We gathered from around the world over the past few days: the few, the proud, the thirsty. We made our way to Spoleto, the cultured medieval hill town in the lovely Italian region of Umbria to taste wines and a whole lot more, all part of the fifth annual edition of Vini nel Mondo -meaning Wines in the World.
For three days and nights, the entire town of Spoleto becomes one big wine tasting, culminating in something called Notte Bianca (White Night), during which opera’s “Nessun Dorma” should be the theme song. “No one sleeps” in Spoleto on Notte Bianca, as all the wine drinking, music and dancing spill out of all the different festival venues into the square in front of the Cathedral.
Our group, of course, was somewhat more serious, in that it included wine buyers from Texas and other important countries like England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Latvia and Russia. These folks started tasting wine each morning and didn’t let up (except for some nifty meals, with wine) till round about midnight. Often times they got to meet with the winemakers, almost always working through interpreters to talk supply, distribution and marketing.
Umbrian cuisine, clearly ready to stand on its own without its famous next door neighbor Tuscany, was never far away during Vini nel Mondo – and even when it was far away, we went out to get it. In this case, though, it came to us, in the form of a cooperative of local farmers who make everything from olive oil to prosciutto.
We took a bus high into the mountains to visit the tiny, rather alpine-feeling town of Castelluccio, where a lot of skill and effort goes into making hams, salami and probably a dozen other cured meats. Back in Texas, chef after chef is now pursuing this skill, known as salumi. A handful of Umbrian towns like Castelluccio and Norcia are where the skill actually comes from.
Truffles and saffron are two of the most expensive food products on earth, and Umbria is fortunate enough to produce both. We met a little old lady who farms saffron, and we met truffle (tartufo in Italian) every time we turned around – spread on bruschetta, stirred into frittata, shaved, sliced or grated over pasta or risotto, and even mixed with this cheese.
As far as I’m concerned, it wouldn’t be Italy without pasta and lots of it. This dish from our farewell dinner is handmade “stringozzi,” which translates colorfully as “strangle the tax collectors.” I think stringozzi should be paired with an Umbrian wine called Scacciadiavoli, or “crush the devils.” Whoever said there’s no more drama in food obviously has never been to Vini nel Mondo in Umbria.
We were sad to say goodbye to lovely Spoleto, but it may have been happy to see us go – and not just for all the usual reasons. The town actually has to get ready now for its most famous event of the year, the Festival of Two Worlds attracting opera, ballet, theater and visual arts celebrities from all over the world. Back in our home towns and home countries, we can raise a glass to that festival too.