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This piece was originally published in the June-July 2013 issue of Dream of Italy under the title “Simple Pleasures in Friuli’s Carnian Alps.”

Hidden in the mountains of northern Friuli–Venezia Giulia are the seven valleys, twenty-eight villages, and 121 hamlets of Carnia. In this remote area where Italy meets Austria, Alpine farmhouses dot the landscape, cows graze in verdant pastures, and time almost seems to stand still. Rugged peaks and long, treacherous roads have served to separate Carnia from the rest of Friuli, and it is precisely because of this isolation that the people have maintained many of their deep-rooted customs.

We begin our journey in Tolmezzo, the gateway to the Carnian Alps. Known for its long-standing textile industry, the town is home to the Museo Carnico delle Arti Popolari. This ethnographic museum contains a collection of all aspects of Carnian life and culture—from weaving to woodcraft, clothing to cookware, and metalwork to masks. Many of these ancient traditions are still practiced by the people today, particularly when it comes to the arts and crafts. In addition, most locals still speak Furlan, a nearly obsolete Romance language with German and Slavic influences.

Venturing north into the heart of Carnia, we pass Zuglio, the site of an ancient Roman settlement whose ruins may still be seen in the center of town. Just a mile up the road is Arta Terme, where a tributary of the Tagliamento River supplies healing waters to the Terme di Arta spa. While the Japanese-style pagoda that houses the thermal baths catches the eye as a rather conspicuous manifestation of the modern world, much of the surrounding landscape has not changed for centuries.

Throughout Carnia, fields and forests are filled with the echoes of birdsong, the fragrance of pine, and numerous wild edibles that have become a part of the local cuisine. In the hilltop hamlet of Piano d’Arta—located just above Arta Terme—Ristorante Salon has earned a reputation for its use of such ingredients. Its late owner, Bepi Salon, was an avid mycologist and was known to rise at the crack of dawn for his daily trek through the countryside. After returning with baskets of wild mushrooms, greens, and berries, his wife, Fides, would then transform these humble pickings into delectable meals for the restaurant.

Among the regular menu listings at Salon, one standout deserves special mention—the cjarsòns. A type of ravioli native to Carnia and having a multitude of possible fillings, cjarsòns (also spelled cjalsòns) often combine flavors of sweet, savory, and even smoky. Salon’s are filled with a complex blend of eighteen ingredients, including apple, pear, cinnamon, cocoa, and an assortment of fresh herbs. In traditional Carnian style, they are served in melted butter, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, and garnished with smoked ricotta cheese.

Thanks to the ancient spice merchants called cramârs, exotic flavors such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, chocolate, paprika, caraway, and poppy seeds have made their way into the cuisine of Friuli. Many of these traveling peddlers lived in Carnia but spent the winter months trading spices, medicinal herbs, fabrics, and other goods throughout central Europe. The unsold spices that they brought home in the spring were then utilized in the family’s cooking.

Throughout history, the Carnian people were poor and often plagued by famine, especially during the region’s long, brutal winters. As in the rest of Friuli–Venezia Giulia, the foods of poverty—polenta, beans, and potatoes—are dietary staples, with pork being the predominant meat. Carnia’s cuisine has also been strongly influenced by its former ties to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as is evident in the numerous varieties of dumplings and strudels.

The restaurant at Hotel La Perla in Ravascletto is one of many to specialize in traditional Carnian fare. Toç in braide (polenta with ricotta sauce) and blècs (buckwheat pasta triangles) are two examples of dishes that have been around for centuries. Drawing inspiration from Austrian cuisine, La Perla also prepares gnocchi stuffed with apples and raisins, as well as a scrumptious apple strudel. Their local version of cjarsòns is a sweet one, filled with chocolate, ricotta, and raisins.

