Thursday, November 18, 2010

Malvarina and Umbrian delights.

Malvarina is what the Italians call an "agri-turismo" - a working farm that takes in visitors. Peggy has talked about this place for years and raved about her two previous visits, the first about 10 years ago. Over the years she's become friends with Piera who works there in many capacities - not least of which is translating in the kitchen for the cooking classes that are on offer. Needless to say, I was eager to see if it would live up to all the hype.

After a night in Bolonga we took the train to Perugia and rented a little black Lancia Ypsilon to drive to Malvarina. It was a bit tricky getting out of town, with Peggy commenting "If we can just get the hell out of Perugia we'll be OK!" After 30 minutes on the highway we hit the little country roads and wound our way out of the valley up onto the hillside and to Malvarina. The farm looks out to the west, over the valley below, providing great views and sunsets.

Our first treat was dinner. Maria is the family matriarch and she cooks the splendid traditional Italian food served at dinner for Malvarina guests. Maria is the quintessential Italian grandmother and prepares everything from scratch in her kitchen from food raised on the farm. To be classified as an agri-turismo, 70% of the food served must be grown or raised on the farm. Dinner was fantastic and is served in a cozy room with a roaring fire, the hot coals later were used to cook the pork cutlets served with dinner. One of Maria's helpers works on the wine.

Having had a good time picking kiwis at Joao's father's farm at the end of October we continued our European agriculture-themed adventures by helping Giorgio and his family pick olives from their groves. Giorgio is a neighbor who cures the meat and makes the cheese served at Malvarina. Peggy earned her "honorary Iowan" title yet again - here she demonstrates the great form of a skilled olive picker!

Notice the mesh net behind her; these are placed on the ground to catch the olives. One doesn't pick them so much as knock them to the ground using an "olive rake" that lets the olive branches pass though but catches the olives. It is a pretty slick process. After about 3 hours of olive picking Giorgio invited us to lunch with his family - we had a great seafood pasta first course and some pork and copa (Italian head cheese) as a second. We finished with coffee. It was lots of fun and being on a working farm did remind me of Grandpa and his farm in Iowa - he was in my thoughts. It wasn't all like Iowa however; especially for us our hosts broke out the Sambuca which was a nice addition to the coffee - tasty enough that Peggy thought she could become a coffee drinker if it was always served like this.

We walked the short distance back to Malvarina to clean up and then drove to Assisi - just down the road. This is a beautiful town. Like so many towns in Umbria, there are some great artifacts from when the Romans were there - the highlight being the Roman forum that is underneath the main square of the town. The tour below ground was great and it was interesting to see how what was below fit with the Roman temple above ground. From here we continued exploring and found something even more to Peggy's liking...

Fortified by a few goodies from this shop we continued on the The Basilica of St. Francis. The upper church is filled with fantastic frescoes by Giotto showing stories of St. Francis' life. The also fantastic lower church is below and was built in 1228; this sits atop the chambers holding the tomb of St. Francis.

That evening we went for dinner at Filippo's restaurant in Foligno. Filippo is Maria's grandson who grew up helping in the kitchen and dining room at Malvarina. As a teenager there, about 10 years ago, he is also rumored to have drawn dreamy looks from visiting American females who shall remain nameless.

Like the rest of his family he has hospitality in his blood and we had a great dinner at his restaurant. While we do love Portuguese food, it was nice to get a sampling of different styles and different flavor profiles while in Italy - so we were a little surprised when we were told one of the two main dishes available that night. It was bacalhau - a Portuguese specialty. We passed but enjoyed great pasta, roasted veggies, dessert, and some roasted chestnuts.

The next morning Piera gave us a great tour of the region. Our first stop was an olive mill where olives are pressed to extract olive oil. We were greeted by a tremendous very intense olive aroma. The olives used for olive oil are quite different from those one eats whole. These do not taste so good, but have better oil producing characteristics. The whole olive, pit and even a few stray leaves go into the grinder which turns the olives into a paste from which the olive oil is extracted. Luckily we got a sample - bruschetta with olive oil. Peggy and Piera were impressed!

Our hostess at the olive mill toasted the bread, rubbed it with a garlic clove, added salt and generous amounts of olive oil. It was fantastic. Piera explained that bread in Umbria is not baked with salt. Many years ago the powers-that-be imposed a high tax on salt and the Umbrians simply refused to use salt instead of pay the high taxes. A bit of a precursor to the Boston tea party perhaps. Eventually the tax was reduced but the tradition stuck.

That evening we had another great meal at Malvarina. This one started with Stracciatella - sort of an Italian egg-drop soup.

This was followed by scrambled eggs with eggplant, a "frito misto" - mixed fried veggies, including zucchini flowers, cannelloni with meat and tomato sauce, grilled pork and sausages, roasted rosemary potatoes, and cherry tart. As you can see above, we start with a stack of plates and just eat our way down. As each plate is cleared the next course lands on the next plate and the process continues. We ended the evening with a delicious digestif to help settle all the courses. Peggy had the walnut liquor and I had the "100 herbs", made with over 100 herbs that Maria gathers from the garden and surrounding hills. It was confirmed that 100 was not an overestimate. It was fantastic and I raved about it enough that they sent a small bottle of it home with us. It has a great herbal aroma and tastes so good you don't mind the curious green color.

The next morning we wandered around the farm one more time - checking out the bees

and the free roaming geese and turkeys.

We'll certainly be back, with wonderful food, views, and people it certainly fulfilled all the expectations that Peggy had built up in describing her past trips here. ~Eric

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