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Archive for June, 2019

My next stop that summer was Ravascletto, which I would use as a home base for a hike to nearby Malga Pozôf, as well as for the Mondo delle Malghe (world of the malga) festival in Ovaro. My room at Albergo Bellavista certainly lived up to its name “beautiful view”—across the valley rose the verdant Monte Zoncolan, at the top of which was my first destination.

The town of Ravascletto provides a chair lift to the peak of Monte Zoncolan—necessary, of course, during ski season—but unfortunately on that particular July day it was closed for repair. So I geared myself up for a two-hour uphill trek. Beginning in the valley below Ravascletto, I hiked up the grassy, wildflower-strewn ski slope and through pine forests, ultimately emerging at the summit to find cows grazing alongside a dirt road. Following the path a short distance further, I finally reached Malga Pozôf.

Every summer, cows are herded from dairy farms in the valleys to mountain huts called malghe, where they can graze to their hearts’ content in tranquil Alpine pastures. With a simple diet of mountain grass, these cows produce milk that Friulians claim to be superlative for making cheese. The term formaggio di malga refers to any type of cheese made at a malga, including fresh, aged, salted, and smoked cheeses.

Settling in at a long, wooden picnic table, I was welcomed with a plate of assorted cheeses, including a spicy one spiked with red pepper flakes. After my snack, I wandered freely around the property, peeking into the cheese-making rooms where wheels of aging formaggio were stacked to the ceiling. Following the aroma of smoke, I entered the fogolâr room, where balls of ricotta rested above the fire, on their way to becoming ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta), one of Friuli’s most distinctive cheeses.

Back in Ravascletto, I stopped to check the bus schedule and learned that the bus to Ovaro did not run on Sundays, the day of the festival. Feeling somewhat disheartened, I asked around and was soon directed to a bar across the street. The owner’s husband, a toothless old gentleman who spoke no English, ran an informal taxi service, so I arranged for him to drive me to Ovaro on Sunday.

After a terrifying 15-minute drive—my chauffeur seemed predisposed to pass every car on the endless blind, hairpin turns—I arrived at the festival early and had plenty of time to stroll the side streets and browse at the numerous food stands. Fresh 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.

Around noon I began 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 and tartar sauce.

After lunch, I wandered across the street from the main piazza and stopped at a small hay-filled enclosure 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.

While waiting for my taxi driver to retrieve me that afternoon, I rested in a shady park near a children’s playground and watched paragliders drift down from the peaks of Monte Zoncolan. Muffling the noise of the crowds was a small band—in addition to the fiddle, bass, and accordion players, someone’s young child was posing adorably with an adult-sized guitar. They were soon interrupted by a preteen marching band accompanied by a drill team, the dancing girls outfitted in spandex and brandishing pom-poms. Just for a moment, the aura of a foreign country vanished, and I was whisked back to Small Town, USA.

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My bus ride to Sauris was one of the more hair-raising I have endured. After changing buses two times—and squeezing myself into a seat amid a sizeable group of motion-sick school kids—the final leg of the journey traveled through dark mountainside tunnels and across a precipitous bridge suspended over the turquoise Lago di Sauris. I arrived on a breezy, overcast July day—a welcome respite from the heat wave that was blanketing the rest of Italy. The scent of rain hung in the humid air, threatening to dampen the upcoming weekend’s prosciutto festival.

More so than any other Carnian village, Sauris has retained a sense of otherworldly charm, its characteristic multi-story homes—white masonry below and wooden framework above—hinting at the region’s Austrian past. Intricate patterns cut into the woodwork adorn railings and balconies, along with a rainbow of potted flowers. Throughout the town, chickens crowd backyard pens, while hay, deftly woven into the latticework, dries on the upper floors of Alpine farmhouses. Above it all towers the onion-domed steeple of Chiesa di Sant’Osvaldo.

Sauris actually consists of two towns: the upper Sauris di Sopra and lower Sauris di Sotto. I was staying in the lower village, the location of not only the Festa del Prosciutto but also the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. During the free days before the festival, my primary objective was to explore the inner workings of this prosciutto factory—but upon inquiry, I learned they couldn’t give a tour to someone traveling da sola (alone). I could, however, tag along with their next busload of Austrian tourists, which was expected the next afternoon.

