(CNN) — Umbria is “the green heart of Italy. Not a jealous heart, but a fertile heart,” said Stanley Tucci as he drove through central Italy.
This small, rural region is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Tuscany, which borders the region to the west. But Umbria’s history, rugged beauty and traditional cuisine make it a hidden gem.
With the highest per capita pork consumption, Umbria is a carnivores dream. Local farmers, hunters, chefs and butchers have preserved the rustic food culture of this region for generations.
One of the popular dishes of the region is porchetta – a pig rubbed in salt and stuffed with herbs, then roasted for hours in a wood-fired oven until the skin is crispy.
“It’s pork with pork inside and pork on top,” Tucci joked. “Giorgio’s loving preparation of the finest fresh ingredients, including the pampered pig itself, and the alchemy of slow-cooked oak over a wood fire transformed this dish into something truly special.”
Barchiesi was quick to describe what he thought of his own recipe, saying out loud, “Yum, yum, yum!”
“I surrender. Literally, I surrender to pork,” Tucci said with a laugh.
Tucci then joined Italy’s first all-female boar hunting party for dinner. This band of hungry hunters feasted on a family recipe for wild boar stew, a hearty winter dish.
The local wild boar is full of flavor thanks to the animals diet of roots, acorns and the occasional truffle. The meat is slowly cooked with herbs, lemon and a little vinegar, then minced in a blender and combined with tomato sauce and green olives.
Wild boar is served on pappardelle pasta.
“I think if Umbria itself had a taste, it would be this dish,” Tucci said, describing the dish as rich and comforting.
AT THE BUTCHER’S
“The salami here is truly amazing,” Tucci said. “The combination of wild herbs picked from forests and fresh mountain air takes it to another level.”
You can’t visit Umbria without tasting decadent truffles. The region is one of the largest truffle producers in Italy.
Tucci visited a truffle field with 21-year-old trees. The trees in the plantation are arranged in a perfect grid and treated with a special technique, creating the ideal conditions for the truffles to grow in the soil around them.
Farmer Carlo Caporicci said these harvested truffles, which take about six years to produce, taste exactly the same as those harvested from the wild.
“It’s like dining in the middle of the woods with your eyes closed,” Caporicci said as he ate the pasta dish.
As for the farmed black truffle from Caporicci, it had a woody, nutty and luxurious taste. Tucci said you’d never know it was breeding and not forage.
THE COLD CUTS
A group of friends opened the shop because they wanted to create a young and dynamic environment with authentic cuisine.
Tucci tasted it all: raw ham, salami, artichokes, pecorino cream, sun-dried tomato cream, blue cheese and truffles.
“The food is as good and authentic as anywhere in Umbria, but the service and setting are just a bit cooler,” Tucci said.
In the hilltop town of Orvieto, pigeon is one of the signature dishes and any self-respecting local can recite pigeon recipes back and forth.
Because pigeons can be tough, Santanicchio cooks the bird two ways to make it moist and flavorful. Half is braised the old-fashioned way and the rest is marinated in soy sauce and cooked in vacuum bags.
No part of the pigeon is lost. Everything goes into the pan, including the heart, liver and kidneys.
Then carrots, onions, thyme and celery are added and then cooked over low heat for up to four hours. This makes the pigeon fondant.
“Wow!” Tucci said as he tried the pigeon. “It’s so good!”
THE PLANT PARADISE
And instead of ending with a dessert, we end with vegetables. But these vegetables take center stage.
Tucci’s friends, Colin and Livia Firth, run a sustainable 60-acre farm on the Tuscan border in Citta Della Pieve. The twins experimented with cross-pollinating long-forgotten varieties to create supercharged new vegetables.
Their goal is to show that vegetables can be just as spectacular as protein on the dinner table.
They threw a rustic outdoor feast and Tucci tasted one of their specialties: eggplant caviar. It’s roasted eggplant, with garlic, olive oil, salt and tarragon.
An al fresco feast with raw ingredients – the perfect wrap on a visit to rural, earthy Umbria.