Glorious mornings in Umbria, all things outdoors…

The dogs woke early this morning, in good time for me to snap this photograph from my bedroom window of the sun rising over the Appeninnes.  Recent nights have been cool with frosty mornings. It did try and snow yesterday, those lovely wonderously large flakes that float gently earthwards and do not settle, gave way to blue skies and glorious sunshine throughout the day here in Umbria at Bellaugello Gay Guesthouse.

This means life for me is not a holiday as there is no possible excuse for not continuing outdoor work.  I have been tidying in the garden, preparing ground for yet more fragrant lavender plants, preparing ground for seeding new lawns to the west of the house, and acting macho as a lumberjack, felling trees for next winter’s firewood.

Last Saturday saw me down on the big field with Etain and Monica and Valentina picking cicoria.  I have often wondered why here in Umbria you so often you see figures stooped in fields obviously gathering something, well now I know what and why.  They are cutting cicoria – wild chicory.  It is a local delicacy here, the leaves are similar to a dandelion.  We had a delightful afternoon in the sunshine, catching up with news, exchanging recipes and learning from Etain about some more of the local traditions.  

The cicoria requires a series of washings and changes of water, it is then boiled, drained and tossed in olive oil infused with garlic and served as a contorno.  The taste is slightly bitter and not unlike spinach. Valentina who hails originally from Modena told us that in her home region they also add pancetta to the cicoria, recipies vary so much from region to region here in Italy.   I brought a flask of licorice tisane and we tucked into carnevale cakes that I had bought that morning in the nearby village of Piccione. In Piccione (commune di Perugia) they are know as ‘Strufoli’, indeed that is what I bought, but on seeing them Monica exclaimed ‘ah castagnole!’ Monica is born and bred Eugubino (from Gubbio) and here in the bakers in the commune of Gubbio they are know as ‘Castagnole’ the same beignet/doughnut type of pastry, for the same festival but in two different communes that border each other two totally different names, that is yet another example of Italy’s traditional delights that we fight hard to preserve.

The time taken in picking, preparing, cleaning and cooking is all worthwhile when you get to savour the final product.  Glad to keep some of the local traditions alive and to have unravelled a mystery of the figures in the fields, I shall be serving wild cicoria as a contorno this summer.

Sunday was a day of rest, a trip with friends to my favourite southern Tuscan town of San Casciano dei Bagni where we had a delicious lunch of home-made hand-cut tagliatelle with a fragrant delicate sauce of cinta senese, made from the local wild pig. The sauce bursting flavours in the roof of my mouth.  We then walked through the ancient hill top town and down to the Roman Terme.

San Casciano has 86 hot springs and as well as a very smart resort hotel, there are delightful ancient Roman baths, very simple, basic, and utterly divine, it is to these we headed.  The water is toasty warm and not too sulphorous.  We spent a couple of hours just soaking and relaxing.  San Casciano dei Bagni is a one and a half hour drive through beautiful countryside from Bellaugello Gay Guesthouse.