Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Norcia - Town of "Black Gold " and Lentils

Lentils are a very ancient cultivated plant that reached the Mediterranean region from the orient and are grown throughout Italy and used widely in the cuisine of the regions they are grown. The region of Umbria is one of the poorest regions of Italy, Umbria is a very rural, agricultural based region with a landscape of rolling hills, shady forests and still lakes, the region features greatly in Italian fairy tales and folk-lore which seem to echo through the regions enchanted groves, still retreats and monasteries. It was whilst serving in an Umbrian monastery St. Francis of Assisi composed his ode to the sun and even today Umbrians seem to have a mystical connection and respectful relationship with nature and the soil.

The regions food is still based upon the "Franciscan" dishes, their natural and uncomplicated approach to cookery can be seen in nearly every dish traditional to the region, food here is boiled, roasted, flavoured and embellished often with nothing more than the local olive oil, complicated and cream sauces are virtually none existent here. Simple vegetable and pork dishes seem to predominate in spring and summer, then the rural nature of the region comes into its own in the autumn and winter months with the spoils of the hunting season, wild boar, hare and rabbit.


In the heart of the region lies the small, picturesque medieval town of Norcia, quiet, rural and unassuming, yet due to two of Italy's most prized ingredients, Norcia is regarded as a culinary stronghold. Norcia has a wonderful array of foods, Umbrian pork and wild boar have a country wide reputation for quality, with products such as Barbozzo (cured, mattured Pig's cheek), Mazzafegati (a spiced, cured pigs liver sausage and Budellacci (a smoked, spiced length of pig or boar intestine, which is eaten raw, spit-roasted or boiled). Despite these wonderful products the region is still famous for two things Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia and the wondrous Black Norcian Truffle.

Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia

Lentils are not a traditional product grown in Umbria, yet in the small town of Norcia, grow the most sort-after lentils in the whole of Italy. High on the plains above the town (around 4600ft) these small, green and very healthy lentils grow in abundance, it is believed that lentils came to the region from the Orient, no one really knows how or why but lentils became a staple food of the monasteries and latterly they were found to contain more vitamins and minerals than other varieties of lentils due to the rich mineral filled soils of the plains they are grown on. Locally lentils are eaten with local pork products such as the local salsicce, a traditionally made local sausage or in dishes with the local fresh-water fish and eel. Unfortunately, there are only limited supply of these wonderful lentils on the market, only a few tens of thousands of pounds are produced on the high plains, and the plantings around Annifio and colfiorito contribute a further 20,000 pounds, this may sound like a lot but due to the prized nature of these lentils, very little of them make their way onto the domestic market, most of the supply being bought up in Italy and then most of the rest being exported to Italian restaurants all over the world.

Black Gold from Norcia

In late autumn, early winter, Norcia takes on another role in the great foods of Italy, the small town is suddenly full of people seeking to buy one of the worlds most expensive and sort after commodities, the elusive black truffle. No one knows why Norcia produces such wonderful truffles, many people say that black Norcia truffles are better than the Perigord truffles of France and the black truffles of Alba and San Miniato. The age old argument of who produces the best truffles will never be settled, national pride, regional pride and even village pride means that everywhere that produces truffles, produces the best in the world. Norcian truffles are highly sort-after, yet still often over-shadowed by the great truffles of Alba. Locally these amazing truffles are used remarkably simply, in dishes such as Frittata di Tartufi (truffle omelet), Spaghetti alla Norcina (Pasta with olive oil, garlic and thinly sliced black truffle) and the wonderfully uncomplicated Crostini Umbri (toasted bread, slices of truffle and local olive oil).

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