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Posts Tagged ‘food festival’

Note: Even though Italy has begun the process of reopening following the coronavirus shutdown, many events, including the festivals listed below, have been cancelled for 2020 as a precaution. Organizers are expecting to resume the events as scheduled in 2021.

1. Attend the Festa del Prosciutto in Sauris

oompah band in SaurisEvery July, visitors gather in the village of Sauris for the Festa del Prosciutto. Located in the remote mountains of Friuli–Venezia Giulia, Sauris consists of two towns: the upper Sauris di Sopra and the lower Sauris di Sotto. Home of the famed Wolf Sauris Prosciutto factory, Sauris di Sotto is naturally the center of the two-weekend-long festival.

Like all villages in the Carnian Alps, Sauris has retained a certain old-world charm, the prominent onion-domed steeple of Chiesa di Sant’Osvaldo towering over a cluster of gabled chalets and rustic farmhouses. Silent and sedate for much of the year, these streets come alive for the festival with rows upon rows of craft tables and food stands. In addition to the requisite prosciutto, visitors may sample tastes of cheese, sausage, frico (cheese and potato pancake), liqueurs made from wild berries, and desserts such as apple strudel and jam tarts. Then, after a long day of eating and shopping, beer-guzzling revelers may dance the night away to the tunes of a strolling oompah band.

2. Go cheese tasting at a malga in the Carnia mountains

Malga PozofEvery summer, throughout the rural hills of Friuli, cows are herded from dairy farms in the valleys to mountain huts called “malghe.” In mid-June, the parade of cattle up into the mountains is a celebrated event, as is the descent each September. All summer long, cows can graze in tranquil Alpine pastures, providing their milk twice a day for the making of “formaggio di malga.”

Malga Pozôf, also known as Casera Marmoreana, is located at the peak of Monte Zoncolan and can be reached by car from Ovaro or by ski lift from Ravascletto. On the day of my visit, the lift was closed for repair, so I geared myself up for a lengthy 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 the malga, whose casual eating area was already buzzing with visitors.

Settling in at a long, wooden picnic table, I treated myself to a plate of assorted cheeses and a slice of blackberry crostata. 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. Then, following the aroma of smoke, I discovered the “fogolâr” (fireplace) room, where balls of ricotta rested above the hearth, on their way to becoming “ricotta affumicata” (smoked ricotta), one of Friuli’s most distinctive cheeses.

3. Visit another Carnian malga

Malga PramosioOne of many malghe to also serve as an agriturismo, offering both food and lodging, Malga Pramosio is located near the Austrian border not far from the Creta di Timau peak. While it is accessible by car from the hamlet of Laipacco, I chose instead to hike from the town of Timau, 2,300 feet up a steep mountain path through the beech forest called Bosco Bandito. At the summit, the woods gave way to a rolling, green meadow surrounded by towering granite peaks. Inside the red-roofed, stone malga, a fire roared, filling the entryway with thick smoke. I sat at one of the communal tables and ordered a plate of frico with polenta.

Following my meal, I tagged along with a few other guests for an informal tour of the malga’s cheese-making rooms. Ricotta—made from reheating whey and extracting the curds—was wrapped in cheesecloth and piled onto wooden planks; heavy iron weights sat on top to press out the excess liquid. In the next room, rounds of cheese were soaking in a vat of salted water to make formaggio salato (salted cheese), while many more wheels, in various stages of aging, were stacked high to the ceiling.

4. Attend the Sagra del Magaro festival in Ovaro

formaggio di malgaIn the shadow of Carnia’s Monte Zoncolan, the town of Ovaro hosts the Sagra del Magaro every July as part of the larger Mondo delle Malghe festival (with similar events being held in the towns of Sauris and Prato Carnico). Meaning “world of the malghe,” this summertime festival celebrates the small-scale dairy farms high up in the mountains of northern Italy where cattle spend their summer months. Cheese-tasting is naturally the highlight of the festival: a sampler plate may include formaggio di malga, formaggio salato (salted cheese), formaggio alle erbe (herbed cheese), ricotta (both fresh and smoked), and formadi frant (a golden hued cheese made from mixing cheeses of varying stages of maturation). Other vendors dish up plates of goulasch, sausages, gnocchi di zucca (butternut squash dumplings), frico (cheese and potato pancakes), and cjarsòns (pasta with a sweet-savory filling). In addition, malgari (herdsmen) demonstrate cheese production and take visitors on excursions to nearby malghe.

