One evening, more than a dozen years ago, I was invited to a life-changing dinner at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo in Udine, Italy. Read my story “A Culinary Tale of Seduction” at bloggingauthors.com.
Posts Tagged ‘Friuli’
When I woke up the next morning, I turned on the news to hear reports of another heat wave sweeping Italy, with temperatures climbing once again into the upper 90s. I was glad to be in Carnia, cooled off by the refreshing breezes that swept effortlessly down from the mountaintops. For breakfast, I tried one of the crostate I had bought in Paularo. About three inches in diameter, the tart was made with a shortbread cookie crust and filled with raspberry jam. A thin glaze of gelatin glistened underneath the neatly woven lattice top.
My plan was to take the bus from Piano d’Arta into Tolmezzo for the day, but I had one errand I needed to do first. I wanted a photo of Albergo Ristorante Salon for my book Flavors of Friuli, but it was always too dark by the time I arrived there for dinner in the evening (I didn’t have a flash on my old SLR film camera). So I hiked up to the restaurant, where a group of older men sat lounging at the tables outside the entrance. I was relieved not to see the creepy guy who had tried to pick me up the previous night. The sun, however, was still low in the morning sky; the shadow cast across the front of the building meant that I would have to return for my photo later that afternoon.
With plenty of time to catch my bus, I ambled back down the hill to wait at the stop. Within minutes, a car drove by and parked across the street. It was the old sleazeball, stalking me again. He waved, got out of his car, and came to sit next to me on the bench. Had he spotted me at Salon and followed me? Or perhaps one of his cohorts had played the informer? This was starting to freak me out! Though he obviously didn’t speak any English—and I tried not to let on that I understood his Italian—he attempted to explain about the previous night, to make sure that I hadn’t misunderstood his intentions and that he hadn’t offended me. “Va bene,” I said, “non c’è problema. Arrivederci.” Instead of dropping the issue and moving on, he offered to drive me wherever I was going. Of course, I listened to my instincts and refused. But at the same time, I remembered overhearing him tell someone at dinner the night before that he was going to Tolmezzo today. With my luck, I would run into him there, too! Finally, my bus pulled up, giving me an excuse to flee.
When I arrived in Tolmezzo, I spent a long while wandering around the town center. Most of the shops were located on one main street, and it was here I spent most of my time. I found the arts and crafts galleries especially fun for window shopping. My favorite featured a display of fantastical characters, such as fairies, gnomes, and sbilfs (woodland elves in Carnian folklore). Other stores showcased locally made furniture, jewelry, and textiles. But it was at the bookstore that I felt most at home, browsing through the cookbook section and adding four Friulian cookbooks to my growing collection.
I was excited to see that the restaurant at Albergo Roma had finally reopened. Home to renowned Carnian chef Gianni Cosetti, it had closed for renovations after his death in 2001. But at lunchtime, I was the only guest in the massive banquet hall. With tables around me dressed in yellow and white linens and studded with crystal glasses and elegant china, I felt uncomfortably out of place in my casual shorts and hiking boots. When the menu arrived, I was disappointed not to find any of the traditional dishes that Cosetti was known for—little, in fact, that sounded even remotely Friulian. Apparently, the new chef had made significant changes to the menu. Feeling rather awkward, I tiptoed out before the waitress could return.
To this day, I still feel somewhat ashamed of myself, since the food at Roma was most likely very good. Nevertheless, it was my mission to scope out authentic Friulian cooking. There was not nearly enough time on my trip to visit every restaurant in each town—and therefore very little room for error—so I headed to a place where I knew I would find exactly what I was looking for: Antica Trattoria Cooperativa.
