The Flowering







The Flowering / La Festa della fioritura

Imagine a huge plateau that every summer blossoms into unprecedented beauty. The surrounding mountains hide it from the uninformed, and Monte Vettore Hill sinisterly sits directly above a couple of little houses nestling close together like children who have cold. No wonder Piana di Castelluccio is emblazoned with legends. And they have here also a delicious ham, fragrant truffles and rare lentils...

Umbria is the green heart of Italy and when the bus leaves Spoleto, you understand why. The road winds through the high hills resembling emerald velvet. Where it was possible, the residents literally ,,glued” their houses to the tops of the mounts. From below, they look like a fata morgana, especially if the access path to the stone ,,nests” is hidden somewhere between dense vegetation.

I stayed in the pleasant small town of Norcia near the Monti Sibillini National Park (Sibilla’s Hills). Beyond the massive walls, much has not changed since the Middle Ages. People do not rush anywhere, enjoy good food, drink fine wine and live to a high age, which is certainly also due to clean air and uncontaminated nature.

Every Italian region believes that it offers the best gastronomic specialties throughout the galaxy, and Umbria is no exception. It boasts three exceptional products: olive oil, wine and truffles.

It is true that the food in the restaurants was divine, but they serve so small portions I call in jest ,,the nouvelle cuisine” - they put on a giant plate something miniature to trick a stomach and decorate it beautifully. This is not a criticism; they probably live so long because they do not overeat themselves. Every time after lunch (a main course + a dessert), I left the table almost hungry... or shall I say almost satiated? When I saw a portion of cheesecake with lentils, which consisted of two squares just under two teeth, I almost asked for a microscope (but the plate was decorated like by Monet). Eventually, I bit my tongue. I am not at my mum’s, I really don’t need to eat half of a cake; I thought and threw two squares of crostata under two teeth. At least I didn’t put on weight.

A truffle - tartufo is that ugly black thing that looks like a rotten potato. It grows beneath the surface of the earth, it parasitizes on the roots of some trees. I would really like to know who was the first person to try it. For sure, he didn’t realize that a strange fungus would once become one of the most precious and expensive food - a rich man from Hong Kong had auctioned a piece of one and a half kilogram for an incredible 160,000 dollars!

It has been known since antiquity. The Greeks and Romans attributed it the divine qualities, and Ploutarchos, Greek essayist was even convinced that it originated from water, heat and lightning. In the Middle Ages, however, the enthusiasm for tartufo decreased, because people believed it was a food of witches and contained deadly poisons. In the Renaissance, it became popular again. Count Benso di Cavour used it in a diplomacy, the composer Gioacchino Rossini called it “the Mozart of mushrooms”, and Lord Byron kept one on his desk because its smell helped his inspiration.

Once upon a time, looking for the "gold of the earth" was carried out with pigs. They loved  truffle so much that when they located it, nothing could stop them. That was a real drawback - when they got it, it was a lost fight, you couldn’t retrieve it from their mouth. The other disadvantage was that it was impossible to squeeze a swine into a car or hold in leash :). So they ate almost everything and while digging, they caused also irreparable damage to truffle’s mycelia. In 1985, the use of pigs for hunt was officially prohibited, only a dog is allowed. His training starts a few days after he comes into the world. He is constantly surrounded by a strong truffle’s scent to remember it, and after finding a hidden tartuffo, he gets a huge reward. Later, when he will really sniff it in the forest, he will draw the attention of his master and wait for a treat, he will not care about an underground mushroom at all.

Cavatore, a digger, gets up early in the morning and doesn’t switch on the light that could reveal he goes to hunt truffles. It happened that envious seekers poisoned his greatest treasure - a trained dog. In the forest, he moves like a partisan, quietly and slowly, in order not to give away his secret places.

There is one kind of white tartuffo and seven black ones, but I will not bore you with the details. The most precious is the Black Truffle from Norcia (tartuffo nero pregiato), which in fact has a chestnut-brown color and the inner part is grey with white veins. They say it smells like hell and tastes like heaven, and it is true! When I tried homemade ricotta-filled ravioli, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with pieces of this mushroom, I felt in love. It was divine!!! Bizarre and incomparable to anything else, you just have to taste it. After lunch, I went straight to the nearest store and invested in three glasses of truffle salsa. It is a pulp, crushed in a mortar, flavoured with salt and olive oil, one teaspoon of which is enough to zest a portion of pasta. I loved also truffle toast, omelet and strangozzi noodles - the waiter grated big slices of fresh ,,black potato” directly in front of me.

(Now I have to go to the fridge and cut off a piece of that truffle salami I bought, yum-yum.).

