throughout. These are not flakes of salt but amino acid crystals and a natural and integral part of mature cheeses. The flavour is stronger and more complex than that of the younger cheeses.

The almond-shaped knife and various chisel-type wedges are the traditional tools for cutting a whole wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. In truth it’s not cut but cracked open to show its unique craggy surface. Sometimes it’s opened across the cheese to produce two huge half-moon shapes and on other occasions it’s opened around the edge to produce two identical and impressive discs. Using the tip of the knife, a line is drawn that divides the wheel in half across the diameter, down the sides and across the other side of the cheese; or around its circumference. The rind is cut into by the knife along that line to a depth of one or two centimetres. Parmigiano ReggianoThese knives act as wedges and the wheel splits open into two identical halves, with a bit of work. The half cheese is usually cut in half, and those wedges are cut in half again until manageable wedges are achieved for the buyer.

Parmigiano Reggiano is commonly grated over pasta dishes, stirred into soups and risottos, and eaten on its own with perhaps a little drizzle of real balsamic vinegar. Strips of the rind are sometimes simmered in soup, giving an added richness. The hollowed-out rind of a whole wheel of Parmigiano can be a spectacular serving vessel for large groups of guests, with the remaining cheese melting into hot food.

Parmigiano Reggiano is a classic cheese but it’s important to buy the best, to buy the authentic article. You will taste the difference and never again will you be tempted to use the imposters.

Learn more about Reggio Emilia here
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Balsamic vinegar in Emilia Romagna

Balsamic vinegar in Emilia Romagna
Balsamic vinegar, in Italian ‘aceto balsamico’, is a vinegar originating in Italy – the syrupy dark-brown condiment that one finds in Italian restaurants and gracing deli shelves. It doesn’t contain any balsam at all but the word balsamic refers to its supposed healthful qualities. It’s rather pricey, especially as, when found in your local supermarket, it’s likely not the best quality. The label to look for is one that says it’s traditional balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) – once tasted you will realise that it’s worth the price. It takes years to produce the best, and it has a story.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is made from a reduction of cooked white Trebbiano or Lambrusco grape juices and has been produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia in Emilia Romagna since the Middle Ages. But it has been enjoying international popularity over the last couple of decades. You would have seen bottles of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and this has a Protected Geographical Status label, and is usually used on restaurant tables and found in supermarkets; but it’s not the same as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.  ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena’ and ‘Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia’ are also protected by the designations Denominazione di Origine Protetta and the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin, just like wine and other products. They can be recognised by their approved bottle shapes.

Balsamic vinegar in Emilia Romagna Real Balsamic vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 12 years. This is done in a battery of 5 barrels of between 50 and 15 litres. It’s a tradition that a new baby girl is welcomed with a new flight of barrels, with the resulting vinegar being presented to her when she marries. The barrels are made of different woods such as oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry, ash or juniper. Each of these woods imparts a different flavour. Some producer’s largest barrels are those which have previously been used for making wine. This would also lend another flavour.

The process for making vinegar is different from that for making wine. First, all barrels are ¾-filled with the cooked grape juice or must. The barrels are not sealed and there is a hole in the top called a cocchiume. A piece of cloth lightly covers the hole but allows air to circulate. There is essential evaporation through this hole and through the staves of the barrels. Balsamic vinegar in Emilia RomagnaThese barrels are stored in the roof of a building and thus the must is exposed to extremes of temperature, something that will fill the heart of any winemaker with horror.

At the end of a year the wine from the 4th barrel is used to top up the 5th, smallest, barrel to the original ¾ mark again. The 3rd barrel tops up the 4th, the 2nd barrel tops up the 3rd and the 1st barrel tops up the 2nd. The 1st and largest barrel is topped up with new must.

True balsamic vinegar is rich and glossy and is as thick as crude oil. It has a dark mahogany brown colour and has a flavour that has the natural sweet and sour notes that make this such a complex and sought-after product.

In Reggio Emilia there are designations for the different ages of their balsamic vinegar. There are the easily recognisable round bottles with labels of different colours. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label is reserved for the vinegar which has been aged for at least 18 years, and a gold label indicates that the vinegar has aged for 25 years or more.

