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Posts Tagged ‘Forni di Sopra’

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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Forni di SopraIt was my final day in Forni di Sopra. With absolutely no agenda other than to take in the gorgeous scenery, I headed out after breakfast to explore the other side of the river. At this time of year, the Tagliamento River was merely a wide, nearly dry riverbed, with only a shallow trickle of water zigzagging through the gravel. Across the bridge was the Centro Sportivo, an immense recreational complex comprising a swimming pool, gym, spa, tennis courts, soccer fields, and so much more. Not being quite the height of the holiday season, there were no crowds yet. All this would change on the upcoming weekend, the last one in July, when families throughout Italy would be embarking on their lengthy summer vacations.

Forni di SopraCrossing the bridge back into town, I then turned to head up into the hills, where the grassy meadows were strewn with yellow, purple, and white wildflowers. To the west, I could see the jagged, gray Dolomites peeking up over the softer peaks of forested mountain. The sky was a brilliant blue, a sea of tranquility stirred only by the giant puffballs of cloud drifting by. When I felt I had hiked far enough, I retraced my steps down to Forni di Sopra and back across the bridge. There, I found a bench on which to rest until noon.

For lunch, I returned to the restaurant that had caught my attention two nights prior but had been closed: Osteria Agli Sportivi. They were open this time, though I seemed to be the only customer. I ordered a plate of agnolotti, which were filled with Montasio cheese and served surrounding a mound of grated pear. Reminiscent of cjarsòns, the dish was topped with cinnamon and grated Montasio.

Forni di SopraAfter lunch, I returned to Albergo Centrale for an afternoon of writing. Like I had done in other hotels, I set up my laptop computer in the bar downstairs. I worked without distraction for several hours, then returned to my room to rest and take a nap. As soon as I plugged my computer back in to charge, however, the electricity in my room suddenly went out. I had blown a fuse! Embarrassed and full of apologies, I found the owner, and he lackadaisically climbed the stairs to reset the circuit breaker in the hall.

I then collapsed onto my flimsy mattress, my body sagging deep into the spongy valley of foam, but soon I began to feel antsy and claustrophobic. Around 5:00pm, I decided to take another trip to Cella. Yesterday afternoon I had made the 15-minute walk there, but the Chiesa di San Floriano had been closed. This time the church was open, and the frescoes by Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo were as colorful as I had imagined.

From there, I returned to Forni di Sopra, crossed the bridge over the river once more, and walked to the Parco Giochi Comunale “Pineta.” Located directly across from Cella, this park featured several small lakes and a children’s playground. I took a long stroll around one of the lakes, watching as a couple of children were feeding some mallard ducks. While the sky to the north was still sunny and blue, dark storm clouds began to creep over the western Dolomites. A cool wind picked up, blowing ripples across the placid pond.

With a storm obviously brewing, I made my way back for one last meal at Osteria Al Tulat. For the first time that I could remember on this trip, I was actually starving at dinnertime. I arrived a little early, so that I could spend some extra time perusing Chef Rocky’s cookbook La Cucina Friulana by Emilia Valli. A wealth of information on Friulian cuisine, the book had been immensely useful in my research.

When it was time to eat, the waitress invited me to help myself from the antipasto buffet: a cart of vegetable dishes that included marinated bell peppers, eggplant, pearl onions, and string beans, as well as some delicious, briny anchovies. On my first evening, as there was no written menu, the waitress had given me a verbal list of choices. The second evening, I had agreed to let the chef determine my dinner. Tonight, I was wondering how exactly my meal might evolve when Chef Rocky stuck his head out from his tiny kitchen and asked if I would like some gnocchetti. I assented, although I actually misheard him to say due (two) rather than degli (some) gnocchetti—my mistake became clear when a small bowlful of dumplings arrived at my table. Prepared from the same green spinach-and-potato dough as last night’s cjarsòns, these diminuitive gnocchi were topped with melted butter and ricotta affumicata.

Finally, Rocky brought out a plate holding two fried sardines—to be precise, as I later surmised, they were European anchovies, a type of “blue fish” caught in the waters off Friuli’s coast. The fish were only about three inches long, butterflied and flattened, then coated in very fine bread crumbs and fried.

It was a real treat for me to hand over the culinary decision-making to Chef Rocky. While the dishes were rustic and uncomplicated, there was a certain charm to their simplicity. Although Rocky is no longer cooking at Osteria Al Tulat, I have never forgotten his hospitality.

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DolomitesAfter a tasty breakfast of yogurt and granola, I left my hotel, Albergo Centrale, to explore the town of Forni di Sopra. The sky was clear, except for a few pillowy clouds drifting past the craggy peaks in the distance. It was now late July, and though much of Europe was suffocating under a stifling heat wave, cool Alpine breezes served to temper that warmth here in the Carnia mountains.

