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berriesIt was the day of the Festa dei Frutti di Bosco in Forni Avoltri, and gauging by the number of tables set up, it looked to be the largest of the food festivals I had so far attended. The village straddled the Degano River, and most of the events were taking place on the farther side. Carnival rides had been erected in an empty parking lot, and rows of booths wound upward through the streets. By this time, I had started to recognize some of the same artisans at each festival—selling crafts such as jewelry, woodwork, paintings, dried flowers, and soap.

Forni Avoltri Though I was tempted by the vast array of food stands, I decided to wait and eat a little closer to lunchtime. So I took a short hike up into the mountains, past a dribbling brook and miniature waterfall, to the hamlet of Pierabach. The road was paved but climbed steadily uphill the entire way. I stopped after about an hour, when I had reached the Goccia di Carnia plant, where fresh spring water is bottled for sale.

Along the way, I had passed Osteria Al Fogolâr, one of the restaurants I had read about but hadn’t been able to find on my initial day of exploration. It was only 10:30am, however—still too early for lunch. Later, on my way back down to Forni Avoltri, I peeked in to see if there were any tables available, but by then the place was completely packed. No matter, I told myself, since I had planned on eating lunch at the festival anyhow.

In addition to handing out samples of prosciutto and cheese, vendors were selling sausages, herb-filled tortelli, barley soup, and of course, frico. But as always, I couldn’t resist trying the cjarsòns. I slid to the rear of the long line to wait, and to my surprise, standing in front of me were none other than Giacomo del Fabbro, president of the Centro Culturale and host of the previous evening’s cookbook event, and the mayor, whom I also recognized from the event. When they saw me, I got a major chiding from both of them for leaving the book-signing prematurely. I had assumed that the event was over when, at 10:00pm, everyone stood up and headed for the door. Apparently, that had only been the intermission. Later, there had been a food tasting, and I had missed it! I really kicked myself for that mistake, but it just shows how badly the fatigue of traveling was beginning to affect me.

After the scolding, the mayor handed me a free voucher for the cjarsòns. Then, following an interminably long wait, I finally got my plate. By this time on my trip, my standards for cjarsòns had been set extremely high. Regrettably, these fell a bit short. Made with a potato-based dough, they were heavy and doughy, over-sweetened and overcooked, and I could only bring myself to eat one.

jellyrollLuckily, my lunch was redeemed by the elaborate spread of sweets. Countless stands were serving up cookies, crêpes, frittelle (fritters), and even gelato, but the biggest tent of all held a vast display of berry-themed desserts. There were cakes and pies of all shapes and sizes, from jellyrolls decorated with whipped cream to tarts studded with a kaleidoscope of fruit. Everything featured wild berries—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, red currants, and even gooseberries. I chose for my treat a huge slice of crostata with a thick cookie crust, mixed berry jam, and fresh blueberries peeking through the lattice top.

Forni Avoltri paradeAfter a brief rest in my room at Hotel Scarpone, I went back out in the afternoon to see the parade. Townspeople were dressed in rich medieval costumes—velvet gowns and brocade tunics, complete with faux swords and shields. I followed the procession from the center of the festival back across the river, accompanied by drummers and minstrels, and followed by a logjam of cars, everyone trying to beat the traffic out of town.

At 5:00pm, I paid a visit to the town’s Collezione Etnografica, an ethnographical museum located down the street from my hotel. Though tiny, it showcased many aspects of traditional Carnian home life, including furniture, clothing, cookware, and crafts.

Afterward, I returned to my room to rest some more before dinner. I was quietly reading, when suddenly I heard the sound of trumpets blaring. I stuck my head out the window and saw a marching band heading down the street toward the town hall. Grabbing my room key, I dashed downstairs and followed the crowd to the piazza. A pompom-waving drill team was performing, after which the Miss Carnia beauty pageant was announced. Eight model-thin girls proceeded to compete in three outfits: t-shirt and pants (or skirt), formal dress, and swimsuit. The microphone was broken, so no one could hear the announcements, but I stayed the full 90 minutes to see which waif would win the title.

