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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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1. View the Barcolana sailing regatta

Founded in 1969, the Barcolana sailing regatta takes place in the Gulf of Trieste on the second Sunday in October, beginning near Castello di Miramare and finishing in the waters just off Piazza Unità d’Italia. It is the biggest event of its kind in the Mediterranean and one of the busiest in the world, with over 2,000 yachts taking part in the race. Sailing near Trieste can be especially challenging this time of year, as the strong bora winds can sometimes reach gusts of 100 mph.

The event is typically viewed by several hundred thousand spectators, many of whom watch from Via Napoleonica (a.k.a. Strada Vicentina). Leading from the Opicina obelisk to the town of Prosecco, the shady trail offers sweeping views of the Gulf of Trieste, particularly from the Prosecco side, where the dirt footpath and trees give way to a paved road, flanked by the sea on one side and a massive cliff rising dramatically skyward on the other.

2. Go hiking amidst the brilliant fall foliage of the Val Rosandra

High above Trieste’s coastline is a narrow ribbon of jagged rocks eroded by rain and wind, plunging fearlessly into the sea. Known as the Carso (Italian for “karst”), this landscape of limestone and dolomite conceals an underground world of vast caverns and grottoes, carved by the waters of the Timavo River, which runs below ground for much of its course from Slovenia to the Adriatic Sea.

Above ground on the plateau lie acres of evergreen forests and flower-strewn ravines. The land is peppered with large sinkholes, called “doline,” that have been caused by collapsed cave vaults. Here, the warm sea breeze meets the chilling, northeasterly bora wind, producing a convergence of Mediterranean and Alpine climates. Oak and spruce mingle with citrus and olive trees, while the landscape is blanketed with vineyards. Only one body of water flows above the plateau—the Rosandra Stream. Slicing through the deep gorge of the Val Rosandra near the Carso’s eastern border, these waters once supplied the ancient Roman colony of Tergeste (now Trieste) via a seven-mile-long aqueduct.

The Riserva Naturale della Val Rosandra is an 1800-acre nature reserve located just southeast of Trieste. The park’s hiking paths offer visitors frequent breathtaking vistas, including a 118-foot waterfall, the ruins of the Roman aqueduct, and a stunning panorama of the Gulf of Trieste in the distance. 

3. Explore the nearby Grotta Gigante, the world’s largest tourist cave

Photo credit: Società Alpina delle Giulie

Spacious enough to accommodate Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Grotta Gigante is the largest tourist-accessible cave in the world. In fact, it has made “The Guinness Book of World Records” with its vast dimensions: 351 feet high, 213 feet wide, and 918 feet long. The cavern is located in the Carso, the rocky plateau that separates Trieste’s coastline from neighboring Slovenia, an area rich with caves and underground rivers.

Upon entering the Grotta Gigante, a narrow tunnel opens into the enormous cavern. Five hundred steps descend past walls covered with curtains of stalactites in shades of white, orange, and brown. The cave’s stalagmites are tall and slender with flat tops, the calcite concretions resembling stacks of dishes due to the height from which the water drips. Ruggero Column is the cave’s tallest at 39 feet. Other formations have been given names such as the Gnome, the Pulpit, the Mushroom, the Palm, and the Nymphs’ Palace.

4. Go wine tasting at an osmiza, the Carso’s version of a pop-up tavern

Autumn is grape harvesting season, and what better way to celebrate than by sampling some of Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s renowned wines? Throughout the region, farmhouses periodically open their doors to the public, serving homemade wine and other artisanal products. These temporary roadside taverns are called “frasche” in the greater part of Friuli (to indicate that they are open, a leafy cluster of branches, called “frasca” in Italian, is hung above the door) and “osmize” in the area around Trieste (from “osem,” the Slovene word for eight; when the tradition began, they were only allowed to open eight days each year).

I visited one osmiza called Azienda Agricola Škerk in the town of Prepotto. Inside the courtyard, guests gathered at long, wooden tables to sample the local vintages and feast on homemade cheese and salumi. I tasted the white wines Vitovska and Malvasia and the red Terrano. Because osmize and frasche operate on such an irregular schedule, check local newspapers or websites such as osmize.com for listings of osmize that are open each week.

5. Go for more wine tasting at Enoteca di Cormòns, Friuli’s most famous wine bar

The heart of Friuli’s wine country would have to be the Collio zone. The word “colli,” meaning “hills” in Italian, epitomizes this landscape where the grapes enjoy more sun exposure than in the low-lying plains. Many experts regard the wines from this area to be some of Italy’s best. The Collio lies along the Slovenian border and is primarily famous for its white wines, in particular Friulano (formerly known as Tocai Friulano) and the blend known as Vino della Pace, or “Wine of Peace.” The town of Cormòns is home to one of Friuli’s most noted wine bars, the Enoteca di Cormòns. Also the seat of the Collio’s wine-producing consortium, this bar makes a great place to taste regional wines, cheeses, and salumi, including the locally smoked prosciutto D’Osvaldo.

6. Order the autumn tasting-menu at La Subida in Cormòns

In the heart of the Collio wine zone, surrounded by rolling hills and lush vineyards, is the Michelin-starred Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida (known to locals simply as La Subida). Inspired by the nearby border where Friulian and Slovenian cultures merge, owners Joško and Loredana Sirk serve a variety of traditional dishes, including Friulian frico (crispy fried cheese) and Triestine jota (bean and sauerkraut soup), as well as the Slovenian pastas mlinci and zlikrofi.

