A Taste of Umbria with St. Francis of Assisi


October 4 is the Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is a most beloved saint, far and wide, even with non-Catholics. His life was simple, living the Gospel and loving Christ and His Church.

Assisi is in the region of Umbria, the heart of Italy. Food delicacies such as black truffles come from this region, as do many other specialties. I’m just highlighting a few recipes that could be worked into dinnertime, with ingredients that should be on hand. On the suggested menu: Stewed Chicken and Flat Bread from Gubbio (recipes follow), Salad, Pasta such as gnocchi, and Frangipane (Mostaccioli or Paletta di Mandorla). The foods evoke a sense of the fall season, also.

Francis fasted most of his religious life, so it’s not completely natural to prepare a great feast in his honor. And the only mention of favorite foods comes from his death bed. The rich noble Lady Jacoba was allowed to serve Francis, and he called her „Brother Jacoba”. As he lay on his deathbed, he asked her to be called, and to bring the sweetmeats known as Frangipane, a concoction of almonds and sugar, that she had made before that he enjoyed. Without being summoned she arrived shortly after he expressed his wish, with burial shroud and the sweets he requested. Some sources say he was too sick to eat them. 

I’ll include the recipes for dessert first. Besides the Meringues from Assisi, we can try to recreate Francis’ sweet craving. Evelyn Vitz in her A Continual Feast believes Mostaccioli is close to this requested sweet:

An Italian almond pastry

1 pound blanched almonds
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon, or 1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
Approximately 1 cup of flour

Chop the almonds very fine or coarsely grind in a blender

In a bowl combine the nuts, honey, cinnamon, and egg whites. Mix thoroughly. Gradually stir in enough flour to form a thick paste.

On a lightly floured surface, knead the paste until smooth and stiff. Roll out to about 1/4 inch. Cut into diamond shapes, about 2 1/2 inches long. Place the diamonds on a lightly buttered and floured baking sheet. Let dry for 1 to 2 hours.

Bake in a preheated 250°F oven for 20-30 minutes or until set. Do not let brown.

Yield: about 3 dozen

Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf shares another recipe that might be a closer match. The recipe, according to tradition, originated with St. Clare. This is the tradition of a biscotti, a twice-baked sweetened bread:

Paletta di Mandorla 
Almond Slices

1 cup butter
1 1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs
4 cups flour
2 cups almonds, whole, finely chopped, or 4 cups almonds, ground 
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla 

Cream butter, sugar and eggs. Add the other ingredients and knead until smooth. Form 2 rolls about 1 inch (3 cm) diameter. 

Bake in a preheated moderately hot oven 375°F for 10 to 12 minutes until golden brown. 

When cool, cut into slices 3/4 inch (2 cm) thick, and toast in the oven for 3 minutes.

Frangipane today is known as a filling, Frangipane Cream. Here is a recipe from Feast Day Cookbook but there are many other versions.

Gubbio is also in the region of Umbria, and St. Francis traveled there and helped save the town from the ravenous wolf. Remembering the dear wolf of Gubbio, here’s some Gubbian recipes: a simple Flat Bread and Stewed Chicken.

This is brustengo, the fried flat bread of Gubbio, fried in a flat skillet. If you make the batter ahead of time, it will thicken slightly; it should be pourable, like pancake batter, so thin it down before you use it, if necessary. Serve the bread warm as is or with prosciutto, dried sausage, and olives for an antipasto. 

Gubbian Flat Bread

4 Cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying 

Mix the flour, water, and salt together in a bowl. 

Pour the oil to a depth of 1/2-inch into a 10-inch heavy-duty skillet or frying pan and heat until hot. Test the hotness of the oil by dropping a small dribble of batter into the skillet; if it browns and bubbles immediately, the oil is hot enough. I keep a candy thermometer in the oil to make sure it is at 375° F. 

Pour or scoop and spread about a cupful of the batter into the oil, and when the bread begins to brown around the edges, flip it over carefully to brown the other side. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bread and allow it to drain on paper towels.

Use up all the batter in the same way. Depending on the size of your pan, you should be able to get at least 10 to 12 rounds.

From Ciao Italia in Umbria by Mary Ann Esposito, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2002.

fricco is a stew of sorts, and in this easy-to-prepare Gubbian-style chicken stew, it is Orvieto Classico wine that gives great merit to its flavor along with the presence of rosemary, which shows the fondness that Umbrians have for this herb in many of their foods. This dish is even better if made the day before serving. 

Fricco di Pollo all’Eugubina
Gubbian Style Stewed Chicken

1/4 cup Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
1 large white onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 1/2 pounds cut-up bone-in chicken
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
4 fresh sage leaves, crumbled
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 cup dry white wine, such as Orvieto Classico
4 large plum tomatoes, pureed and sieved to remove skin and seeds
Fine sea salt to taste
Grinding coarse black pepper 

Get the olive oil hot in a large sauté pan and cook the onion over medium low heat until it is soft and translucent. Raise the heat to medium high and add the chicken pieces. Be sure they are well dried before adding them to the pan. Keep a bunch of paper towels handy for this. Cook, turning the pieces until they are browned on all sides. This should take about 5 minutes. Add the wine vinegar and allow it to evaporate. Lower the heat; add the sage and rosemary. Continue cooking over low heat for 15 minutes. Raise the temperature to high, add the wine, and allow it to evaporate. Pour in the pureed tomato juice. Season the mixture with salt and pepper and continue cooking uncovered for 25 minutes or until the juices thicken and the chicken is tender when pierced with a fork.

Arrange the chicken on a platter; pour the sauce over the top. Serve immediately.

From Ciao Italia in Umbria by Mary Ann Esposito.

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us! 

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