Travels with a Gourmet

a food lover's travels, memorable meals, culinary trials and gastronomic experiences

Over Christmas dinner in 2004, my father-in-law, Carlos, decided to celebrate his 80th birthday by inviting his children along with their spouses on an all-expenses paid holiday in Umbria.

The idea of spending a week in a villa overlooking the rolling hills surrounding Todi was hard to imagine in the middle of winter. It took several months of planning which entailed finding a house not only in the right location but large enough as well since there were going to be about a dozen in our group. Flights had to be booked way in advance with people arriving from Buenos Aires, Connecticut, Montreal and Madrid and cars had to be rented to accommodate everyone and their luggage.

My husband and I were scheduled to arrive in Italy before everyone else did and we had booked our first two nights in a restored villa in Umbria which was transformed into the 12-room Palazzo Terranova.

We landed on schedule at 6:30 p.m. in Fiumicino airport. Immigration took quite a while and so did our luggage. We waited for another hour for our suitcases before we were told that all luggages from the flight had already been unloaded. If we still didn’t have our suitcase then we needed to make our way over to the Passenger Assistance Counter right away to make a report. Since we were driving directly to Umbria from the Rome that evening, we didn’t want to risk having British Airways send our suitcases to us so we decided to wait for the next flight arriving at 9:00 p.m. which had our luggage. We sat at a café in the airport having espresso after espresso while waiting for our suitcases. The luggage finally arrived and by the time we picked up our rental car and left the airport, it was close to midnight.

As official navigator and snack provider, I read out the directions to my husband while doling out crisps, brownies and drinks. The drive went quickly for about 2 hours until we missed an exit ended up on the freeway to Florence. We flagged down a few truck drivers to ask for directions and after much hand-signaling accompanied by pidgin Italian with some Spanish words thrown in, we were able to retrace our way back to Umbria where our hotel was located.

We arrived in the town at around 2:30 a.m. Now, we had to find landmarks like a large olive tree or a fir-lined dirt road, on a moonless night in the middle of the Italian countryside. We went through several twists and turns, took a fork in the dirt road and got stuck in the mud at the edge of a large sunflower field. I was ready to camp out there and sleep in the car as it started to rain and the thought of pushing the car out of the mud was not on my list of priorities. Somehow, my husband was able to back the car out of the muddy pothole and we found the road again.
Funnily enough there was a small signpost of the hotel further up the road and we finally saw some lights twinkling on top of the hill and found the palazzo. There was a sign on the door for us to let ourselves in and that we were given the Bellini room. At this point it was 4:00 a.m. and with the time 6-hour time difference between Montreal and Rome, we were exhausted and just climbed into bed.

The next day, we woke up mid-morning and opened our shutters to a breathtaking view. The palazzo was located on the top of the hill and afforded a fantastic panorama of the rolling hills, the sunflower fields and the valleys below. We had a lovely breakfast of some toast and cappuccinos and then meandered around the property until lunchtime.

Lunch was a simple green salad and linguini with cherry tomatoes. We spent the afternoon in Cortona walking around the piazza and getting lost in the little cobble-stoned walkways of the town. Dinner that evening was tagliatelle with Porcini mushrooms in a light cream sauce and a wonderful rack of lamb served with some earthy Italian wines of the region. It felt just like a weekend house party since the rest of the evening was spent with the other couples staying at the hotel by the fireplace exchanging stories late into the night with espressos, desserts and liqueurs.

We set off for Todi bright and early after a wonderful breakfast al fresco in the lovely terrace by the garden. The drive to Todi was easy and this time we didn’t miss any of the exits. We arrived at La Pietraia before noon where Rosalba, the villa’s caretaker was there to welcome us. The house was lovely and spacious with 5 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms plus a powder room built into an old oven. We chose the green room and had the luxury of having a stone-walled shower built into the old tower of the house.

The rest of the family arrived one after another – Carlos and Anca, my parents-in-law, with Roby, my brother-in-law, and his wife Florencia from Connecticut plus their beautiful seven-month old baby Ines. That afternoon was spent settling in and unpacking and having a light lunch on the terrace. On our first evening, we had a simple tagliatelle with fresh tomato sauce with a Nipozzano Riserva 2000 from Frescobaldi. Dinner on the terrace was lovely. We watched the sun set listened to the bells toll in Todi’s cathedral. Silvia, my sister-in-law and her husband Pedro arrived from Buenos Aires close to midnight that evening and finally, Juan, my brother-in-law, and his wife Mirta arrived from Madrid the following morning.