The gold label Balsamic isn’t to be poured but rather slowly dropped, one lazy drip at a time, over Parmesan cheese or perhaps over some strawberries. It works well over a light and unflavoured ice cream. But take a non-metallic spoon and put just a little in the bowl. Take that black gold in your mouth and let it rest there to warm and to bathe your tongue and taste buds. That’s when you realise why Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is so famed.

Learn  more about Reggio Emilia here

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Sweet Valentines - Etruscan Chocohotel - Perugia, Italy

Isn’t it a perennial problem? What to do for Valentine’s Day! Perugia ItalyWhen one has had the same partner for several decades one starts to run out of romantic options. You might possibly get away with socks for Christmas, but they just don’t cut the mustard for Valentines. Jewellery is predictable, and restaurants are always full to bursting with couples, red roses and enough candle power to illuminate a small town.

If one is still in the first flush of a relationship then perhaps the prospect of a Valentines getaway is even more enticing. One might want to make an impression, and there could even be the chance of a proposal. Yes, life can be sweet …as chocolate.

Chocolate is a traditional Valentines gift and is still welcomed, but think of the impact a whole chocolate hotel would have. No, dear gluttonous reader, the hotel isn’t exactly made from chocolate but is stuffed with enough of that confection to warrant the title of Chocohotel; and what’s more it’s in Italy and there are few more romantic places than that.

Etruscan Chocohotel has 3 stars and what it lacks in glitter it makes up for in themed fun. Perhaps another time you might even consider bringing the kids, who will have eyes like organ stops before they even reach their room. The chocolate extravaganza starts in the hotel lobby.

We have all seen them, those chocolate novelties. Something for the tree at Christmas along with some coins. One might have some chocolate initials for a birthday and then there are body parts – although discussion of those will remain for another article (perhaps).Perugia Italy But here at the Chocohotel the chocolate goods are tasty and tasteful and by Costruttori di Dolcezze and Eurochocolate. It seems that anything to do with a computer has been fabricated in chocolate, and - this is Italy, after all - how about a chocolate pizza? All this and much more!

At Etruscan Chocohotel, rooms are on three floors and each is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to a style of chocolate. OK, so admittedly the Etruscans were never big on chocolate, owing to the fact that the stuff had not yet been discovered, but they would likely have appreciated staying in any level of a hotel with motifs of milk chocolate, dark chocolate and gianduja chocolate. For sheer delicious decadence there is a Choco Sweet Suite that presents the visitor with mounds of chocolate in each corner of the room, and you get to take home any you can’t finish during your stay.

Some rooms are equipped with, well, equipment of the sporting variety. A whimsical touch from the management of a hotel that dares the guest to stick to that diet. The handles of the treadmill are handy for hanging one’s suit …this is a relaxing vacation, not a gym boot-camp!

Perugia Italy Breakfast offers temptations for those who are still craving chocolate. Chocolate dip, hot chocolate in mugs, big jar of Nutella, chocolate cakes and the like partner more conventional fare for those with traditional morning needs.

The centre of Perugia is not far away, making this hotel an ideal location for a short break or a romantic interlude. There are plenty of activities, stunning architecture and restaurants just a few minutes’ drive from your chocolate heaven. All rooms are equipped with air conditioning, satellite TV, minibar, telephone. Wi-Fi access, parking and garage are free for Etruscan Chocohotel guests.

Etruscan Chocohotel is unashamedly themed. It’s a joyful and light-hearted spot and ideal for those who are not looking for starchy formality. It’s just right for families, but memories of a Valentine’s Day for just two here will likely make you smile for years to come.

Etruscan Chocohotel
via Campo di Marte, 134
06100 Perugia (PG)

Phone: +39 075 5837314

Visit Etruscan Chocohotel here

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Norcia – Umbria, Italy

Norcia italy Anyone with a molecule of romance in their hearts will have considered a vacation in Italy. Any lover of good food and wine would have mused on a visit to this land of culinary abundance. Every traveller who prizes quality produce, striking accommodation and the best of restaurants will want to stay in Norcia. Where? Yes, that is the expected response from the untutored.

The historic town of Norcia is in the heart of the Valnerina, on the edge of the Sibillini National Park in Umbria. That’s the region that is sadly overlooked by those visiting Italy for the first time. One passes through this region on the way from Tuscany to Rome, and it seems the only variation on that programme is travellers choosing to travel from Rome to Tuscany.

