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Archive for October, 2013

Arta TermeI awoke to blue skies—the first since my arrival in Sauris—and some uncomfortably sore muscles from the previous day’s hike. At least I could take it easy, for today I would be moving on to Arta Terme, where I would be staying for four nights. The bus did not depart until noon, so I had the entire morning free. After packing and checking out of Hotel Morgenleit, I left my bag at the desk and set out to wander for a couple hours. I wouldn’t arrive at my destination until 2:00pm, so I needed to take along a picnic lunch. At the town’s only market, I picked up an etto each of prosciutto di Sauris and Montasio cheese, as well as some more bananas.

From Sauris, I had to take three buses: Sauris to Ampezzo, Ampezzo to Tolmezzo, and Tolmezzo to Piano d’Arta, a hamlet up the hill from Arta Terme. I arrived on time and checked into my hotel, Albergo Poldo. I’d say that Poldo was right in the center of town, but then the town was only one block long, with a few hotels branching off on side streets. Even though I knew I’d be eating my dinners elsewhere—at Albergo Ristorante Salon!—I had decided to play it safe and stay at Poldo, since it sat practically next to the bus stop. Salon was located up a steep hill, and I didn’t want to get stuck dragging my suitcase all the way up there.

My room at Albergo Poldo was tiny, with creaky floors and just a single bed. A small window looked out onto the main street. Even though the sun had been shining in Sauris that morning, the rain had begun to fall once again. I collapsed onto my bed, worried that the rain would continue for my entire three weeks in Carnia.

Terme di ArtaFinally, around 4:00pm, the rain did stop. With the clouds rapidly dispersing, I went for a walk down the hill to the Terme di Arta. Located on the other side of the Bût River, a tributary of the extensive Tagliamento River, this spa has been operating its thermal baths since the late 19th century. Standing out conspicuously against the surrounding forested mountains, its Japanese-style pagoda made an interesting juxtaposition of time and culture. As I stood midway across the bridge, I felt the warm sun on my face and watched as the sparkling rays of light danced across the water. All was quiet except for the roar of the current coursing over the rocky shoals.

Albergo Ristorante SalonI lingered a long time by the river and, when the breeze off the water became too cool, leisurely made my way back up to Piano d’Arta. When it was dinnertime, I headed directly to Albergo Ristorante Salon, where I had stayed with Mike on our trip in May 2004. Their cjarsòns were the best I had ever tasted, and I was anxious to give them another try. When waiter Matteo served my plate and I took my first bite, I closed my eyes in order to fully savor the flavors on my tongue. The cjarsòns were everything I remembered them to be: a perfect combination of sweet and savory, salty and smoky. Filled with a complex blend of eighteen ingredients—including potato, apple, pear, cocoa, cinnamon, and an assortment of fresh herbs—these delicate ravioli were served in melted butter, sprinkled with cinnamon, and garnished with ricotta affumicata.

For my secondo piatto, I ordered the stinco di vitello, which came with a side of purè (mashed potatoes). The roast veal was sliced thin and pretty tasty, although not quite at the level of La Subida’s. I also had an insalata mista, which Matteo prepared tableside. From the cartful of garden-fresh produce, I chose some radicchio (green baby leaves, as opposed to the bitter, red radicchio from Treviso), sliced tomatoes, and tegolini (string beans).

After dinner, I had the privelege of meeting the owner, Bepi Salon. A spry man in his mid-80s, Signor Bepi sat with me for quite some time, answering questions about his restaurant, his life, and his passion for Carnian cuisine. A budding mycologist in his youth, Bepi pioneered the use of local ingredients and regional specialties—a novelty among the town’s many tourist hotels that once primarily featured national dishes such as lasagne and spaghetti al ragù. His wife, Fides, ran the kitchen, transforming all the wild edibles that Bepi brought back from his early morning treks through the woods—mushrooms, herbs, and berries—into dishes inspired by her mother’s family recipes. (Bepi Salon passed away on December 4, 2010; his daughter Antonella is now in charge of the kitchen.)

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Balance on the BallCheck out my latest guest blog post “Balance On The Ball” at www.drhill.com.

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Sauris di SopraDespite the oompah band playing outside my window for half the night, I still managed to get to sleep, thanks to my trusty earplugs. It was now my final day in Sauris, and I was all fired up to go hiking in the mountains. At 7:30am, some patches of blue sky had opened up, letting the golden beams of morning sunlight come streaming into the valley below me. By the time I had finished my breakfast, however, the clouds had spread themselves over the sky again, like a thick layer of white frosting.

I left my hotel around 10:00am, when the food stands of the Festa del Prosciutto were scheduled to open. Since it was still early on that Sunday morning, there were no lines yet. I bought a panino filled with prosciutto di Sauris to take with me, as well as a slice of crostata—this one with strawberry jam and a cornmeal crust—to round out my picnic.

