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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Calamari Ripieni (Stuffed Squid). Popular in many coastal regions of Italy, as well as along the Istrian peninsula, stuffed calamari are featured on menus at the numerous seafood restaurants that line Trieste’s waterfront. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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