Bread in Bevagna

Spigots offer fresh water everywhere in Italy. Rome hydrates tourists so well – one bottle can last a whole trip. Some of the water fountains are ancient and others not so much – plugging the end with your finger turns the stream into an arched flow to fill the bottle or your mouth.

But I’m about bread here – and olive oil of course.

The afternoon of the first day of walking in Umbria when we arrived in Bevagna, we passed though the Roman gate, up to the quiet main square where we sat on the steps of the fountain in that stupefied “we made it” state.

After showers, we walked back toward the square, sat down at a wooden table outside La Bottega di Assu, ordered drinks and “something to eat” – a request always greeted with “Si, of course!” Snacks come with the drinks – sometimes simple – bread and olive oil or peanuts, or complicated – little dishes of olives or gnocchi, cheese or sliced meat.

Bottega di Assu served bread, but it was unusual – pane integral – wholemeal bread, toasted – crunchy half slices piled on a plate and drenched with olive oil. The plate emptied fast.

We wandered off in search of the remains of a Roman theater – and found it down a set of steps. (In Italy something is always built over something else.) And atop the theatre we explored a restored medieval house completely furnished with everyday necessities, a canopied bed, clothes, foodstuffs – dried beans, lentils – a writing table and loom.

Bevagna is known for its preservation of ancient crafts including medieval papermaking machinery that still works. The brief menu was handwritten on handmade paper at La Bottega di Assu where we gravitated back for dinner. We sat outside again, awed as always by life in the midst of buildings unchanged since the Middle Ages.

Inside the bottega, two little square tables looked inviting for colder days, but its floor to ceiling shelves fascinated us – bottles and bottles of interesting looking wine, painted dishes, gourmet treats, movie posters – and photographs. The photos we thought were of the owner – younger maybe, maybe a sister – or were those movie stars?

And a photo of Virginia Woolf! – the one I pass dozens of times a day on our staircase bookshelf – on the spine of the second volume of her letters. It was part of a shrine-like arrangement including a biscuit tin with Woolf’s picture and her books, a copy of “La Signora Dalloway” faced out.

I asked the owner (already liking her for holding the young baby of travelers, so the parents could eat their dinner) about the photo, and she smiled and said, “Virginia Woolf was a great woman.”

Now, when we eat Bevagna bread made at home with pane integral from a local bakery, I picture the bottega and think how Virginia would have liked it and liked being a reason for traveler and tavern owner to connect.

Olive Oil from Italy Meets a Potato Gratin

My good-natured husband (in his travel role as supply officer) ordered a couple of small bottles of olive oil from a local producer to take home, but two large, newly decanted, labeled, and sealed bottles arrived. I said: “How will we carry this?” and then, once home: “Oh why didn’t we bring more!”

Olive oil matters. All those things good cooks say about buying the best possible, freshest, extra-virgin olive oil are true. In Italy, delicious, fruity, fragrant olive oil reigns – so often in food and always on the table. A friend here said that when in Italy, she’d just as soon drink olive oil as wine.

Since our return I’ve thrown all caution to the wind with olive oil quantities – easily following what seemed (in my old pre-Italy narrowness) excessive amounts. Our farmer’s market now has the first new potatoes, and in Peter Berley’s “The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen” I found “Potato-Leek Gratin” calling for eight tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Might have stopped me once – but not now!

In a first bowl: I combined a cup and a half of breadcrumbs (whole wheat and sourdough white crumbed in the blender), with three tablespoons of the oil.

In a second bowl: two pounds of yellow potatoes  (Berley says peeled but these barely had skin, so I just washed well and sliced thinly). Toss the potatoes with three thinly sliced garlic cloves, fresh thyme if you can (mine has given up the ghost in this cold summer so I used dried), salt and pepper, and four tablespoons of olive oil.

And in a third bowl: the recipe calls for two leeks, but our farmer didn’t have leeks yet. She suggested I use a fresh garlic bulb – the young, uncured garlic bulb with its greens. You can use it all – like a leek. As Berley instructs for leeks, I chopped it up and steamed for five minutes – then tossed with a tablespoon of oil and quarter teaspoon of salt.

In a two-quart casserole layer half the potatoes, then the garlic (or leek mixture), repeat. Pour a cup of heated stock or water over top (I used water). Then spread the breadcrumbs.

The gratin cooks for an hour at 350° and the result is terrific – good hot the first night as part of a meal for company, delicious a second night as leftovers, and welcome the next day as a tiny bit of cold lunch.

To have olive oil now from trees we actually met is so pleasing! I see in my mind those groves of olive trees – everywhere in Umbria – most often tilted on a hillside. I read where olives need “harsh winters, burning summers, stone, drought, silence, and solitude” to thrive.

