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Norcia Italy: Center of a New Food Revolution Flavor and Health for the Future

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BrianGMDurieblog.pngOn the way to the Patient and Family Seminar in Rome, we had a side trip to Norcia, two hours northeast of Rome. Norcia is a beautiful small town (~5,000 inhabitants) where a young chef, Flavio Feadi, (Executive Chef at Palazzo Seneca) is creating food in a whole new way. Using fresh, local, organic produce is the key first step. In this amazing protected valley of Norcia, the healthy produce needed to create flavorful meals is less than 20 minutes away. One can start the day with free range eggs with a touch of olive oil and balsamic (from Modena), plus a touch of local cheese. For lunch, the wonderful small local lentils and beans are the building blocks for soups and side dishes.

 

But, a visit to the rolling hills close by reveals something truly unique: free range pigs! You have heard of free range chickens-- but pigs, that's unheard of! They roam, eating and reproducing in the woods above Norcia. They eat acorns plus other nuts, grasses, roots and herbs, resulting in products with both enhanced flavor and health value. This free range pig farm with approximately 300 pigs is unique in Italy: there are only 2 other similar farms in the whole of Europe! Norcia is so unique in fact that Michelle Obama's staffers recently visited to learn more.

 

These pigs live and sleep in the fields and woods completely unconstrained-- returning at a run to the whistle of the proud owner, Giusseppe. Meanwhile, across the valley, in higher more heavily wooded hills, organically fed sheep and goats wander the fields-- although they scuttle indoors if storms are coming. Caring attention from the farmer and his wife results in from wonderful milk and cheeses, including ricotta and harder aged varieties mixed with cow's milk as necessary.

 

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In the valleys, are fields of corn and grains, such as oats (avena in Italy). Tomatoes love the climate as do the grapevines of all types spread across the rolling hills. The vines of Monte Falco have been selected with science and intuition to produce special local wine: Sagrantino (Rosso)--red wine with a bold/ strong flavor and an earthy taste. It was interesting to learn that Montefalco red wines have the highest levels of health giving polyphenols of any wine. In the valley, leading into Norcia, flows the Nera River with plentiful trout and freshwater crayfish for the catching. This is truly the 21st century *land of milk and honey*. Close by are scattered hives of bees brought to areas of new blossoms to create unique flavorful honey.

 

If this was not enough, the specialty of this area of Norcia is Black Truffles (Tartuffinerie)! They grow 6-12 inches underground close to the small oak trees that cover the lower slopes the hills. There is a symbiosis: truffles get sugar from the trees; the truffles (a fungus) give much needed nitrogen (natural fertilizer) to the oak trees.

 

Early in the morning or late in the evening, when it is cooler, small dogs, often cocker spaniels, go out with their owners to sniff for truffles. The relationship between the dog and its master is something to see, a loving and respectful partnership resulting in a prized truffle.

 

On the surface, there is just rocky ground. But suddenly the small dog picks up speed and heads for one of many of the small oak trees. Frantically, it starts digging--then, turns its head to the owner-- can he help with a small pick to clear stones? Then, more digging and then with tail wagging in triumph, truffles are proudly revealed for all to see. The owner must snatch the truffle quickly-- dogs DO love truffles, but not as much as pigs.  Dogs have largely replaced pigs as truffle scouts for this reason. The dog goes from tree to tree, finding more black treasure-- worth 1000 Euro/truffle from Nov-Jan: high truffle season.

 

Back at Palazzo Seneca in Norcia, Flavio is quietly gathering herbs in his garden awaiting deliveries from the hills, valleys, and river. Avoiding heavy sauces, Flavio concocts fantastic dishes, blending the fine local produce into infinite combinations of delicious meals.


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The focus is local, organic, and healthy. Chef Flavio gives an unwitting *tip of the hat* to American nutrition guru, Michael Pollan, who cautions us not to eat what our grandmothers wouldn't recognize and to shop only at the "edges" of our supermarkets, where fresh items can be bought.  The unique difference is that Flavio can shop at the edge of his own valley, not a commercial supermarket!! This is the key to good nutrition: local, free range, and no added chemicals.

 

There is NO reason this approach cannot flourish elsewhere. It is not the wave of the future, but of NOW! Even within metropolitan London, as reported by Alice Rawsthorn (International Herald Tribune Mon Sept 19th), Paul Smyth is trying hydroponic farming and a range of other techniques to stock his East London Farm Shop. In the U.S. several cities now sanction chickens and goats as well as several types of agriculture within city limits. Affordable healthy food is becoming accessible. I am sure this is just the start of this burgeoning movement to achieve local, self-sufficiency with healthy food.

 

The side trip to Norcia was quite a trip!

 

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