For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Trota al Burro e Salvia (Trout with Butter and Sage), a light entrée perfect for summertime. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.
Posts Tagged ‘Friuli’
The early morning air was already hot and muggy, without even the slightest breeze to temper the oppressive heat. With only a couple more days left in Udine before the end of my five-week-long trip, I decided to revisit the town of Spilimbergo.
My hope was to find a restaurant that served balote: cheese-filled polenta balls, native to the mountains north of Pordenone. According to local tradition, when a young man wanted to propose marriage, he would present an offering of balote to the potential bride’s family; if the balote were immediately placed on the fogolâr (fireplace) to roast, it was understood that he had the family’s approval.
I took the train to Pordenone and then caught a bus to Spilimbergo. Mike and I had driven through the town in May of the previous year, but since we were on our way to Carnia, with several stops to make en route, we didn’t have long to explore. This trip, I had plenty of time to visit the main sights. First, I set out to locate some of Spilimbergo’s famous painted palazzi. One of the most well-known was the Palazzo Ercole (a.k.a. Casa Dipinta), whose frescoes illustrated scenes from the mythical life of Hercules. Then, after a bit of an uphill hike, I found the brilliantly painted Palazzo di Sopra, home to Spilimbergo’s town hall. Set amid a neatly manicured lawn and framed by two tall palm trees, its white façade was decorated with intricate yellow designs and a Venetian winged lion of Saint Mark.
I was especially looking forward to seeing the frescoes on the exterior of the 15th-century Palazzo Dipinto, but when I reached the courtyard of the Castello di Spilimbergo where they were located, I was dismayed to find all the frescoes shrouded in scaffolding. My disappointment, however, was short-lived—my spirits soon lifted as I came upon the sunny Duomo di Santa Maria Maggiore, whose yellow Romanesque Gothic façade featured a pattern of circular cutout windows.
At lunchtime, I headed to Osteria Da Afro, as it was on my list of places specializing in Friulian cooking. Although it was past noon when I arrived, the restaurant was not yet open. I was told to wait in the lobby, where I spotted, through a crack in a partially open door, the staff gathered around a table eating their meal. Finally, I was shown to a table in the empty dining room. Despite my expectations, there were few Friulian dishes on the menu. The waiter explained that la cucina friulana was more of a winter cuisine and that they tended to serve lighter dishes in the hot summer months. Feeling inclined to agree with him on that point, I was quite content ordering the melanzane alla parmigiana and an insalata mista.
Since there were no other customers, the waiter was able to spend a good deal of time at my table answering some of my lingering questions. We talked about the restaurant’s preparation of baccalà (salt cod) and trout—and most importantly, balote, which they frequently serve in wintertime. He described their size (larger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball), the type of cheese they are filled with (traditionally the local salted cheese called asìno, but cubes of fresh Montasio may be used instead), and how they are served (no sauce but frequently with sautéed mushrooms on the side).
After lunch, I took the next bus back to Pordenone, where I caught the train back to Udine. For the third day in a row, I decided not to go out for dinner but to eat in my room instead. At the COOP supermarket, I bought some bananas, kiwis, and yogurt (happily, my room at Hotel Principe had a mini fridge). Then, at the nearby rosticceria, I picked up some sautéed zucchini and a slice of frittata. It was a light picnic, which my body was really craving after a full month of rich, heavy meals.
Here is my interpretation of balote, as described to me at Osteria Da Afro. Since asìno cheese is not easily available outside Pordenone province, I have substituted a mixture of cream cheese (for the creaminess) and ricotta salata (for the saltiness). The texture is not as soft and creamy as asìno, but it holds its shape nicely when being wrapped inside the polenta. Consider serving the balote with some sautéed mushrooms.
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces ricotta salata, grated (about 1-1/4 cups)
In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and ricotta salata. Divide the mixture into twelve equal parts, rolling each into a small ball. Refrigerate until ready to use.
4 cups water
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium pot over high heat. Stir in the cornmeal and salt. When the water returns to a boil, reduce heat to low; cook and stir until soft, about 25 minutes. Pour immediately into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish; spread evenly. Let cool for 15 minutes, or until just cool enough to handle.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice the polenta into twelve equal portions. Scoop out a portion of polenta and roll into a rough ball. Flatten slightly, place one cheese ball in the center, and smooth the polenta over to enclose the cheese. (The polenta will be very sticky, so work gently.) Place the finished polenta balls in a greased baking dish. Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes.
I awoke early to catch the 8:00am bus to Marano Lagunare, a small fishing village located along Friuli’s southern coast between Grado and Lignano. The trip took just over an hour from Udine, which gave me several hours to explore before lunchtime. The smell of salt air and freshly caught fish greeted me as I arrived at the harbor. Houses of robin’s egg blue, salmon pink, and sunflower yellow lined the narrow streets of the town’s old center, while boats of blue and white sat docked along the canals. As I ventured south along the water’s edge, however, the pastel colors vanished, revealing a less attractive, though perhaps more authentic, scene: fishing boats crusted with mud, rusty cranes, garbage-filled dumpsters, and backhoes hauling buckets of dirt.
