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This article was originally published in 2013 on TravelLady.com.

Tucked away between mountains and sea in Italy’s northeast corner is the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Known for its unique fusion of cuisines that blends Austro-Hungarian, Slavic, Venetian, and Roman influences, Friuli offers a variety of irresistible flavors. From goulasch to gubana, there is something to entice everyone’s palate, and wine connoisseurs will be particularly delighted with the wines in this off-the-beaten-path destination.

The Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli constitute the heart of Friuli’s wine country. These two wine zones, which are sometimes referred to collectively as the Collio Goriziano, are reminiscent of Tuscany’s rolling hills or California’s lush Napa Valley. The word colli, meaning “hills,” epitomizes this landscape where the grapes have more sun exposure than in the low-lying plains. Though the centrally located Grave del Friuli zone is the region’s largest wine producer—chiefly of Merlot—the wines from the Collio and Colli Orientali are regarded to be Friuli’s best. In fact, most experts agree that the white wines from this region are the most superb in all of Italy.

The Collio lies in Gorizia province, along the Slovenian border and separated from the Colli Orientali by the Judrio River. This zone is most famous for its white wines, Tocai Friulano in particular. Although this grape is not believed to be native to Friuli, it has been produced there for centuries. In 2005, the European Union delivered an unpopular verdict regarding the name Tocai: of the three European wines having a historical claim on the name—Tocai Friulano, Tokai-Pinot Gris from France, and Hungarian Tokaj—only the Hungarian wine would be allowed to continue using its name. Despite much local protest, Tocai Friulano is now officially called merely Friulano.

Also popular are Collio’s white wine blends, which usually contain at least two of the following: Tocai, Malvasia Istriana, and Ribolla Gialla, as well as occasionally Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Bianco, or Pinot Grigio. Perhaps the Collio’s most famous blend is the Vino della Pace, which is produced from 540 grape varieties selected from every continent. This “wine of peace” is bottled and sent to political and religious leaders around the world.

The town of Cormòns is home to one of the region’s most noted wine bars, the Enoteca di Cormòns. Also the seat of the Collio’s wine-producing consortium, this bar makes a great place to taste regional wines along with the locally smoked prosciutto D’Osvaldo. Every September, Cormòns hosts the Festa Provinciale dell’Uva, a wine festival featuring music, theater, and cultural events, along with the obligatory wine tasting.

The Colli Orientali lies to the north of the Collio in Udine province and also borders on Slovenia. Many native grapes are grown here, including the reds Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo, and whites Ribolla Gialla, Verduzzo, and Picolit. While the versatile and abundant Verduzzo grapes can be vinified as either a dry or sweet wine, Picolit is one of the rarest and most precious dessert wines ever made.

Produced exclusively in the Valli del Natisone near the town of Cividale, Picolit is believed to have been cultivated since Roman times. A fragile and high maintenance variety, the grapevine is extremely low yielding due to a condition called “floral abortion,” where many buds die before maturing into grapes. With a golden color, honeyed fragrance, and subtle hints of almond, dried fruit, and spice, Picolit is what Italian experts call a “meditation wine,” meaning that it is best savored on its own without any food.

During the 18th century, winemaker Count Fabio Asquini of Fagagna developed an unrivaled appreciation for Picolit. With the idea that a diminutive package would increase the wine’s appeal, he commissioned special half-size bottles from the glassblowers in Murano. These he then exported to Venice where Picolit soon became the drink of choice for Doge Manin and his court. Asquini proved himself to be a marketing genius, able to manipulate the laws of supply and demand to his advantage. He had held back part of his inventory, thus creating the illusion of limited supply. Then, when reports of this magnificent wine reached Vienna, he was able to ship some to the emperor. Before long, Asquini was sending Picolit to the king of France, the tsar of Russia, and even the pope, but following Asquini’s death, Picolit nearly disappeared from production.