The pretty walled town of Norcia is just what one would hope to find in Italy. It has retained much of that timeless quality and charm that is so often swept away by modernisation. Norcia, traditionally known in English by its Latin name of Nursia, is situated on a wide plain at the foot of Monti Sibillini, a part of the Apennines with some of its highest peaks.  It’s an ideal base from which the hardy and energetic sorts will set out for days of mountaineering and hiking.

The town's recorded history goes back as far as the 5th century BC, when the Sabines settled here. It became an ally of ancient Rome in 205 BC, during the Second Punic War, but perhaps it is better known for its later Christian inhabitant. St. Benedict, the founder of the monasteries that bear his name, and his twin sister St. Scholastica, were born here in 480. Monks came to Norcia in the 10th century, and the Monastery of St. Benedict is built over the ruins of the house the saint called home.

Norcia italy In the 6th century Norcia was conquered by the Lombards, becoming part of the Duchy of Spoleto. In the 9th century it was attacked by Saracens. In 1324 it was struck by a powerful earthquake and more followed in the years 1763, 1859, 1979. After the earthquake of August 22, 1859 the Papal States, to which Norcia then belonged, imposed strict building regulations forbidding structures of more than 3 floors and requiring the use of particular materials and building techniques. This edict has helped to give the town its architectural style, which is one of its great assets.

Norcia’s celebrated main basilica is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to St. Benedict and is connected to the Benedictine monastery. The building we see today was erected in the 13th century on the remains of Roman buildings assumed to be the house in which the twin saints were born.

There is much here to occupy the discerning tourist. Gothic facades, narrow streets, striking views, shops and museums. But those aforementioned shops will be the draw. There are the usual boutiques selling stylish home goods but there are others that are more memorable, and they are filled with the most delectable of local food delights.

Lentils (Castelluccio variety) are big here, or more accurately, they are small here. They are celebrated all over the country for their distinctive flavour and their texture, and they are the traditional Italian New Year accompaniment to Zampone di Modena, stuffed pigs trotter. They are also presented as a rustic soup which will be welcomed by those returning from mountain walks.

For a touch of luxury consider Norcia’s black truffle. There are numerous shops here selling fresh truffles, and whole or sliced in jars. They are fine quality with an aroma that will be mouth-watering for any lover of these fungi. That earthy scent is eclipsed by the flavour brought out by cooking, and it doesn’t take much to create a decadent pasta or egg dish from some truffle shavings.

norica italy One look at the landscape and one realises that this must be pig paradise. According to tradition, it was the Jews who arrived after the destruction of Jerusalem who invented the technique of preserving pork. Now, that sounds unlikely but as they were unable to eat the meat themselves, they chose to preserve it in order to use in trade.

From the 12th to the 17th century, processing techniques developed along with the emergence of the “norcino” or dedicated pork butcher, who set up guilds which in turn created new cured-meat products. Pope Paul V, with a papal bull of 1615, recognized the Norcian guild dedicated to the home-grown saints, and several years later Pope Gregory XV promoted this association to the rank of Arch-confraternity – which later became the university of the pork butchers of Norcia and Cascia and of the Norcian empirical pork physicians. Yes, their knife skills were appreciated more by people than pigs.

Cured hams, capocollo salami (made from pork neck and shoulder, and a speciality of Norcia) as well as prosciutto crudo (uncooked, dry-cured ham), spalletta (small cooked shoulder of pork), loins, bacon and guanciale (unsmoked cured pig’s jowl) are all available from local purveyors. Those products are generally made from regular pigs, but Norcia is also widely known for good hunting, especially of wild boar, and for the production of sausages and ham made from that free-range pork. Such products have been named after Norcia: in Italian, they are called norcineria.

Norcia is worthwhile visiting any time of year but winter tempts with crisp air, warm fires and the best of food. It’s a compact little city that offers enough amusement to fill a short break; or consider it as a base from which to wander.

Getting to Norcia:
By road, allow two hours from Rome, via Terni, and around two and a half hours from Florence, via Perugia.

food and travel reviews

Umbria’s Autumn Gastronomy with Valentina Harris

She is perhaps our most celebrated and prolific Italian food writer, TV presenter and chef. Yes, the lady truly is Italian, although one could be fooled into thinking she is an authentically British blue-blood.
Valentina Harris doesn’t have many free moments but I cornered her on a return flight from a culinary tour of Umbria. She is an unashamed supporter of the country of her birth, and conducts gastronomic adventures to Umbria and other regions.

