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Posts Tagged ‘Friuli Venezia Giulia’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luckily, my lunch was redeemed by the elaborate spread of sweets. Countless stands were serving up cookies, crêpes, frittelle (fritters), and even gelato, but the biggest tent of all held a vast display of berry-themed desserts. There were cakes and pies of all shapes and sizes, from jellyrolls decorated with whipped cream to tarts studded with a kaleidoscope of fruit. Everything featured wild berries—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, red currants, and even gooseberries. I chose for my treat a huge slice of crostata with a thick cookie crust, mixed berry jam, and fresh blueberries peeking through the lattice top.

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

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

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

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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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