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After the earthquake: Umbria’s culinary magic is winning back visitors

Two powerful earthquakes laid waste to parts of central Italy last year, but resilient producers in fabulously foodie – and beautiful – south-east Umbria are determined to look forward, not back

 Umbria in bloom … in early summer, millions of flowers turn Castelluccio’s lentil fields red.

‘Would you like to meet the pigs?” said Giuseppe Fausti. It seemed a strange idea, popping in on friends and relations of the animals that had just provided a wonderful lunch of chewy salami and differently flavoured summer and winter prosciuttos. But Giuseppe’s must be among the planet’s happiest pigs, and we were keen to see them doing their contented thing.

Until last year, jolly and welcoming Giuseppe and Ada Fausti could probably have been called the planet’s happiest pig farmers: with very little hands-on work they produced lean, deeply flavoured pork prized even here in Norcia, south-east Umbria, a town that’s synonymous with pork (literally: in central Italy, the word for butcher or salami shop is norcineria).

But last autumn was a terrible one for them and this 2,500-year-old Appenine town. In August, an earthquake centred on Amatrice, several miles to the south, destroyed much of the farm where the Faustis live with their children. And then on 30 October, a further quake severely damaged, among other things, Norcia’s 13th-century basilica and the Faustis’ shop, slaughterhouse and the warehouse where legs of quality pork mature into finest prosciutto. (After the earthquake they put out an online appeal and managed to sell much of what they suddenly no longer had storage for.)

Today the couple have done lots of rebuilding and are keen to have tourists back. Their most prized assets were not damaged in the quake – because the Faustis specialise in maiale brado, wild pig. Their livestock fend for themselves outdoors – rootling for food in 300 hectares of field and forest (well away from falling buildings). “All we do is butcher them – and make the ham and salami,” said Ada.

Maiale brado, the wild pigs of the region.

Maiale brado, the wild pigs of the region. Photograph: Liz Boulter

Giuseppe headed off up a rough meadow rattling a bucket and a group of sleek porkers emerged from the woods. “They keep cool by wallowing in the spring,” he said. Pigs with their own mineral spa – no wonder they taste good!

But vegetarians and pork-avoiders shouldn’t dismiss Norcia. As if some foodie force-field is in operation, this area is known for all manner of culinary treats: truffles, cheeses, EU-protected lentils and saffron.

Just getting there feels magical. Where we entered the three-mile Forca di Cerro tunnel south of Assisi was quintessential Umbria: golden hillsides, olive groves, cypress trees. We emerged in a thickly wooded gorge under high mountains. It was cooler, birdsong drifted through the car windows, and mist hung over fortified villages high on the valley sides. This was the Valnerina, carved by the short but powerful Nera river, which rises in the Sibillini mountains and empties into the Tiber 80 miles to the west.

Ham, cheese and sausages from Norcia.

‘As if some foodie force-field is in operation, this area is known for all manner of culinary treats.’ Photograph: Michelangelo Gratton/Getty Images

Just past the tunnel, in Castel San Felice, the Balli family run an agriturismo in a 15th-century farmhouse, with cool en suite bedrooms in former cattle sheds. The wise and gentle Ballis have led the revival of saffron cultivation in Valnerina – it was huge here in medieval times. While preparing dinner, mum Rita showed us some of the labour-intensive process: sorting thousands of bulbs for hand-planting on individual mounds (so water runs away and fungus can’t grow).

I’d always thought saffron overrated, but that’s probably because of the rubbish stuff we’re sold in the UK. I was converted when her daughter, Marta, opened a jar of their golden spice and a heady aroma filled the room. Our main course of Nera trout with saffron cream was delicate and pungent at the same time.

The Valnerina near to Norcia, Umbria, Italy, Europe

View over the Valnerina. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

Next day we headed into Norcia. The basilica is at present covered in scaffolding, with the untouched statue of Saint Benedict gesturing at the damage from the middle of the square. But the equally old Palazzo Comunale next door can still be visited, and its tidily repaired main street feels like a porky Disneyland, with wild boars’ heads outside shops selling prosciutto and sausages including “donkey testicles” and nobbly “grandpa’s balls”.

Bangers go with mash in Britain, but a classic accompaniment is often lentils, and Norcia happens to be down the road from Castelluccio, home of what cooks including Jamie Oliver and Antonio Carluccio regard as the world’s finest lentils.

