Tuesday, 8 January 2013

SABINA TRAVELOGUE PART 14 - April 2-3 - A Birthday, Ceramics & Truffles in Orvieto

Candace and Richard asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, and I said I wanted to go to Orvieto. Since my first time to Italy thirteen years ago, Orvieto has held a special place for me. 

 Orvieto panorama courtesy of casedelvento.it
Perched on top of a tufo outcropping in the middle of the Tiber Valley in Umbria, the ancient homeland of the Umbri, just north of Lazio, Orvieto was for centuries a centre of Etruscan power before its conquest by the Romans. Later on it was a secure refuge for the Popes during the turbulent Middle Ages.


It has one of the most beautiful cathedrals on the planet, produces one of my favourite white wines, Orvieto Classico (secco), and is one of the centres of truffle production (I always have umbrichelli al tartufo, or any other dish with truffles on the menu when I am there).  

But more than anything, Orvieto means pottery to me. 

My love affair with ceramics began many years ago when I lived in Japan. Okayama 岡山, the town in the Chugoku region of Western Japan where I attended university, is famous for its rustic pottery called Bizenyaki 備前焼. 

Bizenyaki Tokuri 備前焼徳利 Sake Flask and Guinomi ぐい飲みSake Cup
During my two and a half year stay in Japan I collected over 200 Guinomi ぐい飲み, or Sake cups, from all over Japan. Japan is world famous for its gorgeously glazed Arita有田焼, Imari伊万里焼, Kutani九谷焼, and Raku楽焼 ware ceramics, but I prefer the simpler, more rustic unglazed Bizenyaki, which so beautifully expresses the Japanese esthetic of wabi-sabi侘・寂. 

A wide variety of Bizenyaki Sake Cups
Though the Italian folk kiln pottery I like has a glaze, there is something about the way that the various splotches of red and green are carefreely splattered on the wine ewers and other vessels I saw in Rome and at Civita Bagnoregio. Its utilitarian folkcraft honesty and grace appeal to me in the same way that Bizenyaki does

I didn't end up buying any pottery on my first trip to Italy thirteen years ago, but I was bound and determined to do so on our second trip in 2009. Our friend Steve in Rome said that the rustic pottery I liked was called bucchero. Bucchero, is also the name for the black glazed pottery of the ancient Etruscans. Steve said if I was going to find it anywhere, that it would be on our visit to Orvieto.

Folk Ceramics from the Museo delle tradizioni popolari in Canepina in nearby Tuscia
We looked all over Orvieto but, try as we might, it was more difficult than I expected. In 1999 we had seen bucchero almost everywhere, In 2009, it felt like it had fallen out of fashion and had  disappeared from the restaurants and shops we visited.

Orvieto Ceramics courtesy of journals.worldnomads.com
Everywhere we looked in and around Orvieto, we saw the elegant white, yellow, and blue glazed Deruta Majolica pottery for sale, but nowhere could we find the rustic brown red-and-green-splashed peasant pottery I was looking for... 

Anna Spellachia hard at work in her studio off Vicolo dei Dolci
...that is, until we found Orviet'anna, the shop of Anna Spallachia, a very talented artist and ceramicist, who creates pottery very different from that which you could find in the tourist shops. Anna shares her studio and shop space with a man named Luigi Pierini who makes the exact pottery I was looking for.

Happy return to Casperia with my first Bucchero
Three years ago, I bought two wine ewers and a small plate for olives.

This time I was determined to go back to Anna's shop to buy a large pasta bowl and perhaps some plates... This is what I wanted to do for my birthday...

Long story short, we had a bit of a false start getting out of Casperia. The busses that connect the town with the train station at Poggio Mirteto Scalo go every half hour in the early morning, but unbeknownst to us, the last one out of town in the morning was at 9am followed by one at 1pm. We arrived at the bus stop at 9:15... 

Suddenly my perfect pictures of my birthday in Orvieto came crashing to the ground... My immediate reaction was to forget about it and head out on Tuesday instead... ...but what happened instead was that we were able to get a ride to the station from Maurizio, the man who runs the gas pump beside the Petrocchi Bar. Maurizio closed his business for 20 minutes to give us a ride to Poggio Mirteto Scalo! This was all very gallant, and we were very grateful to Maurizio, but the reality was that even though we made it to Poggio Mirteto Scalo, there were actually no trains to Orte—the town we had to transfer trains to get to Orvieto—until after noon. 

Waiting for the train to Orte

This turn of events transformed me into a ten year old kid. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew we should have been down to the bus station before 9:00, but I hadn't taken responsibility to convey that to Richard and Candace who very innocently just assumed there would be a bus every 30 minutes that connected to a regular train to Orte. I knew better, but somehow had not taken more charge of our departure time, and when the reality sunk in, I was not a happy camper... You fill in the blanks... I am not the best travelling companion when I am disappointed.

Anyway, eventually we finally safely arrived in Orvieto. From the train station down in the valley, we travelled up the funicular to the top of the hill, then took the connecting bus to the Piazza Cahen in front of Orvieto's magnificent cathedral

From there we headed straight to the Tipica Trattoria Etrusca at 10 via Lorenzo Maitani, a restaurant we had enjoyed eating at three years before, and had a great meal of local Orvieto dishes. 

