postcard from Orvieto: cheese and pears
Orvieto is a lovely town in my home region of Umbria. It is most famous for several reasons, including its gorgeous duomo (cathedral), its prized white wine (appropriately called Orvieto) and il Pozzo di San Patrizio (Saint Patrick's Well).
My husband and I visited Orvieto during our recent trip to Italy and we had lunch there in a place just off the square dominated by the cathedral (along the road to the left of the clock tower in the photo), whose name I cannot remember and have not been able to find out (if that changes, I will update the post accordingly). I ordered a simple plate of cheese and pears and enjoyed it a lot.
There is a strange Italian saying that goes like this: al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il formaggio con le pere (literally: don't let the peasant know how good cheese is with pears). The explanation I knew for this discriminatory information-withholding recommendation was that if the peasant finds out the delight of pairing cheese and pears, s/he would stop selling those products and keep them for personal consumption. Prompted by a comment by Anna Maria of Pia & Co., I did some research and found an interview with food historian Massimo Montanari, who reads the saying in terms of social divisions. Cheese, historically a peasant's and shepherd's food, in the Middle Ages gets socially promoted and is appreciated by the upper class. At the same time, the perishable pear becomes a luxury food, associated with the upper class and therefore the lower class should not be allowed to partake of it. So the saying exemplifies class divisions that, in time, social evolution has fortunately changed. In any case, the saying is widely known, also in the variant that uses cacio instead of formaggio: al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il cacio con le pere.
I am convinced that peasants have known for a long time that cheese and pears are a marriage made in heaven, so this is un segreto di Pulcinella (an open secret). It is interesting to look at the words. Cacio comes from the Latin word caseus, meaning cheese, while formaggio is rooted in the word forma, meaning shape and also mold, a reference to the shaping of cheese. To indicate a wheel of cheese, we say una forma di formaggio.
Il Pozzo di San Patrizio was my husband's favorite destination of the day. During lunch it started to rain and by the time we approached the entrance to the well, it was pouring. The end result was that it was quite dark inside (even though it was only 3 pm) and there were only a couple of tourists, so we had the place almost to ourselves. As we started the long descent (the well is 62 meters deep), a lightning stuck nearby and the thunder echoed in the well and made it shake. That scared a young woman ahead of us and thrilled my husband. Looking up from the arched openings (there are 70 of them) towards the sky, we could see rain pouring down. Once we reached the bottom, we crossed (the well has a diameter of 13 meters) and started on our ascent without retracing our steps, because the downward and upward stairwells are parallel and completely independent, so that people and mules going in opposite direction would not hinder each other. Built between 1527 and 1537, the well was a feat of engineering and it was meant to ensure a supply of water in case of siege.
To admire the golden-facaded cathedral and the elegant well, you really need to travel to Orvieto. To taste the wine you may be able to simply go to your favorite wine store. Easiest of all should be to taste some formaggio con le pere. Just make sure you get some freshly-cut, good quality cheese (pecorino or aged goat cheese are just two possible options) and some fresh pears at the right level of ripeness. Place the twain on a plate and enjoy placing a morsel of each in your mouth, possibly accompanied by some chilled Orvieto (but don't quote me on this, since I am the ultimate wine illiterate)1. And don't worry about spreading this well-known secret far and wide, to both farming and non-farming listeners.
This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, the world-famous food blogging event started by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen, hosted this week by the founder herself. Here's the roundup of WHB #111. And, please, note that next week I will have the high honor of hosting the event.