Nestled in the hills above Sauris di Sotto, the barnlike Wolf Sauris factory produces a prosciutto that may not be as famous as Friuli’s other ham, prosciutto di San Daniele, but is deservedly celebrated in its own right. As I followed the Italian-speaking guide through the sterile rooms of white tile and stainless steel, the salty, smoky aromas were pleasantly overpowering. The curing room, where endless rows of prosciutti hung from floor to ceiling, left me craving a nibble or two. Happily, the tour ended with the guide handing out breadsticks draped with gauze-thin slices of the rosy, pink meat.

On the morning of the festival, I was awakened by a rooster’s crow and the patter of raindrops on my window. I stayed indoors until lunchtime, when the rain began to taper off and masses of visitors emerged onto the streets. After spotting a sign that advertised frico con polenta, I immediately jumped in the long line to order a plate. This frico was the version made with potatoes, but having been pre-cooked, packaged in zippered bags, and then reheated in a microwave oven, mine was still cold inside. The polenta, on the other hand, was freshly prepared. Large cauldrons bubbled with hot cornmeal as cooks stood watch, stirring the mixture with long, wooden paddles. When ready, the polenta was poured onto a board, quickly cooling into a two-foot-wide mass, and sliced with a long piece of string. Given my disappointing, microwaved frico, I might have fared better with one of the other selections, such as ricotta (both fresh and smoked) or formaggio di malga (cheese made during the summer in a mountaintop dairy called a malga).

After 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 Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. Then there were the cheese vendors. One in particular specialized in formadi frant, a cheese made by mixing other cheeses in various stages of maturation. I tasted two varieties, which were white in color, with a tangy flavor reminiscent of sharp cheddar.

All 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.

As 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 my liking (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.

Ready for dessert, I patrolled the remaining food stalls to the tunes of two competing oom-pah bands. Ultimately, 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.

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The Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera—celebrating wild asparagus, mountain radicchio, and spring mushrooms—is held every May in Piano d’Arta, a hilltop hamlet just up the road from the town of Arta Terme. I arrived a day prior to the street fair’s scheduled opening, but there was plenty to keep me busy.

Several hotels were offering special tasting-menus for the entire weekend. For lunch at Albergo Ristorante Salon, I was treated to a series of small plates that showcased local wild edibles: herb fritters, marinated trout with wild fennel and greens, dandelion soup with delicate Montasio cheese puffs, orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”) with morel mushrooms, lasagne with hop shoots and wild asparagus, pheasant breast with marjoram and potatoes, and a wild strawberry spumone for dessert.

Fully sated, I spent the afternoon exploring the environs. Down the hill and across the Bût River, a Japanese pagoda housed the Terme di Arta thermal baths and spa. A ten minute walk further along the highway landed me in nearby Zuglio, where I could investigate the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement right in the center of town.

That evening at Hotel Gardel, I splurged on yet another tasting menu, only this time I barely made it halfway through the feast before I admitted defeat. After courses of breaded asparagus, pear and cheese salad, asparagus and potato tortino (layered into a “little cake”), asparagus gratinati (baked with melted cheese), and bleons (buckwheat pasta) with mushroom sauce, I had no room for soup, another mushroom orzotto, stuffed rabbit, or dessert. The banquet hall was packed, and the air buzzed with the hum of foreign conversation and the electric tunes of a live pianist—so I knew I would not be missed when I ducked out to pay my bill.

The next morning, I left my hotel to find the festival gearing up bright and early. In both directions along the wisteria-lined road, tables were being set up to display all sorts of traditional arts and crafts. Wildflowers seemed to be a common theme, appearing on hand-painted ceramic plates, beaded ornaments, and decorative wooden plaques for the home.

