"Signor, signor, please buy one?" I'm in Italy, being accosted by a pack of kids wanting money. Not for some questionable souvenir; they're busting to sell me a cookbook, In the Kitchen with Mirco. It's a collection of recipes from their mamas' kitchens, and all their own work.
I'm in the city of Foligno, on the wide plain of the Clitunno River in Umbria, where a food festival is in full swing. Where else but Italy would you find kids of 11 overflowing with pride, having created a cookbook?
Five euros, and we part happily.
Stretched across the hills and valleys on the western side of the Apennines between Rome and Tuscany, Umbria is the green heart of Italy. Olive groves creep across its hillsides, giving way to forests of oak, hornbeam and juniper, and bald meadows where shepherds with enormous Maremma dogs guard their flocks from wolves. Umbria's hillsides are threaded with trails once trodden by pilgrims en route to Rome, while down on the plain of the Clitunno, Roman legions once marched along the Via Flaminia.
Solitary monasteries are plumbed into hillsides of violent green, and hill towns peer down into the valleys, rising in pyramids of interlocking stone walls and pantiled roofs to the church spires that crown their summits.
Rustic, romantic and picture-perfect, especially when spring poppies bloom among the olive trees, but what Umbria lacks is the great names that bring in the tourist hordes. True, there's St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of Italy, whose basilica is decorated with 13thand 14th-century frescoes attributed to Giotto, and the facade of the cathedral in Orvieto is a thing of wonder, but Umbria had no Michelangelo or Leonardo, no Borgias or Bernini to gild its domes and decorate its palaces, and with one or two exceptions that means no adoring hordes.
This is an Italy that delights in the joy of small things. In Umbria you don't need to worship and bow and pay homage to the greats and follow your guide's raised umbrella through packed streets. All it takes to enjoy Umbria is a pair of eyes, a stomach and a sense of wonder, although a decent pair of walking shoes helps.
After a morning in the crowded streets of Assisi, I stop to wander through the knotted laneways of Spello, which rise inside its walls through a Roman arch. Past stone facades with geraniums spilling from balconies, past medieval facades and Vinosofia, a wine bar where a couple sit in the sunshine over carpaccio drizzled with olive oil and artichokes, and finally to the medieval church of Santa Maria Maggiore, whose bald facade gives nothing away.
Inside is a stone font adapted from a Roman funerary altar, walls decorated with frescoes of the Nativity and the Annunciation by Pinturicchio and a Madonna with Christ signed by Perugino. The altar sits within a domed baldachin, a kind of super ornate four-poster canopy. At the sides of the church, angels romp atop baroque stucco altars. It's religion as bedazzlement, a glimpse of a promised land calculated to inspire awe and wonder among the peasantry, and I'm the only one here.
These towns and villages are what Umbria does best, and they're full of surprises. Wandering through the streets of Bevagna, I peer through the window of the local museum - shut for the midday pause – and there on the floor is a Roman mosaic. Two of the three churches in Bevagna's main square are 12th century, but down in the crypt of one of them is a much older church – from the first or second centuries, it is believed – tucked away underground so that furtive Christians could practise their faith free from persecution.
Every year, Bevagna celebrates its links with the past with a giant medieval fair. Over a period of 12 days, the town's true believers retreat to a world of centuries past. They can eat neither tomatoes nor potatoes – products of the new world. No phones, no internet, no cars and no electricity, but they can drink all the wine they want. And this is the centre of a very special wine region, the denominated home of the legendary Sagrantino wine, made from grapes grown over a small area centred around the nearby hilltown of Montefalco.
Central to any tour of Umbria is the stomach. This, as any local will tell you, is the source of Italy's finest olive oil, and the culinary traditions are rich and strong. Fungi and truffles come from its forests, and fresh Umbrian black truffles grated over pasta moistened with olive oil is a dish to draw the angels down from heaven. One of the local specialties is cinghiale, wild boar, hunted in the rugged, forested hills of the Apennines, in Umbria's east. Chopped and cooked with extra virgin olive oil, onions, carrots, tomatoes and red wine and served over pappardelle, it's a classic slow-food dish.
The eastern Umbrian town of Norcia is Italy's capital of pork, its shopfronts decorated with salami, prosciutto, cinghiale cuts and farmhouse cheeses made from sheep's and goat's milk. From May until autumn, Umbria's towns and villages celebrate sagre, local food and wine festivals, and a chance to taste specialities that exist only within a single commune.
Umbria's food comes with a sense of the past. They still bake bread here without salt, for instance, a legacy of the time when this was a Papal State, and the papacy levied a salt tax on a peasantry that was never far from starvation. One local speciality is strangozzi, "strangled" pasta made without eggs, served to clergy, according to local legend, since priests were renowned and widely despised for their gluttony, and eggs were precious.
It isn't often that you find earthly pleasures assembled as successfully as they are in Umbria. But, a warning: should you happen to come across a copy of In the Kitchen with Mirco and discover Francesca's recipe for sheep's milk ricotta with honey and cinnamon with amaretti biscuit grated on top, you'll be booking your trip.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale June 30.