I awoke early on Saturday morning with complete uncertainty as to my plans for the day. The prior evening’s storm had passed through, leaving the valley glistening as the first rays of sunshine reflected off the dewy grass. Downstairs in the dining room at Albergo Bellavista, I chose some yogurt topped with granola from the breakfast buffet and seated myself near the front windows. The waitress was making the rounds, taking all the guests’ orders for lunch and dinner. Since I wasn’t sure where I would be going, I clumsily confessed that I hadn’t yet decided if I’d even be eating my meals there. While I recognized the restaurant’s need to plan ahead, I couldn’t help feeling inconvenienced. For me, part of the fun of traveling invariably involved having some modicum of spontaneity, especially where food was concerned. On this trip, it was more essential than ever. My chief objective was to explore the region’s cuisine, and seeing as I had not yet had time to check out Ravascletto’s other restaurant, I wanted to keep my options open. Feeling a bit guilty about my indecision, I returned to my room before the waitress had a chance to press me for an answer.
My two goals for that weekend were to attend the Mondo delle Malghe festival in nearby Ovaro and visit Malga Pozôf on the peak of Monte Zoncolan. Upon arriving in Ravascletto, I had learned that the festival’s street markets were taking place only on Sunday, not running the entire weekend as I had originally believed. This was a problem, since there was no bus service out of Ravascletto on Sundays. Suddenly, I remembered reading in one of my brochures that taxis were available in a couple of Carnia’s towns, including Ravascletto. After inquiring at the tourist office, I was directed to a bar across the street, where the owner’s husband—a friendly but toothless old gentleman—provided an informal taxi service. I arranged for him to drive me to Ovaro the next day.
Now that Sunday was settled, I turned my attention to Malga Pozôf. Yesterday, I had seen a flyer posted outside the tourist office announcing that the ski lift would reopen today. This morning, however, I learned that the funivia was going to be closed for repairs all summer. My heart sank, knowing that my only alternative was to undertake another grueling mountain hike. The woman at the tourist office convinced me that it was entirely doable and provided me with a map of the trail. Down in the valley, I found the entrance to the path. Here, I also ran into an older British couple, whom I recognized from the breakfast room at Bellavista. They intended to walk partway up the trail, so we agreed to set out together.
Almost immediately, we came upon a fork, with one path leading directly ahead, up the wide clearing used as a ski run in winter, and the other branching off to the left through the forest. The couple claimed they knew the way, so I followed them into the woods. We trudged along for a half hour, although I had a nagging suspicion that we were going in the wrong direction. The trail was not progressing up the mountain so much as winding eastward. Twice our path was blocked by a house-sized pile of timber—this should have been an obvious clue. Still, my new friends insisted that this was the way, even as they struggled to circumnavigate the massive obstacles.
Finally, I decided to say goodbye and turn around. Another half hour later, I found myself at the original fork, where I began climbing up the steep, grassy carpet of wildflowers. Within moments, I glimpsed the sign designating the proper trail, clearly marked Malga Pozôf. If I had been alone, I might have trusted my instincts and saved some time. Instead, my misguided detour turned what should have been a strenuous two-hour hike into an utterly exhausting three-hour trek.
I continued the ascent to the top of the ski slope, where the trail diverged and began meandering through a patch of tall grass. My black clothes were soon covered with yellow pollen from the bushes that pressed in on either side of me. After stepping across a shallow stream, I entered the woods again. This final leg of the hike took a full hour and was almost entirely uphill. Panting for air, I emerged at the summit and was instantly confronted by the foul stench of manure. Up ahead, cows roamed freely, grazing alongside the dirt road. I was elated with the thrill of my success. After three arduous hikes, I had finally found the cows I had been seeking for my photographs!
Following the path a short distance further, I reached Malga Pozôf. Settling in at a long, wooden table, I was welcomed with an assortment of cheeses, which included both fresh and aged varieties, as well as ones with herbs and spicy red pepper flakes. The plate also held a few slices of salami and polenta. As I savored each bite, I introduced myself to the trio at my communal table. A portly bunch, they explained that they were on a mushroom foraging expedition, and the wife guided my eyes to a table nearby where another forager was showing off his specimen of the day—a giant porcini the size of a soccer ball.
After indulging in a slice of blackberry crostata for dessert, I gave myself a tour of the malga. A ring of stables encircled us, many cows wandering outside the enclosure, some lounging inside the pens. The main room of the malga was lined with small wheels of aging cheese. Following the aroma of smoke, I entered the adjacent fogolâr room, where balls of ricotta rested above the fire, on their way to becoming ricotta affumicata.
On my way out, I conveniently bumped into my lunch companions. They kindly offered me a ride—if I didn’t mind the occasional stop for mushrooms. The four of us crammed into their miniscule Fiat, which instantly whizzed into gear along its harrowing course, careening down the narrow, hairpin turns of the mountain.
Suddenly, the stout woman wedged into the backseat next to me shouted “Ferma! Ferma!” Her brother slammed on the brakes, while his wife jumped nimbly out of the passenger door and disappeared into the forest. A moment later she returned clutching a fistful of freshly picked porcini mushrooms.
We were barely on our way when the husband jerked to a halt once more. This time, both women skipped around to the back to retrieve some refreshments from a cooler, and we all enjoyed an impromptu snack of homemade custard and fresh raspberries. To drink, the threesome was well-prepared with both iced coffee and mint tea. Finally, we reached the foot of the mountain, where I was dropped off in the closest town, Ovaro.
As I waited for the bus, it was clear that there was nothing happening at the Mondo delle Malghe festival—I had made the right choice to wait until Sunday. My first bus soon dropped me off in Comeglians, where I made the connection to Ravascletto. Before returning to my hotel, I stopped at the market for some bananas. I also peeked into the shop where I had seen linens and dishes in the window. There, I selected a couple of embroidered dishtowels that I would someday use as props in my food photos.
I had just made it back to Bellavista when the rain started. By the time I had climbed the stairs to the top floor, it was hailing. I collapsed on my bed, thoroughly spent, listening to the pellets of ice pelt the windows, the thunder quickly developing from a low rumble into a resonating boom. I felt fortunate not to have been caught in the storm while on Monte Zoncolan. As the lightning flashed outside, the power inside flickered off a few times. A fast-moving storm, it was all over within what seemed like only minutes.
Since the storm appeared to have passed, I took my chances walking down the hill to eat dinner at Hotel La Perla. It began raining again, however, just as soon as I arrived. The restaurant was hosting a wedding reception, and though I was seated at one of the few empty tables at the edge of the dining room, I had a clear view of the festivities.
To start, I was served a complimentary antipasto of frico croccante. The crispy fried cheese was shaped into a bowl and filled with marinated radicchio di montagna, a wild green native to Carnia. My first course, the cjarsòns di Monaj, would have been equally suitable as a dessert: dumplings made from thick, gnocchi-like dough were stuffed with a rich, sweet filling of fresh ricotta, walnuts, and raisins. The dish was made even more decadent by a topping of melted butter, cinnamon sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Next, I ordered the toç in braide, a bowl of hearty polenta topped with a sauce of fresh ricotta, drizzled with browned butter and toasted cornmeal, and encircled with a garnish of sautéed mushrooms. Although I was quite stuffed, I felt no guilt, having burned more than enough calories on my hike!
Read Full Post »