We used to be Etruscans. I don’t know if we still are, but we love to think so.
There are still many mysteries that surround these people, who finally merged, voluntarily or not, into the newly born Roman civilization during the 3rd century BC. Etruscans for us are the first culture that truly transformed Italy in that period: founding cities and organizing politics, military, religion and life in general.
Greek civilization represented the main cultural influence for this amazing new society on the peninsula. From the 8th century BC, Etruscans populated about half of the Italian territory. There are differing theories about their origin. Some say that they sailed to our western coasts from a still uncertain area of Anatolia, known also as Asia Minor, the eastern region of modern Turkey, and then settled in Central Italy, primarily in the areas of Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria. Others argue that the Etruscan civilization evolved from the indigenous Villanovan population. In either case, they coexisted with the Gallic population in the north and the Greeks in the south. They expanded their territory through the centuries and founded cities like Arezzo, Perugia, Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Chiusi and Orvieto. When they spread to the north they gave birth to new towns such as modern day Bologna and Parma.
Moving to our main culinary interest, we have to thank our Etruscan ancestors for bringing to our land the fruits of olive trees and vineyards. These plants were already known in Umbria, but Etruscans learned the use, cultivation, and transformation methods from our Greek neighbors, located in an area in the south of Italy called Magna Graecia, where Hellenic farmers and traders began colonizing in the 9th century BC.
Our ancestors were great farmers of cereals and grains. They created the core of our cuisine with ancient cereals like barley and farro, and legumes rich in protein like chickpeas, fava beans, and lentils. Wild boar was a primary meat source, served on wealthy tables. Raising sheep, goats and pigs completed the supply of food and ingredients that made up their fare. Etruscans used to produce cheese, and it seems they used to make flat bread similar to pizza. Olive oil was originally used to prepare perfumed fragrances and cosmetics, but it eventually became a main ingredient in Etruscan cooking. Wine was part of the daily diet and was also quite strong, much more so than now, thus it was often blended with water, honey and spices.
It seems that Greeks used to criticize the local high consumption of wine, along with some consequential bad behaviors.
Velzna was the original name of our modern-day Orvieto. It was one of the twelve cities of the Etruscan league and the site of the Fanum Voltumnae, the center of their civilization, politics, meetings and sporting games. Velzna was built on top of a natural volcanic fortress, and it was the source of fortune and prosperity for our Etruscan ancestors.
The Etruscan heritage and enchantment are still visible in our Orvieto, starting from the drive up to town, admiring the imposing structure of the natural tufa cliff, and the grottos carved into the high stone walls by the Etruscans. You can visit the Necropolis of Crocefisso del Tufo, the Etruscan cemetery, or city of the dead, outside the town, where long streets of tombs still stand, with the names of those whom were laid to rest inside carved in an alien alphabet above the door. Arriving in town you can also see the ruins of the Belvedere Temple, from the 5th century BC, dedicated to Tinia, Etruscan god of the sky.
We all know that everything must come to an end. Our Latin Roman neighbors defeated the most influential and innovative civilization of Italy. In 264 BC, the descendants of the Roman hero Romulus destroyed Velzna and deported the inhabitants to the area of a volcanic lake about ten miles away, today known as Bolsena. Here the refugees founded a new town named Volsinia. Many years later, the descendants of the last Etruscans moved back to the rupe (cliff) and rebuilt a new town, named Ourbibentus. This evolved into Urbs Vetus, Latin for old city, in the Middle Ages, and is the origin of the modern name, Orvieto. Nowadays, the territory of Orvieto, combined with the province of Viterbo and parts of the provinces of Grosseto and Siena, is referred to as Tuscia. This is a unique area in central Italy where history, traditions, cuisine, and culture constitute just a small part of the wonder. Tuscia is where the last Etruscans live.
This is an excerpt from the cookbook, THE ETRUSCAN CHEF by Lorenzo Polegri
Lorenzo Polegri is chef and owner of Zeppelin Restaurant and Cooking School in Orvieto, Italy, operating now for 18 years. He is also the most featured Chef from Europe at The James Beard Foundation.