Norcia is also famous for its meat products and so the word norcino (native of Norcia) became synonymous with "a butcher"; his shop is called norcineria. This specialization began to develop in the thirteenth century, probably thanks to the surgical school in Preci, which became famous throughout Europe, for example by removing urinary stones. The locals not only knew how to use a scalpel, but they understood that good hygiene conditions were needed for a delicate work. They applied this knowledge also when processing a pork or a wild boar. In the winter, skillful norcini used to go butchering over the country.

Just to give you an idea - on the main street, they sell meat in various forms in every second store. You can recognize them easily, either there are boar heads hung on the wall around them or the door is decorated with a "sausage curtain". You can smell them from afar...

Inside, plenty of delicacies hang on the hooks: salami, flavored with spices, pistachios or garlic; sweet-sour sausages mazzafegate, filled with pork liver, pine nuts, raisins and orange peel; but also mule’s and grandpa’s balls, palle di mulo and palle di nonno. These are the products from lean, finely ground meat, oval in shape and tied two together - hence the strange name. No grandfather or mule had to sacrifice his ,,crown jewels”, the salesman assured me, seeing the horror in my eyes :)

The Prosciutto (a ham) from Norcia was even awarded the IGP recognition (Protected Geographical Indication). It is cut into a pear shape and dry-salted twice with sea salt, no other preservatives are used. I didn't feel like trying it, I still had the sweetness of the breakfast cappuccino in my mouth, but norcino was insistent. Happy to see someone in his shop so early, he cut a slice of the whole assortment and forced me to taste. The ham was so savory that at the end, I left with almost a kilo of meat!

By the way, in Umbria they believe that when a cat spots its own reflection in a bottle, it will convince it that the territory is already occupied - and it will go to pee elsewhere. Therefore, you can see these bottles everywhere at the doors and at the pots, although I have some doubts that it works :)

A million years ago, the movement of tectonic plates in the area of ​​present-day Umbria tore the massive rocky blocks and created a huge valley, which filled with water. As time passed, the lake dried up and on its place, the plain Piana di Castelluccio remained. It constitutes the area of about 15 km². Every summer blossoms into unprecedented beauty. This period lasts approximately from the end of May to the beginning of July; the last Sunday in June they usually organize the Festival of the Flowering, where various local products can be purchased.

Of course, a road to the Altopiano di Castelluccio plateau leads up, up, up, we drove through such serpentine road I felt a breakfast in my stomach move from side to side and hoped it would stay where it was.

At the highest point, the chauffeur stopped at a scenic vista and enjoyed our astonishment. The plateau spread in front of our eyes like a shining colorful carpet. There were white rectangles, pink stains, blue and red streaks, a lot of yellow. It was surrounded by hills; on one of them, I recognized a center of local life, a miniature village of Castelluccio di Norcia.

Then the road slowly descended, we went through the ,,carpet”, the last steep curve around the hill and we finally parked on the square. We were 1452 meters above sea level; the temperature dropped sharply, I was happy I took a heavy wool sweater.

Small houses with tiny windows nestle close together; many of them painted with white writing or drawings. It isn’t a work of vandalism - under the cover of the night, locals used to make allusion to certain events, such as someone's infidelity for example. Nowadays, only a few can understand them. In some housings, there are restaurants, in others shops. In the winter, there are only ten people left, the others move to Norcia. The terrible snowstorms wouldn’t allow them to bring supplies, nor children to go to school. Once upon a time, the passage through the mountains was so dangerous that from November to March, the bishops banned it completely and during the foggy days, somebody had to be constantly ringing in order to give orientation to the lost pilgrims. Even today, once the nature is covered with white duvet, the village lies down in a dormant state and wakes up only in the spring.  

Castelluccio is located inside the Monti Sibillini National Park where Queen Sibilla has always ruled. It was once believed that whoever dared to cross the mysterious gate to her kingdom at the foot of the mountains, found himself in a golden palace in the company of beautiful women, succumbed to temptation and never left.

The majestic, 2476-meter-high Mount Vettore soars over the village like a threat, as if ready to topple down at the first earth seizure. The area is seismologically active; I read that last time the earth in the neighborhood trembled only a week ago. The locals told me that in the nice weather, from the top of the hill it is possible to see the cupola of St Peter's dome in Rome.

There were many fairies living up there, near the sky, in Queen Sibilla's kingdom. One scattered the snow, the other planted flowers and took care about the forest, another was in charge of domestic animals, combed horses and braided their tails. Girls loved to dance and when they heard that there would be a ball in Castelluccio, they asked permission to go. The Queen agreed under the condition they would return before the first sun ray - because on the light their skin would get wrinkled, the pupils would turn red, their hair white and everyone would know that fairies exist.

