The mind can play tricks, some associated, loosely, with memory. Others with longing, perhaps, or unfulfilled dreams. Still, it is a literal midnight in what must be assumed to be a proximate Garden of Eden, this night in Foligno, Umbria, Italy. We approach in mini-vans, European-sized, at what was, and is still, a town square embroidered by a circle of stone that leads in two prominent directions to two cathedrals, neither of which has been touched by a renovator’s hands in centuries, and we park. The restaurant is still a few hundred metres down, but no automobiles pass the narrow path. One assumes the patrons of this place will be grateful for that, since it seems pretty much inconceivable to leave, after spending an evening with the proprietor, in anything but god’s hands, and traffic would be, in the eschatological sense, and the visceral, totally unwelcome.
Foligno is Marco Caprai’s town, and on this little street, Il Bacco Felice is Salvatore Denaro’s restaurant. That is to say, the word “restaurant” is something of an understatement. Salvatore is what is commonly referred to though seldom lived up to as larger than life. Marco is already at the tiny bar with an inevitable couple of friends, when we enter, pressed immediately with flutes of Champagne, and a conspicuous offering of prosciutto and a dizzying array of cheeses to simply stun the palate, so good they are.
It is a buzz, kind of a nightclub atmosphere in its intensity, but it is all about food, and then drink. Salvatore himself is a force of nature, a host who has no problems quaffing a glass here and there, but who has a kind of natural calm about him as well. Should you ever be seated at this place, and ask how he got that half chicken to resonate so, he would be happy to walk you back to a tiny, tiny kitchen and explain how, first, he raises the chickens himself. And, second, how he marinates them, and then how they are cooked first whole, then split in two, and roasted, then broiled, to give up what is one fine piece of meat.
All the while, Marco Caprai is talking, constantly, to those around him, and to the many passers-by who recognize him. Marco is the driving creative force behind the Arnaldo Caprai winery, Umbria’s ambassador to the world. It was purchased by his father, as a more or less derelict entity, and Marco decided it was possible to resurrect it, and bring the indigenous grape varietal Sagrantino, into respectability well beyond the borders of Umbria, well beyond the borders, in fact, of Italy. This required a steep education curve, oenological and otherwise, and establishing relationships with experts at the universities of Milan and Perugia. But Marco was more than up to it, and was, still is, in the classical sense a man on a mission.
The next day, he leads the way through vineyards which produced the wines that lit up the previous evening. For Caprai, it is all estate fruit, and, with the help of friends who happen to be oenologists at those universities of Perugia and Milan, Marco is a walking textbook of how to bring this ancient fruit into the 21st Century.“This grape, this region. I see no difference,” Marco says as he tugs at some canopy that shelters his precious grapes, this hot, hot, hot afternoon. He looks out over the vineyards, and then brings his gaze onto the trellis above the entrance to the winery. There are three potted vines there, each trellised up to create an arbour, and he explains how, in medieval times, every family in Umbria would plant their vines in this very same configuration. “This is the way they did it, and have continued to do it. I want my wine to always be true to this. It is our heritage, I guess you would say.” He moves hurriedly on, as is his way, to the next focal point. But as he hurries, it is difficult not to stop and, in a bit of wonderment, look at the new winery, and some of the freshly renovated outbuildings, that together constitute one of the most impressive properties in winedom. Still, Marco, as he stands on a balcony and looks across the valley to the little apron outlook of Montefalco, raised on a promontory a few kilometres in the distance, takes it all as a fitting testimony to this region, in which he grew up, and which he has chosen to spend his professional life as ambassador for.
Marco Caprai is more an historian than a winemaker, but that should in no way suggest he is less than a pristine and innovative winemaker. The thing is, the Sagrantino grape is something of an enigma, ignored for centuries, other than by the local growers who, in true Italian artisan style, grew their own grapes and fermented their own wine in small batches for personal use.
