Umbria is the only region is Italy that is completely landlocked. Umbria is one of Italy’s smallest regions—it has no large cities and a total population of less than a million—but what it lacks in size it makes up for in the beauty of its agricultural land and in a large number of fascinating small towns. For instance, the town of Assisi is the home of St. Francis and a major religious center, the Basilica S. Francesco, where the walls are covered with outstanding medieval frescoes by the greatest painters of the time, primarily Cimabue and Giotto. And Foligno is home of Italy’s first printing press.
Umbria is a version of the Italian word ombra, which means shadow and is fitting as Umbria lies in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbor, Toscana. The many Umbrian hills and mountains cast long dark shadows over river valleys which are already darkened by lush chestnut groves and elm forests. The very identity of its original inhabitants, the Umbrians, is so clouded that we still have no clear understanding of the meaning of their name.
Self-imposed modesty is an innate Umbrian trait. That would explain the relative obscurity of this beautiful region, whose rolling hills are dotted with castles, fortresses and watchtowers, and well-preserved hill towns produce world-renowned handmade ceramics. Many monasteries were founded by a host of local saints, and its valleys are laced with gleaming rivers and some of Italy’s largest lakes.
The most noteworthy characteristic of Umbrian cuisine is its simplicity. It relies strongly on seasonal produce such as mushrooms and wild asparagus, wild delicacies such as truffles, and regionally reared meat—particularly lamb, pork and game—either cooked over the fire or worked into cured hams and salami. Truffles play an important part in many Umbrian dishes, starting from black truffle laced Crostini al Tartufo, and Crostini alla Norcina made with anchovies, truffles and chicken liver.
Probably the most typical Umbrian pasta dish is spaghetti—or strangozzi—made with black truffles. Also, Ciriole alla Ternana is a variety of pasta made using just water and flour and is usually served with a garlic, oil and chili pepper. Besides an abundance of meat dishes, generally either grilled over the fire or cooked on the spit with an abundance of herbs, Umbria also boasts two particularly tasty soups: one made with chick peas and the other with chestnuts.
Surprisingly, Umbria has a long standing history in the production of chocolate. Founded in 1907, the Perugina chocolate factory rose to international popularity and fame with its Baci, made with ground hazelnuts and dark chocolate. Initially named cazzotti, Baci were re-baptized by the decadent Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. The original machinery used in the production of Perugina chocolate is on display at a museum devoted to the history of the factory that opened in 1997. In 1988 Perugina was incorporated into the holdings of the Swiss multinational Nestlé.