Tucked away in a corner near Albergo Salon, a couple of mycologists had arranged a display of local wild mushrooms. It was well known that the elderly owner of the hotel, Bepi Salon (who passed away several years after my visit, in 2010), was an avid mycologist himself and made daily excursions into the forests to collect mushrooms, herbs, and berries for his wife, Fides, to serve in the hotel’s restaurant.

Around noon, as the sun peeked out from behind a patch of ominous rain clouds and a big band struck up the tune “New York, New York,” I embarked on a self-guided tasting spree. Bypassing a grill station loaded with ribs and sausages, I headed first for the frico (fried cheese) cart. Frico was one of the first Friulian dishes I had tried many years earlier and may be given credit for sparking my interest in this region’s cuisine. There are two main varieties—crispy fried wafers (frico croccante), often served in the shape of a bowl, and pancakes prepared with cheese and potatoes (frico con patate)—but here in Piano d’Arta, I was introduced to yet another type called frico friabile. Instead of cooking the cheese in a skillet, the signora was dropping handfuls of grated cheese into a pot of boiling oil. After only a few minutes, she removed what looked like a porous sea sponge and draped it over a small rack of copper rods, where it quickly crisped up in the shape of a taco shell. Now while I simply adore frico made with potatoes, this disappointing version dripped with grease and tasted strongly of cooking oil.

I discreetly disposed of my plate and proceeded to the next food stall, where a young boy was handing out samples of frittelle (fritters) made with wild herbs and greens such as sage, acacia, melissa (lemon balm), sambuco (elderberry), radicchio di montagna (blue sow thistle), and sclopit (silene). I then spotted an array of frittatas and politely jostled my way into the line. When the woman ahead of me reached the table, she requested a piatto misto so that she could sample all three varieties: mushroom, asparagus, and sclopit. The server refused, explaining that it could not be done for just one customer. Eavesdropping on the exchange, I immediately piped in to express my similar wish, and we were each subsequently granted half a frittata sampler plate. Each slice was as thin as a pancake but loaded with savory flavor.

Finally, I ordered a plate of cjalsòns. There are dozens of recipes for cjalsòns (alternately spelled cjarzòns or cjalcions) in Carnia, and most contain some element of sweetness. These particular ones were half-moon-shaped ravioli filled with herbs, raisins, and chocolate and served with melted butter, smoked ricotta cheese, sugar, and cinnamon. After sampling nearly twenty versions over the years, my absolute favorite turned out to be the ones I later ordered at Ristorante Salon. Filled with a sublime combination of apple, pear, and herbs, they were the perfect balance of sweet, savory, salty and smoky.

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Tucked away in Italy’s northeast corner, Friuli–Venezia Giulia stretches from the Adriatic Sea to the boundaries of Austria and Slovenia. It is along the region’s Austrian border that the flat plains of central Friuli ascend into forested hills and snow-capped peaks. With the Carnian Alps (Carnia) in the west and the Giulian Alps (Tarvisiano) to the east, this mountainous area is sprinkled with onion-domed church steeples, gabled chalets, and Alpine farmhouses. Isolated from the rest of the region by rugged mountains and long, treacherous roads, Carnia embodies everything I long for in nature—wildflowers, birdsong, open meadows where I can twirl like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

On several trips to Friuli in 2004 and 2005, I planned my itinerary around a few of the region’s numerous food festivals, all in either Carnia proper or the area at the base of the Alps known as Alto Friuli. While there was always a trade-off—tranquil, tourist-free villages inevitably became overwhelmed by flocks of visitors—I found these festivals to be an invaluable opportunity to learn about Friulian culture and interact with the local people.

Over the following month, I’ll take you on a tour of the following five food festivals:

  • Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera—Arta Terme
  • Festa del Prosciutto—Sauris
  • Mondo delle Malghe—Ovaro
  • Festa dei Frutti di Bosco—Forni Avoltri
  • Festa della Zucca—Venzone

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Insalata di Pere e Montasio (Pear and Montasio Salad). While Montasio, undisputedly Friuli’s most well-known cheese, is commonly used in this salad, I have also seen it prepared with formaggio di malga, cheese produced during the summer months in one of Carnia’s malghe, or mountain dairy farms. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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