Recently I had the very good fortune to sit down with Elizabeth Wholey, who is a local expert in the foods and wines of Umbria. She is also a dear friend. Elizabeth has lived in Umbria for many years, and she carefully and painstakingly has done her detective work in understanding the history and craft of Umbrian food and wine. She has built important, long-lasting relationships with local food and wine producers – many who are gems hidden to the eyes of many people who visit Umbria. Elizabeth recently wrote Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy’s Heartland.
A Guide to Farms, Markets, and Fairs in the Upper Tiber Valley in Sustenance, Elizabeth Wholey explores the Upper Tiber Valley and the ways in which its peasants fed and sustained themselves throughout history. Their ancient food traditions are still alive today, often with a modern twist, and are accessible to visitors as well as to the local populace. – available at Amazon.com
Elizabeth graciously agreed to do this interview for Italywise.com. I hope this will whet you appetite to learn even more!
You’re very passionate about the food and wines of Umbria, particularly of the Upper Tiber Valley. What, in your opinion, makes them so special?
Most people were poor in this part of the world until fairly recently. They subsisted on what they could grow, hunt, forage or barter, the growing season was short, and much of the terrain was mountainous. However, they made the most of what was available, and cooks took pride in what they created. These dishes are beloved, and are still found on local restaurant menus, often with a modern twist. People here are careful about what they eat and who they buy from. If a food product is not of high quality, a seller won’t survive. In other places local, seasonal, and sustainable are concepts that you fight for; here they are taken for granted, though vigilance has become necessary. People don’t want pesticides and herbicides in their soil.
What do you believe is the most important advice to someone visiting Umbria, and hoping to have an experience that isn’t typical or touristy?
Spend more than one week here. Drive around or hike and take photos of the countryside. Wander, get lost. Visit our hill towns. Take chances—try a little trattoria that is not listed in the Michelin guide! Stay in Umbria, don’t try to see Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre and Rome all on the same trip.
What mistakes have you seen people make, visiting Umbria – mistakes that impede their ability to have a special experience, and to experience the real Umbria?
“We tried to do too much, and we’re worn out!” This is something I hear repeatedly from guests. Travel with like-minded people, or split up if you have different interests. Some like to shop, others want to visit museums, bike or just veg. Don’t over plan. You might come upon a village festival and be tempted to join in. You’ll be welcomed and it could turn out to be the highlight of your trip.
You developed some very important relationships with “boutique” producers of Umbrian food and wine. How have you been able to crack the “inner sanctum”?
If you are curious and genuinely interested, your enthusiasm is appreciated and doors open to you. Years ago a friend with a restaurant in California came to me wanting to buy truffles and I found Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi in Città di Castello. That was the beginning. They are a generous, community-minded couple who led me to many other farmers, food producers and craftspeople. Eventually, I decided I need to write a guidebook about all these hard-working people so that other English speaking tourists could find them, too. Over the years, my relationships with the people in my book have grown stronger.
What are your top ten favorite Umbrian foods, and why?
Mushrooms—porcini, cooked in various ways, and the bright orange ovuli (Amanita caesarea), which can be made into a delicate salad. Cured meats here—prosciutto and salume–are like nothing I ever tasted in the US. The olive oil is fresh, organic and piccante. I love the fact that fruits and vegetables only show up in the market when they’re in season, for example artichokes, asparagus and strawberries arrive in the spring. Figs and peppers in September. You go to the market, see what’s come in, and plan your meals around what you find there. Freshly milled grains—polenta, chickpea flour, chestnut flour. Beans and lentils. Sheep and goat milk cheese, which you buy directly from the people who made them. So many kinds of honeys from the bee keeper. Truffles, of course. I especially like the black summer truffle sliced and heated with olive oil and a little garlic, spooned onto bread. Fresh eggs with golden yolks. The pasta, the game, and I could go on!
You’ve been hard at work on your new blog, The Wine Girls (thewinegirls.wordpress.com). Tell us about your vision for the blog.
As with my guide to farms and food producers, I want to promote and encourage the local wine makers. Umbrian wine has vastly improved over the last years due to education and access to technology, but the small producers are little known outside of their local zones. It’s enjoyable for tourists to visit them and make new discoveries. Fun for me too, along with my sommelier friend Rossana Ravacchioli, who saw my farm guide and approached me about doing one on wine.
For someone considering living in Umbria, what would be the top three pieces of advice you’d give them to make their transition and assimilation a success?
- Learn Italian, at least a little before you arrive. It’s easier to acquire when you live here and use it every day.
- Three Ps! Be patient, polite and persistent, especially in bureaucratic matters. Bring a good book to read as you wait in line.
- Make friends with your neighbors. You can learn a lot from them.