The next morning, I was awakened by a rooster’s crow and the heavy patter of raindrops on my window. Outside, all of Sauris was bustling to prepare for the opening of the Festa del Prosciutto. At booths lining the streets all through town, vendors diligently unloaded their wares, tents having been erected to shelter them from the downpour. Lazily, I decided to spend a few more hours indoors, where it was dry and cozy. Just as I had done the other day, I took my laptop downstairs to the bar and spread my work out at a corner table. This time, however, the bar soon became a busy thoroughfare. With new faces continuously passing through—men or women pausing in their work to say a friendly ciao or mandi (the traditional Friulian greeting) to old acquaintances—the buzz of excitement was palpable.
Around noon, as if on cue, the rain began to taper off, and masses of visitors flooded the streets. After dropping my computer off in my room, I ventured outside, where there was already a long line forming at the nearest food tent. Its large menu, posted high above the register, featured a number of cheese plates, each one served with a slice of polenta. Among the listings were fresh and smoked ricotta, formaggio di malga, and formadi frant, but it was the top item, frico, that caught my eye. One of the dishes that had sparked my obsession with Friulian cooking, frico is essentially fried cheese—in this case, a pancake made with cheese and potatoes.
I waited a full half hour in line to order my plate. As I neared the front of the line, I could see two steaming cauldrons of polenta, the cooks standing watch, calmly stirring the bubbling mixture with wooden paddles as large as oars. When ready, the polenta was poured onto a board, quickly cooling into a two-foot-wide mass, and then sliced with a long piece of string. Unlike the bright yellow polenta in my fridge at home, this was darker—more of a goldenrod or yellow ochre color—and speckled with flecks of brown.
As I got closer, I could also see the frico being prepared. To my disappointment, they had been pre-made, each one packaged in a zippered plastic bag, and were being reheated in a microwave oven. With thousands of people expected to descend on the festival over this two-weekend period, I should not have hoped for anything more—how could such a small team of cooks be expected to prepare that many frico to order?—but I was nevertheless dismayed to find the center cold and the usually crisp exterior soggy. As I stood off to the side eating (though not truly enjoying) my lunch, a trio of musicians marched down the hill and into the tent. To the peppy oom-pah-pah tunes of an accordion, tuba, and guitar, people around me began tapping their feet, swaying, and belting out lyrics as if in a Munich beer hall.
After I had finished eating, I spent the next couple hours exploring the various booths and food stands. Naturally, there was plenty of prosciutto di Sauris to sample, as well as many other types of salumi produced at the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. Then, there were the cheese vendors. One in particular specialized in frant, a cheese made by mixing other cheeses in various stages of maturation. I tasted two varieties; unlike the pungent, golden-hued frant I had tried in Cividale, these were white in color and had a tangy flavor reminiscent of sharp cheddar.
All sorts of artisanal products were for sale, vendors having driven from the far corners of Carnia to display their goods. Stacked high on tables were jars of homemade salsa piccante, a spicy purée of carrots and other vegetables; honey flavored by acacia, chestnut, and rhododendron; preserves made from apples and berries; and fruit syrups in such tantalizing flavors as dandelion, elderberry, and red currant. Bins overflowed with mushrooms, including fresh chanterelles and dried porcini, while pint-sized baskets were brimming with wild strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. Of course, there was also Zahre Beer, a local brand produced right there in Sauris.
As popular as beer seemed to be at the festival, grappa was a close second. Throughout the region, fruits such as apples, plums, and berries are used to make distilled wines and liqueurs. One such vendor offered me a taste of something in a Dixie cup, but his accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand exactly what it was. Bottles of Elisir di Mora and Elisir di Lampone (blackberry and raspberry liqueurs) stood on display, so I guessed it was one of those. Knowing the alcohol would be too strong for me (wine is more my speed), I tried to decline, but the gentleman was very insistent. I politely took a sip and then discreetly threw it in the trash once I was out of sight.
In addition to the food, there were dozens of craft tables at the festival—the same ones that I would start to recognize at each of the festivals I attended that summer—selling everything from soap and candles to dried flowers and woodcrafts. At one booth, I chanced to overhear someone speaking English. This was such a rarity in Friuli that I felt compelled to introduce myself. It was a young girl traveling with her aunt and grandfather, who was originally from Carnia. The family was spending summer vacation at their farm in Cleulis, a village just south of Timau.
As I wrapped up my tour of the festival, I found myself at the bottom of the hill in a tent filled with scrumptious-looking pastries. There had been other desserts available elsewhere—the ubiquitous gelato and some cups of fruit salad—but I knew immediately that I would have to buy something here. While I felt tempted by the apple strudel, what ultimately drew me in was the selection of crostate ai piccoli frutti. Topped with jam and a neatly woven lattice crust, these extra-large rectangles typified Carnia in a dessert: rustic, sweet but not overly sugary, and full of the wild berries so abundant in the area. While some were made with a cornmeal crust, I chose a regular one with crust much like a spiced shortbread cookie and topped with blackberry-blueberry jam.
When I emerged from the dessert tent, the crowds were growing even larger. Songs of two oompah bands, marching along different streets, fought for my ears’ attention as I made my way back to Hotel Morgenleit. Even though it was early July, the weather at this high mountain altitude had turned cool, and I was shivering without my jacket.
It was only 3:00pm, yet my room still hadn’t been made. I waited in the common room until the housekeeper was finished, then spent the rest of the afternoon writing in my room. I could still hear those competing oompah bands outside my window, but eventually I managed to tune them out and focus on my work.
At dinnertime, I went straight to Ristorante Alla Pace. Luckily, I had had the foresight to make a reservation, for the restaurant was nearly as jam-packed as the streets. I ordered the orzotto and an insalata mista. Prepared risotto-style, the barley dish was nicely al dente and soupy, topped with bits of crumbled sausage and sliced zucchini blossoms. For dessert, I couldn’t resist a slice of apple strudel—perhaps I was still reflecting on the one I had passed up earlier. With a filling of apples, raisins, walnuts, and pine nuts rolled up in paper-thin dough, the strudel was served warm and topped with powdered sugar, cinnamon, and a dollop of whipped cream.
As I hiked back up the hill toward my hotel, the street was still overflowing with people drinking beer from disposable yellow cups, the night air filled with music and laughter. Having read that there would be music and dancing until 1:00am, I crossed my fingers that my room would be quiet. I needed to get a good night’s sleep, for I had a demanding hike planned for the next day.
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