It was my final night in Forni Avoltri, and not having made a reservation elsewhere, I took a chance on dinner in my hotel again. Of course, the frico was still not available, but they did have the cjarsòns. I ordered those, along with a light second course of prosciutto e melone and an insalata mista. Unfortunately, it appeared that the cjarsòns were the exact same ones being served at the festival—it did seem plausible that the hotel could have catered the event. At least these tasted fresh, though the filling was ice cold. For once, I voiced my dissatisfaction, though no offer was made to bring a new plate. As I was eating, I noticed another table being served pizzas, which were not even listed on my menu! Yet again, I was flummoxed by the obviously disparate menus. Later, when the waitress came to inquire about dessert, I had to remind her that she had not yet brought my salad. When it was finally time for dessert, I requested only a couple of apricots, which were served with knife and fork, just like my grapes two nights earlier. One of the apricots, however, was moldy inside. This time, I didn’t bother to complain; I just left the fruit open-side up on my plate, its blue and white fuzz clearly visible.

crostata alla marmellataHere is my recipe for crostata alla marmellata, inspired by the mixed berry jam tarts at both Forni Avoltri’s Festa dei Frutti di Bosco and Sauris’s Festa del Prosciutto:

Marmellata:
1 cup fresh blackberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and grated (or puréed in a food processor)
2-1/2 cups sugar

Place the blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and apple in a large pot, mashing slightly with a spoon. Cook over medium heat until the berries soften and release a little of their juice, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar. When the liquid begins to boil, reduce heat to low; cook until thickened, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. (When the jam is ready, a small amount of syrup will hold its shape when cooled. To test, dip a spoon into the liquid; as it cools, the syrup will thicken and coat the spoon.) Transfer the jam to a medium bowl; cool to room temperature.

Dough:
2 cups blanched slivered almonds
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 eggs

1. Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Transfer to a large bowl; stir in the flour, sugar, lemon peel, salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Blend in the butter, a little at a time, until crumbly. Add the eggs; mix until the dough forms a solid mass. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide the dough into two parts, about two-thirds for the bottom crust and one-third for the lattice top. (Keep the reserved third of dough refrigerated until ready to use.) Roll the dough on a lightly floured sheet of waxed paper to form a 10- by 15-inch rectangle. Invert the dough onto a greased 10- by 15-inch baking sheet. (Any rough or broken areas may be easily patched.) Spread the jam over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border on all sides. Roll out the reserved third of dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 3/4-inch-wide strips; arrange the strips over the jam to make a lattice crust. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

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torta RigojanciFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Torta Rigojanci (Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Cream Filling) in honor of Valentine’s Day. This decadent mousse-filled cake was named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist Jancsi Rigó (or Rigó Jancsi, as Hungarian names are written surname first ). It was the late 19th century, and he was playing at a Parisian hotel, where Baron Chimay and his American wife, Klara, a millionaire’s daughter, were in the audience. The beautiful baroness was so captivated by the gypsy that she seductively slipped her own diamond ring onto his finger. It was not long before Klara left her husband and children for her new sweetheart. During the height of this worldwide scandal, a Budapest pastry chef named his newest sinful dessert after the infamous violinist. Sadly, the love affair didn’t last, but Jancsi’s passionate fling has been forever immortalized in chocolate. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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CugulufFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Cuguluf (Chocolate-Marbled Pound Cake). Called “kugelhupf” in German, this cake would make an elegant addition to any holiday brunch. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Cividale's Ponte del DiavoloWhen traveling, there is almost no feeling worse than that of waking up sick. This was my fate one chilly winter morning in Udine. Always being prepared for the worst, I was well stocked with cold meds. I grabbed a lozenge for my sore throat, rolled over in my hotel bed, and went back to sleep. When I awoke several hours later, I determined that I didn’t have the flu, just a cold, and so decided to venture out anyway. I chose the easiest, quickest day trip from Udine: Cividale del Friuli, a delightful medieval town on the banks of the Natisone River.