Even without lentils, Castelluccio would quicken the, er, pulse: at 1,452 metres it is the highest village in the Apennines, on the side of a huge crater. Sadly the village was so badly damaged in the earthquake that it is still uninhabitable, but earlier this month the road was reopened briefly so lentil farmers could sow their crops. And the authorities have guaranteed that the road will be open to tourists by June.

freshly dug truffles

Freshly dug truffles. Photograph: Liz Boulter

This is important because Castelluccio’s plain is magical in early summer, when millions of flowers turn the lentil fields into a carpet of red, blue, yellow and purple, and attract some 250,000 visitors every year. Wild cyclamen, iris, crocus, gentian, poppies and others are essentially weeds, but they’re as useful as they are pretty, their stems helping prop up the delicate white-flowered lentil plants.

To complete our gastro tour, we headed to a hillside near Norcia to meet Nicola, cool in mirror shades and buzz cut. He’s a licensed cavatore (truffle-hunter), but the hunting is actually done by his valued associates Lulu and Nina, cocker and Belgian spaniels respectively, who dig up truffles in the roots of oak, juniper and hazel trees.

I’d expected a truffle expedition to be a test of patience, but within five minutes Lulu ran up with something black held delicately in her jaws. Nicola took the treasure from her, rewarded her with a biscuit then inspected it. It was a good’un, solid, with a seductive woody smell. In the bag it went.

Nicola and Lulu find a truffle.

Nicola and Lulu find a truffle. Photograph: Liz Boulter

After an hour’s glorious sunset walk we, or rather the tireless dogs, had a dozen truffles, from apple- to walnut-size, for Nicola to sell to restaurateurs.

Nicola made us a present of a medium truffle and that night we cooked some pasta perfectly al dente, then grated over our knobbly prize. It was the supper of a lifetime, subtly fungal, with notes of honey and spice.

The October quake was Italy’s worst since 1980, and although no one died, up to 100,000 people were displaced or saw livelihoods ruined. But these are hardy resilient folk, determined to look forward, not back, and tourist euros will help them do just that.

More to do in Valnerina

Rafting on the Corno river.

Rafting on the Corno river.

Cooking
Learn to make the most of the area’s bounty by taking a cooking class at Il Collaccio, a campsite and agriturismo north of Norcia, with stupendous views of the Sibillini mountains. For €30 a head, including copious wine, the formidable Ida Baldoni teaches guests how to make the sort of three-course Sunday lunch with which an Italian mamma would try to impress a prospective son-in-law From June to August only, call +39 0743 665108 for details

Think hemp
Another ancient product is being revived in the fortified village of Sant’Anatolia di Narco – hemp, for both fabric weaving and food. (Despite “Narco” in the name, I was assured this hemp contains no mind-altering chemicals.) In a surprisingly fascinating museum, opened fully last autumn, visitors can have a go at weaving patterned fabric on traditional looms, see designer hemp garments, and try tarts with hemp pastry, and even a hemp pina colada. Adult €2, children free, museodellacanapa.it

Rafting
A rafting trip on the Corno river, which flows into the Nera at Serravalle, is a relaxed affair, with just a few rapids, but it offers a close encounter with this region’s natural assets, especially the dramatic Biselli gorge, 170 metres high and just seven wide, plus Roman remains and a Moorish seventh-century bridge Adult €25, under-14 €20, +39 348 3511798, raftingumbria.com

Cycling
Families can also tackle some or all of a 50km cycling (or walking) trail on the former Spoleto-Norcia steam railway line, which goes through tunnels and on bridges over swift torrents, with curious Chianina cows and their calves looking on. Hire bikes from mtbvalnerinamultisport.it; two hours €10 adult, €8 children, trailer for under-fives €5 extra

Way to go

The trip was provided by development agency Sviluppumbria. Doubles at Agriturismo Zafferano e Dintorni from €65 B&B.

The Faustis welcome visitors for tastings and ‘meet the pigs’, and offer an adopt-a-pig scheme (+39 333 417 8434, maiale bradodinorcia.com). Truffle hunting costs €95pp for two (cheaper for larger groups) including transfers from Norcia and interpreter (book at exavel.com)



Emozioni della Natura

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