You may be feeling the heat right now, but crisp autumn days will soon be here…and with them some of the best fall foods in Italy. The harvest season during the final months of the year is an optimal time for foodies to visit the country, as a wide variety of cool-weather produce turns up at market stalls, hunting season brings traditional game dishes to the table, and the lower temps mean a heartier appetite to enjoy the abundance.
If you’re planning to travel to Italy in the fall, here are five must-try seasonal delicacies to search out on menus and in markets during your trip:
From the shores of Lake Garda to Sicily’s inland plains of Sicily, silvery olive groves blanket much of the Italian peninsula and the fragrant (and nutrient-rich) oil made from their fruit has been the foundation of Mediterranean cuisine for millennia. Vastly different regional climates mean that olive trees in different areas of Italy range in form from squat shrubs to towering trunks, and each region’s oil is also unique.
Whether mild and fruity or sharp and grassy, however, all extra-virgin olive oil is pressed from newly harvested olives across the peninsula in the fall and the uniquely aromatic and peppery freshly pressed olive oil (or olio novello) is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it treat available only for a few weeks between pressing (usually beginning in October) and when the oil begins to age and mellow (two to three months later).
Dense and green, with a bright flavor and zesty kick, olive oil that is straight from the mill is at its most flavorful and nutritious, with extremely high levels of polyphenols (a type of antioxidants that are believed to protect cells and prevent disease). One of the best fall foods in Italy, it’s is a stand-alone oil, best used on bruschetta or to dress fall soups and vegetables rather than for cooking.
In addition to tasting olio novello, you can also watch it being pressed at a “frantoio” (mill) in the fall. Most olive oil mills spend a good portion of the year shuttered, and come to life only at the end of summer when the first farmers bring their harvest to be pressed. Many of these mills are open for visits and offer either formal tastings or a slice of bread tasted over the wood coals and drizzled with the pressing of the day.
One of the world’s most expensive delicacies, truffles can be found all year round depending upon their type and terrain. The most abundant season, however, is late autumn when the wood-covered slopes of the central Italian Apennines in Umbria and Tuscany and the Alps in northern Piedmont become filled with local foragers and their faithful trained pups on the hunt for these worth-their-weight-in-gold treasures.
Though they are featured ubiquitously on menus across Italy, truffles are surprisingly difficult to come by. They require a precise microclimate to grow and the nose of a trained truffle dog to detect them from beneath thick leaf litter. A fun fall activity is joining a truffle hunter and his dogs on a jaunt through the woods to watch the pups zig-zag between the trees and dig out their prize from the loam and leaves in exchange for warm praise from their owner and a doggy treat as a reward. Most truffle hunts end with either a cooking demonstration or class and a family-style meal featuring your forest bounty.
With its penetrating, earthy flavor, truffles are excellent grated over pasta, used to season sauces and patès, or simply wrapped along with fresh eggs overnight in a kitchen towel for a truffle-scented frittata the next morning. Travel through Italy in fall and you’ll find dishes featuring white or black truffles from Rome north to the Dolomites.
Italy is a land of foragers, and rural Italians have long supplemented their diet with wild bounty from greens and asparagus to fruit and mushrooms. Fall is the height of mushroom season, when warm days are broken up with ground-soaking downpours and crisp nights, the ideal climate for coaxing out porcini, chanterelles, and other flavor-packed varieties from under the forest floor.
Come the first showers of the season, the countryside is invaded by sharp-eyed mushroom hunters scouring the woods to their baskets with local delicacies with poetic names like ovoli, mazze di tamburo, and pinaroli. Unless you’re an expert, gathering and eating wild mushrooms can be a risky business (many have toxic or poisonous look-alikes) but Italian restaurants must have their wild mushrooms checked by professional mycologists by law, so you can indulge in one of the best fall foods in Italy with peace of mind.
The central Apennine mountains and northern Alpine peaks are especially known for their wide variety of wild mushrooms, so be sure to seek them out on local menus or open-air markets to sample types you won’t find anywhere else.
Italians have long been both passionate foragers and assiduous hunters, and hunting season in much of Italy begins in September. Though hunting is in decline as the countrysides continue to empty of population, you can still find game on seasonal menus in much of Italy through the fall and winter. Seek out pappardelle in hare sauce in Tuscany, polenta with venison ragù in the north, and stuffed and roasted wild duck, pheasant, quail, and goose across the peninsula.
One of the most common game is “cinghiale”, or wild boar, an invasive species with no natural enemies in Italy, leading to a booming population that has wreaked havoc on both cities like Rome and agricultural areas. If you want to sample wild game with a clean conscious, order the boar.
You’ll find game on menus at rural restaurants or agriturismi (farm holidays), where it’s likely sourced from a local hunter. You can also request cuts of game at a village butcher shop if you’re staying at a self-catering rental with a kitchen and you’d like to try your hand preparing it yourself.
You should drink no wine before its time, so you won’t be uncorking any bottles from this year’s vintage. But you can try the fleeting delight of Vino Novello, or “young wine”, another one of the best fall foods in Italy. This light, fruity (sometimes slightly sparkling) red is similar in taste and production to France’s Beaujolais Nouveau and officially hits the market on November 6th each year, just weeks after the vineyards have been harvested.
Vino Novello is made with an accelerated fermentation process, so is tannin-free and will turn if not consumed shortly after uncorking and does not stand up to being shipped long distances…so you can only find it in Italy and quite close to the winery where it was produced. Vino Nuovo (“new wine”), on the other hand, is simply wine that has just finished its traditional fermentation process but is not yet aged.
Though this unique tipple can be found in most wine shops and cantine through the winter, Italians traditionally drink it to celebrate the feast day of San Martino on November 11th paired with roasted chestnuts.
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