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Archive for January, 2014

Albergo Ristorante BellavistaOn my last day in Ravascletto, I chose to stay in for most of the day. After breakfast, I stationed myself on the veranda of Albergo Bellavista, setting up my laptop on a table overlooking the expansive Valcalda valley. The deck was lined with window boxes of red geraniums, and a couple of birdcages stood close-by. The dismal, gray clouds that had greeted me upon awakening cleared away by mid-morning to reveal a sparkling, blue sky. I was entirely content sitting there in the cool breeze, with nothing to distract me from my writing, except perhaps the intermittent canary song. At one point, the owner came over to chat. He showed great interest in my cookbook project and didn’t seem the least bit offended at my repeated failure to show up at mealtimes.

At noon, I packed up my computer and headed down the hill to eat at Hotel La Perla for the third time in as many days. This time, I ordered the gnocchi di mele. Along the lines of the more prevalent gnocchi di susine (plum gnocchi), these dumplings were made with a light and tender potato-based dough, filled with apples and raisins, and topped with melted butter, toasted bread crumbs, and cinnamon. I also took advantage of the mixed vegetable buffet, having been so impressed with it the prior evening. Today’s plate included string beans, potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, and spinach. For dessert, I continued the apple theme with a slice of apple strudel. Prepared in the traditional Viennese style, the dough was paper thin and stuffed with apples, raisins, and lots of cinnamon.

My afternoon was spent much like my morning, transcribing notes and working on the first draft of Flavors of Friuli. By late afternoon, another band of dark clouds had gloomily crept into the valley. This storm brought with it more thunder and lightning, and even a burst of hail.

As the rain was still pouring at dinnertime, I decided to stay indoors and have one more meal at Bellavista. The choices were just as dull as my first dinner there, and I ended up having a bowl of vegetable soup, a plate of prosciutto e melone, and a side of potatoes that were described as arrostite (roasted) but turned out to be disc-shaped tater tots instead. Dessert was a tart filled with pastry cream, strawberries, and blueberries. As I was eating, I noticed a nearby table being served an order of frico—and yet another table a plate of cjarsòns. If only I had had the gumption to insist on the regular menu! Still, I had learned a valuable lesson about the workings of Italian pensioni and vowed not to make the same mistake again.

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cheese at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroIt soon became obvious to me that my absence at lunch and dinner the previous day had been a major faux pas. Around 9:00pm, I had received a phone call from the irritated owner of Albergo Bellavista, checking to see if I was coming to dinner. Feeling rather embarrassed, I was forced to admit that I had already eaten. Consequently, I was prepared to give notice today at breakfast that I would be skipping my meals there once again. The waitress, however, never even asked. When I saw that lavish platters of cheese, salami, and croissants had been laid out on all the other tables, while mine held only a single croissant, I felt as if I had been blacklisted for my failure to follow the proper protocol.

Pushing those defeatist thoughts aside, I hastened to finish my croissant, scurried upstairs to grab my backpack, and dashed outdoors into the warm July sunshine. I had arranged at the bar down the street for the owner’s husband to drive me to Ovaro today. Though billed as a taxi, in reality the service was nothing more than a man and his own personal car.

On the nerve-racking 15-minute drive, during which my elderly chauffeur seemed predisposed to pass every car along the endless blind, hairpin turns, I attempted to make small talk, though it was somewhat difficult to understand his toothless mumbling. Fortunately, when he dropped me off in Ovaro, he did seem to comprehend that I wished to be picked up at 3:00pm.

display at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroThe Mondo delle Malghe festival, established to celebrate the “world of the malghe,” featured everything to do with the local art of cheese production. Since it was still early when I arrived, and many of the food stalls were still being set up, I took a long walk through the residential areas of town, looking for houses with the emerald green shingles that I had read were characteristic of the Val Degano.