There, I started with the insalata di pere e Montasio, a salad of lightly dressed greens topped with pear slices and a pile of shredded fresh Montasio cheese. I didn’t recognize the spice that garnished the dish, but when I inquired, I learned it was, of all things, ground coriander. Next, I ordered the cjarsòns, which came in both savory and sweet varieties. I requested half a serving of each type. The savory cjarsòns were filled with herbs and ricotta, while the sweet ones contained ricotta, raisins, and cocoa. Both were prepared with a rather heavy potato-based dough and served in melted butter.
On the bus back to Piano d’Arta, I breathed a sigh of relief, as it occurred to me that I had managed to avoid running into that obnoxious guy in Tolmezzo. Whew! Before returning to my hotel to rest, I made another trip up to Ristorante Salon. The same group of old men was still sitting outside—and my “friend” had since joined them. Although the courtyard entrance was still somewhat shaded, the sun was in a better position, and I was able to get my photo within minutes. This time, I slipped away without being followed.
Several hours later, I returned to Salon for one final dinner. It was the busiest I had ever seen it there. A large tour group filled an adjacent dining area, everyone seated at one long table. Shortly after I sat down in my usual spot, the proprietor’s wife, Fides Salon, took a brief break from her duties in the kitchen to come greet me. We were cut short as the regular guests—all the families, couples, and singles that I had grown accustomed to seeing over the past several evenings—filed in, as if on cue. Being the only server, Matteo began bustling from table to table, rattling off the day’s specials. Despite the frenetic pace, he never lost his boyish ebullience.
I couldn’t resist ordering the cjarsòns one last time. In contrast to the doughy ones I had for lunch in Tolmezzo, these were prepared with regular pasta dough, delicate enough to allow all the flavors of the dish to shine through. The first element to register on my palate was the undercurrent of sweetness—not rich but rather ethereal from a light touch of sugar and crushed biscotti. Apples, pears, dried fruit, jam, and lemon peel balanced the sugar with just the right amount of tartness. Hints of salty and smoky savoriness peeked through from the butter and ricotta affumicata. Finally, the cinnamon, cocoa, and herbs proffered an exotic complexity of tastes and aromas that lingered on my tongue long after the last bite.
As usual, I ordered a salad to go with my meal. The array of choices on Matteo’s rolling cart was beyond compare. In addition to the usual fresh ingredients—greens, radicchio, tomato, shredded carrot—there was always a variety of cooked vegetables as well. This time, I selected a mix of string beans, yellow bell peppers, and tomato. Unexpectedly, Matteo also brought me a small side of purè (mashed potatoes), a complimentary gift from the kitchen.
Even though I was too full for dessert, I remained at my table long after most of the original diners had left. My stalker had finished his dinner and was now sipping an espresso at the bar. Six tables—guests that had arrived much later—were still being served. I was hoping to have one more opportunity to speak with Bepi Salon, so I waited and waited. Finally, when I had a chance to get Matteo’s attention, I learned that Bepi had had to leave early. Despite my disappointment, I felt gratified to have had the honor of meeting both Bepi and Fides on this trip.
When I left, the sleazeball was now outside in his usual spot, smoking and chatting with the same cluster of old men. This time, he jumped up and started to follow me on foot! He caught up with me at the base of the hill and asked if I wanted to accompany him to a Latin American dance somewhere in town. This was the third instance he had followed me from the restaurant, and once again, I vehemently declined the offer. Tomorrow I would be leaving for Ravascletto—while I knew I would seriously miss Salon’s cjarsòns, I was greatly relieved to get away from this guy once and for all.
Yesterday marked the 3-year anniversary of the passing of Bepi Salon, former proprietor of Albergo Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme. Here are some wonderful words in his memory, from http://fattoincasa.wordpress.com/. (Bepi’s wife, Fides, passed away just last month, November 2013.) Riposa in pace.
Originally posted on IN TAVOLA:
Sabato 4 dicembre è mancato Bepi Salon, figura fondamentale dell’essere albergatore in Carnia. Molti articoli nei giorni scorsi hanno ricordato tutte le conquiste fatte in una vita di passione dedicata alla Carnia, territorio da vivere in prima persona e far scoprire ai fortunati che scelgono di visitarla. Di seguito alcuni ricordi.