The town of Ravascletto, located in the center of Carnia, is best known as a wintertime ski resort but also makes a fine base for summertime hiking. Perched high in the hills, Albergo Ristorante Bellavista certainly lives up to its name—the hotel’s comfortable rooms offer a stunning panoramic vista of the Valcalda valley and the towering Monte Zoncolan.

Every June, throughout the rural hills of Carnia, cows are herded from dairy farms in the valleys to mountain huts called malghe. All summer long, these cows may graze in tranquil Alpine pastures, providing milk twice a day for the production of formaggio di malga (the name for any cheese made in a malga). Near the top of Monte Zoncolan is Malga Pozôf, one of the many malghe to also serve as an agriturismo. Visitors gather at communal wooden tables to sample not only the Gortani family’s homemade cheeses, but also dishes such as herb gnocchi and mushroom orzotto (barley prepared risotto-style).

In addition to making formaggio di malga, malghe are also established producers of ricotta affumicata. This cheese is made by leaving balls of fresh ricotta above a fogolâr (fireplace) to smoke until the texture becomes firm and the exterior turns a smoky brownish orange. Easily grated, it is used to top everything from cjarsòns to gnocchi and could easily be considered Friuli’s most distinctive cheese.

On the other side of Monte Zoncolan, the town of Ovaro hosts a summer festival called Mondo delle Malghe, where malgari (herdsmen) demonstrate cheese production and take visitors on excursions to nearby malghe. Of course, there is much cheese-tasting to be done: formaggio di malga, fresh and 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). In addition, vendors offer tastes of such dishes as butternut squash gnocchi and Hungarian-style goulasch.

To the north near the Austrian border, the town of Forni Avoltri is home to another food festival, the Festa dei Frutti di Bosco. Countless craft booths sell everything from jewelry to woodworking to dried flowers, while food stands serve up treats such as crêpes, biscotti, and frittelle (fritters). Most enticing, though, is the festival’s elaborate spread of berry-themed desserts. There are cakes and pies of all shapes and sizes, from jellyrolls to fruit-studded tarts, each one featuring wild berries from the local forests. To cap off the festival, a parade takes visitors on a journey back to medieval times. Dressed in velvet gowns and brocade tunics, townspeople march through the streets accompanied by a band of drummers and minstrels.

At the westernmost point of Carnia, where Friuli meets the Veneto, Forni di Sopra presents a spectacular view of the Dolomites. Just outside town, the restaurant Polenta e Frico epitomizes the region’s cuisine with its eponymous dish: a decadent fried cheese and potato pancake served with a wedge of polenta and, in what many would consider overkill, smothered in another layer of melted cheese.

Of all the villages in Carnia, the road to Sauris is perhaps the most hair-raising, with dark tunnels boring through the mountainside, bridges suspended over a turquoise lake, and hairpin turns winding ever higher to the summit. More so than most, 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. Throughout the town, chickens crowd backyard pens, while hay, deftly woven into the latticework, dries on the upper floors of rustic cottages. Potted flowers in a rainbow of hues draw attention to decorative balconies and railings, which are often embellished by intricate patterns and demonstrate the Carnian people’s time-honored skill at woodcraft.

Sauris actually consists of two towns: the upper Sauris di Sopra and lower Sauris di Sotto. The lower village is home to the Wolf Sauris prosciutto factory, which has been producing hams since 1862. Prior to salting and curing, the legs are smoked for several days using a combination of wood and herbs, which gives the ham its distinctive smoky flavor and aroma. Naturally, prosciutto di Sauris is showcased in all of the town’s restaurants, including Ristorante Alla Pace, whose signature dumpling, the gnocco croccante, is stuffed with prosciutto, sautéed in butter until crispy, and served on a bed of wilted greens. Every July, pastoral Sauris comes alive for the Festa del Prosciutto—two weekends of music, dancing, and food, all in celebration of Wolf’s prized ham.

