You may recognize them, too, from their appearance in some of our Experience Umbria promotional video clips that we have started to post. Last year we brought along a videographer to chronicle our Umbrian experience and to interview the people we shared that experience with, as well as some of the special people here in Italy that make a visit to Umbria or to Bella Italia, our retail shop in Bethesda, Maryland, so special. Mary Ellen and Robert graciously agreed to allow themselves to be filmed and gave a wonderful perspective on what it is like to visit Umbria, to join us on our Food & Wine tour and what the villa is like.
But before welcoming them to Cannara in the afternoon the entire Experience Umbria crew did its usual Saturday morning SWAT team thing, changing over the villa from one set of guests to another.
Saturday changeovers are always a sight to behold. One group, often as many as 16 people, check out by 10am. And standing by is Mariella and her cleaning crew, ready to sweep, mop, changes beds, brush and scour, wash and put away dishes, throw out old food and generally make the villa pristine for the next round of guests who are then able to check into a remade villa after 4pm. It is a narrow window to accomplish so much, but Mariella has yet to walk away unsuccessful. Efficiency does not spring to mind when one thinks of typical Italian characteristics. Mariella puts a lie to this.
Meanwhile, Suzy and I used the few hours of downtime to meet with some business associates and to catch up on the state of affairs with them. Efficiency again rules the day (or late morning) with updates given, questions asked and decisions made. Then it is time to celebrate our good work over lunch. It is our turn to host lunch, so we take our associates to Bevagna for lunch at Simone’s, a traditional lunch (and dinner) hangout for us.
It is perhaps slightly nerve wracking to host a meal for Italians here in Italy. But it is likewise a secret pleasure when our Italian guests discover something for the first time in our company and have a truly good time. Such was the case at le Delizie del Borgo in Bevagna yesterday. Of our three guests, only one had spent any time in Bevagna, one of the true gems in this area, and none had dined at Simone’s restaurant, which is barely visible from the main piazza and which you would really have to know about in order to visit.
For nearly three hours Simone, Marco and a certain Austin delivered plates of local specialties, simple dishes featuring seasonal delicacies such as black truffle, artichokes, the extremely rare and seasonal ovali mushroom. A bowl of tortelloni stuffed with sausage and artichoke in a sauce of pureed potato was prepared especially for us and Paolo’s portion magically disappeared before the rest of us had even been served. The speed with which our Italian colleagues polished off their plates was truly impressive.
And when the second wine, a Montefalco Rosso produced by one of the area’s best winemakers – Giampaolo Tabarrini – a favorite of ours, was poured, Luigi immediately grabbed the bottle and exclaimed how good it was, admitting that he had never had the pleasure of drinking this particular wine.
Hosting lunch with Italians. Big risk. Big reward. Thank you Simone.
* * *
So we began our 2011 Umbria Food & Wine II tour with Mary Ellen and Robert (II) on Saturday afternoon, after the SWAT team cleaning, after the Simone stuffing. Ready to call it a day, our day instead began anew when our two guests rolled up with their car and driver, a good friend of theirs named Giacomo who has taken good care of Mary Ellen on her many trips to Italy. After safely depositing his human cargo in our hands Giacomo departed for his return trip to Rome and we took over.
I find it interesting how some people can not see each other for years and upon finding themselves in each others’ company immediately continue a conversation where it was left off years earlier. How odd and how wonderful. I think that is what people call friendship. It is a special gift.
As we welcomed Mary Ellen and Robert back into our living room, they took up seats on the couches that are well known to them. It almost seemed as though the indentations in the cushions fit them perfectly, which aided us in picking up our conversation from a year earlier, consisting mostly of corny jokes that Robert was in the process of telling when we had had to say goodbye. While we have made friends with the scores of guests that have passed through our villa’s doors over the past three plus years, no making of friends was necessary yesterday. The hard work had been done a year earlier. Today and for the next week we could simply continue our friendship.
* * *
So despite having a full day behind us, we were excited to begin our week with Mary Ellen and Robert and loaded up the van for an hour long drive to Citta della Pieve and our evening activity, dinner and a blues concert at the Palazzo della Corgna.
