Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Funivia

I had to post more about Italy. I was in Rome for a few days, but then I was immersed in Umbria. It was the hight of the mushroom season, so I was in heaven as I am a life long mushroom collector and consumer. I've been seriously collecting wild mushrooms since I was 16 and usually can identify most specimen by eye and come up with the botanical latin name of the variety  There were of course a few different varieties of chantrelles and the local version of Boletus edulis, cepes here in France, but in Italy, the prized Porcini, in abundance. I consumed them on pasta, in ravioli and on pizzas! I live on the edge of the Black Truffle region of the Dordogne Causse. The The Black Truffle of Perigord, tuber melansporum, is an intense little tuber. They are insanely expensive. In Umbria, it was truffle season. The black truffles, tuber brumale vittadini, there are a different specie. Larger, more abundant but not as intensely flavored, though when you enter a shop with fresh truffles, the scent is overpowering!  The real star of the Umbrian truffle extravaganza is
white truffles
the White Truffle. The White Truffle, tuber magnatum pico, is like nothing else. They can be huge and the price can be even huger. White Truffles are more ephemeral as well. They lose weight fast so they should be eaten fresh and they are not cooked, but grated raw. They grow in a very particular environment, like all truffles which make them almost impossible to raise on a commercial level. I ate them and with out writing an entire piece on truffles, I have to concur, they were like nothing I had ever had before...I had them grated in abundance on a plate of tagliatelle in a great restaurant in Perugia. Can you imagine an earthy scent of garlic, honey and flowers, but as a flavor? Scent is so much a part of our ability to taste. I feel a wiser if not richer man for the experience. I visited a few of the medieval towns clinging to the sides of the mountains in the intensely forest region. I was in Norcia, a place that has given it's name as a a noun to describe the pork and cheese of the region. I spent a bizarre day in Assisi, avoiding flocks of genuflecting overly ostentatious American Catholics, but finding a true religious experience in the little food shops.
A display of spice encrusted prosciutto hams in Assisi in all of their regal finery.
The next day, though, I found myself in the medieval mountain town of Gubbio. My good buddy Enzo had devolved into our demented tour guide.  He is an inbred Umbrian of ancient peasant stock and I will take his version of the anthropological record of the area over any learned authority any day.  He refused to look at maps and he refused to drive on any of the newer auto routes buildt after 1970. I had become the navigator, trying to decipher what appeared to be a plate of tangled pasta overturned onto the wrinkled ancient map and then he would ignore any directions I found and would stop and ask anyone he saw on the side of the road for directions. Much more amusing way to get around as it allowed all the real Italians involved to engage in what they really liked to do...tell jokes and try to appear to know what they are talking about...and then we would end up back on the route I had untangled from in the multi colored linguini on the map.  As we passed one turn off to a tiny isolated village, Enzo would explain the May 1st Festival that was still celebrated there...Well, ever since before the Romans, they had a big party and a dance and the women would be in a circle and the men would be in a bigger circle and the music would start, and when the music stops, the man would have to bang the woman he was in front of...we finally made it to Gubbio. A fantastic village of white limestone towers on the side of a mountain. Gubbio has it's own primeval May fertility festival, the Corso del Ceri...or the race of the candles. Of course, according to Enzo, they candles weren't always candles, but huge stylized phallic towers...which were carried by teams in a race through the streets of the mountain side village. Then according to Enzo. the team that won got to bang all the virgins in the tower all night long. I guess it was a real status thing to be rated as a virgin in the tower back in medieval Gubbio. He said the church kind of stopped that thing around 1920 and replaced the big dicks with symbolic candles. It's still a big thing, though and the Fest dei Ceri is a major event every year in Umbria.
Things were much more quiet the day we visited Gubbio. The relatively small town actually has elevators to help you get up the side of the mountain to the medieval city. The food shops were incredible, with the overpowering aroma of truffles pouring out into the street.  There were a few souvenir trinket stores open that seemed to specialize in very nice affordable versions of medieval weaponry. I almost had a total tantrum when I realized that I would never be able to get one of the really cool crossbows I had found into my carry on bag on the plane back to France. So I soothed my little brain by stepping into a shop and buying a 2 kilos of pecorino cheese. But as it was about 1pm and way past my lunch time, so we went to a little hole in the wall where fresh piadina...or Italian flat bread was being made before your eyes and then you could order a sandwich...I had a hot sandwich of prosciutto and melted pecorino on piadina and a beer. Incredible.
We have been making our own piadina here in La Sechere. It's pretty easy and it is the street food that keeps Italy in motion...I had a great piadina  and fresh roast pork sandwich the next day in Spella from a road side vendor...this is fast food? This was beyond perfection. So I found an amusing video that gives the basic Italian flatbread technique...remember, nothing is perfect the first took me a few attempts to create a light flaky bread, but it;s worth it. One of the ingredients in the video is something called Saindoux....that's refined pork fat. I can buy it here in France, but if you live near a Mexican market, try Manteca...the same thing.
After lunch, Enzo and I went on the Funivia. A cable car thing that is basically a cage that takes you up the side of the mountain. I found a video that sort of captures the experience:

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