Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘malga’

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.

Read Full Post »

cheese at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroIt soon became obvious to me that my absence at lunch and dinner the previous day had been a major faux pas. Around 9:00pm, I had received a phone call from the irritated owner of Albergo Bellavista, checking to see if I was coming to dinner. Feeling rather embarrassed, I was forced to admit that I had already eaten. Consequently, I was prepared to give notice today at breakfast that I would be skipping my meals there once again. The waitress, however, never even asked. When I saw that lavish platters of cheese, salami, and croissants had been laid out on all the other tables, while mine held only a single croissant, I felt as if I had been blacklisted for my failure to follow the proper protocol.

Pushing those defeatist thoughts aside, I hastened to finish my croissant, scurried upstairs to grab my backpack, and dashed outdoors into the warm July sunshine. I had arranged at the bar down the street for the owner’s husband to drive me to Ovaro today. Though billed as a taxi, in reality the service was nothing more than a man and his own personal car.

On the nerve-racking 15-minute drive, during which my elderly chauffeur seemed predisposed to pass every car along the endless blind, hairpin turns, I attempted to make small talk, though it was somewhat difficult to understand his toothless mumbling. Fortunately, when he dropped me off in Ovaro, he did seem to comprehend that I wished to be picked up at 3:00pm.

display at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroThe Mondo delle Malghe festival, established to celebrate the “world of the malghe,” featured everything to do with the local art of cheese production. Since it was still early when I arrived, and many of the food stalls were still being set up, I took a long walk through the residential areas of town, looking for houses with the emerald green shingles that I had read were characteristic of the Val Degano.

Back on the stretch of highway running through town, I stopped at a small hay-filled enclosure across from the main piazza to watch a couple of gleeful children taking pony rides. A nearby exhibit of Carnian antiques caught my eye. Fully dressed figures made from straw had been carefully arranged among the furniture to recreate traditional household scenes from ancient times: a father and son chopping wood, a mother bathing a child, and a baby asleep in his cradle.

ricotta affumicataFresh produce abounded—everything from zucchini to peas to wild berries—although the variety of cheese on display surpassed all else. There was formaggio di malga, fresh ricotta, ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta), formaggio salato (salted cheese), formaggio alle erbe (herbed cheese), and formadi frant (a golden hued cheese made from mixing cheeses of varying stages of maturation), to name just a few.

By this time, the main piazza and adjoining side streets were filled with food stands. Scoping out my options for lunch, I found vendors dishing up plates of gnocchi di zucca (butternut squash dumplings), frico (cheese and potato pancake), and goulasch (Hungarian beef stew)—but as always, I was unable to resist the cjarsòns. These were dense and chewy with a filling of ricotta, raisins, bread crumbs, sugar, parsley, and lemon zest. Next, I sampled a plate of assorted cheeses: slices of formaggio di malga, formaggio salato, and ricotta affumicata, accompanied by a plain boiled potato. Finally, I found a seat at one of the crowded communal picnic tables in the piazza to try a fillet of smoked trout, served with salsa rosa, tartar sauce, and a hunk of bread.

cheese at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroWhile waiting for my taxi driver to retrieve me that afternoon, I rested in a shady park to escape the sweltering heat. In the sky above, paragliders drifted down from the peaks of Monte Zoncolan. At the children’s playground, two brothers played on the seesaw, the older, heavier child having much difficulty getting off the ground. Another little boy kept toddling over to the fountain to wash his hands in the cool water, his exasperated mother provoking a tantrum of tears as she repeatedly whisked him away. With amusement, I observed this scene replay more than a dozen times, the child quickly recovering his happy, bubbly laughter with every escape.

From under a nearby tree, the rollicking tunes of a small trio of musicians muffled the noise of the crowd around me. Joining the fiddle, bass, and accordion players, a small child posed adorably with an adult-sized guitar. They were soon interrupted by the appearance of a preteen marching band and drill team, the dancing girls outfitted in spandex and brandishing pom-poms.

My driver picked me up promptly, although I nearly missed him in the stream of cars going by. Luckily, I spotted him when he parked across the street and got out, clearly having just as much trouble locating me. The drive back to Ravascletto turned out to be even more terrifying than the ride there. As we were attempting to pass a slow-moving trailer, a car whizzed around the corner at us at breakneck speed. We barely escaped a possibly fatal accident by pulling back into our lane just in time. Later, after having successfully passed the trailer, we came upon a string of motorcycles speeding around the dangerously narrow curves. My anxious heart racing, I was immensely relieved when we finally pulled up outside Albergo Bellavista.

