Please explore some lovely local products, find out how they are grown and used in the Tuscan and Umbrian cuisine. Agriculture is important in this region and the Umbrian cuisine beckons with particularly lovingly prepared and rare specialties that you should definitely try:
Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is a perennial plant belonging to the onion genus. Actually it is not a true garlic, but a variant of the garden leek. The softball-sized bulb can weigh as much as one pound and be as large as an entire head of regular garlic.
I am sure you have already passed various “aglione” signs on the way here in Umbria. This wonderfully tasting garlic variety is more and more cultivated and sold by farmers or even by private people.
The flavor of the elephant garlic bulbs, while not exactly like garlic, is very mild, almost sweet and less intense than normal garlic. It can be used raw in salads, or pickled, lactofermented, stir fried or added to soups.
You will definitely meet „aglione“ on the menu when visiting a typical restaurant in Tuscany or Umbria. The most famous recipe is called “Pici all’ aglione” (= handmade, long pasta with a tomato sauce and elephant garlic in it).
Elephant garlic bulbs are not only an excellent source of vitamins E, C, and A, but they are also rich of flavonoids, minerals, proteins, and vitamin B which collectively help to kill harmful microbes within the body. It is good for hypertension, thrombosis and bad mood. The bulbs also contain the chemical compound “allicin” which has been scientifically shown to have antibacterial & antioxidant properties. This is used to suppress or inhibit certain types of cancer but it also helps against obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.
At the latest in a Tuscan or Umbrian restaurant you will meet Algione on the menu, it is called “Pici all’aglione” (handmade pasta with a tomato and elephant garlic sauce).
Moreover, it is popular not only because of its versatile healing properties and its rather mild taste, but also because after eating it, one does not smell from the mouth, as with ordinary garlic.
Pici all’aglione is probably the most common dish in this Umbrian-Tuscan region, here comes the original recipe of the elephant garlic sauce:
Ingredients for 4 people
4-5 cloves aglione (grated, better: crushed)
pinch of salt
a little olive oil
a good sip of water
350 g of ripe, fresh, chopped tomatoes
Put the oil and water in a large, deep pan, add the crushed aglione and some, cover the pan and cook the aglione for about 5 minutes on a moderate flame. Please do check that it does not fry or brown. Then add the tomatoes and the finely chopped peperoncino, cover the pan again and continue to cook the salsa on low heat this time, until the desired consistency is reached. This aglione sauce is suitable for (long) pasta and for bruschetta!
☞ Please never ever roast aglione in oil !
Cinta Senese is a sort of pig that was already bred by the Etruscans. It is mainly found in the region around Siena. These pigs have a white stripe (Cinta) over the neck, chest and front hooves, on the rest of the body the bristles are black. These “Etruscan” pigs feed mainly on acorns, grasses and herbs, which they find in the mixed forests and fields. Therefore, they are not suitable for the stable-attitude.
They also grow very slowly and reach their slaughter weight of 150 kg only after about 2 years. Since this is unprofitable for many breeders, they have replaced them with faster growing breeds, so that the Sienese Saddle Pigs are becoming increasingly rare.
But – the gourmet appreciates the Cinta Senese all the more, because the slow growth gives the pigs a very special taste. Characteristic for the meat of the Cinta Senese is the low percentage of intramuscular fat, which becomes visible when being cut. The relatively low fat content is also very important for the taste and juiciness of the meat.
To make “Salame di Cinta Senese”, the meat and fat of the pig are minced to a medium size and then seasoned with salt, pepper, sugar and red wine (usually Chianti). The mixture is then stuffed into natural pig or beef casings so it can mature under controlled cool and airy conditions. Maturing time is depending on the weight of each salami, it can range from about 3 weeks to several months.
Salame di Cinta Senese, when fully matured, has an elongated shape, its weight is between 500 g and 2 kg. On the surface there is a natural white noble mould which can be eaten with the product. It is of a strong red color and quite lean for a salami, and the white fat pieces are evenly distributed. This lovely salami tastes very intense, strong and aromatic. It is excellent as an antipasto, but also goes well with freshly baked and crispy white bread.
This type of salami is strongly spiced with wild Tuscan fennel.
The ham is dark red, with bones and white aromatic fat. It matures for 12-18 months, depending on climatic conditions. Its taste is deep and complex.