Anxious to get going toward my destination for lunch—a restaurant aptly named Polenta e Frico—I decided to begin my hike to the hamlet of Nuoitas a bit early. The journey took me northwestward, along the highway toward the Veneto. Since I had so much extra time, I walked slowly, admiring the view of the Dolomites, a massive, gray ridge poking up behind the green, forested slopes. When I reached the turnoff to Nuoitas, I idled awhile at the small bridge over the Tagliamento River, merely a trickle of a creek at this crossing. By the time I reached the hotel and restaurant, it was only 11:00am, so I found a seat outside to wait, savoring the quietude and brisk freshness of the sunny mountain air.

fogolar at Polenta e FricoAt noon I went inside, passing an unlit traditional fogolâr (hearth) as I followed the waiter into the dining room. Naturally, I felt obliged to order the polenta and frico (cheese and potato pancake), but there were still quite a few choices, including full and half portions for each dish. I settled on a half portion of polenta, frico, and sausage, although the serving was so generous, I could only imagine how enormous the full portion would have been! On the plate sat a thin wedge of frico atop a slice of polenta, with a small sausage on the side—and in what many would consider overkill, more than half the plate was smothered in a gooey layer of melted cheese. In an attempt to bring an ounce of healthfulness to my meal, I also ordered an insalata mista, which consisted of some rather bitter greens, cabbage, and tomato.

Forni di Sopra's Chiesa di San FlorianoMy return to Forni di Sopra took only 50 minutes, as I was hiking back at a swifter pace. After a brief rest in my room, I set out again, this time in the opposite direction toward the hamlet of Cella and the Chiesa di San Floriano. Located alongside the Tagliamento River, this 15th-century church had been deemed a national monument, famous for its fresco cycle by Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo and altarpiece by Andrea Bellunello. The church was closed, however, so I hung around outside, thinking I might wait until it reopened at 5:00pm.

As in much of Carnia this time of year, the wide, gravelly riverbed of the Tagliamento was practically dry, with only a shallow stream flowing through its center. Someone had built a crossing out of rocks, and I watched as several young couples stepped carefully across the slick stones. On the far side was a park, where I could see a lake, fountain, and children’s playground. As the afternoon wore on, the sky began to darken, ominous rainclouds forming over the western mountain range. I took that as a sign I should head back. Tomorrow there would be plenty of time to visit the church.

For dinner, I returned to Osteria Al Tulat for more of Chef Rocky’s cooking. The tiny dining room was much busier than last time, one large table being occupied by what appeared to be the chef’s family. As previously agreed, I let Rocky take full charge of my meal. First, he sent out a taste of marinated eggplant, a recipe he said was from Puglia. Next, he fixed me a plate of cjarsòns—not a traditional version, he explained, but his own original rendition. The greenish dumplings were made with a spinach-and-potato dough, stuffed with a mixture of game meat and radicchio, and topped with melted butter and grated cheese. A little on the heavy side, they lacked the sweetness and complexity of flavors that cjarsòns typically offer. Already quite full but not wanting to turn down his baccalà, I requested just a half portion. The salt cod was prepared alla Vicentina: a soupy stew cooked with potatoes, onion, and milk.

While Rocky’s creations deviated slightly from the region’s more traditional recipes, the essence of the cuisine was still there, and I left looking forward to one more meal at Al Tulat the following evening.

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Forni di SopraA deafening crash of thunder, followed by a stampede of raindrops against the window, startled me out of my restless dreams at 4:30am. It was still dark outside, yet every few moments the valley was illuminated, just for a split second, by an electric purple-yellow sky. After the storm had subsided, I curled back up under the bedsheets and turned on the TV to watch the early morning news. The top story was the heat wave that continued to ravage southern Europe—Rome had hit 95°F, and parts of southern Italy had topped 100°F. There was also another transportation strike, this time affecting the airports; Alitalia had cancelled over 90 flights throughout the country.

It was my last morning in Ravascletto. After breakfast, I took a walk to the nearby market to buy a roll and a piece of latteria cheese for my on-the-go lunch. Though no longer raining, the sky was dark and overcast, a clue that another storm was brewing. I checked out of Albergo Bellavista and found a spot on their veranda to sit and relax until my departure time. Just like my last two travel days, the bus wouldn’t come until around noon.

I was headed to Forni di Sopra and would need to change buses twice—in Comeglians and Villa Santina. Both connections were extremely tight, and since my ticket only took me as far as Villa Santina, I had to purchase another bus ticket there. To my relief, each of my three buses was on time, the entire schedule running like clockwork.