The Roman Catholic Church, so circumspect about sex and sin, finally agreed that red wine could be served as the sacramental pour here in Umbria, with the Sagrantino wine. It was espoused by, among other locals, St. Francis of Assisi. (Look out the back door of Caprai, and you can see in the not too misty distance, the town of Assisi, one of the many nearly sopoforic charms of this region.) Up to that point in history, only white wine was on offer: the assumption was that the congregation would take “red” much too literally when the sacrament was served.
Marco is superbly aware of all this, as he is of the Roman and Byzantine empires and the forced influence they had throughout the region. There were interesting swaths cut by church and state and the centuries rolled on. So it is quite a privilege to spend time with Marco Caprai, not because he makes Umbria’s and one of Italy’s finest wines, but because he makes the wine to both preserve and advance the cultural legacy of his home. The winery produces some white, mainly a charming Grechetto, and some fine Montefalco Rosso, including a Reserva. There is a limited, winery-only blend called “Outsider”, because the grapes, though estate-grown, are not indigenous to the region. But the glory of it is the Sagrantino di Montefalco, in a regular bottling that Robert Parker rightly says “gives no indication of the superb quality of the wine”, a Possito, and the very limited 25 Anno, a wine that nestles up with the very finest from Italy’s various wine regions. Sagrantino is capable of great complexity, subtlety even, with prodigious depth and length, and has its finest expression in the vineyards dotting the hills of Umbria.
Our first visit to Salvatore’s place includes wines (Champagne always, always, to start, at Salvatore’s place), rustic breads, prosciutto carved off the bone by the host, local cheeses, and an amazing panzanella, and then we proceed to Villa Roncalli, where Marialuisa Scolasta does what can only in diminishing terms be called a Medici-like dinner experience. It is wildly varied, slowly paced, calibrated for the gourmand in some sense but not really disdainful at all. Marialuisa is presiding over a trio of dining rooms that are adorned to the ceiling, all magnificent places, and then there is her patio (for want of a better word). Breads are made in her ovens, kneaded by her hands. Marco and others had sung her praises, but after seven courses anyone would be sold. So, trepidatiously, I went back between the generously space courses to watch the chef in action. She smiled, recognizing me, and said “why don’t you just stand over there, out of the way. I can tell you what you want.” So, I asked about the bread; “There is only one way to do it, like my mother taught me”; about the produce “Many good farmers bring me their best things,”; about the restaurant itself “I just have to do it all myself, it is the way I know”; and about the roasted pigeon “I didn’t get them from London”; and she laughs, and brusquely turns back to the stoves. Like the best of all Italian cooking, she does it partially by training but mostly by unerring instinct, and it is truly amazing.
All the while, Marco entertains, and picks at his food. After all, he eats here often and knows all the players in the region. We move on. To dessert at a trattoria in the town square. “Let’s go to this other place, which, how do I say it, I like it a lot.” (For the record, his English is not nearly so deficient as he claims.) The term “town square” never meant much to me, outside of a few Dickens references, and some less than salutary experiences in the Lethbridge and Drumheller of the early 70s. But here, it is an ethereal kind of thing, gelato and grappa for some, cappuccino and corretto for others, and for still others, a cheese tray with some mind-blowingly earthy, so-called rustic reds that redefine the reason for drinking wine in the first place. And amidst it all, Marco, explaining the history of the town, the viaducts, the canals, the judiciary system in 1595, and, ultimately, what it is so important to him to bring forward the wines of Umbria. The square is brightly lit, in an almost festive way, and very busy, even at 1 a.m. and even with parents and their young children. Something for everyone.