Being in a house full of Argentines was an interesting cultural experience for me. As my husband and I have lived in 3 cities in 3 continents (Santiago de Chile, Dubai and now Montreal) since we married in 2000, I had never had the chance to spend enough time in his home city of Buenos Aires. Rapid Italian-accented Spanish was spoken all the time along with English and French thrown in for good measure. I managed to keep up my end of the conversation and learned so much about my husband and his family that the trip turned out to be priceless as well as enjoyable.

We celebrated Carlos’ 80th birthday with a simple dinner al fresco of aubergine bruschetta and assorted antipasti from the region along with roast leg of lamb marinated in olive-oil, lemon juice and pepperoncino (dried red chili-pepper flakes) accompanied by a cherry tomato and basil salad and roast potatoes with rosemary. We had hand-carried a magnum of Chateau Mouton 1999 from Baron Philippe de Rothschild to accompany this dinner. The combination of delicious but simple food, wonderful wine and interesting company always makes for a memorable meal.

After a week of relaxing in the Italian countryside, arriving in Rome was a shock for the senses with the crowds, the smells, the small cobble-stoned streets where cars and pedestrians happily mingle and the unbelievable amount of monuments, churches and sights all crammed into the city center. It’s been 10 years since either my husband or myself visited Rome and this time, we decide to do as the Romans do and wander around aimlessly and have espressos and watch the scooters go speeding by. We tried a few new restaurants and went into a few churches but skipped the tourist trail and just walked and walked and tried to live la dolce vita Romana.

Italy proved to be the ideal setting for this once-in-a-lifetime family celebration. It’s winter once again and we can’t wait for next year’s holiday.

My Little Black Book of Italy

Ø In Todi, explore the town center on foot – enter through the main archway at the bottom of the hill. Walk uphill on cobble-stoned streets then have an espresso in the piazza and enjoy the passegiata; Visit the round white church from the school of Bramante built to protect a beautiful fresco housed right behind the altar.
Ø Try Ristorante Umbria in Todi, just off the piazza where there is fantastic view from the terrace and a wonderful selection of regional antipasti and meats grilled in the large fireplace.
Ø Palazzo Terranova in
Ronti, very close to Tuscany is a “dream for all seasons” as the owners call it. It’s a beautifully restored villa, on top of a hill and with personalized service it’s almost like being in someone’s home.
Ø Umbria the guidebook from Dorling Kindersley is detailed and full of wonderful photos and insights on the things to do and see in the region.
Ø Scuola di Arte Culinaria Cordon Bleu Perugia
we did a morning cooking class called « Lunch in Umbria » and really enjoyed ourselves. Courses are conducted in Italian but there is an English translator
Ø Gusto
Modern Roman restaurant, pizzeria, trattoria, wine bar and cooking emporium with a fantastic selection of cheese. Very popular for Sunday brunch. Service is spotty but the clientele is so hip that it’s worth it. Come with your Prada bags and Gucci shades.
Ø Dal Bolognese – Great spot off the Piazza del Popolo where locals adore the simple though pricey Italian fare. Fantastic people-watching.
Ø Enoteca Ferrara
– In out-of-the-way Trastevere, Rome’s oldest neighborhood; Modernized versions of Italian dishes with a fantastic wine bible of over 800 wines.
Ø Sirni
– Located near the Pantheon is this tiny family-run store where mother, daughter and son create one-of-a-kind leather bags and belts that are classic in design but with a cheeky twist. There are so many different styles and colours to choose from.
Ø Ethic
– Several locations of this local Roman clothing line which also carries a selection of shoes from Totem, another local listing.
Ø Tombolini
– another local brand with cool jeans and stylish suits.
Ø Style City Rome – great, fun read with all the new shops, restaurants and hotels with accompanied by colour-coded maps of each area and amazing photos.

Ø Time Out Rome which gives a great overview of the city’s history and sights.

(Previously published in The Manila Standard)

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