Casa Annita Country House
Marsciano in Umbria is not really a destination in of itself and in fact is quite an ordinary Italian town but its location served our purpose well, being roughly equidistant from a plethora of interesting places in every direction.
Starting with Perugia to the north and moving through a full 360 degrees in a clockwise direction you’ll find Assisi, Spello, Bevagna, Montefalco, Trevi, Spoleto, Todi, Monte Castello di Vibio, Orvieto and Città della Pieve. We’ve been to all of them several times over the years except Trevi for some reason so that was our first stop on this short trip. The advantage of somewhere like Marsciano is that you can easily visit all the above places without going through the hassle of constantly changing accommodation.
Our preference these days is always to stay in the countryside when we travel in the summer months and so Federica’s Casa Annita was the perfect place for the three of us. It’s one of those old-fashioned Umbrian country houses that has been in Federica’s family for several generations and the old photographs lining the walls attest to its history.
These spacious old houses with their tiled floors were designed to stay cool in the summer but require heating in the winter and here there’s both central heating and a large fireplace downstairs, not that we needed either of them in early May. Casa Annita is located away from the main road along a typical strada bianca (an unpaved bumpy road found throughout central Italy). I always like these locations because you are guaranteed peace and quiet and this was no exception.
The drawback of being in the country is that very often it’s hard to find a good restaurant nearby but in this case we were lucky, though in fact fortune had nothing to do with it as we plan our trips carefully with these things in mind; our preference on a weekend trip being to cook and eat in one night and dine out the second evening.
Il Vecchio Braciere
Il Vecchio Braciere is a very short drive away from Casa Annita in a peaceful, pastoral setting with an expansive outside terrace and a very spacious interior. As the name suggests, it’s an Italian barbecue restaurant with the fireplace taking center stage.
Massimiliano, the chef/owner is a Roman who transplanted himself to Umbria to start a new career as a restaurateur together with his wife Daniela. Not being a classically trained chef he wisely decided to specialize in fire-grilled meat, a skill you can learn through experience.
The highlight of fire grilling in Italy is always the bistecca fiorentina and most tourists who come to Italy don’t realize that there is an important difference between American steaks and the best Italian steak. American steaks are from ‘steers’, ie the male cow, whereas the scottona steak in Italy is from a young female cow that is not more than 16 months old and has never been pregnant. I’ve eaten all the great cuts of steak in every steak restaurant in Chicago and also in many other American cities and the Italian scottona is the equal of them all but seems to me more naturally tender.
And in fact because of this I always choose the bone-in New York strip or sirloin in Italy, known as costata, which is also a loin cut but from the part nearer the front ribs, rather than the classic bistecca fiorentina that is a T-bone with a piece of the fillet attached. No need for the fillet when the costata tastes this good.
One thing that many Italian restaurants get wrong however is that they only salt the meat after cooking but at Il Vecchio Braciere the salt is added immediately before grilling which I believe is the correct approach. Massimiliano takes his craft seriously and prefers to use English Maldon salt with its larger pyramid shaped flakes that take longer to dissolve and taste less saltier. Hand-harvested for four generations from the sea around the Saxon port of Maldon in Essex, this is the preferred salt of gourmet chefs everywhere. Furthermore he cooks over the red hot embers of the hardwood so there is no flame scorching the outside of the meat.
The steaks here looked superb, if a little rare for my taste, but as I like to grill steaks at home we ordered the cheeseburgers and patatine because a good burger can be hard to find in Italy.
The Ancient Olive tree
We literally stumbled on the Olivo Secolare di Macciano as we made a detour off the main road on a whim to visit the remote village of Giano dell’Umbria. The village itself is nothing out of the ordinary but on the way there we passed this tree on a narrow backroad.
Even from the car it was immediately obvious that this was a fabulous example of a ‘monumental’ olive tree, defined as being a tree that is many centuries old with a trunk diameter of more than 1 metre.
We stopped to admire this rare specimen and in fact the trunk of this tree measures over 2.5 meters putting it well over 1,000 years old and in a similar category to the one we wrote about in Magliano in Toscana. Local legend suggests that Saint Francis of Assisi once enjoyed the shade from this tree and it is certainly old enough and close enough to Assisi for that perhaps to be true.