Orvieto, situated right on top of a huge volcanic cliff, rose majestically in the distance as we drove up. Surrounded by a lush green valley dotted with vineyards, olive groves, farm houses and cypress trees, it's sheer height seemed all the more imposing up close. Instead of braving the steep cobbled streets, we took the funicular right into the heart of town.
Here we were charmed by beautiful old buildings, balconies spilling with flowers and narrow streets going up and down, affording us plenty of exercise! The town is small and easy to walk around in. Corso Cavour, it's main street is where the action lies. Lined with shops, bars, restaurants and cafes, it is a fun place to people watch as you leisurely sip a glass of wine or savour a gelato.
The most breathtaking sight in all of Orvieto is its magnificent Gothic Duomo (cathedral). One of the finest we have seen in Italy, it has charming candy stripes inside and out, glittering mosaics on its facade, and fabulous bas reliefs on its pillars. Inside are gorgeous frescoes by Signorelli which always draw a large audience. There was a beautiful wedding going on inside when we visited, adding to the wide eyed wonder of the crowds!
One of the sights we were very keen to see was Orvieto underground. A labyrinth of about 440 caves, dating back to Etruscan times, these are a fascinating glimpse of life lived centuries ago, when people sheltered here when the city was under siege by the Romans. These caves have also been used to raise pigeons, as storage and wine cellars as well as WWII bomb shelters.
Orvieto produces some of the best wines in the region and has many excellent wine bars dotted around town. We know because we tried a good many of them anytime we wanted to rest our feet! And since we couldn't possibly have wine just by itself, we also got to sample some of the famed local wild boar charcuterie, cheeses and pates.
One of the restaurants we ate in - Al Pozzo Etrusco, had fantastic pasta. I ordered hand made pasta in a chickpea flour meat sauce. It was so unusual, earthy and delicious, unlike anything I'd had before and it reminded me so much of Indian cuisine as chickpea flour is used in many of our dishes too, although with loads of masala!
This rustic, hearty tomato bread soup is one of my favourites and is very simple and satisfying. I've used fresh tomatoes here and roasted them to concentrate their flavours. You can just as easily use canned tomatoes and skip the roasting step. I like to use fresh bread as I love the way it soaks up the soup, turning into soft, velvety pillows of flavour that are a delight to eat!
Tomato Bread Soup
2 lb (about 10-12 large) ripe fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped, plus a few extra for garnish
6 tbsp olive oil, divided, plus extra for drizzling over top of soup
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/4-1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 1/2 cups small diced/torn Italian bread, crusts removed
Preheat oven to 450F. Line a baking tray with parchment.
Combine tomatoes, garlic, basil, 4 tbsp of the olive oil, salt and pepper in mixing bowl. Spread in a single layer on tray. Bake for 30 min until tomatoes are roasted, lightly browned and giving up their juices. Reserve.
Warm remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in skillet over medium heat.
Add onions, saute until lightly browned and softened, about 5 min.
Add red pepper flakes, saute 30 sec till fragrant.
Add reserved roasted tomato mixture, broth and bread. Mix well, cover and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 min or until soup has thickened and tomatoes have broken down completely. Stir occasionally, mashing tomatoes gently.
If soup is too thick for your liking, thin it down with some more broth or water. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired.
Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, garnished with basil leaves.