An epidemic of the phylloxera fungus ravished vineyards throughout 19th-century Europe. Then, after winemakers had successfully replanted, the two world wars caused even further devastation. Several grapes were facing extinction when they were rescued during the 1970s. A scholar named Walter Filiputti found two surviving vines of Pignolo in an abbey in Rosazzo and was able to nurse them back to health, while winemaker Paolo Rapuzzi did the same for the failing Schioppettino grape.

During these periods of revival, Friulians replanted not only native grapes—as did most of Europe—but foreign varieties as well. With a long history of intermingling cultures and openness to foreigners, it was only natural that Friuli be one of the first regions in the world to do so. During the late 19th century, Friuli became the first region in Italy to produce Merlot and was among the first to have Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Traminer. Today, these non-natives are produced as 100 percent varietal wines, as well as mixed in Friuli’s popular blends.

Although the Collio and Colli Orientali wines are more widely recognized, the Carso wine zone must not be overlooked. High above the coastline in the province of Trieste, this narrow ribbon of limestone and dolomite produces such notable reds as Terrano and Refosco di San Dorligo, as well as the white wines Malvasia Istriana and Vitovska. The tiny Carso town of Prosecco has given its name to the native grape Glera di Prosecco, which is thought to be the source of the famed sparkling wine produced today throughout the Veneto.

For a taste of Carso wine, drive along what tourism officials have dubbed the “Terrano Wine Road,” from Opicina to Sistiana. Throughout the countryside, farmhouses open their doors to the public for wine tasting and the sale of other artisanal products. Called osmizze (or osmize) these temporary roadside taverns are indicated by a frasca—a leafy cluster of branches hung above the door. Tables are set up inside the courtyard—traditional Carsic homes had stone walls built around a central courtyard as protection from the fierce bora winds—and villagers gather to sample the local vintage and feast on homemade cheese and salumi. The custom began in 1784 with an imperial decree that allowed peasants to sell their excess wine and produce in an unlicensed restaurant for eight days each year; the word osmizza is thus derived from the Slovene word osem, meaning “eight.”

Whether you travel to Friuli solely as an oenophile or happen to stumble upon the region as an unexpected surprise, you will surely be enchanted by the beauty of its landscape, charmed by the warmth of its people—and seduced by the magic of its food and wine.

IF YOU GO:
Enoteca di Cormòns
Piazza XXIV Maggio, 21
34071 Cormòns (GO)
Italy
+39 (0481) 630371
http://www.enoteca-cormons.it/

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To order, click this link https://balanceontheball.com/order/ and use the code LAUNCH40BL at checkout. Thanks for shopping!

For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Cevapcici con Ajvar (Grilled Sausages with Bell Pepper Sauce). These tiny sausages were inspired by the Middle Eastern spiced meat patties brought to the region by the Ottoman Turks. Eaten throughout Slovenia and Croatia, as well as in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia, they are typically served with chopped onion and a red bell pepper sauce called ajvar. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

My rendition of gubana delle Valli del Natisone, as featured in Flavors of Friuli

While doing research for Flavors of Friuli, one of my most nagging questions was this: is there any difference between gubana and the similar-looking spiral pastries from Trieste, putizza and presnitz, or are they simply regional names for the same dessert? On one of my trips I spoke to a woman working at Pasticceria Ducale in Cividale del Friuli, and she gave me what was the clearest explanation I’d yet found.

Derived from the Slovene word guba, meaning “wrinkle” or “fold,” the name gubana is suggestive of the swirls and spirals in the pastry. While literary sources date similar recipes to the Middle Ages and perhaps even the Romans, the first document to mention gubana by name was written in 1576. There are two types of gubana: gubana delle Valli del Natisone and gubana Cividalese.

Putizza, photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

Gubana delle Valli del Natisone is a large spiral cake made with a yeast-based dough and filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. It appears very similar to putizza, the spiral cake from Trieste, which gets its name from the Slovenian pastry called potica. As it was explained to me at Pasticceria Ducale, putizza contains chocolate, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone typically does not; otherwise they are quite similar. Later, as I sampled multiple versions of both cakes, I discovered several other differences, notably that this type of gubana is baked as a free-form loaf, while putizza is baked in a round cake pan (or in some bakeries, a paper mold). As I began to test-bake recipes, I came to understand the reason for this. The dough for putizza is much softer and doesn’t hold its shape when filled, necessitating a pan to contain the spiral. In addition, putizza tends to have a higher filling-to-dough ratio, making it a richer, more decadent treat.

