The past year has given me a newfound love for my home region of Umbria in central Italy. Being stuck in my apartment in a small village near Perugia, the region's capital, for the better part of 12 months, I learnt to appreciate how lucky I am to call this area of Italy home.
While I generally spend my time between London and Umbria – cooking and creating in the kitchen at Lina Stores in one and looking after my teenage kids in the other – the past and current international travel restrictions have forced me to stand still and rediscover the beauty that's right in front of my door.
What to expect in Umbria, Italy
Letting the Green Heart of Italy, as Umbria is often called, inspire me again has been one of the true silver linings of lockdown for me.
I was born and raised in a remote valley on the border between Tuscany and Umbria and learnt how to cook from the age of ten at my parents' organic agriturismo.
There, my mother taught me everything I know about cooking with the highest respect for ingredients straight from the farm, and a love for tradition and simplicity. This sums up the entire Umbrian food culture – creating simple dishes with the best possible ingredients available.
Lake Trasimeno, the fourth biggest lake in Italy by surface area, is the perfect starting point for any journey through Umbria because it is the beating heart of the landlocked region.
Incredibly clean and teeming with fresh fish, the lake still supports local fishermen, who use sustainable fishing techniques to catch eels, carps, catfish and more. It holds a very special place in my heart because of the culinary inspiration it offers.
I visit twice weekly as my son's sailing lessons take place there, and the views onto the lake from the surrounding rolling hills are second to none – I'm planning to buy a house here at some point to take full advantage of them every day.
Not too far from Lake Trasimeno, meanwhile, you'll find La Scuarzola, an incredible 16th-century monastery that has been turned into a surrealist architectural compound by visionary architect Tommaso Buzzi to depict his interpretation of 'the ideal city'. It's well worth a visit as you travel deeper into Umbria.
The food and wine of Umbria
Due to the ideal agricultural conditions of hot, dry summers and cold winters with moderate rainfall, the famous sagrantino grapes in Montefalco produce some of the best deep-coloured, antioxidant-rich red DOCG-protected wines of the area.
I always recommend at least one wine tasting and vineyard visit when in the region to learn as much of the agricultural process as possible. Most wineries produce organic wines following biodynamic production processes like using horses instead of tractors, and geese to cut the grass naturally.
I used to get my wine selection from the same wineries for my organic agriturismo, which I took over from my parents before I sold it years ago to join the team at Lina Stores.
Umbria is a region of sagre, or festivals, and there are hundreds of small festivals celebrating the food and traditions of the region all year around. If you really want to get a taste of Umbria, sagre are a must. One of the region's most colourful and interesting festivals, the Spello Flower Festival, takes place on the ninth Sunday after Easter. Town residents cover the streets with flower petals to recreate pictures from the 14th century, creating a colourful, fragrant path for the passage of the Blessed Sacrament through the town.
The festival has now developed into a competition between different artists for the title of best Infiorate, those who have built the most intricate and beautiful design. A close friend of mine is one of the Infiorate artists, and I try to go every year.
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Umbria is famous for its cured meats, which are proudly displayed at the many weekly farmers markets around the province. Made in the many local norcinerias, a name derived from Norcia, the Umbrian town from where the practice of salting and curing of meat, especially pork, originates, they are a true local delicacy.
Umbrian sausage and porchetta, in particular, are amongst the most famous local meats. One of my favourite Umbrian dishes is pici alla norcina, a rich and creamy dish made with Umbrian roasted sausage, local porcini mushrooms and long, chewy pici pasta, and which has become a firm guest favourite whenever we bring it back on our autumn menu at Lina Stores.
Nearby Norcia you can also go water rafting on the river Nera, one of my family's favourite pastimes together. Rafting down the river, which is surrounded by beautiful, untouched, wild nature is one of the most perfect ways to experience Umbria."