Albergo CentraleI arrived in Forni di Sopra and within minutes found my hotel, Albergo Centrale, just steps from the main highway in a quaint piazza, much of which was under construction and boarded off. The hotel had no elevator, so the chivalrous owner insisted on lugging my bag—which was growing heavier with my expanding cookbook collection—up the three flights of stairs to my room.

Compared to the last few rooms I had stayed in, this one was rather dingy and cramped, the only window being small and too high to see out of comfortably. If I stood on tiptoes and craned my neck at just the right angle, I could make out some rooftops and a sliver of mountain and sky. To say that the bed was soft would have been an understatement. Instead of a mattress, there were two sheets of foam resting atop the springs. When I lay down, the middle of the bed sagged dreadfully, as if I were being swallowed up by a spongy taco shell. To make matters worse, something in the room—perhaps a trace of cat or dog hair on the bedspread or floor—soon began to trigger my allergies. (I continued to sniffle and sneeze for the three days I spent in Forni di Sopra.)

Municipio Vecchio in Forni di Sopra In the afternoon, I took a walk to explore the town. It seemed larger than any of the Carnian villages I had visited so far, though not by much. My hotel occupied the central piazza, along with the starkly whitewashed Vecchio Municipio (old town hall), used for temporary art exhibits during tourist season but closed at the time of my midweek visit. Everywhere, wooden balconies were lined with row upon row of red and pink geraniums. In the distance, I could see a jagged ridge of grayish peaks: the edge of the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti Friulane.

When it was dinnertime, I headed first to the restaurant in my hotel. Having grown tired of the mundane pensione meals at my hotel in Ravascletto and desiring a more authentic experience, I asked the waitress if I could take a look at the menu before being seated. She gaped at me like I was crazy—I suppose no one had ever asked her that before—but dug around and found a list for me to peruse. I was glad I asked, because it consisted entirely of run-of-the-mill Italian dishes—nothing particularly Friulian. My second stop was an osteria around the corner. They had a menu board propped outside listing some intriguing choices, but inside I was told that the kitchen was closed for the evening.

Finally, I stumbled upon the cozy Osteria Al Tulat at Albergo Tarandan. Just after I was seated, a sizable party rose to exit, leaving me alone in the empty dining room. I began with the antipasto buffet, a decadent table of goodies that included sausage-stuffed pomodori gratinati (tomatoes gratin), spinach quiche topped with ham and cheese, roasted bell peppers, mixed olives, and marinated anchovies. For my main course, I ordered the goulasch (Hungarian beef stew), which deviated from tradition in that potatoes were cooked within the stew rather than being served as a side dish. As I was tucking in, the chef peeked his head out of the closet-sized kitchen and asked, “Signora, conosce la polenta?” Do I know polenta? I had to laugh out loud at that—if he only knew how much polenta I had eaten in the past few weeks!

At this point, I divulged that I was writing a cookbook, Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. The chef disappeared momentarily, then brought out not only a small plate of polenta for me but also a hefty cookbook. Titled La Cucina Friulana by Emilia Valli, the tome was a comprehensive guide to the region’s cuisine. I stayed there quite late, taking notes and copying recipes for such dishes as cjalzòns di Pontebba (pasta filled with ricotta, prunes, and dried figs), cialzòns di Ovaro (pasta filled with ricotta, bread crumbs, and raisins), risotto alla Maranese (Marano-style seafood risotto), paparòt (spinach and cornmeal soup), gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi), costolette al latte (pork ribs cooked in milk), toç de purcìt (Carnian pork stew), and zucca in purea (butternut squash purée). I also elicited a good deal of information from the chef, such as his favorite way to cook trout (with butter and sage) and his preferred method of cooking baccalà (in the oven).

Before I left, the chef introduced himself as Giuseppe, although he said everyone called him Rocky on account of his black belt in karate. Chef Rocky then invited me to return the following evening, offering to prepare some traditional Friulian dishes especially for me.

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Flavors of FriuliIt was June 2004 when Mike and I returned to San Francisco. I had over a year to prepare for my next trip, which would take me once again throughout Friuli–Venezia Giulia. Since Udine made a convenient home base for me to explore the region, I planned two separate weeks there, bookending a three-week journey through Carnia. Two of my main objectives were to visit at least one malga and to attend several more food festivals, so I arranged to travel to Carnia’s major villages—Sauris, Arta Terme, Ravascletto, Forni di Sopra, and Forni Avoltri—all by bus. During my time in Udine, I would take day trips to now-familiar towns such as Cormòns, Cividale, and San Daniele, as well as new ones like Marano Lagunare, Bordano, and Maniago. I would tour three prosciutto factories, climb two mountains, and panic during one very frustrating train strike that stranded me in Venzone. Please join me in the weeks and months to come, as I continue chronicling my Friulian adventures.

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