Umbria Italy Food Tour I asked Valentina about her association with the beautiful and mostly undiscovered Umbria. ‘I had never really known Umbria, because coming from Tuscany as I do, and having been to school and then chefs’ school in Rome, Umbria was somewhere we just by-passed on the way between the two.

‘But a few years ago, at La Dolce Vita in London, the big food and lifestyle association, Umbria was the featured region. I met all these people from Umbria and as a result I went to visit. That was the start of my journey of discovery. Last year I was invited to give the opening speech at the International Festival of Journalism in Perugia (capital of the region), which happens every May. I talked about what I do on my culinary tours, and about how I try and lead those who are not ‘of the place’ to understand, and come to love, Italy through eating the delicious food that each region has to offer. For me it always comes back to that: the reason that Italian food is so interesting, and what makes it so endlessly fascinating, is the fact that there are so many regions, so many different styles of cuisine, and the food, whilst it remains so fundamental to all Italian life, cannot be described as just ‘Italian’ food – not by Italians nor anybody else – you have to look at it on a regional basis.

‘By bringing people to individual regions, to stay and to cook and to eat and to explore and to have a culinary adventure, they leave with a greater understanding, I think, than if they had just wandered around shopping and looking at churches and lying on a beach. The ‘menù turistico’, the ubiquitous tourist menu, never has any regional basis, and I’m worried that there are lots of people who come to Italy and never experience the local cuisine. Through local dishes you can learn all about the people, the sociology, the geography, the history, the culinary traditions – all of those things are very revelatory, if you just stop to think for a minute.

Umbria Italy Food Tour ‘So I made this speech, and it obviously hit a lot of the right notes in the tourist authorities, who are very keen to bring the British and others to discover more about Umbria, so they invited me to start running press trips, of which this is the first one. It’s called an ‘educatour’. There is another one planned for carnival time in February. I’ve worked with the tourist board and other authorities to create a balance of food, wine, a little bit of culture, a little free time; and of course on this one we all wanted to go Christmas shopping – what an opportunity with just a couple of weeks to go. So many lovely things to take home, from a fresh truffle to a bar of chocolate.

‘We witnessed for ourselves in Norcia (the black truffle and cured pork capital of Umbria) the Benedictine monks, and their prayer schedule is endless: they are up at 4.30 in the morning, still finding time to brew beer, run a shop, and there’s only a handful of them. We were fortunate enough to listen to the chanting, and to see a novice being inducted into the order.

Umbrian food is very exciting in its own way, but it has a slightly spartan quality about it. Look at the ingredients of the region: first you have the lentil – which has never floated anyone’s boat, but this is a particularly delicious lentil with a very fine skin, that cooks quickly and is very digestible, and it is venerated. (I use that word because that is how they talk about their food, in the same way that a saint is venerated.) If you think that the lentil is all there is on the ‘pulse’ front you’d be mistaken, because there is a vast range of other beans and lentils and wild peas that are not common anywhere else. It reflects a cuisine that is very humble and simple, but they will take these legumes and pulses, cook them and serve them with their unbelievably delicious olive oil, reputedly the very best olive oil in Italy.

We have the lentil and the olive oil; then we have two extraordinary luxuries: chocolate and truffles – amazing in the middle of all this low-key, no-frills cuisine! Perugia is the ‘other’ centre of chocolate in Italy: Torino, Modica in Sicily, and then there is Perugia.

‘The other great ingredient of the region is pork: ham, salami, sausages, coppa (cured meat from the neck of the pig), and guanciale (bacon from the jowl). The pig that they favour is the little ‘cinta senese’ or belted pig from Siena. The meat is very lean and fragrant, and they run wild and eat acorns. Norcia is the centre of the butchering and curing of this meat.

‘We haven’t mentioned the cheese: it’s not really a region of dairy cows, and Italians generally, apart from down south, have a resistance to eating lamb and mutton. The sheep that you see in the area are mainly kept for their wool and for their milk to make pecorino cheese – softer as a table cheese, turning harder and more granular as it ages into a grating cheese. And of course it’s delicious with a bit of truffle!