I circled back toward town, passing through a nondescript residential section on my way to the Riserva Naturale Valle Canal Novo, a protected nature reserve encompassing the marshy wetlands that surround Marano Lagunare. Unfortunately, the visitor’s center happened to be closed that day, so there were no guided tours. But it was possible to enter the park via a wooden footbridge that extended over the water into the dense thicket of reeds, home to countless forms of native wildlife.
Though it was only 11:00am, the intense July heat was beginning to tire me out. I returned to the central piazza and found a shady bench in full view of the Torre Millenaria. For over an hour I sat there, watching the comings and goings of village life—elderly couples out for a stroll, women pulling shopping carts of groceries, children frolicking around the tower steps.
For lunch, I headed to Trattoria Alla Laguna (a.k.a. Vedova Raddi), located in a three-story building of rust red stucco overlooking the harbor. I started with the frutti di mare gratinati, a plate of mussels and scallops baked in their shells with a bread crumb topping. Next, I was excited to try their signature dish, risotto alla Maranese, but was disappointed to read on the menu that they required a minimum of two persons for the order. From past experience, I knew that this was not uncommon. Nevertheless, I explained that I was writing a cookbook on Friulian cuisine and asked politely if it might be possible to have a single portion of the dish. The owner graciously acquiesced—and the risotto was delicious! Served with calamari, shrimp, mussels, and local wedge shell clams called telline, the risotto was prepared al dente in a perfectly soupy fish stock that tasted of the ocean.
Between courses, the owner came over to chat. He explained that all his seafood was locally caught in the lagoon and, strangely, that many Americans would come to visit each year around Easter. I imagined that “many” may have been a relative term, given the few Americans I had ever encountered in Friuli—and since Marano Lagunare was not at the time listed in any of my English-language guidebooks.
Shortly, the owner returned with a huge guestbook for me to sign. He revealed that the book was for his “famous” guests and pointed to one signature in particular by a dignitary from Iran (I never quite caught exactly who he was). The owner went on to boast that when he was a child, and his father ran the restaurant, Ernest Hemingway dined there quite often. I felt honored, though somewhat baffled, that he had requested my autograph, too.
After lunch, my plan was to take the boat to Lignano Sabbiadoro, the region’s largest beach resort. It was a pleasant 40-minute ride across the lagoon, sunny but with a cool breeze floating over the water. In the distance, scattered amid the marshes, were tiny, thatched fisherman’s huts called casoni.
Compared to Marano Lagunare, Lignano was huge. I only had an hour before my return bus to Udine, so I didn’t get to explore the resort town as fully as I would have liked. The beach itself was approximately five miles long and serviced by more than forty bathing houses, all renting umbrellas and lounge chairs to vacationing sunbathers. It was now peak season, and thousands of those colorful umbrellas dotted the soft, golden sand, all lined up in flawless rows. I walked partway down the beach to an enclosed jetty that extended out over the sea. The sapphire blue water was shallow and calm, and I wished that I could go for a swim myself.
Standing there alone, surrounded by families, couples, groups of friends—everyone attached to someone else—a certain melancholy began to set in. I was, for the most part, quite comfortable traveling alone and rarely felt awkward even going into restaurants by myself. As an only child, I had grown accustomed to keeping myself company and generally enjoyed the solitude. But every so often, as on that day in Lignano, I wished that Mike (my now husband) had been able to come on the trip, so that I would have someone to lounge on the beach and splash in the sea with.
I walked back past highrise hotels, tacky gift shops, and gelaterie, most of which were closed at that late hour of the afternoon. Near the bus station, I did find one gelateria that was open, and I treated myself to a double scoop of limone (lemon) and yogurt. The sun was beating down, and I was glad to finally board the air-conditioned bus.
Before returning to Hotel Principe, I took a walk into Udine’s centro. It was so swelteringly hot that I knew I wouldn’t feel like having a big dinner that evening. Deciding to eat in again, I picked up some apricots, strawberries, and a tomato at the produce market. Then, I found a bar that sold tramezzini and bought a sandwich with turkey to go. I ate my picnic dinner early, in the cool of my hotel room, watching the news on TV and trying to figure out my plans for my final three days in Friuli.
Today’s destination was San Daniele del Friuli, where I had appointments to visit two prosciuttifici (prosciutto factories): Prolongo and Il Camarin. I took the bus from Udine and luckily had the foresight to get off while still in the outskirts of San Daniele, before the bus headed up the hill into the old section of town. Otherwise, it would have been a long walk back down.
