Rome - When you’ve been following a low carb diet for a few months, a trip to Italy is the equivalent of a junkie returning to an opium den.
I’d been standing strong for the first few days, favouring veal saltimbocca over pasta, sampling artichokes and cured meat and nibbling on half a grissini, rather than attacking the breadbasket like I usually do.
It was hard. Belinda Richardson, our Insight Vacations tour director, seemed determined to boycott our jean’s zippers. Luckily mine came reinforced with spandex.
The relapse came at a boutique olive farm, Dagani, not far from Asissi in Umbria. We were led to a big barn with an olive press and a wood burning oven in the corner.
Italian mamas were toasting ciabatta bread over a fire, turning it into bruschetta, drizzled with freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil and topped of with a sprinkling of coarse sea salt.
My brain’s synapses started firing at the smell of freshly baked bread and the green, grassy notes of the olive oil. The oil looked a bit suspect though, resembling diluted dishwashing liquid, rather than the golden oil I was used to.
I agreed to taste only one; that lie we so often tell ourselves to make us feel better. As I bit into the crunchy goodness, my resolve crumbled. This was the good stuff, designer drugs for a carb junkie like me. I had another and another, my brain churning out dopamine, serotonin and all the happy hormones that come with refined carbs, beautiful views and good food.
When visiting the Umbrian countryside, it’s best to leave food quirks at home. The fare is rustic and simple, with starches like pasta and bread usually in the starring role.
The bigger cities like Rome and Venice still may indulge fussy tourists’ low carb and gluten-free requests; there are quite a few osterias and trattorias that boast “gluten free” signs outside their doors, in English of course.
In Umbria you’ll just have to grin and bear a bit of digestive discomfort.
My first taste of Umbria started in a small hilltop town in the south-western part of the region called Orvieto, which dates back to the Etruscan era.
The setting is dramatic. On the one side there is a sheer drop consisting of tufa, a porous sandstone-coloured rock of volcanic ash, with little houses peering over the side.
The restaurant Zeppelins, (“like the band, Led Zeppelin”, owner Lorenzo emphasises) is a mish-mash of rock and roll memorabilia and local bric-a-brac. This is also where Lorenzo divulges the secrets of his great pasta to Insight Vacation’s guests. A trip to Zeppelins is part of Insight Vacations signature dining experiences and is a definite highlight of the tour.
Lorenzo, who mildly resembles actor Stanley Tucci, is the self-proclaimed pasta expert of Umbria.
“There are several aspects to the perfect pasta dough,” he explained, while attacking a big lump of dough with his knuckles.
“Firstly you need good 00 (doppio zero) flour”.
Secondly, after you have combined all the ingredients, the pasta needs to be kneaded until your knuckles are red and raw.
This breaks down the gluten and makes the pasta elastic and soft enough to be rolled out in a thin sheet. And remember, a good sheet of pasta is rolled out thinner than a model on a crash diet a week before fashion week in Milan.
In the background, Jimmy Page was churning out one of his signature guitar riffs, while Lorenzo went to work on his pasta.
His wife, Kim, whisked a previously made batch of fettuccini off to the kitchen, where it was served with a simple tomato sauce. We knocked it back with Orvieto Classico, a dry white from Lorenzo’s own vineyard.
Dessert was a mascarpone and ricotta mousse, which can only be described as a little cloud of happiness, topped with dark chocolate and hazelnuts.
After reviving ourselves with a shot of grappa and espresso, we headed to the main square, Piazza del Duomo, to see Orvieto’s main attraction, the Duomo de Orvieto, a massive 14th cathedral.
The gold leaf of the cathedral shimmered softly in the autumnal Umbrian light. Tourist season had passed and except for a few local teenagers, the Insight group had the piazza all to themselves.
The cathedral is massive, with enough detail and grandeur to rival the Duomo in Florence. Impressive frieze sculptures of heaven and hell, the creation and the fall of man flanks its facade. Hell is particularly nasty and would look right in place on the cover of a death metal album.
