Here at Oliver’s Travels we do a brisk trade in our luxury villas in Umbria. It isn’t hard to see why – there’s astoundingly beautiful countryside with peerless arable lands that produces some true gems for foodies and wine lovers, and cities like Perugia and Assisi keep things interesting on the cultural side. For a region with so much going on, it’s hardly surprising people find Umbria so inspiring.
Via Umbria is the product of exactly that kind of inspiration. Bill and Suzy Menard run the site, which imports the very best of local Umbrian produce to their store in Washington and for sale online. With a huge knowledge of the region, we sat down with them to get the scoop on their business and this unforgettable part of Italy.
1) Tell us all about Via Umbria! What do you do, and how long have you been doing it?
Via Umbria is actually a family of related businesses that are all centered around Italy, the Italian lifestyle and appreciation for connections and connectedness – connections with the land, with the past and with people. We have found that Italians have an innate ability to connect in these ways, which is why twenty years ago we took our first steps in establishing a series of businesses that celebrate the Italian lifestyle.
Most of our products are imported directly from smaller, family-operated businesses that have carried on a tradition of craftsmanship over many generations and for us the relationships we have developed with our artisan suppliers over the past two decades are more important than the commerce itself.
Even more exciting than importing and retailing is the business we call Casa. Casa operates our 18th century farmhouse in the tiny farming hamlet of Cannara. Located in the center of Umbria, the geographic center of Italy known as il cuore verde d’Italia (the green heart of Italy), the farmhouse is a stone’s throw away from Assisi and a twenty minute drive from the enchanting towns of Montefalco, Bevagna and Spello and a half hour from Perugia, Spoleto and Deruta. In the spring and fall we organize small tour groups led by Suzy and me to discover the food, wine and culture of this rich and authentic region. We have been writing about our experiences in Italy for the past two decades on our blog, Dolce Vita.
Having developed deep roots in Umbria since acquiring la Fattoria del Gelso eight years ago, we more recently began importing wine from small, family-operated wineries in the Montefalco region.
2) What is it about Umbria that really drew you to the area?
Umbria is truly a special place – bursting with bountiful agriculture, steeped in history that rivals any region of Italy, but at its core, its people make it truly special. They’re warm, accessible, fascinating and giving.
3) And what makes the produce and wines of Umbria you sell so special?
Umbria is called “the green heart of Italy” for a reason. It is incredibly fertile (even by Italian standards) but its agriculture is still largely small scale, with olives, grapes and grain grown by families that have worked their land for generations. They have an unparalleled respect for nature and a personal stake in what they produce.
What also makes the produce and wines from Umbria special is the personal touch that respects tradition, preserving the personal and imbuing the products with personality, terroir and soul. Umbrians are content with producing great products that remain authentic and true to themselves, rather than cornering the market with quantity at the expense of quality. You get that in Umbrian food products, wine and in the cooking in their restaurants and homes. It’s something you can taste!
4) What are your favourites out of all the products you sell, and why?
Suzy and I are partial to any of the handpainted ceramics we sell from Geribi, produced in a ceramics studio in the little town of Deruta, less than a half hour’s drive from the farmhouse. Even today the town remains a “one horse town” with a couple hundred small studios producing beautiful handpainted plates, bowls and decorative pieces in traditional and modern designs. We fell in love with Geribi’s designs the moment we laid eyes on them, with their vibrant colors and intriguing geometric patterns, not realizing at the time that this “modern” look was in truth a throwback to the design elements of the pre-renaissance period!
5) And what’s your top pick of the wines?
I can’t really answer that, as we import Umbrian wines from a dozen or so family producers who have also become our close friends! It would be safe to say that anyone who travels to Umbria should take advantage of good local pricing to try as much Sagrantino wine as possible. Sagrantino is a DOCG wine from the Montefalco zone, which is the most important wine production zone in Umbria and Sagrantino and is considered among the very top tier of Italian wines.
6) What are the best local things to do in Umbria?
There are so many things to do in Umbria that it is hard to choose, but some of the more unique experiences include truffle hunting and other wild food foraging (including mushrooms and asparagus), experiencing or participating in fall harvest, especially the olive or grape harvest, visiting historic towns such as Perugia (with its Etruscan-Roman-medieval-renaissance past) or Spoleto or learning about and being inspired about the life of Saint Francis by visiting Assisi. Spending time taking a ceramics painting class is pretty unforgettable, too. But Umbria is best experienced at the speed of life, so be sure not to overschedule, to explore slowly and get lost and to take time for long meals. You won’t be disappointed!
7) Are there any foodie treats or local specialties visitors should be on the look out for?
Umbria is a virtual candy store for foodies! Truffles are one of the great treats. They grow wild all over Umbria in many different varieties from the plentiful black summer truffle to the rarer and more delicious black truffle of Norcia and the white truffle. Umbria’s extra virgin olive oil is considered among the best in Italy and enhances the rustic food of the region. Each town within Umbria boasts and celebrates its own specialty, which sometimes has a very short growing season, such as the black celery of Trevi. Colfiorito is renowned for its potatoes, Norcia for its truffles, Castelluccio for its lentils. And our little village of Cannara is known throughout Italy for its small sweet onions. If you travel to Umbria in the summer or fall keep your eyes out for signs for local sagras, which are town festivals that typically celebrate a particular local delicacy.
8) What can we expect next from Via Umbria?
We’re always looking for more to share with our customers, so there will always be something new. On the immediate horizon is the opening of our newly expanded retail store in Georgetown, which we expected to reopen this fall. In addition to our imported Italian gourmet foods, handpainted ceramics, linens, housewares and cooks’ supplies we will be adding a fresh food market, with local partners selling fresh meats, local produce, gourmet cheese and bakery goods.