Garlic is part of the culinary trinity of Italian cooking. Paired with asoffritto of finely chopped onions, celery, and carrots in a 2:1:1 ratio, it is the foundation of the dishes that define the cuisine of Italy. Slowly sautéed, hence the name soffrito (under-fried), the ingredients soften and release their flavor in an incensual bath of extra virgin olive oil or olive oil and butter if you’re cooking up North. Adding meat, chicken, fish or wild game complete the union and the flavor and aroma of a strong, robust clove of garlic provides a rich and complex note.
But if you’re looking for something more mellow don’t overlook the immature sprout that arrives in spring or early summer. This young, slender, yellow-green flower stalk or garlic scape, picked before it can form its familiar bulb, is known as green garlic and has a creamy, mellow, sweet flavor that can be used like scallions or chives. Green garlic is still garlicky, but with less of a bitter bite.
You can pickle or freeze dry the scapes (like chives), toss them in extra virgin olive oil, season with sea salt, grill and serve the stalks with a grilled steak. Or make a delicious Italian frittata . . .
The drive from Rome to Assisi in Umbria is a short day trip (185 km or 115 miles) along dramatic mountain scenery and countless medieval hill towns where the region’s volcanic soil, wet winters and sun-drenched summers grow grapes that produce some of the finest wines in the world.
For pilgrim travelers entering Italy’s Green Heart, it was a metaphor for a spiritual journey from the ecclesiastical Church of Rome to a land of religious fervor where saints walked the hillsides and forests and lived lives that changed the world. The gentle spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi continues to influence all who are open to the teachings of Francis who first heard God’s calling in a small church outside the city walls while praying at the Byzantine cross of San Damiano directing him to “Rebuild My Church”.
Today the link between Rome and Assisi is renewed with the 2013 inauguration of Pope Francis whose papacy continues to be marked by acts of simplicity and openness common and consistent with the teachings of St. Francis. I was reminded of this on a recent trip that began in Rome and ended in Umbria. I did get my “golden ticket” to see the Pope along with thousands of others in St. Peter’s Square that October morning. All that was going on now connected Rome to Assisi by more than an ancient pilgrim road. The name Francis echoed a spiritual reconnection between two men reminding those who listened to be “protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment”.
While Hannibal was making a name for himself ambushing Romans on the shores of Lake Trasimeno history moved to imprint the event in the landscape of rolling hills and mountains that encircle one of Italy’s most panoramic lake views. Driving along the coastal road that edges the lake you’ll pass sites that commemorate the historical battle near Tuoro sul Trasimeno where the Carthaginian renegade general managed to surround and out manoeuvre Roman legions and one of the very few times in history when an entire army is ambushed by another entire army to win a battle. There is a short signposted itinerary to the main location of the action where visitors can follow an archaeological walk through the battlefield. Sites like Torrente Sanguinante (river of blood) and Ossaia (place of bones) take their names from the historical event which occurred here in 217 BC.
Today Lake Trasimeno is one of Italy’s most popular lake resorts, a holiday destination with excursion boats to its islands and well-tended beaches for swimming and sailing. I spent an afternoon along Trasimeno’s shores watching wind surfers and enjoying a picnic lunch of affettati misti (mixed cold cuts) with little to worry about except the bees and looking forward to traveling on to Perguia to visit friends and then on to the Umbrian hill towns and Assisi. Although the Lombardian lakes of Garda, Como and Maggiore may be better known, the mirror-like beauty of Trasimeno is no less compelling. Off the tourist radar for most American travelers, it is mid-point in the Italian peninsula, just across the border of Tuscany into Umbria. My Perugian friend Luca who visited me in the States one summer commented that it reminded him of the resorts along the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Trasimeno like Michigan is known for its lake perch (persico reale) and for summer family holidays with lakeside towns filled with art and history and a place to get away and enjoy nature.
Charlemagne, lanceolate, light green color, intense aroma – descriptions of an encounter with a medieval Tuscan dragon? – No they are the gastronomic backstory behind dragoncello, the Italian word for the herb tarragon. Native to Central Asia tarragon spread west into Italy after the Crusades. Culinary historians write that the herb was brought into Tuscany by Charlemagnearound 774 and then grown in the gardens of the Abbeyof Sant’Antimo,nearMontalcino.Charlemagne stopped near Montalcino on his return to Rome. His army was suffering from the plague and he decided to make camp when an angel advised him to collect a particular kind of grass and infuse it with Brunello wine (not bad medicine). The army was cured and Charlemagne built an abbey on the site dedicated to the martyred Saint Antimo.
Herbs such as menta (mint) and dragoncellomay not be as familiar as basil and oregano when thinking of Italian cooking but the regional foods of Siena in Tuscany and certain parts of Umbria make liberal use of these aromatic herbs in dishes like cannoli di ricotta al dragoncello e pecorino (short crust pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese, tarragon and pecorino cheese), gnocchi verdi alle erbette con menta edragoncello (gnocchi served with a sauce made of mint, tarragon and parsley) and funghi porcini al dragoncello (porcini mushrooms flavored with tarragon). There is a popular Tuscan salsa called Dragoncello Sauce that is served with vegetables, fritto misto, beef, poultry and seafood. Certain regional olive oils are even described with grassy notes of dragoncello and sage.
You’ll need to travel outside the tourist flow to see and savor this side of Italy so make sure to look for local trattorie in towns like Colle di Val’ d’ Elsa, Siena, Artimino and Volterra. Here you’ll find profumato al dragoncello wafting through the air with delightful dishes that are particular to the region all without a fire-breathing dragon in sight.
*dragoncello means “little dragon” in Latin thought to be named for the pungent flavor or for the herb’s serpentine roots
Umbria has been called the land of mysticism where the lives of saints like Francis and Clare of Assisi combine with vestiges of Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance art and history to create a setting where a gastronomic palate is rich with layers of food and wine from Italy’s Green Heart. In Umbria you can taste and travel among the rolling green plains of the River Tiber or on the edge of the tufa cliffs of Orivieto. The food will always be exceptional. Although one of the smallest regions of Italy, Umbrian food is big on flavor with bold and rustic dishes and rare ingredients hidden in the shadows of ancient forests.
Taste travelers in the know have always been drawn to this region of Italy. 899 years ago German Bishop Johann DeFuk was on his way to Rome. The Bishop’s steward was sent ahead in search of local inns and producers that served the best wine so that the oenophilic Bishop could be alerted as to where he might taste the most exceptional wines of the region. Any places found to be particularly good were to be marked with the Latin word “Est” meaning “Here it is “. As the Bishop followed the route of his steward, he stopped at each place marked with “Est”. As legend has it, just past Orvieto, at an inn near the town of Montefiascone the superlative “Est! Est! Est!” appeared on the door of a local wine grower and the Bishop traveled no further. Some say he dropped dead on the spot after drinking too much of a good thing. Others say that he lived out his days in the town of Montefiascone happily drinking his favorite wine until the time of his death when he was then buried in the church of San Flaviano, outside the walls of Montefiascone with the following inscription on his tomb
Est, Est, Est. Propter nimium est,
(hic) Jo(hannes) De Fuk. D(ominus) meus mortuus est.
Roughly translated to mean “My Lord, Johnannes died here because of too much “Est”. According to some accounts DeFuk willed all his belongings to the town council on the condition that each year a barrel of wine be poured over his tomb, a practice observed until about a century ago.