Going slow in Umbria

A few years ago, my old mate John invited me to spend a week at his converted farmhouse in Umbria, in Italy. While I was there I ate what was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
The farmhouse sits in the middle of some fields near Lago Trasimeno, pretty much in the centre of Italy, with the coast about a hundred miles away on either side. Rome’s about an hour or so by train to the south, and Florence about an hour or so to the north. To get to the house you drive to a village called Macchie, hang a left, and then negotiate some farm tracks.

John and Kaivan's farmhouse in Umbria

John and Kaivan's farmhouse in Umbria

John and his missus, Kaivan, moved there some years ago from Bristol. They converted the house so that they can live upstairs, and rent out the downstairs to people who fancy a break in a beautiful part of the world where they can unwind and eat great food. It’s worked out rather well for them; Kaivan keeps herself busy weaving Persian carpets on her traditional loom, while John draws and paints, whittles bits of wood and photographs beer bottle tops that he finds.

John invited me to come and stay one March; it’s the time of year when they’re not busy with paying guests. I invited a friend to join me, well, when I say friend I was hoping we might end up a bit more than just friends…that she and I…we didn’t…oh well…che sará sará. The weather was colder than we would have liked, (“If only you’d been here last week, the weather was gorgeous”), and the boiler downstairs packed up so we had no heating or hot water for a bit. No matter, I thought, Italy doesn’t have to be warm to enjoy it. We managed to have a good time anyway, with long bracing country walks and trips to Assisi. One day John said that before we left we really ought to try this restaurant run by a friend of theirs; it was in a nearby village. He made the booking for us, and gave us directions on how to get there. He told us that the place might be a bit tricky to find, it didn’t have the usual restaurant signage, it looked more like a house. We were to be there for 8.30.

It was pitch dark and raining that night. The sunny, friendly country lanes by day were now dark and sinister. It was difficult to see road signs and turnings. We got lost. What should have taken us twenty minutes took a great deal longer. But we eventually found the small hamlet where the restaurant was supposed to be, and after searching from one end to the other, which we managed to stretch out considering this really was a very small hamlet, we stumbled upon a house that looked like it might fit the bill. We knocked at the door, no answer, no sound from within. We tried the door, it was locked. We went back to the car and sat with the engine running to keep warm. Eventually the front door was opened and a man invited us in. We sat with drinks while our table was prepared. It starts to get interesting now.

I remember sitting in a cosy rustic house with wooden beams. My companion seems to have memories of a large, barn-like place with bric a brac and objets d’art hanging from wooden beams, stuffed animal heads on walls, antiquities, old oil lamps, that sort of thing. John’s convinced the place is decorated with old fishing rods on the walls.

roaring log fireWe chose a table as near to the roaring log fire as we could get without actually burning ourselves. After three nights with no hot water or heating it was absolute bliss. What my friend and I are agreed on is how amazing the food was that night. There was no menu, our host explained that the restaurant followed the principles of Slow Food, that everything they served was produced locally, or from their own garden, hunted for, fished for or foraged for by them. As there was no menu we left the choice of wine to him as well, a wise decision, the wine he brought us was fabulous, warm and spicy. What followed was an amazing succession of dishes, course after course, probably eleven or twelve, all small tasters of the most exquisite food I’ve ever eaten. I can’t remember it all; terrines, pâtés and mousses, grilled vegetables, mushroom dishes, asparagus, quails eggs, some of the time we weren’t quite sure exactly what we were eating, but it was all delicious. The one thing that really sticks in my mind was a truffle omelette; it was thickness of a cigarette paper. We ate nonstop until gone midnight.

At one point I remarked on how much our host looked like Robbie Coltrane. My friend agreed that there was a certain similarity; she was fascinated by this, to the point of calling him over to tell him. Telling some bloke he’s the dead spit of Cary Grant, Paul Newman or Steve McQueen is one thing, telling him that he reminds you of an overweight, alcoholic, chain-smoking, depressed compulsive gambler off the telly is another. He seemed to know the famous TV personality she was referring to, but I’m not sure he was wildly enthusiastic about the comparison. His fixed smile did look a touch frozen. He turned to some Italian guests sitting behind us and explained, I presumed, what had just been said.  I heard some very fast Italian interspersed with what sounded like ‘Cracker’; Mr Coltrane must have been big in Italy, as well.

I’m not sure if it was gratitude or revenge but a few minutes later a plateful of charred but wholly intact little birdies landed on our table. Our host beamed and encouraged us to enjoy this obvious delicacy, my companion didn’t look so enamoured. It’s weird, but put a whole roast chicken in front of me and I’ll happily tuck in. Maybe it was the heads and beaks that made it more challenging, but I had a bit more of a psychological block with these tiny birds. But once I got stuck in they tasted good, a bit like chicken to be honest.

At the end of the meal a trolley laden with bottles of grappa was wheeled out, there must have been thirty or forty to choose from, each one flavoured differently. I was bracing myself for the bill, but the whole meal was far cheaper than I’d expected. Now I’m hoping John will invite me back so that I can pay another visit. If he does, I hope the boiler’s working next time.

Unwind in Umbria

Casaglia, Lago Trasimeno. Umbria.

If the idea of a relaxing holiday in John’s delightful farmhouse near Lago Trasimeno, (that’s it to the left of the big tree in the centre of the picture), exploring the countryside, visiting Rome, Florence or Assisi, and enjoying some of the best food you’ve ever eaten appeals, let us know and we’ll put you in touch.


  1. sounds like a wonderful restaurant….it reminds me of a tiny hostaria called la Quercia I used to frequent in Rome, it was run by a lovely lady called Hippolyta – no menu, she just used to sit down at the table and tell you what she was cooking…. sharing wine, it was a great way to learn the language! (She was fond of me too, as I used to give her Valentino stockings!)

We'd love to know what you think