Italy From Bottom to Top: Umbria’s Traditional Foods

I wanted to learn more about Umbria’s traditional foods, especially that strange Norcian mortadella with the chunk of mystery meat inside. When I found the store, Il Parma Delizie Alimentari, with a large man carving meat behind the counter, I knew I Mortadellahad the right place.

Armando is an experienced purveyor of fine foods, and when I asked him about Umbria’s most important culinary ingredients, he enthusiastically explained. He told me that Pecorino is Umbria’s most important cheese. There are three basic ways of aging Pecorino (I’d only eaten the hard version commonly found in the United States). The freshest is actually soft. It is usually aged 3 months and has a very light texture. The next Pecorino is aged 6-9 months, and it still retains the creaminess, but its sharp flavors are more pronounced (this is my favorite). The final type is aged at least one year, it is very hard and very sharp. The flavor of this cheese is so strong that it might knock you off your feet. Unless you’re a formaggio veteran, you might want to incorporate this cheese in a pasta dish (speaking of which, I have found very few types of pasta or pasta dishes that are unique to Umbria).

Torta di TestoWhen I asked Armando about the mortadella from Norcia, he said that the piece of meat in the center was lard. Do they put it in to keep the salami moist, I asked? He responded, No, they just put it in because they want to. It serves no purpose. Well, that’s what you get when you ask too many questions.

Umbria has a traditional bread called torta di testo, which is a flat, almost pita-like bread that has very little salt. Kristin and I made sandwiches on it with Umbrian prosciutto, which is made extra salty to pair well with the local, salt-less breads. The regions around Umbria, such as Tuscany, make their bread without salt. This ancient tradition originated in a protest against the pope. I’m not certain on the century, but the church once controlled the tax and sale of salt. The Italian people became fed up with the  pope at the time, and they boycotted salt. The ramifications can still be tasted today.

Truffle SauceArmando finished his lesson by talking about Norcia’s famous truffles. White truffles can be found in the northern areas of Umbria, but the Norcian black truffle receives the most praise. It is made into a spread or sauce called salsa di tartufo, and you can’t beat it when spread on a sandwich. I’ve tried using it on pasta, but I find that the flavors are masked. On a sandwich of fontina and prosciutto on torta di testo, it’s divine.

Today I’m heading off to Florence. It looks like rain. We’ll see.

Written by and photos by Mattie Bamman for

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  1. says

    Whilst in Umbria we had the great pleasure of being invited to dine with a couple who cooked up an absolute feast! One of the local specialities they served up was tripe! I’m glad we didn’t know what it was at the time but it was delicious. If you’re not too squeamish about it – and looking at… well, whatever it is you’re holding in that photo, I’m guessing you’re not – you should try some while you’re there.

  2. says

    Haha—-nice. I actually can’t stand tripe, aka trippa. But I’ve only eaten it once ( How did you have it prepared?

    As for horse, I’ve eaten it in Puglia,( where it is the most common meat around. I actually really like the texture. It is extremely tender. However, I have a hard time getting over the taboo of it all. A horse is a horse of course of course.

    PS. The mystery meat in the photo will be explained soon….

  3. says

    You’re a braver man than I. The tripe was baked with beans and veggies like a casserole. It seems to be a rather divisive cuisine – one of the Italians we were dining with didn’t like it either!

    Here’s another challenge for you – cat! Again, those crazy northern Italians are the culprits. I really shouldn’t encourage you 🙂 Not sure I want to read about cat casserole…

  4. says

    Now cat, I cannot eat.

    I’ve never heard of northern Italians eating cat; however, it’s a highly debated subject! I wonder if anyone has any firsthand accounts….

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