I took the 10:30 train and arrived within 20 minutes. A short walk from the station brought me to Piazza Alberto Picco and the town’s most revered bakery, Pasticceria Ducale. The display counters were brimming with chocolate-glazed, fruit-filled, and sugar-dusted pastries, but I chose instead to buy the town’s signature dessert, gubana—a large, spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. (I should say, to be more accurate, “gubana delle Valli del Natisone,” since there are two types of gubana, the other being “gubana Cividalese.”) While much gubana is nowadays mass-produced, such as the popular Vogrig brand, Pasticceria Ducale is one of the few bakeries still baking it the old-fashioned way.

gubana cividaleseWhile making my purchase, I explained my project to the signora and asked one of my most nagging questions: Is there any difference between gubana and the similar-looking pastries from Trieste, putizza and presnitz, or are they simply regional names for the same dessert? She explained that Trieste’s putizza contains chocolate, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone does not; otherwise they are very much the same. She also believed that gubana Cividalese and presnitz were identical, being made with puff pastry instead of yeast dough. (Since then I have learned that, while this may be true for modern versions of the pastries, historically there is one important difference. Because Trieste’s wealth during the Hapsburg era brought an increased availability of exotic imports such as spices, nuts, and liqueurs, presnitz was considered a more refined pastry and typically comprised a significantly longer ingredient list than gubana.)

Dulcis in FundoWhen I timidly made my standard request for a recipe, she stepped into the back room and brought out a beautiful cookbook that featured their bakery’s version of gubana. Called Dulcis in Fundo (a play on words that means literally “sweet at the bottom” and figuratively “to save the best for last”), the book was a compilation of recipes from Friuli’s most prestigious bakeries. Divided into four sections corresponding to the region’s four provinces, it was filled with gorgeous color photos and thorough information on the culinary history of Friuli’s desserts. To my surprise, she proceeded to give me the book as a gift! So far, this was one of the nicest gestures anyone had shown me and truly demonstrates the inherent kindness of the Friulian people. To this day, I treasure this cookbook as one of my favorites.

Since I had previously been to many of the town’s main sights—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Tempietto Longobardo, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, Ipogeo Celtico—this visit I was more interested in the town’s bakeries. I next strolled to Panificio Cattarossi, located near the entrance to the Ponte del Diavolo. There I sampled a tiny gubanetta Cividalese, a palm-sized spiral of puff pastry prepared with the same ingredients as the larger, snake-like gubana Cividalese.

Ristorante Al MonasteroThe sky was overcast and threatened snow. I shivered inside my down-filled jacket, longing for something to warm me up—perhaps a hearty stew. Just as the clock struck noon, I turned into Ristorante Al Monastero. Instantly, I was warmed by the fire in the fogolâr (fireplace) in one of the cozy back rooms. A chubby Bacchus peered down from a fresco set amid wooden panels in the ceiling. Grape-motif plates and yellow tablecloths completed the elegantly rustic picture.

To start, I ordered cjalsòns, which had become a must-have for me in any restaurant. I was determined to try as many varieties as possible. These were three rather large half-moons, made with potato-based dough and stuffed with spinach, raisins, and pinenuts. Instead of the usual butter, these were served in a cream sauce, but did come with the typical topping of cinnamon and ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese). Overall, they were a bit heavy and not as flavorful as the cjalsòns that had enchanted me several years earlier. I was learning that I prefer a lighter pasta dough to this doughy, gnocchi-like version.

Next, I satisfied my craving for stew with a generous plate of goulasch. Tender chunks of beef were simmered in a rich, spicy sauce redolent of red wine and paprika and served with grilled polenta, roasted potatoes, and veggies. Although goulasch, or “gulyas,” is Hungarian by origin, it has become a staple in restaurants throughout Friuli-Venezia Giulia, since the region was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Udine's Casa VenezianaAfter my leisurely lunch, the weather had turned even nippier. Seeing as all the shops were closed for the afternoon, I took the train back to Udine right away. Once there, I embarked on a two-hour passeggiata that circled past Udine’s main sights in the Venetian-styled Piazza della Libertà, over the hill to the vast, round Piazza Primo Maggio, along the murky canal on Via Zanon, and winding up in Piazza XX Settembre to see the stately Casa Veneziana. Originally built several blocks away on Via Rialto, this immense, stone palazzo was reconstructed here in 1929 to make way for a new municipal building. Its dull, grayish-pink façade is marked by arched Gothic-style windows, Udine’s coat of arms, and a crest of the winged lion. (Having served as a parking lot for many years, Piazza XX Settembre was renovated in 2010 as a pedestrian area with farmers’ markets, free Wi-Fi, and a book-exchange program.)