5. Attend the Festa dei Frutti di Bosco in Forni Avoltri

blueberry jellyrollYet another summertime festival is the Festa dei Frutti di Bosco. Held over two weekends in late July and early August in the village of Forni Avoltri, the festival celebrates the wild berries that are plentiful in the surrounding forested mountains. On the far side of town across the Degano River, carnival rides attract flocks of children and countless craft booths sell everything from jewelry to woodworking to dried flowers. Most enticing, though, is the festival’s elaborate spread of sweets. Food stands serve up crêpes, biscotti, and frittelle (fritters), with the biggest tent of all holding a vast display of berry-themed desserts. There are cakes and pies of all shapes and sizes, from jellyrolls to fruit-studded tarts, all featuring strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and currants. To cap off the festival, a parade takes visitors on a journey back to medieval times. Dressed in velvet gowns and brocade tunics and brandishing faux swords and shields, townspeople march through the streets accompanied by a band of drummers and minstrels.

6. Spend the day sunbathing at Lignano Sabbiadoro’s white-sand beach

Lignano Sabbiadoro beachSituated on a peninsula between the Marano Lagoon and the Adriatic Sea, Lignano Sabbiadoro is one of the most popular beach resorts in northern Italy. Approximately five miles long, the beach is serviced by more than forty bathing houses that rent umbrellas and lounge chairs to vacationing sunbathers. During the peak season of July and August, thousands of those colorful umbrellas dot the soft, golden sand, all lined up in flawless rows. The sapphire blue water is shallow and calm—ideal for swimmers—and the beach is awarded the Bandiera Blu each year for its cleanliness.

For those who prefer activity to languishing in the sun, water sports such as windsurfing and scuba diving are offered as well. With one of the largest marinas in Europe (having over 5,000 berths), Lignano makes an excellent base for sailing, while acres of public parks and pine forests provide shade for a leisurely stroll. In addition, there are golf courses, a zoo with 200 species of animals, a spa, and several water and amusement parks for children and grownups alike. Off the eastern end of the peninsula is the island of Martignano, also known as the “island of seashells.” Lignano Sabbiadoro may be reached by bus from Latisana or, in summertime, by boat from Marano Lagunare.

7. Immerse yourself in nature at one of Marano Lagunare’s protected reserves

Marano Lagunare Riserva NaturaleIn the northernmost lagoons of the Adriatic, marshy coastal wetlands surround the tiny fishing village of Marano Lagunare. Offshore, tiny, thatched fisherman’s huts called casoni are scattered among the reeds and islands. These wetlands are part of two protected nature reserves: Riserva Naturale Valle Canal Novo and Riserva Naturale Foci dello Stella. The latter encompasses over 3,000 acres of canals, mudflats, and sandbanks at the mouth of the Stella River. This area has earned international recognition as a habitat for numerous species of water birds and is accessible through guided boat tours. To the east, adjacent to Marano Lagunare, Valle Canal Novo is the site of a visitor center with plenty of educational and recreational activities. Here, visitors may stroll the long wooden footbridges through marshes and cane thickets, which are home to countless forms of native wildlife.

8. While in Marano Lagunare, enjoy a meal of local seafood at Trattoria Alla Laguna

Trattoria alla Laguna Vedova Raddi Marano LagunareIn the village of Marano Lagunare, houses of robin’s egg blue, salmon pink, and sunflower yellow line the narrow streets. Overlooking the harbor, the rust red Trattoria Alla Laguna (a.k.a. Vedova Raddi) has enjoyed a prime waterfront location since 1939. The owners, Mara and Decio Raddi, are the third generation in this family-run restaurant. Their signature dish, risotto alla Maranese, is prepared with calamari, scampi (langoustines), and local wedge shell clams called “telline.” All seafood is caught fresh daily, including local shellfish such as granseola (spiny spider crab), moleche (tiny soft shell crabs), and canoce (mantis shrimp).

9. Stroll the Rilke path from Duino to Sistiana

Rilke Path Duino“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” These were the words of inspiration that, like a voice from the wind, called out to poet Rainer Maria Rilke one stormy day while he was wandering along the sea cliffs near the Castello di Duino. A favorite guest of the Austrian princess Maria von Thurn und Taxis, Rilke often stayed at this castle a short distance northwest of Trieste. It was here that he penned the beginning to his famous “Duino Elegies.” Today, visitors can stroll the same route, called the Sentiero Rilke, or “Rilke Path,” which stretches just over a mile between the fishing village of Duino and the pretty yacht-filled harbor at Sistiana. The path begins at the 15th-century Castello di Duino, perched on a promontory overlooking the ruins of the medieval Castello Vecchio. It then follows the meandering coastline, where evergreen shrubs cling to the rock face and precipitous, white limestone cliffs plunge into the sea. At the end of the rocky trail is Sistiana, where white sailboats rest afloat in the sapphire blue bay. All along the Rilke Path, shady pine forests alternate with breathtaking views, each worthy of a poet’s inspiration.