The best way to experience this slice of culture is with La Subida’s multi-course tasting menu, which rotates seasonally. In autumn, dishes may include gnocchi di zucca (pumpkin gnocchi) and stewed venison. A fixture on the restaurant’s à la carte menu is what may perhaps be considered their signature dish: stinco di vitello, a melt-in-your-mouth-tender roast veal shank that Joško will carve for you tableside. While their food remains authentic, each dish is refined to an exquisite level through added touches such as fried sage leaves, elderberry flower syrup, and herb-infused sorbets.

7. Attend the Festa della Zucca in Venzone

Every October, the Festa della Zucca takes place in Venzone, a tiny, medieval-walled town in northeastern Italy. Although pumpkins may be the most familiar squash, gourds of all shapes, colors, and sizes are featured in this festival of food, art, music, and dancing. Each year, a contest awards prizes for the largest, heaviest, longest, most beautiful, and most unusual squash. In addition, children participate in a pumpkin-carving contest, while chefs demonstrate their skill in carving intricate floral designs.

The Festa della Zucca not only celebrates the pumpkin, but also transports Venzone back in time. Public squares are illuminated by torches, townspeople dress in medieval costume, and jugglers and fire-eaters perform in the streets. Delegations from Austria, Germany, and Slovenia are presented, and following an ancient Austrian ceremony, the people elect an honorary “Archduke of Pumpkins.” Most importantly, the town’s taverns and restaurants celebrate the squash with special tasting-menus that include dishes such as butternut squash gnocchi, fried cheese and squash pancake, and a wide assortment of pumpkin breads, cakes, and tarts.

8. While in Venzone, visit the mummy exhibit

At the foot of the Carnian Alps lies the medieval-walled town of Venzone. In Roman times, Venzone was an important post along the ancient Via Giulia Augusta, the last bit of civilization before entering the rough territory of Carnia. Although the town was partially rebuilt following the 1976 earthquakes that devastated its Duomo, Venzone retains much of its medieval character. Stark, gray stone buildings and cobbled streets blend with the surrounding rugged mountains to give the town an otherworldly sort of charm.

Across from the pointed campanile of Venzone’s Duomo sits the 13th-century Cappella Cimiteriale di San Michele. This tiny, round crypt houses the result of a peculiar natural phenomenon—corpses mummified by a rare parasitic mold that covered the bodies and blocked decomposition. While the exact age of the mummies has not been determined, the oldest—named Gobbo, meaning “hunchback”—was discovered in 1647 during construction work on the Duomo. Twenty-one mummies were originally uncovered, although only fifteen were salvaged intact from the ruins of the 1976 earthquakes. Five are currently on display, including Gobbo, a mother and daughter, and two noblemen.

9. Tour Castello di Miramare and other historic castles

During the first weekend in October, castles throughout Friuli-Venezia Giulia open their doors to the public. The Conzorzio Castelli, a consortium dedicated to the protection of the region’s historic castles and fortifications, sponsors an event known as Castelli Aperti, where both public and privately-owned castles offer guided tours for visitors. While it would be impractical to visit every single one, there are several standouts that are not to be missed.

Perhaps the most magnificent of Friuli’s castles is Castello di Miramare, situated on a promontory just north of Trieste. The former home of Archduke Maximilian, brother of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph, this starkly whitewashed castle is surrounded by 54 acres of splendidly manicured gardens. Other notable castles in the region include Castello di Duino, also perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, and Castello di Gorizia, an imposing medieval fortress that towers over the eponymous city.

10. Treat yourself to fave dei morti cookies at one of Trieste’s many bakeries

From mid-October through mid-November, bakery shelves throughout Trieste fill with the colorful fave dei morti cookies. Translated literally as “beans of the dead,” fave dei morti are typically prepared to celebrate the Festa degli Ognissanti (All Saints’ Day). While variations of these tiny almond cookies are found in regions throughout Italy, they are especially popular here, where the traditional colors are pink, white, and brown.

One of the city’s oldest bakeries is Pasticceria Penso, founded a century ago by Trieste native Narciso Penso. After his death, the bakery was bought by one of his young employees, Italo Stoppar. Today, it remains a family-run business, with Italo passing on the trade to his two sons, Lorenzo and Antonello. During one of my visits, I was fortunate enough to get to watch the Stoppars prepare a batch of fave dei morti. The brown cookies are, as one might guess, prepared with chocolate and rum, while the pink ones are flavored with rose water and the white ones with Maraschino liqueur.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Pomi (Apple Strudel), in honor of the Festa della Mela, held in mid-September in the Carnian town of Tolmezzo. While apple strudel is popular throughout Friuli, this version using puff pastry is based on the recipe given to me by Trieste’s Pasticceria Penso. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other side of Monte Zoncolan, the town of Ovaro hosts a summer festival called Mondo delle Malghe, where malgari (herdsmen) demonstrate cheese production and take visitors on excursions to nearby malghe. Of course, there is much cheese-tasting to be done: formaggio di malga, fresh and smoked ricotta, formaggio salato (salted cheese), formaggio alle erbe (herbed cheese), and formadi frant (a golden hued cheese made from mixing cheeses of varying stages of maturation). In addition, vendors offer tastes of such dishes as butternut squash gnocchi and Hungarian-style goulasch.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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