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If you're a lover of Italy but have already visited some of the bustling cities like Rome, Florence, Venice, or Milan, you owe it to yourself to consider a trip that's more "off the beaten path," but still just as enjoyable and fascinating. Some of you may remember me mentioning a travel opportunity to the Umbria region of Italy a few months ago. A yoga instructor ( http://goyogichef.com ) who is also a Le Cordon Bleu classically trained chef (and gluten free herself) had organized a group for a Food and Wine Tour of Umbria, escorted by Marcello and Raffaella, owners of Bluone Tours. Although I didn't initially think I could swing the trip, given various commitments with my kids and their busy school schedules, my husband graciously offered to "hold down the fort" at home, which allow an old college friend and me to embark on this unforgettable journey.
Italy already held the title of "absolute favorite destination" in my mind, but I had never had the opportunity to explore the beautiful countryside made famous by films such as Under the Tuscan Sun. It was the prospect of exploring medieval hilltop towns frozen in time that appealed to me...getting "off the grid," so to speak, at least for a week. While I did have an international phone plan and occasionally checked in with my family and with emails, I didn't take my computer and tried to live in the moment, absorbing as much of the history and beauty -- and tastes -- as I could.
Trips like this are almost "too much of a good thing" all at once. There is so much beauty -- and so much good food and wine -- that you don't fully appreciate it until you're home! What made this trip especially wonderful was the ease of dining gluten free.
Our family of four had enjoyed amazing gluten free meals in Rome, Florence, and Venice just 16 months prior, when we visited in late June/early July 2016. In fact, I learned so much and had so many great gluten free dining experiences to share that I wrote a book entitled Gluten Free in Italy, available as an e-book on Amazon.com. We experienced the ease of dining gluten free in these popular tourist destinations and enjoyed some of the best gluten free meals of our lives...all right near the sites we visited each day. In many ways, the Italians take gluten free diets even more seriously than restaurants in the United States, and many even offer gluten free pizza and pasta. Even those restaurants that don't offer gluten free substitutes are very aware of what items on their menu are naturally gluten free -- or how to modify them to be gluten free (and safely prepare them in a way that avoids cross contamination).
I now feel qualified to say that you don't have to stick to Rome, Florence, and Venice if you want to dine on safe and delicious gluten free Italian fare. Venturing outside these towns can be just as welcoming for the gluten free traveler. In our week-long tour of Umbria, we visited the towns of Bevagna, Foligno, Assisi, Spoleto, Orvieto, Montefalco, Deruta, Trevi, Perugia, and the very unique Civita di Bagnoregio (shown in photo above). The one caveat is that, in certain locales, English isn't spoken by all the locals the way it is in Rome, Florence, and Venice. However, this can easily be overcome by having a few handy phrases at your disposal and taking a small card specifying your dietary requirements in Italian. (These can be found online at both Celiac Travel, Gluten Free Passport, and Triumph Dining.) In our case, because we were accompanied by our Italian tour guides Marcello and Raffaella at every meal, we didn't even need the help of these tools. Our guides were able to communicate the needs of those of us who were gluten free in the group. In most cases, the restaurants knew our group was coming, and they had been alerted to gluten free diners being part of the group. Regardless, I never got the impression that there was much beyond the usual accommodations that needed to be made for us. In other words, if you were to dine in places where we did, you would not have any issues finding safe options straight from the menu. In one case, the restaurant owner had made a gluten free chocolate cake for us, but in most other cases, there were already plenty of naturally gluten free choices for antipasti, first and second courses, and dessert. (Note the homemade gluten free pasta with mushrooms above that was on the menu at one restaurant where we dined for lunch.) However, with all that being said, I would highly recommend booking a trip like this through a company like Bluone Tours, as they go to great lengths to construct amazing itineraries with opportunities you wouldn't have on your own (more details of that below...), they are with you for all meals and can therefore ensure your dietary requirements are met, and transportation for the entire week is taken care of (allowing you to truly enjoy the wine!).
Many restaurants offer gluten free pasta that can be substituted in virtually any pasta dish (with the exception of ravioli or tortellini). Many also have gluten free pizza and gluten free bread or crackers served at the beginning of the meal. And we even found that some dishes, like Eggplant Parmesan, which is typically coated in breadcrumbs when ordered here in the U.S., was naturally gluten free (no breadcrumbs) at one restaurant where we dined (see photo above). Meat entrees as "second courses" (steak, chicken, pigeon, roasted pork, rabbit, and sausage) were almost always prepared in a gluten free manner, and even when gluten free pasta was not available as a "first course," polenta or risotto made a delicious substitute. In fact, I relished the opportunities to order risotto with mushrooms or shaved truffles, a specialty of the region.
In fact, our tour -- being focused on food and wine -- included going truffle hunting with highly trained truffle-sniffing dogs! We also enjoyed visits to two wineries and to an olive oil mill (to see some of the first olives from the season's harvest being crushed -- and to taste the first-run "unfiltered" olive oil). Artisan food production is such a part of the culture in this region of Italy, and there is so much pride and history within the families that produce the region's products. Meals are simple and so fresh, often utilizing ingredients straight from the local farms, and nothing is processed or packaged. That's what makes it so easy for restaurant owners to identify what is or isn't gluten free on their menus.
We got to experience this all first-hand on our last night of our Culinary Tour of Umbria when we had a hands-on cooking class at Il Tempio del Gusto restaurant in Spoleto, one of the hilltop towns. The head chef and his sous chefs gave each of the 10 members of our group a job to do preparing one of the dinner's many courses. While some took part in pasta making (not gluten free) or deboning chickens to prepare the house specialty entree, I had the honor of making gluten free crepes with pastry cream for dessert. While I've had success at home making gluten free Nutella crepes using our family's favorite gluten free pancake mix (just making the batter thinner), here everything was, of course, from scratch! We used a brand of gluten free flour I wasn't familiar with, along with eggs, milk, and a bit of sugar. This was the first time the restaurant had experimented making gluten free crepes, and they seemed very pleased with how they turned out (so was I!). I'd share the recipe here, but they don't follow recipes. Everything is done by sight, texture, and consistency. If I tried to replicate this at home, there would probably be a bit of trial and error!
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the wonderful wines of the region. Two of Umbria's most unique wines, not known by any of us before this visit, are Sagrantino (red) and Grechetto (white). As in all parts of Italy, you never get a bad glass of wine! At each meal, we were served the "house" wines (often Sagrantino or a similar red blend and a Grechetto or Umbria "Classico" white). I look forward to searching for these wines now that I'm back in the States. I had luck finding two Umbrian "Classicos" at a local wine superstore, but no Sagrantino yet. Mental note for my next visit to this area of Umbria: Ship some of the unique wines of the region home, because you may have a hard time finding them back here!
For detailed reviews of the many places we dined, including a review of the agriturismo (restored farmhouse) where we stayed during the week, visit our main Search/Mapping page of our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite, and enter Umbria into the Search Box. In fact, you can enter other Italian towns (Rome, Florence, Venice) in the search box as well...you'll find dozens of gluten-free friendly places recommended and reviewed. Please share your own reviews of places you've found in your own travels!