High noon the next day. A visit to some shops in Bevagna, including a sepulchral –like tour of a parchment paper maker, who does it completely the medieval way, using all the discarded cotton clothing of these times. Some amazing interpretations of pork, fresh baked bread, and utterly, completely, charming streets, as per usual rigorously exempt of automobiles. Then a visit to the world’s most recognizable truffle emporium, Urbani. There is in fact a truffle hunt, dogs highly skilled and proficient. Olga Urbani explains how, a few years back, the BBC wanted to film a truffle hunt, and were, in that British way, crestfallen to learn that dogs were the hunters of choice, not pigs. “Well can’t one find a pig?” they asked. Olga went on a hunt of her own, and found a pig, the caveat being that animal had never hunted for truffles. Nonetheless, they turned the animal loose, more or less for Hollywood’s (or in this case the BBC’s) sake. As it turned out, the pig was, by nature, an amazing truffle hunter (and finder), and everyone went home happy. Olga, in fact, was so impressed that she kept the pig unto its dotage, and refused, time and time again, to have it put down. She tells this story over a lunch of truffled trout, truffled eggs, truffled soup, and truffled bistecca, all of which are accompanied by various limited release examples of Caprai wines.
Umbria is a soft-spoken neighbour to Tuscany. Each has its immense charms. But Umbria, if it may be so said, is a somewhat more rustic, and some would read into that authentic, experience. I don’t particularly subscribe to that, but I can vouch for the fact that Umbria has its very sedate, and extremely picturesque and readily accessible authenticity to it. You need not travel far into Umbria to experience an amazing homespun welcome. The food , the wine, the tiny winding streets, the small cities built, in the necessary way, as walled encampments on hillsides, still proffer their wares , their entombed saints, their cappuccinos and espressos, in the most charming way imaginable.
Still, making your way through the towns by yourself, as amazing as that is, is not quite the same thing as making your way through in the company of Marco Caprai. He is an egregiously gregarious person, while at the same time being an intensely private person. It is a study in contrast and in sociology, since Marco has a pretty good instinct for what is real and what is not. One must assume that a certain amount of winemaker dinners over which he presides all over the world will impact his understanding of his place in the world, but to his credit, Marco unerringly retains his sense of purpose, and his sense of humour.
There are formal wine tastings, in which it is immediately apparent that Caprai is making very fine wine indeed. But this doesn’t seem to be a point of pride for Marco. It is more of a given, as in “I wouldn’t try to bring this to the world if I didn’t know it was good.” The winery itself is in a transition phase, and there is pretty much nothing in, say, Napa, that will exceed what Caprai is on the verge of here. Still, there is a point of pride, in terms of Umbria’s distinct charm, its heretofore undiscovered beauty. Marco takes all this in stride. “It will never be Tuscany, at least I hope not. But this is a most beautiful place, and you need to spend some time here to understand. It is not only a vacation place.” He intones that word, “vacation”, a bit disparagingly, but then he elaborates, “I think this is a place where the food, the wine, the people, are all the same in some way. So, you like it or you do not like it.” Hard to conceive of the latter.
In the summertime, not to bring you too far back, to Jerry Mungo and Sugarloaf and maybe, if we’re good, to The Band and “Chest Fever”, as I say, in the summertime, there are nice ways to spend your dwindling time on this earth, time that corresponds to the sun as is sets, gently reminding you of beauty and of some kind of inevitability. In Umbria, in a brightly lit town square in Spoleto or Perugia, or as you recline in the courtyard at Villa Pambufetti, just outside the stone walls of Montefalco, you will recline knowing that St. Francis, St. Chiara (whose mummified corpse is on display in the church named for her, in Montefalco), and, among others, Herman Hesse, took their leave of the tribulations of the day and embraced the soul of this place.
Even better, you will be able to eat this local cuisine, unashamedly using open flames and red meat, but also, in a non-belaboured way, explaining pasta and healthy eating to you as you explore. It is a wonderful thing to explore an Italian town built over five centuries ago and which is to a large degree still intact, and chat with a bartender or restaurant owner just brushing out the night’s cobwebs, and asking what might be on tap that evening. And, being pleased with what you hear, to go back to your room, shower and change, and head back into town for the evening meal, full of anticipation. It’s what Marco Caprai feels every time he sits down to eat in his home town, and what he infectiously shares with his friends. Unique wines, unique cuisine, unique locale. It doesn’t take a guru (although Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali will agree) to know that Umbria, and the wines of Arnaldo Caprai, make for a marriage that admits no impediments.
Photos courtesy of Arnaldo Caprai.