Umbrian food trail

Abundant beauty and bountiful harvest – welcome to Umbria.

Tucked between Rome and Tuscany, the Italian region of Umbria is studded with ancient hilltop towns that tempt you to life in the slow lane.

Brian Johnston

18 January, 2019

It takes 3000 years of effort to get a landscape just right. Don’t heed the naysayers who claim Umbria is the poor traveller’s Tuscany. This region just north of Rome has long been under the influence of one of history’s most powerful cities, and is crammed with beauty at every bend. Vines and olives were introduced by the Etruscans. Medieval city-states sit proudly on hilltops, and the countryside is graced with yellow and pink villas whose gardens are shaded by umbrella pines.

Even better, Umbria is notable for rustic cuisine with an emphasis on grains, vegetables, herbs and olive oil: for centuries, the very things now lauded as hip and healthy. Seasonal produce includes mushroom, fat chestnuts, asparagus, lentils and truffles. Traditional pasta dishes include stringozzi in spicy tomato sauce, umbricelli with lake perch and pappardelle with rabbit. Slow down and take your time in Umbria – especially over meals – and you won’t be disappointed.

"It takes 3000 years of effort to get a landscape just right."

Umbrian Olives – fresh from the trees.   |   Brian Johnston

"This rich culture is matched by impressive cuisine. "

Orvieto should be your first stop if you’re heading north from Rome on the motorway that zips through rolling hills and across marshland where wild horses stand knee-deep in water. In just 90 minutes you’ll be parking your car at the foot of a rocky outcrop and ascending via elevators tunnelled into the rock to Orvieto’s hilltop old town. Medieval houses and towers huddle around one of Europe’s most improbable cathedrals, made from banded layers of white and black stone that will remind you of a zebra. Its front façade erupts in pink marble saints, sinners, dragons, imps and angels in scenes from the Creation and the Last Judgement.

This rich culture is matched by impressive cuisine. Orvieto is a leader in Italy’s Slow Food movement, which promotes regional cuisine and sustainable farming. (Umbrian towns Todi and Castiglione del Lago are also noted for their slow-food ethos.) Visit delicatessens as well as churches in order to sample the regional porchetta ham and salami, and to snack on crespolino pancakes with leeks and cheese. As for the gelato, some say it’s better here than anywhere else. Look for a sign that says produzione propria (homemade) and you’ll rarely go wrong as you indulge in unusual flavours such as tangerine, prickly pear, watermelon or jasmine delicately flavoured with cinnamon. 

Orvieto is only the stirring overture to the magnificent opera of Umbria’s hilltop towns. Perugia is the finest example. Edge your car through the new town’s tangle of train lines and supermarkets and you’ll find a hilltop core with views all the way to the Apennines. This fertile landscape has been tended since the time of the Etruscans, and is now a perfection of vineyards, olive trees, and the terracotta cluster of venerable villages.

Inspect Perugia’s doleful saints in aged churches, cobbled alleys and guild houses encrusted with wood carvings. Gothic Palazzo dei Priori, built in 1297 and studded with heraldic crests and Renaissance frescoes, is one of Italy’s great public buildings. The National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia is undoubtedly the best of several outstanding small museums and art galleries in Umbria, with a world-class collection of glorious Italian paintings from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and eighteenth century.

In the evenings especially, Perugia’s old town – best reached via escalators rather than in a car – is very atmospheric. Locals and university students perambulate along Corso Vannucci, adding contemporary life to the stage set of beautiful buildings. The evening passeggiata of strolling, gelato-slurping and gossip so beloved of Italians is a prelude to dining out. Try Osteria a Priori for hand-cut pastas with rich, homemade ragù sauces, local specialty roast suckling pig, or pork loin flavoured with Umbrian truffles.

From Perugia’s impressive city walls you can squint across a valley of olive groves and sunflower fields to its former city-state rival, Assisi. It squats on the hillside as if it has grown out of the rock, and is topped by a mighty papal fortress. The tomb of St Francis – one of Catholicism’s favourite saints – brackets one end of town, that of St Clare the other. Even if you aren’t one of the millions of pilgrims who come here each year, you’ll find plenty of pleasure: Roman pillars, medieval churches, cobblestone piazzas. Every street has its pastry shop loaded with sticky almond nibbles, biscotti and cannoli oozing fresh cream fillings studded with orange peel.

"Every street has its pastry shop loaded with sticky almond nibbles, biscotti and cannoli oozing fresh cream fillings studded with orange peel."

View from the Porta Sole gateway in Perugia   |   Brian Johnston

"Assisi is Umbria’s most visited destination, but just off the beaten track you can find Umbrian towns that remain delightfully overlooked."

Assisi is Umbria’s most visited destination, but just off the beaten track you can find Umbrian towns that remain delightfully overlooked. Although sitting just 12 kilometres south, Spello has bars where only locals congregate and quiet, medieval streets where children play under hanging washing. You’ll find an old Roman gateway, gorgeous fresco-painted church, impressive little art museum and restaurant Il Molino, lodged in a medieval mill. It tempts with creative contemporary dishes using Umbrian produce such as lamb, Norcia ham, black truffles and walnuts.

Nearby Montefalco is nicknamed the ‘Balcony of Umbria’ for its outrageous views over the vineyards. Tiny Todi could claim the best medieval piazza in Umbria, and views to match. And if you’re ever going to descend from the hills, do so for sleepy, charming Bevagna, a tranquil valley town noted for Roman ruins (amphitheatre, temple and mosaics) and two lovely Romanesque churches gnarly with age and gargoyles. Worth a drive, even if you are in the slow lane.