Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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Chewing the Scenery

Let your stomach do the walking in Umbria

My grandfather was a pragmatic German. When he was at the supper table, he didn't talk, he ate. If he was having spaghetti, he cut it with a knife. Sitting in the outdoor garden of an Umbrian trattoria, I was thinking about this no-nonsense approach to dining as I lifted strands of pasta steaming with dark truffles and rolled them against my spoon.

Emanuele, my culinary guide, leaned towards me and explained that the only time Italians ate spaghetti with a spoon was when Mussolini was in power. He then picked up a few strands with his fork and rolled them against the side of his dish. I put down my spoon and followed suit, but one piece slipped and dangled from my fork.

Emanuele looked dismayed and said discreetly: "A signora only rolls one or two spaghetti at a time to avoid such embarrassment." My grandfather would have shaken his head, then handed me a knife. Of all the cultural differences that were made clear during my six-day tour of the region, this was the most important -- Italians truly do take their food seriously.

Although Umbria is in the heart of Italy, nestled in the shadow of popular Tuscany, it still remains off the tourist trail. Divided by the Apennine Mountains, the region is dotted with olive groves, vineyards and oak woodlands. Medieval villages with Romanesque churches, civic palazzi and narrow streets are scattered along valleys and hilltops. You have probably heard of Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, whose basilica holds frescoes painted by 13th-century master Giotto. You may even know that the town of Spoleto has some of Italy's oldest churches.

But it is perhaps in the most unassuming towns that you will really get a feel for the region and its people. The best way to discover all the intricate details and customs that make a place unique is to travel with a local. Those of us who don't have friends in Umbria can sign on with The Italian Connection, a company that specializes in walking and culinary tours in Italy. They will take you into aromatic kitchens, lead you into the hustle and bustle of family-run restaurants and put you in touch with warm friendly people.

Hit the hills
The Italian Connection's tour is centred around daily walks, between six and 13 kilometres long. Walking lets you soak up the countryside with an intimacy you could never get on a bus or train trip. Each morning we were given directions and landmarks to follow and were free to spread out individually to enjoy the view at our own pace. Van shuttles were available at various points along the way to pick up those who were too tired or still too stuffed from the previous night's feast.

Our group often arranged to meet at midday in a restaurant or occasionally right in a field, where Emanuele would be preparing fresh ingredients for a picnic when we arrived. At night we gathered to eat, sometimes cooking our own meals under the instruction of a local chef.

Each day we explored a different area, climbing through forests and vineyards where stone houses were our only landmarks. Along the way, we strolled past fields of poppies shaking in the wind and down rocky paths where fluffy white plant seeds tumbled like snowflakes. Rolling hills would suddenly give way to a mountainside lake or a medieval town in the distance.

When we reached these hilltop towns, we walked under laundry hanging over narrow alleyways and explored streets that ended at a set of flower-filled stairs. We washed our hands from the traditional public taps on the side of a stone house and gazed in admiration at fading frescoes on building facades. In Todi, we watched an incongruously modern display as skateboarders twirled in the air in front of the Piazza del Popolo cathedral.

The locals were warm and welcoming. In Spello, we were invited to watch a grade-school dance while the sun cast its pink glow across the medieval town square. We were given directions by women who called to one another across balconies. And in the tiny town of Montecastello di Vibio, an 81-year-old man led us through the smallest theatre in the world; built in the 1800s, it still had its original frescoes.

Mangia, Mangia!
Discovering Italy is as much about food as it is about exploring architecture and museums, and we dove into its culinary side with gusto. After the typical two-hour lunches and three-hour dinners, we realized we were eating as many hours as we were walking. Here, kitchens are always welcoming and an empty plate is immediately filled with the most wonderful foods.

Umbrian staples are simple and hearty, as they are in much of central Italy. The regional specialties are truffles, fragrant olive oil and tangy mountain cheeses. In the countryside outside of Assisi, I watched as slices of thick-crusted bread were toasted over an open flame to prepare a local version of bruschetta. The slices were pulled out on a large wooden paddle, lightly rubbed with a fresh clove of sliced garlic, then drizzled with olive oil and salt.

I learned to make umbricelli all'aglione, a thick hand-rolled strand pasta with a rich tomato-garlic sauce while Maria, the chef, looked over my shoulder, coaching me to push harder on the roller.


Mystic Pizza
Camaraderie developed as much in the kitchen as it did on the hikes. We cheered each other on as we tackled making pizza. Kneading the dough on a wooden board was almost as demanding as crossing Monte Subasio in the fog and rain had been. In a large kitchen, we were each given a turn with a piece of dough and told to have fun as we quaffed the local wine. We dropped the ball of dough, pounded it and shoved it back and forth.

The next stage was so different, it required an almost meditative approach. We rolled out the dough, slowly, delicately and drizzled olive oil on top. After gently placing the dough in a pan, we spread it with our palms, flattening thicker spots with the light touch of a fingertip.

Then fillings were tossed on sparingly -- either the popular fresh rosemary and onion mixture or tomato slices, large basil leaves and mozzarella cubes. Finally, another layer of delicate dough was added on top. The oven-baked result was crisp but so fresh that it melted on our tongues.

Even if there wasn't a cooking class scheduled, we were always free to wander into the kitchens. At Fattoria di Vibio, an agrotourism farm, I woke up early one morning to make breakfast with the chef. Passing underneath shiny pots, pans and cloves of garlic hanging from the ceiling, I wandered toward the warmth of the oven. The chef stood next to it, dusted with floor, removing baked loaves, their crusts shining golden from the heat. He cradled a loaf, tapped the bottom, waited for the hollow thud and then smiled. I tried, holding the bread to my ear like a shell, but really wanting to squeeze it into my mouth. We couldn't speak each other's language but, surrounded by ingredients, we understood each other perfectly.

He showed me how to make a bread laced with roasted eggplant and peppers. He lifted pot lids so I could smell simmering tomato sauces with hints of basil, and others with garlic bobbing on the surface.

During our daily walks, I would see little of Emanuele. But he was always the first to appear at suppertime, white hair flowing, shirt freshly pressed, shoes polished. On the last evening, I sat across from him in the restaurant. I gazed at the medieval stone walls, wondering what meals and conversations had taken place in this room, whose hands had touched these stones. I was drawn back to the soft murmur of voices by the candlelit shadows swaying against the wall.

It was then, as I began to eat my spaghetti, that Emanuele explained that I must first separate one or two strands with my fork and then roll them. As I made another attempt, he leaned toward me for emphasis: "The worst is cutting your spaghetti with a knife." Of course, I didn't dare mention my grandfather. I separated my pasta and twirled two strands at a time without a hitch.

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