Ci siamo ritrovate vicino al fogolâr dell’Albergo Salon. Quattro generazioni di donne, ciascuna con i propri ricordi, alcuni pronti per essere condivisi, altri intimamente conservati. Il fogolâr che Bepi Salon amava indicare come il luogo in cui era nato, simbolo che probabilmente rappresenta in maniera più diretta l’essenza stessa del suo lavoro: la calorosità dell’accoglienza che trasformava dei semplici clienti in ospiti, amici da accogliere nella propria casa.
During my three weeks in Carnia, I planned to visit at least one town in each of the area’s seven valleys. Today, I would be taking a bus to Paularo, in the Valle del Chiarsò, Carnia’s easternmost valley. But first, I wanted to revisit Zuglio. The town was within walking distance from Piano d’Arta, although the sharp turns and lack of shoulder along the highway made for a harrowing half-hour’s walk. Founded by the Romans between 58 and 49 BC, Zuglio still has a section of ancient ruins standing in the center of town. I stayed just long enough to take some photos before heading back.
This time, I walked only as far as Arta Terme (Piano d’Arta was another 20 minutes further up the hill), so that I could catch the bus to Tolmezzo, where I would then change buses for Paularo. As I boarded my first bus, I immediately recognized the driver I had met the previous day on my way back from Timau. Even though it was his regular route, he was not driving but sitting toward the rear. With the comfortable familiarity that one quickly develops in such remote areas as this, I joined him across the aisle so that we could chat for the brief 10-minute journey. It occurred to me, in that moment, that I was just beginning to feel at home here.
Once in Tolmezzo, I transferred to the bus headed for Paularo. For some mysterious reason, this bus took an unscheduled detour through, of all places, Zuglio and Arta Terme! It stopped at precisely the bus stop where I had caught the earlier bus to Tolmezzo. If only I had known, I would have saved myself one bus ticket and an entire hour.
I arrived in Paularo with a bit of time to wander around before lunch. After spotting a bakery, I bought two types of crostata that I would save for my next couple breakfasts: a round tart with raspberry jam on a shortbread crust and a rectangular slice with blueberry jam and a lattice top.
For lunch, I had one particular restaurant in mind, Ristorante Al Cavallino, and I was relieved to find it open. Given my current obsession with cjarsòns, I was excited to see the dish on the menu, but for the first time in my experience, it was listed as a dessert. So for my entrée, I ordered the gnocchi antichi sapori, which turned out to be tantamount to cjarsòns. Even though they were prepared with potato-based dough rather than regular pasta dough, the decorative pinched edges very closely resembled the shape of the cjarsòns at Ristorante Salon. The flavor, however, was not sweet but savory, with a complex filling of many ingredients. My palate detected pork, bread crumbs, and some herbs that I guessed might be oregano and mint. They were served in melted butter, with a topping of toasted cornmeal, dried herbs, and melted cheese. As I was enjoying my meal, trying to dissect the flavors, the waitress came by to check on me. As was my custom, I inquired about the recipe. Coyly, she replied that it was a secret. Pressing her further, I asked if I tasted pork. Sì. Mint? Sì. Oregano? No. Perhaps the dried herb on top was in fact mint, but her lips were sealed—I would never uncover the truth.
For dessert, I eagerly ordered the cjarsòns dolci. Also made with potato dough, they looked practically identical to the gnocchi, but with a topping of cinnamon, sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Letting my palate guide me, I searched for the flavors of the filling. It was smooth and dark and sweet—my first and only guess was chocolate. The waitress shook her head. The filling was in fact made with ricotta and pears—no chocolate! Even as I finished my plate, I could hardly believe that it was not chocolate I tasted. It seemed impossible for such richness to come from fruit alone.
