“Moviti!” Truffle hunting expert, Nicola, bellows across the densely tree-covered Sibillini Mountains in Umbria. “Lulu! Nina! Dove vai?” (“Where are you?”). A young black cocker spaniel emerges from under a large oak tree to deliver a black king (a prized local variety of truffle) to Nicola, while an older spaniel, Nina, keeps her nose to the ground in search of the next treasure.
Also in these mountains, within the stunning Sibillini National Park, is Norcia, one of the foodiest towns we have ever come across. Enter through one of seven gates in the town’s heart-shaped, ancient walls and you soon discover a network of paved streets rich with foodie delights – café and restaurant tables spilling onto pavements and traditional food shops, Norcinerias, packed with prosciutto, cheeses, spelt and truffles.
As well as abundant produce this area, in central Italy, is known for its warm welcome. True enough, 83-year old local, Elso, greeted us like we’d known him for years as we sipped on café marocchino in one of the town’s cafes (espresso with milk froth and a dusting of cocoa).
Palazzo Seneca is a Relais & Chateaux hotel hidden in one of Norcia’s narrow streets. This may be an Umbrian palace, but the sixteenth-century building has been restored by brothers Vincenzo and Federico Bianconi and is now an elegant yet homely space. Arrive here and you’ll be whisked into a series of reception rooms dominated by a large table lined with pretty reading lamps and piles of books and magazines, with a silver bell to grab attention – more Oxbridge library than traditional reception desk.
Original stone flooring leads the way through to a snug lounge with red leather armchairs set up for a game of chess in front of a huge open fire. Squishy chairs are parked in corners, alcoves and little rooms behind wood-panelled doors in case you’re inclined to have a quick re-boost. Walls are hung with striking modern works of art.
This combination of tradition and innovation forms Palazzo Seneca’s ethos, and is reflected throughout the hotel. Sleek modern chairs sit beneath spindly grandfather clocks and a reading library houses ancient texts as well as books on modern architecture.
The hotel’s 24 rooms also display a mix of elegant and cosy. Vincenzo and Federico have gathered local artisans to contribute unique pieces – delicate wrought iron frames, twisted wooden columns and wooden bedheads have been crafted so no two suites or rooms are the same. But there are also antique pieces: leather covered writing desks handmade in Le Marche in the 1500s, cardinal chairs once used in the Vatican and burnt orange rugs cosying up original stone and oak flooring.
Black granite and marble bathrooms are luxurious, and come stocked with the full works: bath salts, oils and toiletries from artisan Florence brand, Fattoria di Belcanto. Pampering doesn’t end there, though. Snuggle into a fluffy white bathrobe, pop on your slippers and patter down candlelit stone steps to Palazzo Seneca’s spa. A jacuzzi is housed in its own atmospheric stone room under a barrel-vaulted ceiling, and you can let off steam in a traditional wooden sauna and Turkish bath. There’s even a quiet room, a serene space in which to relax and sip Sibillini Mountain herbal tea.
Breakfast is an indulgent affair. A serve-yourself spread is laid out on enormous wooden surfaces with one table dedicated to charcuterie and local cheese, another equipped with toasters to toast your own crusty breads, and another piled with pastries (mini pain au chocolats, Umbrian grape swirls and croissants), freshly baked cakes and fruits, cereals and yoghurt. A huge coffee machine sits majestically in its own ancient wooden cabinet. In good weather take your pick to the terrace to enjoy the Umbrian sun at colourfully painted tables.
The hotel’s Michelin-starred Vespia restaurant is where the hotel’s modern and innovative approach really comes into play, however. Black and white ceramic flowers stand alone on crisp white linen tablecloths. Pull up a chair and tiny amuse-bouches arrive in swift succession – plum jam, spicy Umbrian olive oil with a basket of focaccia, spelt bread, buttery croissant-like bread and polenta grissini, super-light seafood crisps balanced on a bed of mountain spelt and a glass of franciacorta jelly with peach sorbet.