And long may they!

Under the Tuscan Sun – for a Day

Cortona, the Tuscan hill town made famous by Frances Mayes, tilts ever upward, and its physical high point is the substantial, well-preserved Medici fortress at the top of town. The day we visited, sunshine filled the upper floors of this commanding structure – habitable looking rooms with giant stone fireplaces, and windows for spying on Cortona and the Val di Chiana beyond.

Our food high point came at Restorante la Loggetta, a gracious place on a balcony above the Piazza Republica with dusky-pink tablecloths under giant canvas umbrellas. One bowl of ribollita ordered by one person quickly became another we all shared. Known as Italian “peasant fare,” it’s a warming soup, good in Italian winters but equally good here in this drearily cold Northwest summer. I came home eager to make ribollita.

None of my usual sources offered a recipe, so I trolled the Internet and read several. They all share the basics: bread, beans and “reboiling” (ribollita in Italian).

The recipes (I mostly used one from Heidi Swanson at “101cookbooks.com”) begin by sautéing gently in olive oil, on a low heat, celery, carrots, garlic, and onion – avoiding browning.

Use whatever form of tomatoes you like – I had half a big can of crushed tomatoes and added them to the sauté, along with some red pepper flakes (another recipe suggested crushed fennel seeds also).

After simmering a bit, I added a bunch of Tuscan kale (mid-rib removed and leaves chopped), and three cups of cooked beans (two cups of dry beans cooked the day before easily made the four cups needed). Reduce the heat after boiling and simmer till the greens are tender.

Following Swanson’s advice, I pureed another cup of beans with a “splash” of water (I used bean cooking water).

Ribollita is designed to use up stale bread, so use what you have – sourdough white, wheat – the preference is for unsliced, torn into bite-sized pieces. Add the pureed beans and bread to the soup and simmer for 25 or 30 minutes. After adding one and a half teaspoons of salt (I’d cooked the beans with salt so used less), Swanson incorporates the zest of a whole lemon.

Refrigerate overnight (it’s better the second day), and then serve really hot (it’s meant to be thick – and will be). We served it at a dinner with friends, warmed it up slowly until it boiled for a minute, and ladled it into warm bowls.

The setting might not be warm like Cortona – but ribollita warms the spirits. Pass the olive oil – a couple “glugs” for each bowl – Prego!

A Villa in Umbria

We left Assisi, picked up our rental car in Perugia, and (using the GPS navigator our younger son brought from Los Angeles with a chip for Italy), headed toward the villa, wondering if it would work out.

Surrounded by an olive grove, Casa della Ginestra sits on a promontory with views toward the little medieval town of Bettona (“our” hill town) in one direction, and the conquered Mount Subasio in the other. We loved it.

Our floor of the villa had a large living room, kitchen, dining room, four bedrooms, and a terrace or balcony to either view. In the morning, a breeze rippled gauzy curtains, bringing a musical bird chorus and the scent of jasmine. Afternoons, a tiny swimming pool offered respite from the heat. Three cats live at the villa, along with kind and welcoming hosts.

The evening the Alaskans arrived we sat on the terrace as the setting sun lit up Bettona in a golden glow. We ate fresh pasta and gnocchi from a market, a salad from a fruta e verdura shop, bruschetta made by our sweet friend, and drank wine from Sagrantino grapes that grow in the fields where we walked. (It’s impossible to avoid clichés about good things in Italy because they are all true and right – la dolce vita for sure.)

At the villa I felt most strongly the traveler conflict of savor or explore. Stay put and laze the day listening to the bells of Bettona or tour northern Umbria and the east of Tuscany (within easy reach).

We chose the latter and St. Francis makes a worthy focus for day trips. In this part of Umbria, he touched all the nearby towns. Giotto’s famous frescoes are in Assisi’s Basilica, and many churches have relics from his life. On our hike we missed the turnoff to the grotto, the cave where St. Francis often retreated to mediate. But our resourceful daughter-in-law drove us there. It’s a quiet and reverent place – far from the crowded-with-tourist cathedrals where “silencio” seems to have little meaning.

In Umbria’s capitol, Perugia a large walled city full of students and the capital of Umbria, an escalator rises from parking places outside town to the central square. It passes through a medieval town, a once-buried now-excavated city with walls and streets and doorways (if you have a flashlight you can explore).

The trail boss became also tour guide this year, and he seeks always the highest point – a challenging but appropriate goal for visiting Italian hill towns. The high point in Gubbio required a lift in a “gondola”  – a slatted metal basket holding two people. But oh the view – in one direction toward the wild part of Umbria and the often snow-peaked Apennines, and in the other, the cultivated valley floor.

Touring days were exciting and exhausting, but home to the villa felt great!