10. Sample the world-famous prosciutto di San Daniele

Prosciutto di San Daniele at Prosciuttificio Il CamarinSan Daniele del Friuli hosts one of the biggest food festivals in the region, Aria di Festa, with tens of thousands of visitors flocking to the hill town every summer. This festival celebrates the town’s renowned prosciutto, the origin of which dates back to around 400 BC, when the Celts arrived in San Daniele, bringing with them their technique of salt-curing pork. With a lower salt content than many other Italian hams, prosciutto di San Daniele is often described as sweeter and more delicate in flavor. Perhaps this is due to the unique climate where salty Adriatic breezes intermingle with fresh Alpine air.

Of course, it is not necessary to brave the crowds at the festival to enjoy this world-renowned ham, as plates of prosciutto di San Daniele are served in restaurants throughout Friuli. Still, there is no better place to sample this savory treat than at its source. At local San Daniele restaurants such as Antica Osteria Al Ponte and Trattoria Da Catine, you can order not only a platter of prosciutto as an antipasto but also dishes featuring the cured ham, such as the ubiquitous tagliolini al prosciutto. To further your prosciutto experience, visit a prosciuttificio such as Il Camarin or Prosciuttificio Prolongo, where, in addition to prosciutto tastings, you may take a guided tour of their factories.

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herb frittataFor my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Frittata alle Erbe (Herb Frittata), in honor of the Festa delle Erbe di Primavera, a festival celebrating wild herbs and greens that is held every June in the Carnian town of Forni di Sopra. (This year the festival has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.) For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Note: After nearly two months of a nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus COVID-19, Italy is finally beginning the process of reopening. However, the festival described in this piece has been cancelled for this year. Organizers are planning to resume the annual event in 2021.

white asparagusOne of the sure signs of spring in Friuli is the appearance of white asparagus. The center of production for this prized vegetable is Tavagnacco, located just north of Udine. It is here that the annual Festa degli Asparagi takes place over three weekends during the months of April and May. Food kiosks offer a wide variety of dishes made with asparagus, including risotto, frittatas, and crespelle (a lasagna-like dish made with crepes), as well as frico (cheese and potato pancake), grilled meats, and numerous desserts. In addition, you can attend wine pairing workshops, browse the Sunday market stalls, and enjoy music and dancing late into the night.

Here are three dishes from Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy that make use of white asparagus: one antipasto, one primo piatto, and one secondo piatto.

Asparagi con Prosciutto
In this appetizer, spears of white asparagus are wrapped with slices of prosciutto di San Daniele, sprinkled with aged Montasio cheese, and baked until the cheese melts. (The recipe is featured this month on my site Flavors-of-Friuli.com.)

 

 

 

Risotto con gli Asparagi
Risotto is common throughout certain parts of Friuli, particularly those areas that once belonged to the Venetian Republic. Like the above antipasto, this springtime risotto also makes use of both white asparagus and prosciutto di San Daniele.

 

 

 

Asparagi con Uova
Eggs and asparagus are a frequent pairing in Friuli. However, the egg salad found in this region is not the creamy mayo-based concoction we Americans are generally used to. Instead, it is typically prepared with a light dressing of vinegar and olive oil and is served alongside spears of white asparagus as a second course.

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Note: Like much of the world, Italy has been on a nationwide lockdown due to the devastating coronavirus COVID-19. Although the activities and events listed below will almost certainly be closed or cancelled this spring, I’ve decided to go ahead and post this piece to remind us of the abundant beauty of the Friuli region. As new cases of the virus are beginning to slow down, we can look to the future, when life will eventually return to normal, albeit a new normal, and people can once again attend food festivals or concerts, visit places such as the butterfly house or spa, and dine in restaurants throughout the region and beyond. My heart goes out to all who are suffering during this catastrophic time. Andrà tutto bene.