During spring and summer, Sauris’s surrounding grassy meadows are strewn with wildflowers, and its steep, forested peaks invite hikers to explore the region’s endless mountain paths. Legend says that in these woods dwell some furtive and impish beings called sbilfs, who hide in tree trunks, shady thickets, and dense underbrush and play mischievous tricks on unsuspecting passers-by. An evolution of Celtic folklore, these fantastical creatures are said to be visible only to those humans who show a true appreciation for nature. Over time, sbilfs have become more than just an old wives’ tale; they have come to embody the spirit of the forest. As an integral part of Carnian culture, sbilfs may in fact be considered a symbol of Carnia itself.

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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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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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This was the day I had been looking forward to ever since my arrival in Trieste. My baker friends at Pasticceria Penso had invited me to watch them prepare one of Trieste’s specialties, putizza. Similar to the gubana found elsewhere in Friuli, putizza is a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate.

When I arrived bright and early at the bakery, however, brothers Antonello and Lorenzo informed me that the big event had been postponed. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed. As consolation, Antonello offered me a few treats: a curabiè (half-moon shortbread cookie dusted with powdered sugar; of Greek origin), a torta granatina (triangle of chocolate mousse), and a tiny marzipan peach.

I hung around the bakery for a bit, nibbling on the cookie, regrouping and trying to formulate another plan for the day. Finally, I decided to head to Gorizia. When I last visited this city on the Slovenian border, I was discouraged to find that many restaurants were closed, though I did eventually happen upon a tiny working man’s trattoria, where I enjoyed a hearty lunch of pasticcio and goulasch. Perhaps today I would discover a new place to eat.

When I got to the train station, I found the line at the ticket counter to be exceedingly long—apparently all of the automatic ticket machines were broken. By the time I finally arrived in Gorizia, it was nearly noon. I headed straight to the restaurant Ai Tre Soldi Goriziani. To my tremendous relief, it was open.

To start, I ordered the cestino di frico, a “bowl” of crispy, fried cheese filled with polenta and porcini mushrooms. Then, for my main course, I had the goulasch alla Goriziana. There were plenty of other local dishes on the menu and I had already eaten my fair share of goulasch on this trip, but I was too intrigued by the description “alla Goriziana” to turn it down. I was curious to learn whether the goulasch in Gorizia differed from that found in Trieste and the rest of Friuli. Upon tasting it, I determined that this Hungarian-style beef stew was fairly similar to one I had recently eaten in Trieste, in that it was prepared with tomatoes, an addition that, while not entirely traditional, is common throughout Friuli. To further assert the dish’s Friulian spirit, slices of grilled polenta were served alongside the paprika-laced stew.

Although I was quite full, I couldn’t resist ordering the palacinke alla marmellata for dessert. Palacinke may enfold any number of sweet fillings, from fruit preserves to ricotta cheese to pastry cream. I was pleased to find that these crêpes were filled with apricot jam—my favorite!

Here is my recipe for frico croccante, fried Montasio cheese in the shape of a basket. You may fill them with anything you like: polenta, mushrooms, fresh herbs and greens, prosciutto…the possibilities are endless! If Montasio stagionato is not available, you may substitute any aged cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

4 cups grated Montasio stagionato, divided

Preheat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle 1 cup Montasio cheese into the skillet, making a 6-inch circle. Cook until the edges begin to turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. (Watch carefully as the cooking time will vary depending on the precise temperature of the skillet.) Gently remove the frico from the pan and drape over an upside-down glass or bowl. (Allowing the frico to cool in the skillet for a couple seconds off the heat will help the spatula release the cheese from the pan.) The frico will harden in less than a minute, at which point it can be removed from its mold. Repeat with the remaining cheese.

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frico croccanteFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Frico Croccante (Montasio Cheese Crisps). This fried cheese appetizer takes the form of a basket and can hold such treats as polenta, mushrooms, or wild herbs and greens. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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insalata di pere e MontasioFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Insalata di Pere e Montasio (Pear and Montasio Salad). While Friuli’s most acclaimed cheese, Montasio, 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). For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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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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