My destination was Casera Festons, a malga (dairy farm) located in the mountains above Sauris di Sopra. Because buses normally ran only three times a day between Sauris di Sotto (where I was staying) and Sauris di Sopra, I had not been able to attempt my hike until now. To my great relief, I had learned that free shuttle buses would be running continuously between the two villages for the duration of the festival, so that visitors would have the freedom to park in both spots.

goats grazing in SaurisAn annual ritual every June, cows are herded from dairy farms in Carnia’s valleys to mountain huts called malghe, where they can graze in tranquil Alpine pastures all summer long, providing their milk twice a day for the making of formaggio di malga. I anticipated that today I would not only see lots of cows but also get an inside glimpse into the cheese-making process.

From the bus stop, I skirted the edge of Sauris di Sopra until I found the entrance to the trail to Casera Festons. It began as a narrow, paved road that wound tightly up the mountain into the clouds, its steep switchbacks zigzagging like a slalom ski run through the forest. Once I cleared the woods, the trail opened up into an expansive meadow, where a herd of goats was placidly grazing in the misty mountain air. The roughly paved road had by now turned to gravel and dirt, damp and muddy from the recent rains.

As soon as the summit came into view, it began to drizzle. I had been climbing for over an hour and was ecstatic to finally reach the top. Along the way, I had not encountered a single soul, save for two vehicles that had passed me on the ascent: a tiny, blue three-wheeler and a maroon station wagon that was now parked in a dirt lot next to a couple of picnic tables.

Casera FestonsA little ways ahead I could see the malga, a tiny speck amid rolling green hills, with a few snow-capped peaks poking up behind them in the distance. Even though the rain was coming down harder now, I continued on, past a couple of marshy ponds, until I reached the gate. There were no cows to be seen, no people, no cars—no sign of life whatsoever. The surrounding gate was locked, with a formidable sign that read Proprietà Privata, discouraging anyone from passing through. As far as I could tell, Casera Festons looked to be abandoned, although I knew this was impossible. There was supposed to have been a guided excursion here just yesterday. Then it occurred to me that perhaps everyone was down in Sauris di Sotto enjoying the festival. But where were the cows? Before long, I would learn that it was common practice to herd cows to higher pastures, away from the malga, to graze during the day.

I felt exhausted and utterly disappointed. In the distance, I could barely make out the next closest malga, Casera Malins, but I just didn’t have it in me. The rain was now pouring, so I headed back, umbrella in one hand, panino in the other. The descent took only an hour, despite the occasional pause to rest. Surprisingly, this downhill portion was much more challenging than the trek up. The road was so steep in places that I had to turn around and walk backwards much of the way to relieve the pressure on my knees.

Immediately upon reaching Sauris di Sopra, I caught the shuttle bus back to Sauris di Sotto, where the rain had suddenly ceased and the festival was in full swing, with crowds even larger than the previous day. Hotel Morgenleit was hosting a tasting event, offering samples of prosciutto, cheese, and beer. The lobby was packed, the line for food extending out the door and down the street. I felt fortunate to have picked up my lunch when I did. With my thighs and calves aching from the hike, I gingerly climbed the stairs and spent the rest of the afternoon curled up in bed, reading and napping.

At dinnertime, I made my way down the hill to Ristorante Alla Pace for one last meal. To start, I was served a complimentary plate of prosciutto di Sauris, topped with some fresh greens, walnuts, grated horseradish, and a balsamic dressing. For my entrée, I ordered the capriolo in salmì, a venison stew served with triangles of grilled polenta. I had been in the habit of ordering a mixed salad with my meals, but Signora Franca urged me to try the verdure cotte (cooked vegetables)—on this particular evening, the chef had prepared boiled beet greens.

crostataSince I had saved that slice of crostata for my dessert—it had been too tricky to maneuver eating while hiking backwards downhill in the rain—I skipped dessert at Alla Pace and said a final goodbye to Franca. Just as I reached my hotel, it started pouring again. With any luck, the storms would soon pass, for tomorrow I would be moving on to my next town, Arta Terme.

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prosciutto di SaurisThe 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.

polentaI 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.

Festa del ProsciuttoAs 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.

salamiAfter 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.

honeyAll 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.

Carnian liqueursAs 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.

crostataAs 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.

Ristorante Alla PaceAt 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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frico con patateFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Frico con Patate (Montasio cheese and potato pancake) in honor of Luca Manfé, Friuli native and winner of MasterChef Season 4. Originally from Aviano in the province of Pordenone, Luca now resides in New York and aspires to open a restaurant there, which he would name Frico. Fittingly, the dish that propelled him into the MasterChef finals involved a frico made with Grana Padano. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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