Starters are equally refined; think little stacks of 24hr-cooked suckling pig and crisp buttery potatoes with splashes of colourful root veg puree and thinly sliced vegetable crisps. Or, for a vegetarian option, an egg cooked at a low temperature, encased in a crisp coating and served on a bed of silky potato and truffle cream.
The little cases of ravioli we tried for our primi pasta course were more like gyoza dumplings – thin casings of pasta filled with bacon and Norcia sausage, served with a pork cheek crisp and a wafer-thin slice of milk curd.
For our main (that’s right, we’re only just getting to the main courses), Breton chicken was served two ways. The chef entered the dining room with a trolley to theatrically prepare chicken breast that had been spit-roasted for 40 minutes with truffle tucked inside the skin, served with a delicate truffle jus and a tiny cocotte of rosemary potatoes. The rest of the chicken was then whisked away to be transformed into a refreshing shredded chicken Caeser salad.
We couldn’t possibly manage a full dessert, but the waitress brought out a sphere of tiramisu on a spoon for a manageable sweet hit.
If you’re staying for a few days you’ll want to hop across the road to enjoy more traditional falvours at Ristorante Granaro del Monte. Opened in 1850, its terracotta-coloured rooms maintain many original features (curved cellar ceilings, huge open fireplaces, stone dado rails) and are lined with pretty china plates and genie-style lamps.
Norcia’s rich food heritage shines here in traditional dishes such as comforting bowls of Sibillini mountain spelt soup with a salty, umami hit of shredded Norcia prosciutto, and creamy Castelluccio lentils with plump Norcia sausages and Umbrian extra virgin olive oil. Black Norcia truffles add an earthy hit to slow cooked veal, and local sheep’s ricotta is tucked into buttery ravioli served with sage and a light asparagus cream. Oaky and powerful red wine from the local Montefalco region is a great accompaniment to these dishes.
But don’t miss pasta alla norcina – soft homemade pappardelle with sour-cream-like whipped ricotta, pancetta and Norcia sausage. We tried this dish at wine bar Enoteca del Granaro along with boards of local cured meats and a platter of crumbly aged pecorino cheeses with little pots of cloudy honey. Norcia is the birthplace of St Benedict, and American Benedictine monks have played their part in the town’s foodie traditions with their silky, caramel artisan beer, Birra Nursia.
Head out into the Sibillini Mountains on an expedition with local truffle-hunting expert, Nicola. Nicola has been in the truffle business for ten years, and has reaped the rewards, once discovering a 605g winter truffle which sold for €1,000.
No such finds for us during our tour but we enjoyed it just the same. After scanning the terrain for truffles with the help of his endearing dogs, Lulu and Nina, Nicola prepared a picnic of bruschetta with truffles, Norcia prosciutto, pecorino, ricotta, homemade jam, honey and cakes with a glass of Umbrian red. Sitting at a table and chair carved out of oak by Nicola himself we learnt about the various varieties of truffles – from white-centred summer truffles with black heavy skins, to the most precious winter truffle, black outside and in.
If you’re really geeky about food, the hotel will happily accommodate trips to visit local producers that supply artisan ingredients to the hotel’s restaurants. Alessandro Salvatore, for instance, has brought back an endangered species of black-striped pig to create a unique variety of acorn and lentil-fed Norcia ham.
Visit his farm, set up 25 years ago by Alessandro’s parents Gabriela and Mario, with its stunning backdrop of corn and spelt fields, green mountains and old railway line. Or, make a trip to Il Massaro, where Silvano and son Marco create artisan honeys – millefore de castellucio, ailanto with notes of chamomile and elderflower, and luminous green and thick muliflore fleur d’eliso – and check out how your breakfast honey is made. (Check out our honey recipes here)
Stay at Palazzo Seneca, Norcia for 4 nights including flights and car hire from £510 per person booked through Real Holidays (www.realholidays.co.uk / T. 020 7359 3938). Package price based on two adults sharing on a B&B basis, including return flights from London Stansted to Perugia. For further information, please visit www.palazzoseneca.com or telephone +39 0743 817434
Written by Alex Crossley
First published October 2016