Already the Greeks seem to have cultivated these little beans around 300 B.C. Later, they were found again with the Etruscans at the Trasimeno Lake. With the discovery of America, many other South American pulses arrived in Europe, which were larger and easier to grow, so that the Trasimeno bean was gradually disappearing from the diet.
Only in the 20th century this bean did reappear. In 1931 it was mentioned in an Italian gastronomy guide of the Touring Club Italiano as a small, whitish bean variety with a brown eye, easy to prepare and extremely tasty. Some farmers around Lake Trasimeno started to cultivate it again systematically, although its harvest is quite laborious because the beans do not all ripen at the same time.
Today, the Trasimeno bean is even considered by Slow Food Italy as a plant species worthy of protection and you can find it on every Umbrian menu. Fagiolina del Trasimeno is characterized by its high protein and iron content, and its soft skin means that it does not need to be soaked for hours before cooking.
There are two varieties: the creamy white bean with a very delicate, mild and sweet taste and the stronger, more colorful variety, which tastes rather nutty. It is eaten as a thick stew in winter, as a topping on a bruschetta in summer or as a side dish with fish and meat.
Pecorino is an Italian hard cheese originally made from pure sheep’s milk. Today you can find also cheaper varieties on the market, to which cow or goat milk is added. Because of its huge contents of protein, it is said to keep you fit for a long time, it strengthens soft bones, and Pecorino is relatively low in fat and contains lactose.
A distinction is made between Pecorino romano, Pecorino sardo, Pecorino siciliano and Pecorino Toscano, all four of which are DOP (protected designation of origin for food products in Italy). We are interested in Pecorino Toscano, which is widely distributed here.
Also Pecorino Toscano was already produced by the Etruscans. Lorenzo de Medici seems to have loved it very much too and today it stands for quality and deep roots in the homeland. The most popular variety is the Pecorino di Pienza from the Val d’Orcia (south of Siena), which tastes like laurel. In general, a Pecorino from the Val d’Orcia is always the right choice.
Pecorino fresco is whitish, pale in colour, very mild and finely acidic in taste and is often used in salads.
Pecorino semi-stagionato is half-matured, slightly holey, it has a thin crust and a pleasantly salty taste. Perfect as a topping on a panino or as an antipasto.
Pecorino stagionato has matured for 4 – 36 months. Because of its high fat and salt content other sweet, caramel-like flavours are added during the maturing process. It is considered to have a strong taste and is usually used as grated cheese.
The Chianina is the largest breed of cattle in the world, and the oldest in Italy. Chianina cattle can be found in Etruscan representations, and Pliny, the elder, also mentioned them. It originally come from Tuscany, Umbria and the Marche in central Italy. These animals often enjoy the privilege of not being kept in a barn, as they usually can roam free for miles.
Chianina beef is a supplier of one of thelargest T-bone steaks and, with a stick size of 1.80 m and a weight of 1,500 kg, it is, as mentioned above, one of the largest breeds of cattle in the world. Since they have been living in the Val di Chiana (Chiana Valley) of the same name for over 2,500 years, they are also the oldest beef cattle still alive.
A typical characteristic of the “Razza Chianina” is its strikingly inconspicuous coat. Initially reddish-brown at birth, it changes to a clear porcelain white when the animal is fully grown, which by the way also inspired the sculptors in ancient Rome.
Gourmets from all over the world come to this area to eat a Bistecca alla Fiorentina, that colossal piece of meat grilled over charcoal.
A Bistecca alla Fiorentina is not simply served – it requires a real “celebration”; wanting to serve a Bistecca alla Fiorentina all by yourself borders on exuberance. One should always seek support for this experience!
At first sight it seems to be the same piece of meat, cut from the back, with in the middle a piece of backbone. But the Bistecca alla Fiorentina comes from the Chianina beef and is much bigger than the porterhouse steak. It is highly valued and considered as a real cultural asset in Tuscany.
It should never be grilled on a charcoal grill only, for more than 12 minutes! How can this be? 12 minutes for 1.4 kilos of meat? This is because you actually eat most of the steak raw. There are good reasons for this: The main feature of the Bistecca alla Fiorentina is the comparatively low percentage of fat.
Its character can be described as juicy, meaty and firm to the bite, but not at all tough. The porterhouse steak, on the other hand, usually weighs 600 grams. It is also grilled for 12 minutes and its bite is extremely tender.
