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Archive for April, 2014

BordanoAfter 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.

Casa delle FarfalleI 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.

Venzone's Duomo di Sant'AndreaFinally, 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.

Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloBy 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).

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Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloMy 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.

Enoteca di CormonsWhen 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.

Friuli: Path of FlavoursThroughout 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.

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berriesIt was the day of the Festa dei Frutti di Bosco in Forni Avoltri, and gauging by the number of tables set up, it looked to be the largest of the food festivals I had so far attended. The village straddled the Degano River, and most of the events were taking place on the farther side. Carnival rides had been erected in an empty parking lot, and rows of booths wound upward through the streets. By this time, I had started to recognize some of the same artisans at each festival—selling crafts such as jewelry, woodwork, paintings, dried flowers, and soap.

Forni Avoltri Though I was tempted by the vast array of food stands, I decided to wait and eat a little closer to lunchtime. So I took a short hike up into the mountains, past a dribbling brook and miniature waterfall, to the hamlet of Pierabach. The road was paved but climbed steadily uphill the entire way. I stopped after about an hour, when I had reached the Goccia di Carnia plant, where fresh spring water is bottled for sale.

Along the way, I had passed Osteria Al Fogolâr, one of the restaurants I had read about but hadn’t been able to find on my initial day of exploration. It was only 10:30am, however—still too early for lunch. Later, on my way back down to Forni Avoltri, I peeked in to see if there were any tables available, but by then the place was completely packed. No matter, I told myself, since I had planned on eating lunch at the festival anyhow.

In addition to handing out samples of prosciutto and cheese, vendors were selling sausages, herb-filled tortelli, barley soup, and of course, frico. But as always, I couldn’t resist trying the cjarsòns. I slid to the rear of the long line to wait, and to my surprise, standing in front of me were none other than Giacomo del Fabbro, president of the Centro Culturale and host of the previous evening’s cookbook event, and the mayor, whom I also recognized from the event. When they saw me, I got a major chiding from both of them for leaving the book-signing prematurely. I had assumed that the event was over when, at 10:00pm, everyone stood up and headed for the door. Apparently, that had only been the intermission. Later, there had been a food tasting, and I had missed it! I really kicked myself for that mistake, but it just shows how badly the fatigue of traveling was beginning to affect me.

After the scolding, the mayor handed me a free voucher for the cjarsòns. Then, following an interminably long wait, I finally got my plate. By this time on my trip, my standards for cjarsòns had been set extremely high. Regrettably, these fell a bit short. Made with a potato-based dough, they were heavy and doughy, over-sweetened and overcooked, and I could only bring myself to eat one.

jellyrollLuckily, my lunch was redeemed by the elaborate spread of sweets. Countless stands were serving up cookies, crêpes, frittelle (fritters), and even gelato, but the biggest tent of all held a vast display of berry-themed desserts. There were cakes and pies of all shapes and sizes, from jellyrolls decorated with whipped cream to tarts studded with a kaleidoscope of fruit. Everything featured wild berries—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, red currants, and even gooseberries. I chose for my treat a huge slice of crostata with a thick cookie crust, mixed berry jam, and fresh blueberries peeking through the lattice top.

Forni Avoltri paradeAfter a brief rest in my room at Hotel Scarpone, I went back out in the afternoon to see the parade. Townspeople were dressed in rich medieval costumes—velvet gowns and brocade tunics, complete with faux swords and shields. I followed the procession from the center of the festival back across the river, accompanied by drummers and minstrels, and followed by a logjam of cars, everyone trying to beat the traffic out of town.

At 5:00pm, I paid a visit to the town’s Collezione Etnografica, an ethnographical museum located down the street from my hotel. Though tiny, it showcased many aspects of traditional Carnian home life, including furniture, clothing, cookware, and crafts.

Afterward, I returned to my room to rest some more before dinner. I was quietly reading, when suddenly I heard the sound of trumpets blaring. I stuck my head out the window and saw a marching band heading down the street toward the town hall. Grabbing my room key, I dashed downstairs and followed the crowd to the piazza. A pompom-waving drill team was performing, after which the Miss Carnia beauty pageant was announced. Eight model-thin girls proceeded to compete in three outfits: t-shirt and pants (or skirt), formal dress, and swimsuit. The microphone was broken, so no one could hear the announcements, but I stayed the full 90 minutes to see which waif would win the title.

It was my final night in Forni Avoltri, and not having made a reservation elsewhere, I took a chance on dinner in my hotel again. Of course, the frico was still not available, but they did have the cjarsòns. I ordered those, along with a light second course of prosciutto e melone and an insalata mista. Unfortunately, it appeared that the cjarsòns were the exact same ones being served at the festival—it did seem plausible that the hotel could have catered the event. At least these tasted fresh, though the filling was ice cold. For once, I voiced my dissatisfaction, though no offer was made to bring a new plate. As I was eating, I noticed another table being served pizzas, which were not even listed on my menu! Yet again, I was flummoxed by the obviously disparate menus. Later, when the waitress came to inquire about dessert, I had to remind her that she had not yet brought my salad. When it was finally time for dessert, I requested only a couple of apricots, which were served with knife and fork, just like my grapes two nights earlier. One of the apricots, however, was moldy inside. This time, I didn’t bother to complain; I just left the fruit open-side up on my plate, its blue and white fuzz clearly visible.

crostata alla marmellataHere is my recipe for crostata alla marmellata, inspired by the mixed berry jam tarts at both Forni Avoltri’s Festa dei Frutti di Bosco and Sauris’s Festa del Prosciutto:

Marmellata:
1 cup fresh blackberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and grated (or puréed in a food processor)
2-1/2 cups sugar

Place the blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and apple in a large pot, mashing slightly with a spoon. Cook over medium heat until the berries soften and release a little of their juice, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar. When the liquid begins to boil, reduce heat to low; cook until thickened, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. (When the jam is ready, a small amount of syrup will hold its shape when cooled. To test, dip a spoon into the liquid; as it cools, the syrup will thicken and coat the spoon.) Transfer the jam to a medium bowl; cool to room temperature.

Dough:
2 cups blanched slivered almonds
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 eggs

1. Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Transfer to a large bowl; stir in the flour, sugar, lemon peel, salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Blend in the butter, a little at a time, until crumbly. Add the eggs; mix until the dough forms a solid mass. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide the dough into two parts, about two-thirds for the bottom crust and one-third for the lattice top. (Keep the reserved third of dough refrigerated until ready to use.) Roll the dough on a lightly floured sheet of waxed paper to form a 10- by 15-inch rectangle. Invert the dough onto a greased 10- by 15-inch baking sheet. (Any rough or broken areas may be easily patched.) Spread the jam over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border on all sides. Roll out the reserved third of dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 3/4-inch-wide strips; arrange the strips over the jam to make a lattice crust. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

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frittata alle erbeFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Frittata alle Erbe (Herb Frittata), to showcase all those fragrant springtime herbs. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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