1. See the butterflies at the Casa delle Farfalle in Bordano

Casa delle Farfalle, BordanoThe town of Bordano, located in the foothills of the Carnian Alps, is home to the largest tropical butterfly garden in Europe, the Casa delle Farfalle (open from late March through September). The microclimate of nearby Monte San Simeone has attracted over 650 native species of butterflies—550 of which are nocturnal—making this town the ideal location for entomological studies.

Inside the Casa delle Farfalle, three greenhouses contain over 400 species of butterflies from Africa, the Amazon, and Indo-Australia. The butterflies are free to fly, surrounded by exotic vegetation in a miniature rainforest setting of vines, rare palms, and colorful orchids. The air is damp, filled with the echoes of mist and fluttering wings. Indigenous birds, reptiles, fish, and other insects complete the realistic ecosystem.

2. While in Bordano, stroll the streets decorated with butterfly murals

BordanoBordano pays tribute to its butterflies in yet another way. It began in 1996, after the publication of a book on the region’s native butterflies sparked interest among locals. Building on that idea, Mayor Enore Picco established a mural contest, inviting artists from all over Italy to participate. The instructions were to use buildings throughout Bordano and the neighboring hamlet of Interneppo as a canvas for the artists’ interpretation of the theme “butterflies.” Since the contest’s inception, more than 200 homes and public buildings have been painted with vividly hued, fantastical butterfly murals, transforming the streets into a kaleidoscope of color.

3. Attend the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera in Piano d’Arta

Every May, the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera is held in the hilltop hamlet of Piano d’Arta in Friuli’s Carnia mountains. Celebrating all the local bounties of spring—wild asparagus, mountain radicchio, and spring mushrooms—the festival’s main event is the Sunday street fair, where the roads are lined with tables displaying all sorts of arts and crafts: hand-knit scarves, copper kitchen utensils, and lavender-scented soap and potpourri. Wildflowers seem to be a particularly common theme, appearing on hand-painted ceramic plates, beaded ornaments, and wooden plaques for the home.

The festival’s food stands are naturally the biggest attraction. To the tunes of a live band, you can indulge in such local specialties as herb fritters, frico (crispy fried cheese), frittatas made with wild asparagus and mushrooms, grilled sausages, and cjarsòns (a sweet, cinnamon-laced filled pasta).

4. Take a spa day at the nearby Terme di Arta thermal baths

In a region scattered with Alpine chalets and onion-domed church steeples, one Japanese-style pagoda stands out as a symbol of health and well-being. Located alongside the Bût River in Arta Terme, the Terme di Arta spa has been attracting guests since the late 1800s. The original structure was destroyed in World War I and later rebuilt in its current style. The thermal baths are fed from the waters of the ancient Pudia Spring and have a high concentration of many minerals, particularly sulfides. Even the Romans, who settled in nearby Zuglio in 52 BC, took advantage of the sulfuric water’s supposed healing properties. In addition to thermal baths, the spa offers a complete menu of mud treatments, facials, and massages, as well as a gym and swimming pool.

5. Attend the Sagra dei Cjalčons in Pontebba

Every year on the last weekend in May, the town of Pontebba—or more precisely the nearby hamlet of Studena Bassa—hosts the Sagra dei Cjalčons, a festival dedicated to the Friulian filled pasta (alternate spellings includecjalsòns” and “cjarzòns”). There are countless varieties of cjalčons, as every town in Friuli’s northern mountains has its own unique recipe. Most combine both sweet and savory flavors, but the version from Pontebba is primarily sweet: sizeable pouches of dough stuffed with a mixture of dried figs and fresh ricotta, and tossed with melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon. While most cjalčons are served as a pasta course, these could just as easily be a dessert. In addition to the food stands, highlights of the festival include a 5km race, wine tasting kiosks, indoor games, and two evenings of music and dancing.

6. Go hiking at the Fusine Lakes

fusine lakesIn Friuli’s northeasternmost corner, near the Austrian and Slovenian borders and just outside the town of Tarvisio, is the Parco Naturale dei Laghi di Fusine, home of two beautiful glacial lakes encircled with hiking trails. The first lake, Lago Inferiore, is larger and surrounded by spruce trees and forested mountains. The higher one, Lago Superiore, is smaller but offers an even more spectacular view of the Giulian Alps. Monte Mangart is the highest mountain here, at 8,782 feet. A short walk along a secluded path through the woods to the far side of Lago Superiore will reward you with an impressive view of Mangart’s snow-covered, rocky peaks towering over the emerald green water of the lake.