Our base in Umbria for the next few days was the capital Perugia, home of the Italian kiss, better known as Baci chocolates. Recently it has become notorious for the murder of Meredith Krecher in 2007. It’s a young student town, home to two universities, the University of Perugia and the Foreigner’s University.
Gaggles of students conversed in little groups among the historic architecture; punks, emos, hipsters, and the most stylish of them all, the hipster Italiano. The hipster Italiano has taken the awkwardness of hipster chic and translated it with typical Italian flair: skin tight skinny jeans baring ankles, paired with patent leather brogues, too tight tweed-jackets, over crisp white shirts with oversize collars and retro coiffed hair.
I mentally took some notes for the South African autumn/winter season.
The next morning we headed off to Assisi, birthplace of St Francis and St Clare, founder of the order of the Poor Clares. As far as Roman Catholic saints go, St Francis is one of the most venerated; he’s the patron saint of animals and the environment and Pope Francis chose this saint’s name to honour his heritage.
Assisi appears pink from a distance and it is especially in the early morning and late afternoon that it’s encircled by an almost ethereal rosy glow.
Belinda explained that most of Assisi was built with the pinkish limestone of nearby Monte Subasio.
The Basilica of St Francis is particularly a treat to watch: in full sun it’s rosy beige, then when clouds pass, it turns taupe. When we left Assisi in the late afternoon, a few rays fell on the basilica, enveloping it in a warm glow.
If you think you are going to follow a tour guide with a flag around on an Insight journey, you need not worry. We were given free rein to explore the cobblestone streets and buy some souvenirs.
One of the best places to spend an hour or so is the Piazza del Comune, watching the daily life of the Assisians. Monks with clanging keys rushed past, carrying redemption on their shoulders. A murmur of nuns followed.
The smell of spun sugar and caramel enticed me into one of the little bakeries that line the Via Portica. Each confectionary looked better than the next; cannoli bulging with cream, pignoli dotted with pine nuts and fingers of biscotti were lined up at the bakery counter. I exited with a bag of brutto ma buoni cookies, more bought for their name than their taste.
These little treats, made from meringue and nuts, look like little misshapen tumours, therefore their name “tasty but ugly”.
I sat at the foot of the fountain in the town square, cookie in hand and launched into the crunchy, gooey rich sinfulness. At least it’s gluten-free.
A great Italian tradition is the late lunch, usually taken after 2pm. Rather than staying in Assisi, Belinda took us to one of her favourite restaurants, Il Molino, in nearby Spello for an Insight signature lunch experience.
Spello is a charm of a town and every year residents compete to see who has the most beautiful garden. Even in autumn the narrow cobblestones are filled with bursts of colour; coral and magenta African violets sprout from balconies, while the entrances of houses are adorned with crimson shocks of flowering geraniums.
Should I ever have an existential crisis, like Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, Spello seems like the perfect place to get one’s groove back.
Belinda informed us that Insight was the first escorted touring company to include this little town on its itinerary.
The restaurant Il Molino is known for its “slow food” philosophy and only uses local ingredients in season. We dined on salty crème brulee, served with caramelised pears, deconstructed lasagne with pumpkin and broccoli, drizzled with a sage cream and finished with a rich chocolate fondant.
A few weeks later, back in South Africa the bread and pasta came back to haunt me in a department store’s fitting cubicle.
Then I thought of of those curvy Italian silver screen sirens, Sofia Loren and Claudia Cardinale, who scoffed pasta with an almost erotic fervour. They weren’t counting carbs and I’m sure they drizzled their olive oil over bread with reckless abandon.
After all, Ms Loren hailed spaghetti as the secret of her success.
In that case, I’ll have another helping of fettucini and a larger pair of jeans.
Extra ciabatta, por favore. - Carla Lewis-Balden, Saturday Star
*Insight Vacation (www.insightvacations.com) visits Umbria as part of its Country Roads of Italy itinerary. This tour explores all the major cities as well as little-known gems like Orvieto, Assisi and Perugia, Tuscan hill towns like San Giminagno, fantasy gardens, a formidable abbey and Italy’s finest stretch of coastline.