By this time, my cold was progressing, and I couldn’t face the thought of braving the elements later that evening. So instead of planning a dinner out, I stopped by a market on Via Roma for some prosciutto di Sauris, Montasio cheese and grilled zucchini. After a light picnic in my room—and a slice of that gubana for dessert—I was fast asleep by 8:30pm. Dulcis in fundo!

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fave dei mortiMy recipe for Fave dei Morti (Almond Cookies), as excerpted from Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy,  is featured today at www.chicgalleria.com. Translated literally as “beans of the dead,” Italian fave dei morti cookies are typically prepared during the months of October and November to celebrate All Saints’ Day. This recipe was given to me by the Stoppar family at Pasticceria Penso in Trieste.

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My recipe for Dobos Torte (Layer Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting and Caramel Glaze), as excerpted from Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy,  has been featured at www.chicgalleria.com.

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My recipe for Crostata alla Marmellata (mixed berry jam tart), as excerpted from Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy,  has been featured at www.chicgalleria.com.

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My recipe for Rigo Jancsi (Hungarian chocolate mousse cake), as excerpted from Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy,  was featured last week at www.chicgalleria.com.

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It was a blustery February morning, and I had returned to Pasticceria Penso, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries, to inquire about some local dessert recipes. Several days prior, I had peeked in the shop, but it had quickly grown too busy for me to disturb the clerk, Silvana, with my questions. This time, perhaps the weather had deterred the crowds, for I was greeted graciously by Rosanna, the matriarch of the family. She offered me a freshly baked napoletana (puff pastry filled with pastry cream) and whisked me behind the counter and into the kitchen, where her husband (and the bakery’s owner), Italo Stoppar, and his two sons, Antonello and Lorenzo, had just pulled a couple dozen chocolate cakes out of the oven.

Italo explained that they were making torta Sacher (called sachertorte in German). Like dobostorte, kugelhupf, and apple strudel, sachertorte is one of the fancy Viennese desserts to find its way into Friuli, by way of the region’s Austrian heritage. The cake was created in 1832 by Franz Sacher, cook and pastry chef for the Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich. In 1876, the chef’s son Eduard founded Vienna’s elegant Hotel Sacher and has ensured that the family recipe be kept a guarded secret.

When the cakes had cooled sufficiently, Italo proceeded to slice them into two layers and trim off the rough edges. A huge bucket caught all the chocolate trimmings, and it was all I could do to keep myself from sneaking a handful. The next step was to douse the cakes with Maraschino liqueur (a trick that I later found not only gave the cake extra flavor but kept it nice and moist) and slather on the apricot jam. Finally, Antonello assembled the layers and glazed the cakes with a rich chocolate ganache, while Italo decorated the sides with chocolate sprinkles and piped the word “Sacher” on top. I was in chocolate heaven!

Before I said good-bye, the Stoppars lavished me with all sorts of treats: a whole presnitz (dried fruit and nut puff pastry spiral), pinza (sweet, round, brioche-like loaf), a slice of torta Sacher, and a promise to send me all the recipes that I had requested. Here is their version of torta Sacher:

Cake:
1/3 cup hazelnuts, skinned and toasted (see toasting instructions below)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup cake or pastry flour, sifted
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
Pinch salt
• • •
Apricot Glaze:
1/4 cup Maraschino liqueur
2/3 cup apricot jam
• • •
Chocolate Ganache:
4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
• • •
Chocolate sprinkles (optional)

Toasting the Hazelnuts:
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup water to a boil over high heat. Add 1/3 cup hazelnuts and 1 tablespoon baking soda; cook for 5 minutes. Remove the hazelnuts and place in a colander under cold running water; rub off and discard the skins. Transfer the skinned hazelnuts to a baking dish; toast until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool completely before using.

For the cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Finely grind the toasted hazelnuts in a food processor.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, adding the vanilla extract with the last yolk; beat the mixture until thick and pale in color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, cocoa powder, and ground hazelnuts. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Soften the batter by stirring in a little egg white; fold in the remaining egg whites.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured 8-inch round cake pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool 15 minutes before removing from the pan; cool completely before glazing.