By this point, I had explained to the waitress that I was writing a cookbook. With sudden enthusiasm, she brought me a glass of homemade raspberry grappa—which I politely tasted, even though I found it too strong—as well as the gift of a hand-painted plate bearing the name Al Cavallino.
After lunch, I took a walk up into the hills above the town, admiring the rustic architecture typical of this part of Carnia: whitewashed masonry with dark wooden roofs and balconies. Outside each house, in row upon row of window boxes, bloomed a veritable rainbow of flowers. One 18th-century palazzo was now home to a museum called La Mozartina, featuring a collection of musical instruments and manuscripts. Unfortunately, the museum was open by appointment only, and I had not planned well enough in advance.
Back in Piano d’Arta that evening, I returned to Albergo Ristorante Salon for dinner. It was my third dinner there in a row, and I was beginning to recognize many of the same faces. It seemed that all the other diners were staying in the hotel, for they were ordering off the daily pensione menu, which Matteo recited at each table. Hearing only three choices of primi piatti and three choices of secondi piatti—all rather standard fare—made me feel grateful to be ordering off their regular, and more interesting, menu.
Tonight, I went with the capriolo in salmì, along with my usual insalata mista. The venison was stewed with juniper berries and served with polenta. My choice off Matteo’s rolling salad cart was a mix of roasted yellow peppers, potatoes, and string beans. When I finished eating, Matteo asked, with his characteristic boyish smile, if I might like something for dessert. I couldn’t resist the enticing manner in which he suggested, “Forse un po’ di sacherina?” So I indulged in “a little sachertorte,” although it was somewhat disappointing compared to the traditional Viennese version. Instead of the customary apricot jam, this cake was filled with cocoa-flavored whipped cream. On a positive note the chocolate cake was kept nice and moist by a generous dousing of grappa.
I lingered awhile afterward, in hopes that proprietor Bepi Salon would make an appearance. When he had finished eating his dinner in the kitchen, he finally came out to greet me and all the other guests. He did seem to be in a hurry, for he didn’t have the time to sit and chat as we had on my first evening. I did, however, manage to wrangle Matteo away from his duties long enough to snap a couple photos of him behind the bar.
It was getting late when I left the restaurant for the short walk back to Hotel Poldo. As I reached the bottom of the hill by the gray stone Latteria Cjarsòns building, I spotted one of the guests from dinner. An older man, perhaps in his late 50s or early 60s, he was leaning casually against his car—which was awkwardly parked in the intersection—and smoking a cigarette. Although I paid him no attention as I approached along the other side of the street, he called out to me in Italian, asking if I would like to go somewhere with him. As I pretended not to understand, it occurred to me that he had still been sitting at his table in the restaurant when I had left, just minutes earlier. Had he seen me leave and then jumped into his car to catch up to me? Was he actually stalking me? Aside from the fact that I was only 35—not to mention engaged with a ring conspicuously on my finger—this man struck me as sleazy and obnoxious. I said, “No,” with as much conviction and disdain as I could muster, and continued on my way.
Even though it was mid-July, the weather in Carnia remained rather cool. In fact, my room at Hotel Poldo was downright chilly, forcing me to dig two extra blankets out of the armoire in the middle of the night. In the morning, my hopes were up for a fantastic breakfast—when I had checked in the previous day, the staff had described a spread of prosciutto, cheese, yogurt, and pastries. Alas, there was no prosciutto nor cheese, but there was yogurt, some pound cake, cookies, the usual rolls and packaged toast with jam, and an odd red juice that tasted like fruit punch.
Despite my failed attempt in Sauris, I was still determined to find a malga. My plan for the day was to visit Malga Pramosio, located in the mountains along the Austrian border. Also an agriturismo offering both food and lodging, this dairy farm was accessible by car from the hamlet of Laipacco. Without a car, however, I was obliged to undertake another hike.