Fairies promised to leave in time. As they had hooves instead of feet to run better on the mountains, they covered them with long dresses and went to the tavern in Castelluccio. They had fun all night, but while dancing with pretty shepherds, they forgot to watch the time and realized it only when they saw a daybreak in the distance. Overwhelmed by panic they run towards the Mount Vettore and their hooves smashed rocks and left a white footmark behind them that is still visible today. Since then, the fairies have never returned, but everyone knows that they are up there and take care of flowers, forests and animals ... and if you want to take home one of them as a souvenir, you can buy at least her little statue.

The view from above is surreal (hence the nickname Tibet of Europe), at least from the end of May to the end of July. This event is officially called La Fioritura, The Flowering, and you never know when it's the best time to go to see it. It all depends on rain, sunlight and the date of sowing of lentils. When I went there, everything was slowed down, because in May snow fell again. Nature just woke up, yet the valley was already full of the first colorful carpets.

It is an unbelievable spectacle of Mother Nature. The shadows of the clouds move on the ground like dark spots; and when the sad hills in the background are suddenly stroken by the suns’s rays, they turn into a vividly green impressionistic picture. In addition to the gentle violet flowers of the cultivated legume, it consists of the wild flowers such as poppies, cornflakes, daisies, clovers, bellflowers, cole seeds, gentians, oxalis, marguerites, dead nettles... The colors change throughout the day and month, they depend from flowers, which just opened. When a scarf of mist wrapped around the Mount Vettore, the pale pink shade turned almost violet and the black clouds caused the yellow fields shine. There was an incredible silence in the basin, only the cicadas chirped and the wind ruffled my hair. Sometimes I had feeling I caught a glimpse of a fairy, adjusting the poppy petals, but when I turned, there were just moving flowers left after her... It was bloody romantic.

It's one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. For hours, I wandered through the meadow, I ate my lunch while sitting in the grass and I wallowed in the cole-seed to catch the best shot of the mountain above me. Only while standing a few hundred meters from Castelluccio, you can realize how vulnerable the village is; all the way round circled and threatened by much higher mountains.

In the afternoon, suddenly the water-soaked clouds appeared like vultures. In the distance, I saw a bright flash of lightning and thunder, multiplied by perfect acoustics, rumbled so loudly, I jumped in fear. I run back to the hill at record speed, my tongue hung up till my knees!

By the way, can you see a map of Italy?

The aforementioned lentils from the Castelluccio plain that received the IGP, Protected Geographic Indication recognition, are world-famous. Due to the large temperature differences between day and night, they are extremely resistant to pests, so there is no need to fertilize or spray them with insecticide. They contain proteins, fiber, mineral salts, iron, potassium and phosphorus; to sum it up, if you eat it regularly, you will live at least to the age of 120 years :)

I had to taste them, of course. I ordered lentil soup, sipped a little and then moved it from side to side in my mouth like a sommelier new beaujolais wine trying to figure out what was so wonderful about it. It wasn't bad, but, to be honest, my mother's soup is a little tastier. I don't know if it's because she's a better cook or we have better lentils, anyway, the Italians can sell their product better. Or maybe my taste buds aren't sensitive enough to such a sophisticated legume?

The crostata con le lenticchie, cheesecake with lentils was exquisite, though again miniature in size. Only the local herb liqueur did not impress me. It tasted like Becherovka, Czech herbal liquor, diluted with Sauerkraut juice - but as the owner brought it to me as an excuse for letting me wait 15 minutes for a table, I felt obliged to drink it down. Foo! In addition, it reminded me of a trip to Venice by an unheated bus, when me and my friend fought with cold by sipping Becherovka directly from a bottle and got a little tipsy... :)

There are two interesting small lakes nearby. If you are in a good shape, have a winter jacket and the right shoes, you can climb the Mount Vettore; it takes 4 hours. There, just inches below the top, you will discover a crystal clear Pilate Lake, the shape of which resembles glasses. It is said, that the body of Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus to the crucifixion, was buried there. In the thirteenth century, people were convinced that it was an entrance to hell, whose surroundings were inhabited by witches and sorcerers; therefore, the bishops strictly forbade climbing the mountain.

Even today it is not allowed to approach its shore, but for other reasons. In 1954, professor Marchesoni discovered here a rare endemic species - a 12-millimeter long pink crustacean that swims backwards, up his stomach and lays its eggs between the bordering rocks.

To the northwest of Castelluccio there is the Stagno rosso, Red pond, a meter-deep water surface looking like a pool of blood. The cause of the special color is officially the algae euglena sanguinea, but the locals know better. Once, when one of the fairies painted the rainbow, she accidently spilled a red paint into the meadow - and created a pond...

P.S. In October 2016, a strong earthquake hit the region. Many places no longer look like in my pictures. In Norcia, the Basilica of St Benedict was severely damaged and Castelluccio was basically destroyed... However, the locals do not give up and I believe that the magnificent village on the top of the hill will appear again...


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