In search of fine food and great landscapes - without the crowds - Stephen White heads to Norcia and discovers a tasty treasure in the heart of Italy.

There's a town in the heart of Italy that has everything. Fascinating history, stunning scenery, fantastic food and world-class hospitality...

It's close to Tuscany, but a million miles from the hustle-bustle tourist hotspots of Florence, Siena and Pisa. An off-the-beaten-track treasure, just waiting to be discovered.

Welcome to the ancient town of Norcia, population 5,000, in Umbria. Founded 600 years before Rome by the Sabini, an ancient Italic tribe, it's the birthplace of St Benedict (480-547), father of western monasticism and the patron saint of Europe and students. It's also home to no fewer than 15 churches.

Devastating earthquakes have made their mark. Their frequency even led to an 18th-century law limiting buildings to two storeys, which means Norcia looks like no other town in the region.

But perhaps this Italian gem's biggest attraction is its gorgeous food. Norcia is recognised as the black truffle capital of Italy, the source of the tastiest lentils and some of the finest cheeses, and one of the best places for cured meats. Pork, wild boar, sausages, salamis and a huge range of specialties led to the town lending its name to a brand of Italian cuisine, norcineria.

My visit began with a two-and-a-half hour car journey from Rome. We climbed steadily before arriving in Norcia, which sits 604m above sea level, to find a chill in the air and the main square - dominated by a huge statue of Saint Benedict - almost deserted.

I retreated to the fabulous Palazzo Seneca, built just off the square as a private house in the 16th century.

It was bought by the Bianconi family, who spent several years refurbishing, before re-opening it in 2008.

The Bianconis - these days led by father Carlo, mother Anna and sons Vincenzo and Federico - have been offering hospitality in Norcia for more than 160 years.

They have certainly made their mark on the town, amassing an impressive portfolio of properties, including hotels, a restaurant - the splendidly authentic Granaro del Monte in the Hotel Grotta Azzurra - and a state-of-the-art sports centre.

But Palazzo Seneca is the five-star jewel in the family's crown. Its narrow stone-floored passageways lead to huge, sumptuously-decorated rooms.

They include 19 elegant bedrooms and five luxurious suites, a library and a wellness centre.

Away from the hotel, you are invited to take your pick from activities including white-water rafting, helicopter flights and downhill or cross-country skiing.

Dinner in the hotel's elegant Vespasia restaurant was spectacular. I chose the Norcia & Tradition set menu at 55 euros and indulged in a veritable feast of Umbrian produce.

I was served a variety of norcineria that included 28-month cured ham and mature Campi pecorino (sheep's) cheese.

A dish of fresh tagliatelle with local black truffle followed, then delicious spit-roasted lamb from the Sibillini mountains served with Castelluccio lentil souffle. Pudding consisted of "trifle bonbon", a spectacular vanilla and sponge dish.

Breakfast the next morning was a simpler, but equally noteworthy, event. Vincenzo and Federico have devised a menu inspired by their grandmother, Annunziata, a testament to her favourite proverb: "Those who start well are already halfway there."

A huge table groaned under the weight of fresh fruit, breads, cakes, pastries, cereals, organic jams, honey, cheese and cold meats.

After breakfast, we headed outdoors for a trip into the mountains with guide Roberto Canali.

As we drove, Roberto described the remote and wildly attractive 70,000-hectare Sibillini National Park, established in 1993.

This mountainous region, part of the Apennines, boasts more than 20 peaks over a height of 2,000m, and is home to wild horses and goats, deer, boar, bear, wolves, wildcat, porcupine, eagles, goshawks, sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons. There are few people - we rarely spotted another car or person.

We took the road through Piano Grande (Big Plain) towards the 13th-century village of Castelluccio.

These fields produce the region's famous lentils and in spring and early summer they are a blaze of colourful wildflowers.

Castelluccio, 28km from Norcia and at 1,452m the highest village in the park, looks out towards mighty Monte Vettore, which at 2,476m is the highest peak in the Sibillini.

A little further on, we visited the Abbey of St Eutizio, established in the fourth century by Syrian monks who lived in caves.

Practising techniques learned from ancient Arabic and Latin documents, with pigs as their 'patients', the monks formed one of the oldest surgery schools in Europe.

They were well regarded throughout Europe, and St Eutizio surgeons even performed a cataract operation on Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1588.

Back in Norcia, we had an appointment at the local monastery. The monks here follow St Benedict's teachings of "ora et labora" prayer and work, rising at 4am. At 7.45pm, they assemble in the crypt of St Benedict's Basilica to offer the final prayers of the day accompanied by chanting.

A limited number of visitors are allowed to join them. The service is both charming and slightly eerie.

And the work? The monks are accomplished brewers. They produce two interesting beers - a light Bionda (6%) and a threateningly dark Extra (a brain-numbing 10%).

After breakfast the next day, we were treated to a cooking lesson by the Palazzo Seneca's sous chef, Alberto Rini.

Alberto, who trained in Rome, Rimini and Lake Garda, started with a demonstration of pasta making - rapidly turning out a dozen different examples.

Then he set about preparing a typical hotel meal. Every dish was beautifully cooked, elegantly presented and bursting with fresh flavours.

Before I rolled out of his kitchen for a lie down, Alberto introduced his wife and fellow chef, Sara. She specialises in breads and pastries - the wonderful ones I had sampled at breakfast earlier.

In the afternoon, I met up with truffle hunter Nicola Berardi and his two dogs, Luna and Sophie.

With the region's black winter truffles selling for between 1,000 and 1,200 euros a kilo (rarer white truffles, found elsewhere, can fetch 5,000 euros a kilo), this is big business.

Truffles are used in traditional cooking and are often shaved on to pasta or scrambled eggs.

Some 20 years ago, anyone could hunt for truffles, but now hunters need to be licensed.

Dogs, sometimes pigs, which love their strong, pungent taste, are used to sniff them out.

When his dogs think they're onto something their excitement increases, and Nicola has to act fast before the hounds dig the truffles out themselves.

Hunting can be a bit hit and miss, but Nicola's had good days - his biggest truffle weighed 605g.

Before we knew it, it was our last evening in Norcia - a good enough excuse for a few farewell drinks.

In the friendly Bar Roma we were invited to take a glass of prosecco with a group of businessmen.

One of them explained they were celebrating the launch of a website that honours the local food (

The party went on for some time. But then, as I had discovered, they and their fellow Norcians have plenty to celebrate.

Travel facts - Norcia

:: Stephen White was a guest at the five-star Palazzo Seneca in Norcia. Rooms available from £62pp per night, including breakfast (+39 0743 817 434/

:: He flew with easyJet (0843 104 5000/ from Gatwick to Rome Fiumicino. Return fares available from £59.

:: Norcia guide Roberto Canali also offers trekking holidays using his 60 donkeys, horses and mules (