First, I took a bus from Piano d’Arta north to the town of Timau, where, after searching the treeline at the base of the mountain, I found the entrance to the footpath. Cut through the beech forest called Bosco Bandito, the trail was incredibly steep and almost nonexistent in the less trodden spots. Like the typical Italian hiking path, red and white stripes marked the trees sporadically, but this trail was so overgrown in places that I often feared I might be lost. Inevitably, I always came upon another faint yet reassuring stripe of paint. Ninety minutes and 2,300 vertical feet later, I managed to reach the summit, where the woods gave way to a rolling, green meadow. Gray clouds loomed over the towering granite peaks that surrounded me, so I hurried down the lengthy path to the red-roofed, stone malga. I was disappointed to find no cows anywhere in sight—they were grazing in a higher pasture during the day, I later learned—but this time, at least, the malga was open.
Inside, a fogolâr (fireplace) roared, filling the entryway with thick smoke. As I sat at one of the communal wooden tables, waiting for the waitress to come by, I overheard someone speaking English—a real rarity in this corner of Italy. I went over to introduce myself and found there to be an entire family: a husband and wife, their two young children, the husband’s cousin and his wife. The husband was in the military, formerly stationed in Vicenza for eight years and currently living with his family in Stuttgart, Germany. The cousin and his wife lived in southern California. The family’s ancestors were from a small town near Maniago, and the group was taking a sort of family heritage tour of the region, with a special focus on its military museums and monuments.
They invited me to join them at their table, and I ordered a plate of frico con polenta. Crispy on the outside and soft and gooey in the center, the cheese and potato pancake was served with a side of soft, freshly made polenta. The others all ordered the gnocchi. Stuffed with herbs and cheese, these dumplings were rather like a savory version of cjalsòns.
After lunch, the family arranged an informal tour of the malga’s cheese-making rooms, and I tagged along. On a shelf across one wall sat stacks of metal ring molds that were squeezing the liquid out of newly formed wheels of cheese. Nearby, ricotta—made from reheating whey and extracting the curds—was wrapped in cheesecloth and piled onto wooden planks; heavy iron weights sat on top to press out the excess liquid. In the next room, rounds of cheese were soaking in a vat of salted water to make formaggio salato (salted cheese). Many more wheels, in various stages of aging, were stacked high to the ceiling. A worker wearing a green Alpine cap gave each of us a sample of an 11-month-old formaggio di malga, which had a deliciously nutty yet mellow flavor.
As we were leaving, trepidation began to set in about my return hike. Hesitantly, I asked this family if I might have a ride down the mountain. There was just enough room for me in their rented minivan, so they dropped me off in Timau on their way north to Austria, where they were planning to spend the afternoon.
I missed my return bus by just ten minutes and had a full hour and a half to wait for the next one. There wasn’t much to see in the town—only the unusual, modern façade of the Chiesa di Cristo Re, with its three rounded, bluish arches—so I found a spot to sit by the curb and rest, my eyes gazing skyward toward the mountain’s summit.
As the bus was empty when I boarded, I sat near the driver. A young man with stereotypically handsome Italian features, he demonstrated none of the cockiness that so often comes with such good looks. As we chatted, he showed a genuine interest in my day’s adventure and told me how he went skiing on that very mountain every winter.
That evening, I headed up to Ristorante Salon once again for dinner. I began by ordering the flan di funghi, a mini mushroom soufflé served with creamy Montasio cheese sauce and sautéed mushrooms. Next, I had the gulash and an insalata mista. Compared to many of the other versions I had tried over the past several years of research, this gulash was rather uninspiring. It didn’t help that the side of four small boiled potatoes was equally bland. As always, Matteo prepared my salad to order. From his rolling cart, I chose a simple combination of fresh greens, tomato slices, and shredded carrot.
I had hoped to speak with Bepi Salon again, but unfortunately he wasn’t there. At least I would have two more dinners in Arta Terme—I was counting on meeting the sprightly proprietor once more before it was time to move on.