Gubana Cividalese, Pasticceria Ducale

Gubana Cividalese contains the same filling as the Valli del Natisone version but is prepared with puff pastry and rolled into a snake-like spiral. When gubana was first conceived, puff pastry required equipment and knowledge only available to the upper classes, making gubana Cividalese the aristocrat’s pastry of choice in the prominent city of Cividale, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone was the version typically prepared by peasants living in the valleys around the Natisone River.

Presnitz, photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

Like gubana Cividalese, presnitz, named after the Slovenian Easter cake called presnec, is made with puff pastry and contains a filling of dried fruit, nuts, and spices. In our conversation, the woman at Pasticceria Ducale asserted that gubana Cividalese and presnitz were entirely identical. Since then I have learned that, while this may be true for modern versions of the pastries, historically there is one significant difference. Because Trieste’s wealth during the Hapsburg era brought an increased availability of exotic imports such as spices, nuts, and liqueurs to the city, presnitz was considered a more refined pastry and typically comprised a much longer ingredient list than its counterpart from Cividale. Presnitz was first presented to the empress Elisabeth during a mid-19th century visit to Trieste.

Recipes for gubana delle Valli del Natisone, gubana Cividalese, putizza, and presnitz may be found in my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy.

cavucinFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Cavucìn (Butternut Squash Purée), in honor of this month’s Festa della Zucca. Held annually in the tiny, medieval-walled town of Venzone, this festival celebrates pumpkins of all varieties with a weekend of food, art, music, and dancing. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

1. View the Barcolana sailing regatta

Founded in 1969, the Barcolana sailing regatta takes place in the Gulf of Trieste on the second Sunday in October, beginning near Castello di Miramare and finishing in the waters just off Piazza Unità d’Italia. It is the biggest event of its kind in the Mediterranean and one of the busiest in the world, with over 2,000 yachts taking part in the race. Sailing near Trieste can be especially challenging this time of year, as the strong bora winds can sometimes reach gusts of 100 mph.

The event is typically viewed by several hundred thousand spectators, many of whom watch from Via Napoleonica (a.k.a. Strada Vicentina). Leading from the Opicina obelisk to the town of Prosecco, the shady trail offers sweeping views of the Gulf of Trieste, particularly from the Prosecco side, where the dirt footpath and trees give way to a paved road, flanked by the sea on one side and a massive cliff rising dramatically skyward on the other.

2. Go hiking amidst the brilliant fall foliage of the Val Rosandra

High above Trieste’s coastline is a narrow ribbon of jagged rocks eroded by rain and wind, plunging fearlessly into the sea. Known as the Carso (Italian for “karst”), this landscape of limestone and dolomite conceals an underground world of vast caverns and grottoes, carved by the waters of the Timavo River, which runs below ground for much of its course from Slovenia to the Adriatic Sea.

Above ground on the plateau lie acres of evergreen forests and flower-strewn ravines. The land is peppered with large sinkholes, called “doline,” that have been caused by collapsed cave vaults. Here, the warm sea breeze meets the chilling, northeasterly bora wind, producing a convergence of Mediterranean and Alpine climates. Oak and spruce mingle with citrus and olive trees, while the landscape is blanketed with vineyards. Only one body of water flows above the plateau—the Rosandra Stream. Slicing through the deep gorge of the Val Rosandra near the Carso’s eastern border, these waters once supplied the ancient Roman colony of Tergeste (now Trieste) via a seven-mile-long aqueduct.

The Riserva Naturale della Val Rosandra is an 1800-acre nature reserve located just southeast of Trieste. The park’s hiking paths offer visitors frequent breathtaking vistas, including a 118-foot waterfall, the ruins of the Roman aqueduct, and a stunning panorama of the Gulf of Trieste in the distance. 