At first, I was quite disoriented. I had no idea where I was in relation to the address I was looking for, but after walking up and down the street a few blocks, I got my bearings. Once I found the correct street, I spent another few minutes puzzling over the fact that the odd numbers on one side of the street didn’t correspond to the even numbers on the other side. About five minutes later, I arrived at Prosciuttificio Prolongo.
I was greeted by siblings Alessio and Arianna, whose grandfather started the business. They took me on a tour of the factory, a fairly small operation, producing only 7,000 to 8,000 hams per year. Alessio spoke no English, so Arianna helped translate—though I actually understood most of his Italian. We visited the refrigeration room, where the hams were kept during the salting phase, and then the curing room, where rows of hams hung from wooden beams. They explained that the entire curing process takes a minimum of twelve months. Alessio demonstrated how to test for readiness—by inserting a horse-bone needle into the meat and judging its quality by the aroma released.
After a sample of their product, we said goodbye. It was only 10:00am, and my next appointment wasn’t until 2:00pm. Checking my map, I saw that it wasn’t too far away, so I decided to take a chance and head over there early. I had a little trouble finding my way—they had given me the wrong street number in their email—but after asking a passerby for directions, I arrived at Prosciuttificio Il Camarin.
This factory was much larger than Prolongo. Their website advertised guided visits, and picnic tables were set up outside, waiting for the throngs of tourists to arrive for a day of prosciutto tasting. Since he wasn’t expecting me until the afternoon, owner Sergio was busy taking an inventory count. He did, however, take time out to show me through the various rooms, where thousands of hams lined the walls and rafters. In contrast to Prolongo, Il Camarin produces 15,000 hams annually.
I was finished by 11:00am and headed up the steep hill into San Daniele proper. For the next hour, I sat inside the Duomo, organizing my notes from the morning.
For lunch, I headed straight to Ristorante Alle Vecchie Carceri—my third time eating there. To start, they brought their usual complimentary small plate of polenta topped with ricotta affumicata and poppy seeds. I ordered an appetizer of smoked duck breast, sliced thin like prosciutto, served over a bed of mixed greens and cubes of salted cheese. The menu had said that the salad also contained apple, but there didn’t seem to be any in mine. Then, as always, I couldn’t resist ordering the cjalsòns. Up until I had tasted the amazing ones at Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme, Alle Vecchie Carceri’s had been my top favorite. They were now my second favorite, still better than most, the delicate disks of dough plump with a sweet-savory filling of potato, caramelized onion, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. At least, they used to contain raisins—today, the fruit was conspicuously absent. Nevertheless, the cjalsòns tasted divine, swimming in melted butter and topped with cinnamon, sugar, and smoky ricotta affumicata.
After arriving back in Udine that afternoon, lethargy began to set in. It had been exactly a month since I had left San Francisco, and the constant exertion and extreme heat were taking a toll. I decided to forgo dinner out and have a picnic in my hotel room—something that I would end up doing for the remaining few days of my trip. At the rosticceria around the corner, I picked up a piece of cold, dry chicken and some marinated artichoke hearts, sour and oily. It was not an especially good meal, but all I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep.
After three weeks in Carnia, it was a shock to be back in the stifling summer heat of Udine. The night was a restless one, what with my tossing and turning and constant fiddling with the air conditioner. Nevertheless, I had to rise early in order to catch the 7:30am train to Venzone.
Once there, I set out immediately across the bridge spanning the wide Tagliamento River. My destination was Bordano, home to the Casa delle Farfalle, Europe’s largest tropical butterfly garden. Since Bordano was not reachable by bus or train, I had no choice but to make the journey on foot. It was a peaceful hike along the shady highway—very few cars and no hills, the river on one side, dense woodland on the other.
I arrived in Bordano after about an hour, weary but delighted by the kaleidoscope of color that greeted me. The town’s tranquil streets were adorned with brilliant murals of butterflies—on houses, shops, office buildings. Even the post office had a butterfly painted above its sign.
The Casa delle Farfalle itself comprised three greenhouses, containing over 400 species of butterflies from Africa, the Amazon, and Indo-Australia. The butterflies were free to fly, surrounded by exotic vegetation in a miniature rainforest setting of vines, rare palms, and colorful orchids. The air was damp, filled with the echoes of mist and fluttering wings. Indigenous birds, reptiles, fish, and other insects completed the realistic ecosystem.
I made it back to Venzone by noon and settled down at an al fresco table at Locanda Al Municipio for lunch. I ordered the stinco di vitello: two thin slices of rather fatty veal, served with gravy and slices of tomato and cucumber. Since I still had over two hours before my return train, I lingered awhile at the restaurant and then even longer at the Duomo di Sant’Andrea. In the quiet afternoon shade outside the church, I phoned my contacts at two prosciuttifici in San Daniele and made appointments to visit the following day.
