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Archive for July, 2019

It occurred to me, after visiting these—and other—festivals, that part of Carnia’s allure was the promise of stepping back in time, to an era where life was simpler. Where every family farmed its own crops and milked its own cows. Where clothes were sewn by hand and there were no supermarkets or electricity. These small-town festivals genuinely strive to capture this nostalgia, but the impressions of the past inevitably become blemished to some degree with the modern-day bothers of crowds, traffic, and the occasional sub-par, mass-generated meal.

To truly appreciate the charm of a town, I made sure to spend some time, in the days before or after the festival, exploring the tranquil streets and indulging the fantasy of yesteryear. Ancient customs, cuisine, and architecture have all merged with the necessities of the contemporary world, but each village in Carnia remains proud of its individual culture—even if that culture sometimes includes drill teams and pom-poms.

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The Festa della Zucca is held annually on the fourth weekend of October in the town of Venzone, nestled in the foothills of Friuli’s Alps. On this autumn trip, I had made Trieste my home base and would need to first take the train to Udine before making the connection to Venzone. The last time I had visited Venzone, I had been stranded during a transportation strike. Fortunately, on this particular day when thousands of people would be heading to the festival, I learned that extra trains would be added to the schedule.

When I arrived in Venzone around 1:00pm, the streets within the medieval-walled village were packed beyond capacity. Townspeople dressed in medieval costumes roamed the streets. Walls of visitors blocked the narrow alleys, watching groups of jugglers and other performers. In addition to the usual vendors selling local craft items, a display of medieval weaponry attracted the attention of passersby. I was too short to see much over the towering crowds, so I weaved my way to the piazza where many varieties of squash were on display. Prizes would be given out later in the day for the largest, heaviest, longest, most beautiful, and most unusual.

I was especially drawn to the works of pumpkin art, including a crocodile carved from a long squash and a mosaic of Venzone’s cathedral using bits of multi-colored rind. My favorites were the intricate floral carvings. Mesmerized, I watched a couple of chefs demonstrate their skill on a gigantic pumpkin that must have weighed hundreds of pounds.

Since I anticipated plenty of street food, I hadn’t eaten any lunch beforehand. Once there, I ended up ignoring all the savory food stands, making a meal of nothing but dessert samples. I decided to focus primarily on torta di zucca (pumpkin cake), in an effort to settle on a recipe for my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. I knew I wanted to include some sort of pumpkin dessert, but this decision had been plaguing me for months.

Most desserts were being sold in bite-size samples for €1 apiece. I tried several pumpkin cakes, all variations on the same ordinary yellow cake, some with raisins, others plain. Most were slices of what was labeled plumcake di zucca, though one was baked in cupcake form. There were more tarts than cakes on offer—tiny, round crostate as well as rectangles with a lattice crust—and even more varieties of bread and focaccia. In addition, I saw pumpkin strudel, krapfen (cream-filled doughnuts), and biscotti.

As I was filling up on these desserts, I was tempted by a sign for frico con la zucca (cheese and squash pancake), but the line wrapped all the way around the building. Feeling rather claustrophobic amid the noise and chaos of the masses, and growing somewhat irritable from constantly being jostled by strangers, I just didn’t have the patience to wait in that line.

Venzone is a remarkably tiny town, and so, despite the throngs of visitors, I was able to navigate the entire festival in an hour and a half. On my way back to the train station on the other side of the highway, I passed a couple of kids selling homemade cakes, tarts, and cookies outside their home. For €0.50 they gave me two pieces of torta di zucca.

On the train ride back to Trieste, my dessert dilemma suddenly became crystal clear. Instead of a recipe for pumpkin cake, I would recreate a version of pane di zucca that I had seen in abundance at the festival: braided loaves of pumpkin bread with raisins and walnuts.

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The final stop on my festival tour that July was Forni Avoltri, located in Carnia’s far north near the Austrian border. Celebrating the berries of the forest, this festival was the largest of all those I attended in Carnia. The village straddles the Degano River, and most of the festival events were to take place on the farthest side where traditional wooden homes scale the forested hills. On the day I arrived, workers were erecting carnival rides in an empty parking lot and setting up booths along the steep roads. I took a short hike up into the mountains, past a dribbling brook and miniature waterfall, to the Goccia di Carnia plant, where fresh spring water is bottled for sale.

Back in town, I passed a tiny, pink stucco church, the Chiesetta di Sant’Antonio. Across the street, an old woman tending her garden greeted me with a jovial “Mandi!” (Similar to the Italian word ciao, mandi is the Friulian greeting for both “hello” and “goodbye.”) As we chatted, I learned that there was to be a cookbook-signing event at the town hall that evening. I made a mental note to have an early dinner so that I could attend.

When I arrived for dinner at Ristorante Al Sole, it turned out Forni Avoltri’s mayor was dining there, too. Having an American visitor was apparently a novelty in this out-of-the-way village, and before long we were introduced. Learning of my interest in Friulian cuisine, the mayor formally invited me to the book-signing (for Cucina Della Carnia by Melie Artico), where I was presented as a special guest.

The next morning, I crossed the river to the festival. Carnival rides were in full swing, and rows of booths wound upward through the streets. By this time, I had started to recognize some of the same artisans selling their crafts at each festival, and I leisurely perused everything from jewelry to woodworking to dried flowers. As always, though, I was most enticed by the food vendors. In addition to samples of prosciutto and cheese, there were sausages, herb-filled tortelli, barley soup, and of course, frico. Once again, I couldn’t resist trying the cjalsòns. By this time, my standards had been set extremely high, and these were a bit heavy due to the potato-based, gnocchi-like dough.

Luckily, 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.

Later that afternoon, I caught up with a parade of townspeople dressed in rich medieval costumes—velvet gowns and brocade tunics, complete with faux swords and shields. I followed the procession back across the river, accompanied by drummers and minstrels.

Before dinner that evening, I was reading quietly in my hotel room when I suddenly heard trumpets blaring outside my window. It was a marching band heading down the street toward town hall. Grabbing my room key, I dashed downstairs and into the piazza, where I joined the crowds to watch the Miss Carnia beauty pageant. A pom-pom-waving drill team kicked off the event, which then presented eight model-thin girls posing in bikinis and formal wear. The microphone was broken, so no one could hear the announcements, but I stayed to the end to see which waif would win the title.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Gnocchi Croccanti di Sauris (Crispy Stuffed Gnocchi), a specialty at Ristorante Alla Pace in Sauris di Sotto. The gnocchi are stuffed with prosciutto and cheese, fried in butter until golden brown, and served on a bed of wilted arugula. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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