For the glaze:
Slice the cake in half horizontally; shave a thin slice off the top layer to create a smooth surface. (Any air pockets may be filled in with the shaved-off pieces of cake.) Brush the Maraschino liqueur over the top and sides of both cake layers; repeat with the apricot jam. Stack the two cake layers on a wire rack.

For the ganache:
Melt the chocolate with the cream in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Pour the ganache over the top and sides of the cake. Decorate the sides of the cake with sprinkles, if desired. Using a large spatula, transfer the cake to a serving plate; refrigerate until the ganache has set.

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I had arrived in Trieste to begin the research for my book Flavors of Friuli. Being particularly interested in the city’s local foods, I set out first thing in the morning for the waterfront, to what was labeled on my map as the Pescheria, or “fish market.” What the guidebook had failed to mention, however, was that the immense, brick structure had long ago been converted into an exhibition hall. The side of the building nearest its clock tower also contained the city’s aquarium.

Having previously visited aquariums in Milan and on the island of Elba, I felt compelled to see what Trieste’s had to offer. I should mention first that I live in San Francisco, just a couple hours from the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium—so I was clearly destined for disappointment. The first floor held a pair of lonely penguins, a coral reef tank with two brightly colored fish, and an octagonal tank with some sharks and rays. Upstairs housed the reptiles and amphibians, but it seemed that all the snakes and lizards were asleep. The only active creature was a snapping turtle that had been confiscated as an illegal pet—its shell had sadly been deformed from malnutrition.

When I left the aquarium, the sun had finally come out, and although the air was still frosty, I felt invigorated sitting in the vast Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia. For the first time, I was able to admire the sun reflecting off the brilliant gold mosaics on the Palazzo del Governo. It was still too early for lunch, but I decided to do some “recon” work, scoping out the countless restaurants on my list. Most were still closed, but I studied the menus that they typically post outside the door. Around 11:30 I came across one spot that was already open, Buffet Da Gildo. The menu outside listed gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi) and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew)—two of the dishes on my “to try” list. Unfortunately, there was no menu inside. The waitress quickly rattled off a couple choices: one soup and one pasta. I ordered jota, a soup prepared with beans, potatoes, and sauerkraut that is considered one of Trieste’s native dishes.

Later, I stopped by Pasticceria Bomboniera, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries (Pasticceria Penso, which I had visited the previous day, and Pasticceria Pirona are the others). I was still curious to taste the city’s three signature desserts—presnitz, putizza, and pinza—but I soon gathered that they are not typically sold by the slice. So in the spirit of research, I bought one of each and returned to my hotel room for a decadent midafternoon tasting. The presnitz was a puff pastry spiral filled with dried fruit and nuts, practically indistinguishable from gubana Cividalese. The pinza was a plain, sweet, round loaf, rather like brioche or challah, with a decoratively scored top. The putizza turned out to be my favorite—similar to the dried fruit and nut spiral cake called gubana delle Valli del Natisone but with two distinct differences: a much greater filling-to-dough ratio and, most importantly, it also contained chunks of dark chocolate. On a subsequent trip, I was able to acquire the bakery’s recipe, which was the inspiration for my version in Flavors of Friuli.

For dinner that evening, I chose Ristorante Al Granzo. As their personalized tableware affirmed, the restaurant has been in business since 1923. For my appetizer, I ordered granzievola alla Triestina (crabmeat cooked with garlic, parsley, and olive oil). Granzievola translates as “spiny spider crab,” and it is typically served in its shell. Anticipating that I would eventually need to shoot photos of all my recipes, I asked the waiter if he would wrap up the shell for me to take home. At first he was reluctant (I think the restaurant preferred to reuse their shells), but he agreed after I explained about my project. Was it my imagination or did I see the kitchen staff peer out at me and snicker?

The meal concluded with an uninspiring portion of homemade panzerotti al salmone (salmon-stuffed pasta in cream sauce) and a side of boiled spinach. The complimentary glass of prosecco was a welcome touch, but overall I found Al Granzo to be a bit stuffy. It didn’t help that I was the only guest in the dining room for my entire meal.

That evening, back in my hotel room, it was a nice surprise to discover the Valentine’s Day card my boyfriend (now husband) had hidden in the bottom of my suitcase!

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