Back on the stretch of highway running through town, I stopped at a small hay-filled enclosure across from the main piazza to watch a couple of gleeful children taking pony rides. A nearby exhibit of Carnian antiques caught my eye. Fully dressed figures made from straw had been carefully arranged among the furniture to recreate traditional household scenes from ancient times: a father and son chopping wood, a mother bathing a child, and a baby asleep in his cradle.

ricotta affumicataFresh produce abounded—everything from zucchini to peas to wild berries—although the variety of cheese on display surpassed all else. There was formaggio di malga, fresh ricotta, ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta), formaggio salato (salted cheese), formaggio alle erbe (herbed cheese), and formadi frant (a golden hued cheese made from mixing cheeses of varying stages of maturation), to name just a few.

By this time, the main piazza and adjoining side streets were filled with food stands. Scoping out my options for lunch, I found vendors dishing up plates of gnocchi di zucca (butternut squash dumplings), frico (cheese and potato pancake), and goulasch (Hungarian beef stew)—but as always, I was unable to resist the cjarsòns. These were dense and chewy with a filling of ricotta, raisins, bread crumbs, sugar, parsley, and lemon zest. Next, I sampled a plate of assorted cheeses: slices of formaggio di malga, formaggio salato, and ricotta affumicata, accompanied by a plain boiled potato. Finally, I found a seat at one of the crowded communal picnic tables in the piazza to try a fillet of smoked trout, served with salsa rosa, tartar sauce, and a hunk of bread.

cheese at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroWhile waiting for my taxi driver to retrieve me that afternoon, I rested in a shady park to escape the sweltering heat. In the sky above, paragliders drifted down from the peaks of Monte Zoncolan. At the children’s playground, two brothers played on the seesaw, the older, heavier child having much difficulty getting off the ground. Another little boy kept toddling over to the fountain to wash his hands in the cool water, his exasperated mother provoking a tantrum of tears as she repeatedly whisked him away. With amusement, I observed this scene replay more than a dozen times, the child quickly recovering his happy, bubbly laughter with every escape.

From under a nearby tree, the rollicking tunes of a small trio of musicians muffled the noise of the crowd around me. Joining the fiddle, bass, and accordion players, a small child posed adorably with an adult-sized guitar. They were soon interrupted by the appearance of a preteen marching band and drill team, the dancing girls outfitted in spandex and brandishing pom-poms.

My driver picked me up promptly, although I nearly missed him in the stream of cars going by. Luckily, I spotted him when he parked across the street and got out, clearly having just as much trouble locating me. The drive back to Ravascletto turned out to be even more terrifying than the ride there. As we were attempting to pass a slow-moving trailer, a car whizzed around the corner at us at breakneck speed. We barely escaped a possibly fatal accident by pulling back into our lane just in time. Later, after having successfully passed the trailer, we came upon a string of motorcycles speeding around the dangerously narrow curves. My anxious heart racing, I was immensely relieved when we finally pulled up outside Albergo Bellavista.

For dinner that evening, I returned to Hotel La Perla, whose dining room was now considerably subdued in comparison to the prior evening, when a wedding reception had been in full swing. To start, I was served a complimentary antipasto of three crostini topped with fresh ricotta and mushrooms. Next, I ordered the blècs: rustic triangles of buckwheat pasta served in a cream sauce with prosciutto, mushrooms, and shavings of cheese. Since I hadn’t had many veggies lately, I also ordered the verdure miste, which was offered as a self-service buffet. Delighted with the variety, I helped myself to a generous plate of string beans, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, bell peppers, zucchini, and olives. Everything tasted fresh and was prepared with great care—precisely what I would expect from a traditional Carnian meal.

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Balance on the BallBalance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates has just been awarded a gold medal in the “Health, Fitness & Dieting” category of the AUTHORSdB 2013 Book Cover Contest.

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costicine in brodo di polentaFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Costicine in Brodo di Polenta (Pork Ribs in Polenta), a hearty dish suitable for these cold winter months. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Albergo Ristorante BellavistaI 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.

RavasclettoAlmost 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.

Malga PozofI 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!

Malga Pozof cowsFollowing 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.

fogolar at Malga PozofAfter 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!

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Piano d'ArtaPassing through Tolmezzo earlier in the week, I had noticed a sign at the bus station announcing a transportation strike that was scheduled, most inconveniently, for today, the day I was leaving Piano d’Arta for Ravascletto. To my great relief, as I read the fine print, I learned that service was guaranteed between noon and 3:00pm—so it looked like I would make it to my destination after all.

