The day I had been waiting for was finally here! I would be leaving Udine for a three-week stay in the mountains of Carnia. I had hotel reservations in five of the major villages and had worked the timing to coincide with several local food festivals. First on my agenda was Sauris. In May 2004, Mike and I had spent the night there, at a quaint hotel in the hamlet of Lateis. This time I would be staying in Sauris di Sotto, where the Festa del Prosciutto was being held over a period of two weekends.
From Udine, I needed to take three buses to get to Sauris. With fairly tight connections in Tolmezzo and Ampezzo, I left early so that I would have plenty of options in case one of my buses was running late. I would soon learn that Friulian buses are some of the most reliable in Italy; even connections that seemed too close for comfort ended up working out, since the connecting bus often waited for the first bus to arrive before departing. The schedule was like a well-oiled machine.
The first leg of my journey went off without a hitch. I boarded the double-decker bus, sitting on the upper level for the best views, and precisely 50 minutes later arrived in Tolmezzo. There, I had a comfortable 10-minute wait for the next bus to Ampezzo. This bus was a regular-sized coach, and we were required to put our luggage in the compartments underneath. This was a nerve-racking proposition, because now I not only had to watch the street signs vigilantly to make sure I didn’t miss my stop, but I also had to make sure the driver didn’t pull away before letting me retrieve my suitcase.
Along the way to Ampezzo, the bus picked up two large groups of children. The first was a group of at least forty grade-school kids; the second group was slightly older, likely a sports team as they were carrying bags of athletic gear. The bus was now packed beyond capacity. Boys were crammed into the aisle, laughing and shouting at the top of their lungs, as kids of that age will do. I could barely see out the window and was growing even more nervous that I’d miss my stop.
Presently, we came upon yet a third group of kids, just as large as the first two. There was obviously no room left, so the driver got out to do some negotiating with the chaperones. The minutes ticked by, and I became worried that I’d miss my connection. Without a clue what was happening, I then watched as one group of kids began filing off the bus, while the waiting group piled on. Just as jam-packed as before, the bus finally took off. Luckily, I managed to ring the bell in time, for I was the only one getting off the bus in Ampezzo. All the kids on the bus, it turned out, were continuing on to Forni di Sopra.
Right on schedule, the bus to Sauris pulled up, and to my suprise, it was already full. On the bus were the same kids that had gotten off the earlier bus to make room for the group going to Forni di Sopra. The first driver had called the driver of the Sauris bus and asked him to make an out-of-the-way trip to pick up this group. While this was far more accommodating than I would expect from any driver in the U.S., it meant that I had to squeeze myself onto a standing-room-only bus with my suitcase. This bus didn’t have a luggage compartment underneath, but luckily there was a free seat behind the driver—no one could sit there, because there were cases of water bottles stacked in front of it, but it was just the place for my bag—and one of the children generously gave me his seat next to it. In addition to the kids that had been on my original bus, there was yet another group, even larger than the first three, going to Lateis.
The road to Sauris was long and steep, with nearly continuous hairpin turns the entire way. As we began the winding ascent, the schoolkids began getting carsick left and right. The chaperone nearest me handed out plastic bags and guided the sickest kids toward the front of the bus. One poor child threw up right next to me; he partially missed the bag and got vomit all over himself. It was a relief when we arrived at Lateis and the carsick group could get off.
It was then just a short ride back down the hill from Lateis and up again toward Sauris di Sotto. Although I immediately recognized the town when we arrived, I still needed to ask someone on the street to point me in the direction of my hotel, Albergo Morgenleit. My room there turned out to be fairly spacious and comfortable, with a large bed and a desk where I could work. I was to stay here five nights and would have plenty of extra time for writing. The only view was through a couple of small windows, looking out toward the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. When I checked in, the hotel was fully booked with yet another group of kids; I was told they were leaving in a few days and that I could move to a terrace room across the hall if I wanted. Looking back, I wish I had taken the hotel up on its offer, but once I got settled in, I felt it was a chore to have to move.
After unpacking my bags and organizing my notes on Sauris, I headed out to find some lunch. The mountain air was cool and a little breezy—much nicer than I had expected and a huge relief to get away from the sweltering heat of Udine. The pace of life seemed much more tranquil, too, despite the incessant hammering as tents for the weekend’s festival were being erected.
There were only two restaurants on my list for Sauris di Sotto, and since one of them was closed that day, I ended up at Ristorante Kursaal, where chef Daniele Cortiula—protégé of the late Carnian chef Gianni Cosetti—had made it his mission to continue the legacy of Carnian cuisine. The restaurant was split into two levels, with a casual osteria downstairs and a more elegant dining room with a prix fixe menu upstairs. Both rooms were empty, and so I seated myself at a table downstairs.