‘Everywhere out in the country, far away from a ‘supply chain’, mountainous and without flat areas on which to grow things, has a tradition of foraging. You pick up wild mushrooms in the woodlands, and also dandelions, bitter greens, nettles (a spinach substitute) – it’s an old practice and a very relaxing thing to do, going out with your basket and bringing home some food. Obviously you have to know what you are doing, you don’t want to throw in a handful of deadly nightshade or the like. But it seems to be something handed down from father to son.

umbria food tour italy ‘I always take my groups on a truffle hunt. A very dear friend, Sergio, now in his 70s, is one of the loveliest people I have ever met. He invested in some truffle trees – a tree where the roots have been injected with truffle spores. You plant these trees and hope for the best. You wait six years, then suddenly you might notice an intense garlic smell, and you will find a ‘signal’ truffle just under the soil. This one isn’t really edible, but it tells you that the truffle has taken root. You then have to wait another couple of winters, and you start training your dog. You train them on garlic, so they associate the smell with food. Of course the dog will try to eat it, so you have to be right there and the dog has to answer your command to leave it and sit until you pick it up. If a truffle has bite marks on it, it isn’t going to sell as well as a nice smooth one! So we visit Sergio and he is so ‘chuffed’ that his investment has paid off. He now grows truffles around the year, supplies the local restaurants and hotels, and it’s good fun – but it’s real life.’

I asked Valentina how many regions her tours might cover in future.
‘I think Umbria is a good one, particularly because I think that the ‘staying in a lovely house, eating on the balcony and doing a bit of cooking’ has been done now. It’s lovely, I’m not saying that it’s not a pleasant experience, but what I have in mind, and what I’m going to be doing from now, is different. I have a link with the Università dei Sapori (UDS) in Perugia, a state-run university dedicated to catering and food, and in particular the food and wines of Umbria. I am going to be offering a tour of Umbria, staying in beautiful places, showing the romance of Umbria, the architecture, the countryside, then putting it into practice, staying possibly on-campus (the accommodation is at least 3-star if not 4) and using the kitchen facilities at UDS which are extraordinary – as professional as you can get.

‘I am now an ambassador for UDS in the UK, and I want to bring students who are studying professionally, but also keen amateurs, the Masterchef-watchers, the foodie who wants the latest technique and knife and exotic ingredient, and combine the two. Relaxing, wandering round the vineyards, going out to fabulous lunches, going to the markets – and then working with those ingredients for 2 or 3 days. It’s a great joy to cook in a professional kitchen, if you’ve never experienced it. It’s a bit like going back to kindergarten: you are allowed to make as much mess as you like, spread out, everybody has their own station, their own stove, there are lots of kitchen porters to help you, and the ingredients are second-to-none. There is a laboratory devoted entirely to Italian ice cream, and one could spend a day playing with this fantastic kit making fabulous ice cream.

umbria food tour italy ‘I am selling a unique and very special product, with all my love and passion – 5-star without the fuss. I will do two spring/summer and two late summer/autumn tours in Umbria, then I’d like to revisit the south of Italy, because we need to remind people of the healthy ‘Mediterranean diet’. It’s as much about sitting around the table, talking, the convivial thing, rather than eating while staring at the TV screen, or standing up with your Blackberry in your hand. They eat very little animal fat, lots of fruit and vegetables, legumes, carbohydrates, lots of fresh fish.

‘I’d like to do something by the sea, as a contrast to the mountainous inland food – plenty of fresh fish, citrus fruits, salads, tomatoes. My knowledge of all the regions of Italy is as a result of learning: I wasn’t born with it, I’ve studied a lot, travelled a lot, talked to a lot of people, read a lot of books, and I feel confident enough to take people wherever they want to go. If someone said “Can you organise a bespoke tour in, say, Rome or Venice?” I could do that. The point is that you will leave with a greater appreciation, and hopefully a love of Italy, and you’ll want to come back – and tell your friends about it.’

Valentina’s success as a gastronomic tour organiser, leader, coach, hand-holder is assured. A couple of days in her company show this lady in action. She is blessed by being bi-lingual, sounding like a local in both the UK and Italy. She has an easy rapport with owners of vineyards, hotels, restaurants and cookery schools. She is a trained chef and is equipped to answer food-related questions. She is Italian and can give a first-hand insight into culture, custom and practice. She is amusing, talented and will ensure that any tour will leave the participants fulfilled …and feeling full.

To learn more about Valentina Harris and her gastronomic tours visit here.

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