Monteleone. The picturesque hilltown’s name, “Mount of the Lion”, denotes force, domination and greatness.
The name might seem pretentious for this tiny mountaintop village in the Val Nerina area of Umbria, not far from Spoleto, nearly abandoned, with two cafés and one restaurant But the sixth-century B.C.gilded bronze biga (chariot) – unearthed here in 1902 – and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – “was certainly owned by someone powerful,” local “chariot expert”, Roberto told us proudly. The chariot – of possible Etruscan workmanship – embodies a glorious past.
Roberto works in one of the two cafés in town and closed it to take Pino and me to see Monteleone’s reproduction of the chariot, masterpiece of the contemporary Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu and commissioned by the town in the 1980’s. Because I’d read about the chariot of Monteleone di Spoleto now at the Met – and Monteleone’s desperate attempts to bring the chariot home – I had made a special trip to the Met in March, 2009 between my New York cooking classes.The spacious room, superb lighting, articulate and exhaustive explanations, and precious artifacts of the same period in adjacent cases all served to highlight the astounding beauty of the bronze chariot enshrined at the Met.
With Roberto, Pino and I saw Monteleone’s bronze copy of that chariot – in a tiny room with a 14th -century stone vaulted ceiling, perhaps once a wine cellar – or a guardroom – adjacent to Monteleone’s medieval fortified monastery. On that early November day in Monteleone di Spoleto, as we viewed in silence this exquisite chariot copy in a simple unadorned setting, the elation I’d felt that March day at the Metropolitan Museum in New York was matched. Roberto’s passione for Monteleone’s lost treasure was evident as he brought alive the Ulysses tales figured on this faithful copy of the gilded bronze chariot. Ironically, the original is now in the country where poor farmers and shepherds from remote Monteleone emigrated in the early 1900’s, at about the time of the chariot discovery by a farmer – and its sale, for the price of scrap metal.
The fight is still on with the Met: Monteleone wants the chariot back. Hopes are slim.
After Roberto returned to his post at the café, we walked through the Torre del Orologio (Clock Tower) medieval gate to wander the winding alleyways of this former fortress perched on a rocky outcrop. Carved stone doorways were time markers for us, dating from the 13th-century to the present. Vaulted medieval porticoes and streets caught the appreciative eye of husband Pino, restorer of medieval architecture. At three o’clock on a November afternoon, silence reigned.
Medieval splendor of Monteleone:
As we walked back to the motorcycle for our ride home to Assisi, we passed the Ristorante (no name needed: only one in town!) where we had lunched on arrival that day. Monteleone, we learned, is not only famous for the Met biga, but also for a D.O.P farro. Denominazione di Origine Protetta guarantees that the farro of Monteleone can only be cultivated in that area.
Renata, owner/chef of the Ristorante, brought the farro to its culinary apex in a dish Pino relished: risotto di farro con funghi porcini e tartufo. I had truffles, too – on pasta.
The Val Nerina area is also famous for legumes: the tiny DOP lentils of Castelluccio and the ceci (chickpeas) of the Monteleone area. We had to try another of Renata’s specialties: purèe of local chickpeas (ceci) seasoned with rosemary, garlic and Umbria’s exquisite extra-virgin olive oil. Who needed dessert?
We headed home to Assisi around dusk, the motorcycle serpentining down mountain roads in the midst of forests of burnished colors. Pino had to watch the road, I could just marvel in the majesty around us. As we rode, I reflected on the many pleasures of yet another good day: over thirty-five years in Umbria and we can still head off to discover the endless wonders, without going more than about an hour from home. Art, history, magnificent panoramas, culinary pleasures, encounters with “the locals.”
*(To read more on the Monteleone chariot: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12738928)
We eat alot of farro, enjoying it in legume soups and in summer salads.
Here is an easy, tasty farro salad recipe:
Ingredients (for 6 persons – or more, perhaps):
2 c. farro
2 or 3 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 fresh mozzarella, diced
3 – 5 basil leaves
extra virgin olive oil (q. b…..and remember that quanto basta (or “as much as you need”) is the most common annotation in Italian cookbooks!)
Cook farro as you do rice, ie, put in pan with double the amount of water as farro; in this case, cover the farro with 4 c. water.
Salt the water, q. b.
Bring to a boil, then simmer til farro is cooked al dente
Let cool. Mix with extra virgin olive oil (q. b), diced tomatoes, diced fresh mozzarella and finely-chopped basil leaves. Add salt, pepper q. b. Serve at room temperature (if left over, refrigerate and enjoy the next day, straight from the fridge).
Doorways of Monteleone are time-markers (click to enlarge photos)