3. Explore the nearby Grotta Gigante, the world’s largest tourist cave

Photo credit: Società Alpina delle Giulie

Spacious enough to accommodate Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Grotta Gigante is the largest tourist-accessible cave in the world. In fact, it has made “The Guinness Book of World Records” with its vast dimensions: 351 feet high, 213 feet wide, and 918 feet long. The cavern is located in the Carso, the rocky plateau that separates Trieste’s coastline from neighboring Slovenia, an area rich with caves and underground rivers.

Upon entering the Grotta Gigante, a narrow tunnel opens into the enormous cavern. Five hundred steps descend past walls covered with curtains of stalactites in shades of white, orange, and brown. The cave’s stalagmites are tall and slender with flat tops, the calcite concretions resembling stacks of dishes due to the height from which the water drips. Ruggero Column is the cave’s tallest at 39 feet. Other formations have been given names such as the Gnome, the Pulpit, the Mushroom, the Palm, and the Nymphs’ Palace.

4. Go wine tasting at an osmiza, the Carso’s version of a pop-up tavern

Autumn is grape harvesting season, and what better way to celebrate than by sampling some of Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s renowned wines? Throughout the region, farmhouses periodically open their doors to the public, serving homemade wine and other artisanal products. These temporary roadside taverns are called “frasche” in the greater part of Friuli (to indicate that they are open, a leafy cluster of branches, called “frasca” in Italian, is hung above the door) and “osmize” in the area around Trieste (from “osem,” the Slovene word for eight; when the tradition began, they were only allowed to open eight days each year).

I visited one osmiza called Azienda Agricola Škerk in the town of Prepotto. Inside the courtyard, guests gathered at long, wooden tables to sample the local vintages and feast on homemade cheese and salumi. I tasted the white wines Vitovska and Malvasia and the red Terrano. Because osmize and frasche operate on such an irregular schedule, check local newspapers or websites such as osmize.com for listings of osmize that are open each week.

5. Go for more wine tasting at Enoteca di Cormòns, Friuli’s most famous wine bar

The heart of Friuli’s wine country would have to be the Collio zone. The word “colli,” meaning “hills” in Italian, epitomizes this landscape where the grapes enjoy more sun exposure than in the low-lying plains. Many experts regard the wines from this area to be some of Italy’s best. The Collio lies along the Slovenian border and is primarily famous for its white wines, in particular Friulano (formerly known as Tocai Friulano) and the blend known as Vino della Pace, or “Wine of Peace.” The town of Cormòns is home to one of Friuli’s most noted wine bars, the Enoteca di Cormòns. Also the seat of the Collio’s wine-producing consortium, this bar makes a great place to taste regional wines, cheeses, and salumi, including the locally smoked prosciutto D’Osvaldo.

6. Order the autumn tasting-menu at La Subida in Cormòns

In the heart of the Collio wine zone, surrounded by rolling hills and lush vineyards, is the Michelin-starred Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida (known to locals simply as La Subida). Inspired by the nearby border where Friulian and Slovenian cultures merge, owners Joško and Loredana Sirk serve a variety of traditional dishes, including Friulian frico (crispy fried cheese) and Triestine jota (bean and sauerkraut soup), as well as the Slovenian pastas mlinci and zlikrofi.

The best way to experience this slice of culture is with La Subida’s multi-course tasting menu, which rotates seasonally. In autumn, dishes may include gnocchi di zucca (pumpkin gnocchi) and stewed venison. A fixture on the restaurant’s à la carte menu is what may perhaps be considered their signature dish: stinco di vitello, a melt-in-your-mouth-tender roast veal shank that Joško will carve for you tableside. While their food remains authentic, each dish is refined to an exquisite level through added touches such as fried sage leaves, elderberry flower syrup, and herb-infused sorbets.

