Walking through the city of Gubbio in Umbria I felt not like I was re-visiting the middle ages, but more that I was actually in them; that above me cloth was being stretched in the Loggia dei Tiratori, candles were being lit in the curiously bare cathedral while donkeys lugged sacks of grain up the very steep city streets. The grain they would have eaten, and that still forms a cornerstone of the Umbrian table, is farro. Plump, nutty, almost sweet, the most ancient of all grains is grown in Umbria, Abruzzo and in the Garfagnano area of Tuscany. There are three types of Farro; farro piccolo; rarely used, farro media; the most common form, best bought as semi perlato (semi pearled) so that it cooks easily but retains its goodness, and farro grande or farro spelto which is spelt, a much tougher slower cooking grain which has more relevance ground into spelt flour.
Farro is a high in vitamins and fibre and very low in gluten. It is wonderful cooked into minestrone and winter soups, or used as a base for salads dressed with good extra virgin olive oil and mixed with summer vegetables.
My friend Monica often serves farro as a first course salad, and we found it all over menus on a family adventure to Umbria this summer. From an agriturismo near Assisi we made visits to Spello, Spoleto (photos) and extraordinarily medieval Gubbio. I’m including a couple of Slow food Osterie in Umbria for the hungry traveller.
Assisi Da Erminio, Via Montecavallo, 19. tel 075 812 506. Closed thursdays.
Spoleto Osteria del Trivio (photo) Via del Trivio, 16. tel 0743 44349
Insalata di Farro
300 grams farro semi perlato
4 medium salad tomatoes, or 250 g cherry tomoatoes
1 small red onion
1 handful flat leaf parsley
2 sprigs oregano
2 springs basil
2 small zucchini, diced finely and marinated in lemon juice
Half a bunch rocket – chopped roughly
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Finely dice zucchini and leave to marinate in a glass bowl with lemon juice for at least half and hour.
Cook farro according to cooking instructions. Drain and cool in serving bowl.
Dice tomatoes, rocket and chop fresh herbs and add to farro. Drain off lemon juice and add zucchini, tossing everything well. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Choose a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil and dress the salad with lashings off it just before serving. Red wine vinegar is optional, just a dash.