I wish you could smell these umbrichelli. I love truffles!
I had Umbrichelli al tartufo and we had a great bottle of dry floral Orvieto Classico and some wonderful desserts. Richard told the waiter that this was our second visit to the restaurant and that we were celebrating my birthday. The waiter very kindly brought us some fortified wine, similar to Port, on the house!

Happily fed, we retraced our steps back to the piazza and the cathedral, then turned right and walked to Vicolo dei Dolci to find Anna's pottery shop... ...but it was closed. 

Determined not to panic, I told myself that the shop was just closed for the post lunch siesta and proposed that we do a bit of shopping along the streets leading from the main piazza. 

Orvieto is a shopper’s paradise, with all sorts of arts and crafts, including ceramic and woodwork, Pinocchio Christmas ornaments, jewellery, fine linen, wine, truffles, and Umbrian D.O.P. olive oil to sell. Richard picked up some amazing new Italian shoes. "Scarpe diem!" and, after an hour or so, we returned to Anna's shop, which <Hallelujah!> was open!!! 

I bought some great platters and plates to go with the ewers we have at home. There was one large platter in particular that I hoped to buy... one that I remembered from our last visit to Orvieto three years ago... It was gorgeous... I could imagine how perfect it would be to use as a pasta serving bowl. It was a spectacular piece of pottery and I was bracing myself for the price I expected to be very high and perhaps out of my reach. But what Anna said shocked me even more. Anna said she couldn't sell it to me... that there was a crack along the bottom of the bowl that occured during firing which rendered the vessel unusable for serving hot foods or liquids...  My disappointment must have shown on my face, but that disappointment changed to smiles of disbelief when I heard what she said next. Anna told me that if I wanted the cracked platter that I could have it, for free! What incredible kindness! Suddenly I began to feel very ashamed for my earlier childish behaviour. Grazie Anna. Sei grande!

Picture of Anna with her brother and Richard from our visit to Orviet'anna in 2009
Birthday mission accomplished, Richard and I prepared to head back to Orte and Casperia. Candace had some urgent business to look after in town, so she booked herself into Hotel Maitani near the cathedral. 

Richard and I headed down the funicular to the station, but when we got there we found we would not get back to Poggio Mirteto in time for the last bus to Casperia. So what did we do? We headed back up the hill and checked ourselves in to the same hotel Candace was staying in. Surprise!!!

Later that evening we actually did surprise Candace at the Piazza della Repubblica. Candace was shopping, so we continued to explore Orvieto. When we got hungry we made a lucky find with L'Antica Piazzetta. It is a great little pizza place. (See Trip Advisor reviews in the link).

 The service was great. The staff were a hoot. That particular evening (perhaps we were there too early) was not busy busy at all. There was just us and one Italian family with children in the restaurant. The TV was on, and we, the Italian family, and the staff all chatted and laughed as we watched a game show together. At the end of the dinner the staff brought us more drinks and some delicious Tiramisù to celebrate my birthday. Sated, and perhaps just a little bit giddy from the prosecco, wine and after dinner drinks, we wobbled back to the Hotel Maitani to our very comfortable room.

When we woke up the following morning we were delighted to find that our room actually looked out over the Anna's shop!

Night view of Anna Spallachia's shop from our window... before we knew what we were looking at...
We spent a leisurely morning wandering through the winding cobbled streets of Orvieto

The wonderful Hotel Virgilio where we stayed during our first visit to Orvieto in 1999.

We ended up having two breakfasts, one at the hotel, and one at a small cafe on the piazza, before heading off to the station to catch the 11:30 train to Orte and then the connecting local rain to Poggio Mirteto. While we waited for our  train at Orvieto Station, Richard and Candace had fun practising integrating appropriate gestures with their spoken Italian. (Signor Carlo Aurucci's Youtube video explaining Neapolitan sign language in the LINK above is both informative and hilarious!)

In the midst of all this, I got a call on my cell from our friend Clelia in Vetralla. I guess the interruption in our regular online Facebook posts made her worry, so she phoned to check to see if we were okay. Grazie, Clelia!

The bus ride from Poggio Mirteto to Casperia was a wonderful homecoming. Orvieto is beautiful and truly wonderful to visit, but it was great to be back in the Sabina.

We had a nice lunch at Friends Caffè and discussed with Stefano and Nicoleta our upcoming cave exploring adventure next Wednesday. 

Later on in the afternoon when Richard and I went off to the alimentari, Stefano rushed out and said, "It was your birthday, yesterday, why did you not tell me? I have a little something for you." As we made ourself up the hill with our bag full of groceries Stefano came over and handed me a bottle of my favourite local white "Pecorino" wine. Grazie Stefano e Nicoleta!

Tonight I made fish, braised chard and we had leftover farro and lentil salad. We used the new plates and bowls from Orvieto. Unbeknownst to me, Richard had asked Candace to pick up four bowls I had admired, but had not bought at Anna's shop. How are we ever going to get everything safely back home?

Thank you Richard and Candace for a truly unforgettable birthday! 

Tomorrow Richard and I will head not Rome to visit our friend Steve. There are a number of places we want to see, including the Capitoline Museum, Piazza Navona, and a number of churches. We'll have to see what we can do. Buona notte! Alla prossima!

The large Orvieto platter with some of our home-grown Vancouver tomatoes in it. Who cares if there is a crack in it!

1 comment:

  1. That's awesome pictures. Hope that you could visit Vietnam onceday with the full of scenes, cuisine and culture.