7. Attend the Festa della Zucca in Venzone

Every October, the Festa della Zucca takes place in Venzone, a tiny, medieval-walled town in northeastern Italy. Although pumpkins may be the most familiar squash, gourds of all shapes, colors, and sizes are featured in this festival of food, art, music, and dancing. Each year, a contest awards prizes for the largest, heaviest, longest, most beautiful, and most unusual squash. In addition, children participate in a pumpkin-carving contest, while chefs demonstrate their skill in carving intricate floral designs.

The Festa della Zucca not only celebrates the pumpkin, but also transports Venzone back in time. Public squares are illuminated by torches, townspeople dress in medieval costume, and jugglers and fire-eaters perform in the streets. Delegations from Austria, Germany, and Slovenia are presented, and following an ancient Austrian ceremony, the people elect an honorary “Archduke of Pumpkins.” Most importantly, the town’s taverns and restaurants celebrate the squash with special tasting-menus that include dishes such as butternut squash gnocchi, fried cheese and squash pancake, and a wide assortment of pumpkin breads, cakes, and tarts.

8. While in Venzone, visit the mummy exhibit

At the foot of the Carnian Alps lies the medieval-walled town of Venzone. In Roman times, Venzone was an important post along the ancient Via Giulia Augusta, the last bit of civilization before entering the rough territory of Carnia. Although the town was partially rebuilt following the 1976 earthquakes that devastated its Duomo, Venzone retains much of its medieval character. Stark, gray stone buildings and cobbled streets blend with the surrounding rugged mountains to give the town an otherworldly sort of charm.

Across from the pointed campanile of Venzone’s Duomo sits the 13th-century Cappella Cimiteriale di San Michele. This tiny, round crypt houses the result of a peculiar natural phenomenon—corpses mummified by a rare parasitic mold that covered the bodies and blocked decomposition. While the exact age of the mummies has not been determined, the oldest—named Gobbo, meaning “hunchback”—was discovered in 1647 during construction work on the Duomo. Twenty-one mummies were originally uncovered, although only fifteen were salvaged intact from the ruins of the 1976 earthquakes. Five are currently on display, including Gobbo, a mother and daughter, and two noblemen.

9. Tour Castello di Miramare and other historic castles

During the first weekend in October, castles throughout Friuli-Venezia Giulia open their doors to the public. The Conzorzio Castelli, a consortium dedicated to the protection of the region’s historic castles and fortifications, sponsors an event known as Castelli Aperti, where both public and privately-owned castles offer guided tours for visitors. While it would be impractical to visit every single one, there are several standouts that are not to be missed.

Perhaps the most magnificent of Friuli’s castles is Castello di Miramare, situated on a promontory just north of Trieste. The former home of Archduke Maximilian, brother of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph, this starkly whitewashed castle is surrounded by 54 acres of splendidly manicured gardens. Other notable castles in the region include Castello di Duino, also perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, and Castello di Gorizia, an imposing medieval fortress that towers over the eponymous city.

10. Treat yourself to fave dei morti cookies at one of Trieste’s many bakeries

From mid-October through mid-November, bakery shelves throughout Trieste fill with the colorful fave dei morti cookies. Translated literally as “beans of the dead,” fave dei morti are typically prepared to celebrate the Festa degli Ognissanti (All Saints’ Day). While variations of these tiny almond cookies are found in regions throughout Italy, they are especially popular here, where the traditional colors are pink, white, and brown.

One of the city’s oldest bakeries is Pasticceria Penso, founded a century ago by Trieste native Narciso Penso. After his death, the bakery was bought by one of his young employees, Italo Stoppar. Today, it remains a family-run business, with Italo passing on the trade to his two sons, Lorenzo and Antonello. During one of my visits, I was fortunate enough to get to watch the Stoppars prepare a batch of fave dei morti. The brown cookies are, as one might guess, prepared with chocolate and rum, while the pink ones are flavored with rose water and the white ones with Maraschino liqueur.

For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Pomi (Apple Strudel), in honor of the Festa della Mela, held in mid-September in the Carnian town of Tolmezzo. While apple strudel is popular throughout Friuli, this version using puff pastry is based on the recipe given to me by Trieste’s Pasticceria Penso. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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