I ate breakfast in my room again—another of those crostate from Paularo, this one a rectangular slice with blueberry jam and a lattice crust. After checking out of Hotel Poldo and leaving my bag at the reception desk, I strolled down the hill to a market, where I bought a small roll and a hunk of fresh Montasio cheese. Back at my hotel, I parked myself outside at a patio table in the shade and spent the rest of the morning nibbling on my meager picnic and waiting restlessly for my departure time.

At 12:30pm, I caught the bus heading north. My schedule, printed from the Internet, showed a connection in Sutrio, but the friendly driver urged me to continue on to Paluzza. It turned out that my bus to Ravascletto originated in Paluzza, and sure enough, it was sitting there waiting for me.

I arrived in Ravascletto and checked into Albergo Bellavista, where Mike and I had eaten lunch the previous year. Perched high in the hills, the hotel truly lived up to its name with a “beautiful view” out over the entire Valcalda valley. My room was quite spacious, with a slanted chalet-style ceiling, a large but rather firm bed, and a wooden writing desk. The bathroom had recently been renovated, although a few quirks left me somewhat nonplussed: the toilet had one of those uncomfortable square seats, the overhead light had burned out, and the door could barely open halfway before bumping into the sink. These slight imperfections melted away, however, when I glanced out the picture window at the imposing peak of Monte Zoncolan directly ahead.

Albergo Ristorante BellavistaShortly after settling in, I took a walk to orient myself. There was one small piazza with a market, an ATM, a tourist office, and a shop selling dishes, linens, and various craft items. Even though everything was closed at this hour, I did see a flyer that put a wrench into my schedule. One of my main reasons for visiting Ravascletto was to attend the Mondo delle Malghe festival in nearby Ovaro. The information mailed to me by the tourist office prior to my trip listed the dates as both Saturday and Sunday. Now, according to this flyer, it looked like the main events of the festival were taking place only on Sunday, when there was no bus service between the two towns.

My other goal in Ravascletto was to visit Malga Pozôf atop Monte Zoncolan. At least it looked like this might be possible—the sign in the window of the tourist office announced that the funivia (ski lift) would reopen tomorrow. I really didn’t want to have to tackle another hike like the one I undertook a few days ago to Malga Pramosio!

Despite the overcast sky, the air was warm and muggy. On my way back, I passed the tiny bar adjacent to the hotel. The door was open, though I found no one working inside. In the corner sat a freezer of packaged ice cream treats, and I took out a lemon Popsicle. I then seated myself on a bar stool at the counter to cool off and enjoy my snack. The cashier returned shortly, at which time I promptly paid my Euro. As I finished eating, we chatted—about the weather, my travels, the local cuisine—but when I stepped down to leave, she abruptly demanded that I pay for the Popsicle. To my polite reminder that I had in fact already paid, she let fly a flurry of impassioned Italian that I could scarcely keep up with. It was only when I pulled the receipt out of my purse that she grudgingly acquiesced.

Back at the hotel, I ran into the owner in the lobby. Surprisingly, he remembered me from over a year ago. He even recalled with remarkable specificity where Mike and I had eaten our lunch: at a corner table in the informal dining area on the ground floor. Upon his inquiry, I agreed to have dinner in the hotel that evening. As far as I could see, there was only one other restaurant in town, and it was located all the way down the hill in the valley.

By early evening, rain had begun to fall. Dark gray thunderclouds loomed in the distance, casting shadows across the mountains and valley. It was a relief not to have to go out in the storm in search of dinner. The drawback to dining as a hotel guest, though, was that I was restricted to the limited pensione menu. There were only a couple of choices for each course, with nothing sounding particularly Friulian. I started with the cannelloni filled with spinach and ricotta, served in a cream sauce. Next, I had a whole grilled trout with a side of baby carrots sautéed in butter. Dessert was a simple bowl of fresh raspberries.

All throughout my meal, as the thunderstorm raged outside, I felt a secure sense of coziness in the refuge of the dining room. Later, back in my top floor room, I sat glued to the window, staring out into the darkness, lulled by the sound of heavy rain pounding against the glass panes and mesmerized by the occasional flashes of lightning that illuminated the Valcalda.

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