Mrs Smith and I are staggering across the moonlit Piazza San Benedetto in Norcia’s mediaeval centre, heaving in crisp mountain air, a thick sheen of pork-truffle after-sweat across our rookie brows – damning evidence of Granaro del Monte’s seven-course menù gastronomica, ordered three hours earlier in a moment of foolish, first-night bravado. But what else were we supposed to have ordered? Everything we had read proclaimed Norcia Italy’s ultimate foodie town, one of the country’s black truffle centres, and the home of norcineria – the alchemic method of magicking pig into melt-in-the-mouth salami-type sausages and cured hams.
In a bid to escape the disapproving glare of stern old St Benedict, we scurry down one of the side streets and turn the corner into what we at first believe to be a truffle-induced Shakespearean hallucination: Romeo, in a fur-lined glossy puffa jacket, stands at the top of a rickety old ladder with a single red rose in his hand. The ladder’s balanced at one end against the wooden shutter of a crumbling first-floor bedroom and anchored in place at the other end by the foot of the young suitor’s best man – similarly attired, and lifting a saxophone to his lips. Two more shiny puffas are leaning against the crumbly old wall underneath the window. One begins to tap out a gentle bossa nova on a makeshift bongo, while the other joins in softly on guitar, picking out the chords of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Corcovado’. Sax-puffa slides in with a smooth, melty solo that brings a light to the room, and a Juliet to the window. Mrs Smith digs her nails into my arm. Suddenly, a crescent of puffas step out of the shadows, singing the seductive, woozy Astrud Gilberto vocal part. Juliet looks down, smiling.
Back in the cool, airy room, we discard clothes and flop onto the huge four-poster, motionless. Sweet woodsmoke floats in from the street and we conk out to the soothing tones of the Italian answer to Chris Tarrant on Rai.
Something magical has happened overnight: we’re somehow no longer full. Mrs Smith is languishing in the deep, moonstone marble bath. In a bid to hasten our descent on the breakfast table, I decide to enhance her experience by perching cross-legged on the Philippe Starck stool and talking knowledgeably on the subject of truffling (the French use pigs for snuffling; Italians seem to favour dogs; the Russians use bear cubs), local lentil and spelt crops (the most prized in the world), the surgeons of nearby Preci (world-beaters in the Middle Ages, with a lucrative sideline in helping talented young male singers hit the very highest notes) and St Benedict’s less-celebrated younger sister, St Scholastica (would we consider the name for our first female child?). Before I can get on to the local mules’ testicles, she is grabbing her shoes and suggesting a drive into the mountains (after rye toast, smoked boar, local cheese and pears, of course).
A nerve-wrackingly narrow, winding road takes us out of Norcia, higher and higher up into the mountains. The snow piled on either side of the pass grows thicker and higher with every passing kilometre, we lose radio reception completely and start encountering warning signs for mountain rams. The road levels, dips and drops us suddenly into the vast basin prairie of the Piano Grande, a gargantuan, flat expanse that, in spring, blooms with wildflowers – a different colour each week.
We stop for a beer and a vista across Piano Grande from Castelluccio, a tiny mountain-top village, famous for those lentils and for the white graffiti daubed on its walls – it allegedly serves as a means of social documentation or a means of spreading scurrilous local family gossip, depending on which book you read. As we drive back into Norcia, a wedding is taking place in the piazza – we later discover this was the big day of our hotel’s head chef. Perhaps he was the midnight serenader? Among the guests, we spot our hostess Mama Bianconi, who last night gave us a friendly guided tour of the Grotta Azzurra property across the street (also the scene of our super seven-courser), as well as the reading rooms, tea salon, sun terrace and spa of Palazzo Seneca itself. The Bianconis are the royal family of hospitality in Norcia, having run a clutch of hostelries in the town for more than 150 years. The experience has clearly paid off.
At dinner in the Palazzo’s Vespasia restaurant that night, Mama is back on duty, as are her sons, Vincenzo and Federico. All three are natural, genial hosts, and visit our table to quality-check each aspect of our stay and to talk proudly of the region’s food, people and scenery. Vespasia’s menu offers a modern take on traditional local produce, light compared with the hearty fare of the Grotta Azzurra, and we’re thankful for the mere five courses on the tasting menu.
Less modest is our approach to the local Montefalco (a rich, earthy and full red) and the astonishing grappa presented to us by head waiter Paolo. He tells us it’s been aged in seven different types of wood and we make a valiant effort at distinguishing each of the seven, before admitting defeat and curling up in our wing-back chairs. As the acoustic guitar duo opens their set with ‘Corcovado’, we close our eyes and mull over which items of luggage to sacrifice for some take-home Norcian bounty… Reviewed by Adam McDougall, the Lexi Cinema