7. Sample the region’s white asparagus at Locanda Al Grop in Tavagnacco

white asparagusOne of the sure signs of spring is the appearance of white asparagus on plates throughout Friuli, and there is no better place to sample this prized vegetable than Locanda Al Grop in Tavagnacco, a town located just north of Udine and the center of white asparagus production in the region. The restaurant dates back 500 years, when it was initially run by monks from the adjacent church, Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate, for the sale of their wine. In the mid-19th century, Al Grop was taken over by Francesco Del Fabbro and has remained in the family for five generations. Today, owners Silvia and Simona Del Fabbro are well known for their preparation of many traditional Friulian dishes, but they have made white asparagus the restaurant’s specialty. During springtime, you may find the tender ivory stalks smothered in cheese sauce, dressed with creamy egg salad, topped with a mound of prosciutto and ricotta affumicata, or in risotto alongside peas and zucchini blossoms.

Tavagnacco is also home to the Festa degli Asparagi, an annual festival that takes place over three weekends in April and May. Food kiosks offer a wide variety of dishes made with asparagus, including risotto, frittatas, and crespelle (a lasagna-like dish made with crepes), as well as frico, grilled meats, and numerous desserts. In addition, you can attend wine pairing workshops, browse the Sunday market stalls, and enjoy music and dancing late into the night.

8. Attend a springtime music concert at Castello di Miramare

Castello di Miramare, TriesteThe starkly whitewashed Castello di Miramare perches on the tip of a promontory just north of Trieste, its wedding-cake façade glistening against sea and sky. The castle was built for Archduke Maximilian (brother of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph), who lived there with his wife Carlotta until he was tragically executed while stationed in Mexico. Carlotta is said to have gone mad with grief, and the castle has since gained the reputation for cursing anyone who sleeps under its roof. Today, Miramare is open for visitors to explore the couple’s lavish apartments, all featuring the original 19th-century decorations and furnishings.

In the springtime, the castle hosts the music festival “Concerti al Castello,” a series of free concerts featuring classical musicians from all over Italy and beyond. The concerts are held in the Sala del Trono, a splendid Throne Room adorned in red silk. Before the concert, take some time to wander the castle grounds, fifty-four acres of perfectly manicured gardens, complete with statues, ponds, and walking paths.

9. Attend the Festa delle Erbe di Primavera in Forni di Sopra

For two weekends in early June, Forni di Sopra hosts the Festa delle Erbe di Primavera, a festival celebrating the wild mountain herbs of spring. Like other food festivals in the region, the streets are lined with booths selling all sorts of handicrafts, as well as gastronomic stalls that offer dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.

In addition, you may participate in guided excursions through the fields and forests, during which experts will discuss the use of mountain herbs in food and medicine. Back in town, there are a number of scheduled exhibitions and conferences, with topics ranging from the history and tradition of wild herbs to the gathering of wild mushrooms and truffles, as well as cooking workshops, which naturally feature recipes using local plants, flowers, and herbs. For dinner, several of Forni di Sopra’s hotels offer special herb-centric menus that include dishes such as lasagne with dandelion, gnocchi with ricotta and nettles, barley with wild asparagus, frico with chives, and salami with grilled mountain radicchio.

10. Go hiking in the wildflower-strewn mountains of Forni di Sopra

Forni di Sopra sits at the western edge of Carnia, bordering the Dolomite mountain range. Here, the verdant hills and valleys are home to some 3,000 species of wild flora that come alive in the spring and summer, from yellow buttercups to red rhododendrons to purple anemones. From the town, head up into the mountains for a panoramic view of the jagged, gray Dolomites peeking up over the softer peaks of forested mountain.

On both sides of the Tagliamento River there are numerous hiking trails to choose from: easy paths through the woods and meadows bordering the town, to routes of medium difficulty to nearby refuges, to longer excursions for trained hikers into the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti Friulane.

Across the river from the town is the Centro Sportivo, a large sports complex housing a gym, roller skating rink (ice skating is offered in winter), swimming pool, and spa, along with outdoor courts for tennis, basketball, and soccer. From there, walk a short distance to the south and you will find a lovely park known as the Pineta e Laghetti. Here, you can take a more leisurely stroll around three small lakes shaded by pine forests.

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cavucinFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Cavucìn (Butternut Squash Purée), in honor of this month’s Festa della Zucca. Held annually in the tiny, medieval-walled town of Venzone, this festival celebrates pumpkins of all varieties with a weekend of food, art, music, and dancing. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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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 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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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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