I began my meal with the cialzòns (alternate spellings include cjarsòns and cjalsòns), which were filled with fresh ricotta, raisins, and herbs. Drowning in a pool of melted butter, they were topped not with the usual ricotta affumicata but with shavings of aged Montasio cheese.
It was here that I began to question the pronunciation of this dish. Until this point, I had always heard it pronounced with an English “ch” sound, as in chawl-ZOHNZ or chahr-ZOHNZ. At Kursaal, however, the waitress pronounced the word with a hard “k”: kee-awl-ZOHNZ. Over the next several years, I continued to be perplexed over the true pronunciation of the word, having heard as many disparate pronunciations as there are spellings. I finally concluded that the true Furlan pronunciation begins with a “k” sound, despite several variations in endings (-ZOHNZ; -CHOHNZ; -SHOHNZ), and that the “ch” variation that I had previously heard may in fact be simply an Italianization; since there is no letter “j” in the Italian alphabet, it may be that the letters “cja” were spoken as “cia,” which are pronounced in English as cha.
Next, I ordered the frico, which was quite possibly the best I had ever had. Served with grilled polenta, the frico was formed into a six-inch pancake. The outside was crisp and golden, while the inside had the velvety softness of mashed potatoes, with just enough cheese to melt in your mouth but not so much that it oozed grease. Cortiula also tossed bits of diced speck into the mix for added flavor.
For dessert, I indulged in a slice of torta di pere e noci: a light, crumbly square of yellow cake, baked with chopped walnuts and a slice of pear set into the top. The cake was served with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.
After lunch, I mustered enough courage to go meet Cortiula. I was a tad nervous, for I had made an embarrassing blunder in an email to him earlier that year. I was writing to inform him of my cookbook project and upcoming visit; somehow I got my vowels mixed up and addressed him as the female “Daniela” rather than the male “Daniele.” I made no mention of my error and couldn’t tell if he remembered, but still I felt that his reception was a bit chilly. Nevertheless, he agreed to prepare a couple of Carnian dishes for me that evening.
In the meantime, I took a long stroll to explore the village. First, I headed to the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris, a barn-like factory that has been producing its special brand of smoked prosciutto since 1862. A tour bus sat outside waiting for a group of older folk to finish their guided visit. Upon inquiring, I was told that they only offer guided tours to large groups; however, there was a group scheduled for Friday at 3:30pm, and I was invited to tag along.
Next, I discovered the Tessitura Artigiana di Sauris, a shop specializing in traditional Carnian textiles. I selected and purchased four handwoven placemats—which I would later use as props when photographing my recipes—and then paid a visit to the onion-domed Chiesa di Sant’Osvaldo.
At the tourist office, I saw a flyer advertising an excursion to two local malghe, or “dairy farms,” high up in the mountains above Sauris di Sopra. The hike was scheduled for Saturday and would take six hours round-trip, with the closest malga being about an hour and a half away. I wasn’t sure I’d be up for a six-hour hike, but I thought perhaps, one of these days, I could undertake the hike to the first malga on my own.
For dinner, I returned to Ristorante Kursaal, which was still surprisingly empty. The first dish Cortiula prepared for me was toç in braide: a bowl of soupy polenta topped with a sauce of thinned ricotta, a pile of sautéed mushrooms, and a drizzle of toasted cornmeal in browned butter. Next came a plate of blècs: buckwheat pasta cut into triangles and topped with sautéed mushrooms and grated Montasio. Depending on the season, the thick, chewy pasta can be served with any number of toppings, from meat to vegetables to cheese.
As I ate, the waitresses intermittently passed through the dining room but seemed to avoid making eye contact with me. All of our exchanges were short and terse, even though I expressed a genuine interest in the preparation of the two dishes. Were the women merely tired and bored, or were they being intentionally brusque? This was quite unlike my typical experience here; most of the time, I had found Friulians to be exceptionally gracious. While the meal more than satisfied my hunger—it helped me to further appreciate the region’s history by experiencing its traditional cucina povera (cooking of the poor)—I was beginning to feel a dissatisfaction creep up on me. With the staff treating me so coldly and the room still devoid of other diners, I felt lonelier than I had in many years.
Back at Hotel Morgenleit, instead of retiring directly to my room as usual, I wandered around the halls and stumbled by chance upon a game room. While browsing the bookshelves—being particularly intrigued by a cookbook entitled Cucina & Vini Friulani nel Mondo—the room was suddenly stormed by a couple dozen screaming young boys. Although I yearned for company, this was not the company I desired, so I borrowed the book and fled to my room for the night.
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