n my 15 years as an innkeeper, I’ve often had visitors ask me what do to while they’re in Umbria. Bucolic settings aides, people love side-trips and sights.
I invariably respond that they have choices galore. They can town-hop while admiring magnificent medieval art. They can food hop, tasting local wines, truffles and olive oil. All they need to do is drive around a little.
Most often, though, I try to coax them off the beaten track. I know so many artisans they wouldn’t normally meet, people who aren’t listed in guidebooks and apps. In my own small way, I’m eager to foster cultural exchanges and commerce, since I know both sides will benefit.
Visiting museums, tasting flavors, and enjoying orange sunsets are one thing, and lovely. But it’s meeting people that brings a region and its culture to life.
Marco and Pietro Zubboli help me make my point. They’re typesetters, bookbinders and paper decorators. Their great grandfather Luigi escaped to Assisi from mountainous Forlimpopoli with his father Achille at the end of the tumultuous 19th-century.
Achille was a medical doctor who had been sentenced to death for revolutionary activities — Italian unification was in full swing — and sought exile in the northern mountains. Once they got to Assisi, Luigi was able to open a printing shop in the center of town in 1870.
Five generations have passed since them, but the Zubboli family still makes marbled paper in a workshop located in a medieval cellar.
Patterns are obtained by dipping the paper in a gelatinous bath of algae and ox gall. Pigments are sprinkled into a basin and combed to produce mesmerizing waves of colors. Thanks to Pietro’s artful skills, each sheet absorbs a full range of colors, meaning no two sheets are alike.
The Zubboli also print superb embossed paper using old copper plated machines and gold leaf. Miniature-like decorations are designed by hand (thanks to Uncle Maurizio) and printed using handmade cotton paper. Royalty, church cardinals and movie stars are familiar with the Zubbuli’s embossed stationary, leather-bound notebooks, and fine leather or goatskin parchment.
That such treasures exist in plain view in a small shop overlooking Assisi’s Piazza del Comune can make you feel like you live in a world of time machines. Prices are accessible too. It may be hard to believe in these Instagram-dominated times, but some people still insist on longhand, and fine paper to inscribe it on.
Next time, if you want to put a nice punctuation point on an apricot sunset Umbria day, head for the center of Assisi, gelato in one hand, pen in the other.
Apricot gelato (serves 6)
- 110 gr (2/3 cup) sugar.
- 250 ml (1 cup) whipping cream.
- 250 gr (about 6) ripe apricots.
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
— Blend the apricot with sugar at high speed until very smooth and velvety. Add the cream and vanilla and refrigerate for at least one hour. This will shorten the churning time. Don’t blend the cream as it might curdle.
— Process the creamy mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. When the mixture is set, transfer to box and keep frozen until it’s time to serve.
Meanwhile write your journal. By hand.