Each summer we return to the villa and host an ad hoc group of guests for the annual Umbria Jazz Festival, one of the premier jazz festivals in Europe. During the summer, too, we have had the opportunity to attend a number of sagras, or small town festivals that organized throughout the country during the long summer evenings, festivals that are typically organized around a theme, generally a type of food, such as the sagra delle lumache (the snail festival), the sagra del’oca (the goose festival), the sagra delle lepre (the rabbit festival) or the sagra della nutella (the nutella festival). You can drive around the countryside and find handbills announcing various sagre in the region’s small towns and when you attend one, you typically get a menu on which you check off your food choices (goose bruschetta, pasta with goose, roast goose with wild berry sauce, goose torte for dessert) and sit at large picnic tables under a tent enjoying the food and the sight of families dining together in what amounts to a big block party.
So the Italians, perhaps not known for their efficiency, are experts at throwing large parties, especially when they revolve around food. The Trasimeno Blues Festival, a series of musical events held in towns around Lake Trasimeno throughout the late summer and early fall melds this penchant for food festivals with the Italian love of music, especially American style music such as jazz and blues.
Going to sagras is a learning experience, just as attending the Umbria Jazz Festival has been a learning experience for us. Each time you do it, you get a little better at it. It took several UJ concerts to learn that when the ticket said “concert begins at 9:00” it actually meant “concert begins after 9:45 and the guy doing the introductions has finished his pack of cigarettes.” It took a few sagras for us to learn how to fill out the menu and be confident that after paying for our meal it actually would show up at the table.
This was our first Trasimeno Blues and other than a few small glitches, it went quite well. The organizers of the festival and the special evenings called rosso, bianco e blues – red, white and blues because the events are sponsored by local wineries (red wine, white wine – get it!) – are buffet dinners with local wine, followed by a concert. We arrived at the Palazzo della Corgna in the historic center of Citta della Pieve and improbably found a parking space right in front of the palace. We checked in at the front table (reservations for these dinners are required) and within minutes were pushing our way through the mobs that were surrounding the buffet tables. In cases like these it is best to pretend you are Italian and disregard the line, too, and simply push forward, thrusting your plate at the poor, unfortunate boy who is charged with serving this unruly mob. It really does bear an uncanny resemblance to UN food distribution at refugee camps, except the food is better.
Not only better, this stand up dinner was stand up. A delicious baked chicken, moist and flavorful, and a saffron risotto, made in enormous pots using saffron from the Citta della Pieve area, which this town is famous for, but tasting like it was lovingly made in a small pan just for us. Wash it all down with a very nice Lago Trasimeno white (or red) and we’re ready for music.
Unfortunately, that did not happen for some time. Because although the program announced an 8pm start time, that ETA did not take into consideration all the eating and smoking that needed to take place beforehand. And so, when introductions finally began near 9pm we were ready to listen to music and take our minds off the fact that there was one chair for every 5 people they had admitted. Musical diversion was not to take place for another half hour, however, as someone handed the microphone to a smiling gentleman, Robert suggested that he might even be in the Guiness Book for holding the longest continuous smile, who smiled his way through a welcome and introduction that included a history of the town of Citta della Pieve from its founding in Etrusco-Roman times through the present. In real time.
About 15 minutes into his brief remarks our MC welcomed to the stage one of the evening’s sponsors, the owner of the winery whose wine was being served, who proceeded to give the audience a brief history of the winery and this year’s harvest, recounting each day’s weather conditions, the daily residual sugar reading in the crop and the names of each person who pruned the vines over the course of the year. Fortunately he did not call each of them up to be personally recognized and so a half hour after the introductions began, they came to a merciful conclusion and our musical guests for the evening Paul Venturi and Max Sparagli were introduced.
I’m not sure exactly why Italians like made in America music so much. But they do. And their very able musicians, including Paul and Max, seem to worship it. For the next hour this combo strummed and slid their way through the Memphis blues, Max singing and mooing and grimacing and shaking his way through as confidently and competently as any American musician who sings the blues without actually experiencing the personal history that led to the creation of this artform is capable of doing.
On the way out of the concert, Mary Ellen remarked how incredible it was to eat dinner and drink wine and listen to a concert in the remarkable Palazzo della Corgna. How odd, too, to hear the blues, a musical form invented by black American slaves to ease the sting of their lives, sung by an Italian in a Palace built by European aristocrats.
How strange and how wonderful.
Bill and Suzy