Finally, it was time to head back across the highway to catch my train to Udine. The station had no biglietteria, no WC, no waiting area—just a platform on either side of the tracks and a small shelter where the train schedule was posted. Given the small size of the town, I was not surprised to find only one other person waiting, a young guy over on the other side of the tracks.
Three o’clock came and went, and my train still had not come. I crossed to the opposite platform to double-check the schedule. The young guy was still there, pacing back and forth, making calls on his cell phone. He had learned that a transportation strike was in effect, and there was no way to predict whether any of the afternoon trains would be arriving. A little worried but still optimistic, I waited a bit longer to see if the next scheduled train would come. It didn’t.
Trying to fend off the panic that was starting to set in, I headed back across the highway and inside the stone walls of Venzone. I found only one business to be open at that hour, a bar in the piazza by the Duomo, and I went in to inquire about the strike. They had no information about it, nor did they know whether any buses would be running either. At least I was able to find out where the bus stop was situated along the highway and that my train ticket, which I had already purchased, was also valid on the bus.
There was one last train scheduled that afternoon, and seeing that the station was on the way to the bus stop, I thought I’d give it another chance. But my waiting was in vain—that train didn’t show up either. My last hope was the bus, but I had no clue as to its schedule until I arrived at the stop. As it turned out, the last bus of the day would be arriving within a half hour. My stomach was tied in knots as I waited, seated on the curb, not knowing if the buses were also on strike—not knowing what I would do if I were truly stranded there. The air was hot and muggy, and sweat trickled down my forehead as the minutes ticked by. Then, precisely at 5:40pm, I spotted the blue SAF bus heading my direction. Once on board, I collapsed into a window seat, closed my eyes, and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
By the time I reached my hotel, it was practically time to head out for dinner. I had planned to go to Hostaria Alla Tavernetta, but the sign posted in their window said they would be closed for the next two weeks. So, without a second thought, I continued on to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, my consistently reliable fallback. As a treat after my harrowing ordeal, I ordered my favorite dish, frico con polenta. The cheese and potato pancake was freshly made and cut into a huge wedge. It came with a rectangle of grilled white polenta, a welcome change from the soft, yellow cornmeal that Chef Mario usually served. To complete my meal, I also had my favorite of his side dishes, zucchini alla scapece (zucchini sautéed with vinegar, herbs, and spicy pepper).
My three weeks in Carnia were over, and it was time to return to Udine for the final week of my trip. From Forni Avoltri, I caught the bus to Tolmezzo, where I made the connection to Udine. I arrived just before noon, checked into Hotel Principe, and went out immediately to have lunch at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. The restaurant was packed, rather unusual for a Monday at lunchtime, although perhaps it was due to increased holiday travel. It was, after all, late July. I ordered the deliciously creamy baccalà (salt cod stew) with polenta, along with a side of grilled eggplant, zucchini, and red bell peppers.
After lunch, I took some time to unpack and rest—it was a relief to have a day without any strenuous hiking or sightseeing. Then, around 4:30pm, I headed across the street to the train station and caught the next train to Cormòns. It was a short trip, and by having my dinner at the town’s enoteca (wine bar), I would be able to get back to my hotel early and call it a night.
On my way into Cormòns, I stopped at the COOP supermarket and stocked up on apricots and peaches. After five weeks of eating in restaurants, I was really starting to miss fresh fruit.
When I arrived, the Enoteca di Cormòns was nearly empty, save for a man and woman in biking attire having wine at the bar. I sat at one of the long, wooden tables and ordered an antipasto plate of assorted cheeses, salami, prosciutto D’Osvaldo, and olives, along with a glass of Ribolla Gialla. Noticing that the couple at the bar were Americans, I invited them to join me at my table. It turned out that they were on a cycling tour of northeast Italy and had just tasted at least twenty local wines. Tempted by my plate of goodies, they ordered the same. I found it refreshing not only to be speaking English after a month of nothing but Italian, but also to not be eating alone for a change.
Throughout my trip, I kept coming across the book Friuli: Via dei Sapori by Walter Filiputti. Since it was a large, heavy coffeetable book, however, I wanted to wait until the end of my trip to purchase it, so that I wouldn’t have to lug it around any more than necessary. Seeing that the enoteca carried copies of the book in several languages (including the English translation, Friuli: Path of Flavours), I decided to go ahead and buy it. Of all the books in my Friulian cookbook collection, this one is by far the most gorgeous, with full-color photos throughout. It features several of the restaurants I have been to—Alla Pace, La Subida, All’Androna, Al Lido—along with recipes for some of their signature dishes. The book also discusses the history of Friuli, as it pertains to the region’s cuisine, with detailed descriptions of its typical foods and artisanal products.