These lentils are grown on a high plateau of the Monti Sibillini National Park, at 1400 meters above sea level. The plateau is not suitable for other crops because of its particularly rigid and variable climate.
The lentils are very resistant to parasites and they grow as small seeds in pods. They have a round and flattened shape and are green to brown in color. After harvesting, which is exclusively done by hand. Before drying and peeling the pods, they get cleaned and selected before packaging.
Castelluccio di Norcia lentils are characterized by their thin skin and a high protein content; they are used to prepare tasty soups or hearty salads.
Thanks to the particular climatic regime and the composition of the sandy and wet soils, the town of Cannara, near Foligno, has an ancient tradition of onion production.
Among the numerous varieties (including the Dorata, the Borettana or the Bianca Piatta), the “rossa” (red onion) is probably the most famous.
It is an onion plant with a rounded shape and a clear flesh covered with a purple-red layer. Its flavour is very delicate and sweet, unlike other varieties. This “cipolla rossa di Cannara” is also still grown by hand according to traditional techniques. There are many different ways of using it in the Italian cuisine.
In 1922, when Luisa Spagnoli, the founder of a confectionery factory in Perugia, sent this chocolate as a little sign of love to her adored Giovanni Buitoni she had no idea of the immense success she would have in the future with this little Bacio chocolate.
Unfortunately today, the incredible impressive entrepreneurial spirit of this woman starts falling in oblivion and people start to forget how much she stood up for her employees at the time, especially for her female workers. Here is the story of a very remarkable female entrepreneur of the 19th and 20th century:
Luisa Sargentini was born in Perugia on 30 October 1877, her father was the fishmonger Pasquale and her mother the housewife Maria. Even as a young girl Luisa is wildly determined to become an entrepreneur, which seems completely absurd for a woman at that time.
At the age of 21 she married the sports director Annibale Spagnoli and they both took over a grocery shop which produced confetti.
In 1907 the Spagnolis in collaboration with Francesco Buitoni, the known Tuscan food producer (pasta among others), opened a small company in the historical centre of Perugia. The company had about fifteen employees and was called Perugina.
At the outbreak of the First World War the factory was run by Luisa and her children Aldo and Mario, and towards the end of the war the Perugina was a successful factory with more than one hundred employees.
Annibale could no longer follow the entrepreneurial spirit of his wife Luisa, her interests diverged too much., and so he left the company in 1923. During this time Luisa began a love affair with Giovanni, the son of her business partner Francesco Buitoni, who was fourteen years younger than she. Between the two a great love affair developped, but due to the great difference in age, they had to keep their relationship a secret for the rest of their lives.
Luisa, who had joined the company’s Board of Directors, was dedicated to the design as well as to the creation of social structures to improve the quality of life of all workers, especially the women. She founded a day nursery in the Fontivegge district, not far from the factory. In addition, the employed young mothers were given time to nurse their babies.
It was due to all of these improved and modern working conditions that the Perugina found wide recognition in Europe. A few years later, in another suburb of Perugia, Luisa had a swimming pool built for the employees. They received Christmas presents, and were given the opportunity to dance and play football after work.
In 1922 Luisa invented the “Bacio Perugina”, the chocolate that will go down in history. It is filled with a hazelnut cream and covered with dark chocolate, with a whole hazelnut in the middle. The basic idea behind the production has been to mix the hazelnut leftovers from the praliné processing with other chocolate.
In 1937, without thinking about it any further, her sons gave Luisa two Angora rabbits from Vietnam for her birthday. These animals were combed but not shorn or even eaten, their angora wool was used to make yarns. The entrepreneurial spirit Luisa Spagnoli promptly developped an angora hat, a scarf and gloves, which could be wonderfully wrapped in a large chocolate surprise egg.
Thanks also to the coverage of the Milan Fair, this success story spread quickly throughout the country. As a result, all the farmers sent the hair of their rabbits to Perugia by post, to obtain Angora wool. Luisa´s son Mario invented techniques to improve the extraction and processing of angora wool, he modernised the fashion company and made it to what it is today.
At the age of 58 Luisa was diagnosed with throat cancer. She moved to Paris with Giovanni Buitoni to receive the best possible medical care. On 21st of September 1935 Luisa Spagnoli died at the age of 58.