For dinner that evening, I returned to Hotel La Perla, whose dining room was now considerably subdued in comparison to the prior evening, when a wedding reception had been in full swing. To start, I was served a complimentary antipasto of three crostini topped with fresh ricotta and mushrooms. Next, I ordered the blècs: rustic triangles of buckwheat pasta served in a cream sauce with prosciutto, mushrooms, and shavings of cheese. Since I hadn’t had many veggies lately, I also ordered the verdure miste, which was offered as a self-service buffet. Delighted with the variety, I helped myself to a generous plate of string beans, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, bell peppers, zucchini, and olives. Everything tasted fresh and was prepared with great care—precisely what I would expect from a traditional Carnian meal.

Read Full Post »

Albergo Ristorante BellavistaI awoke early on Saturday morning with complete uncertainty as to my plans for the day. The prior evening’s storm had passed through, leaving the valley glistening as the first rays of sunshine reflected off the dewy grass. Downstairs in the dining room at Albergo Bellavista, I chose some yogurt topped with granola from the breakfast buffet and seated myself near the front windows. The waitress was making the rounds, taking all the guests’ orders for lunch and dinner. Since I wasn’t sure where I would be going, I clumsily confessed that I hadn’t yet decided if I’d even be eating my meals there. While I recognized the restaurant’s need to plan ahead, I couldn’t help feeling inconvenienced. For me, part of the fun of traveling invariably involved having some modicum of spontaneity, especially where food was concerned. On this trip, it was more essential than ever. My chief objective was to explore the region’s cuisine, and seeing as I had not yet had time to check out Ravascletto’s other restaurant, I wanted to keep my options open. Feeling a bit guilty about my indecision, I returned to my room before the waitress had a chance to press me for an answer.

My two goals for that weekend were to attend the Mondo delle Malghe festival in nearby Ovaro and visit Malga Pozôf on the peak of Monte Zoncolan. Upon arriving in Ravascletto, I had learned that the festival’s street markets were taking place only on Sunday, not running the entire weekend as I had originally believed. This was a problem, since there was no bus service out of Ravascletto on Sundays. Suddenly, I remembered reading in one of my brochures that taxis were available in a couple of Carnia’s towns, including Ravascletto. After inquiring at the tourist office, I was directed to a bar across the street, where the owner’s husband—a friendly but toothless old gentleman—provided an informal taxi service. I arranged for him to drive me to Ovaro the next day.

Now that Sunday was settled, I turned my attention to Malga Pozôf. Yesterday, I had seen a flyer posted outside the tourist office announcing that the ski lift would reopen today. This morning, however, I learned that the funivia was going to be closed for repairs all summer. My heart sank, knowing that my only alternative was to undertake another grueling mountain hike. The woman at the tourist office convinced me that it was entirely doable and provided me with a map of the trail. Down in the valley, I found the entrance to the path. Here, I also ran into an older British couple, whom I recognized from the breakfast room at Bellavista. They intended to walk partway up the trail, so we agreed to set out together.

RavasclettoAlmost immediately, we came upon a fork, with one path leading directly ahead, up the wide clearing used as a ski run in winter, and the other branching off to the left through the forest. The couple claimed they knew the way, so I followed them into the woods. We trudged along for a half hour, although I had a nagging suspicion that we were going in the wrong direction. The trail was not progressing up the mountain so much as winding eastward. Twice our path was blocked by a house-sized pile of timber—this should have been an obvious clue. Still, my new friends insisted that this was the way, even as they struggled to circumnavigate the massive obstacles.

Finally, I decided to say goodbye and turn around. Another half hour later, I found myself at the original fork, where I began climbing up the steep, grassy carpet of wildflowers. Within moments, I glimpsed the sign designating the proper trail, clearly marked Malga Pozôf. If I had been alone, I might have trusted my instincts and saved some time. Instead, my misguided detour turned what should have been a strenuous two-hour hike into an utterly exhausting three-hour trek.

Malga PozofI continued the ascent to the top of the ski slope, where the trail diverged and began meandering through a patch of tall grass. My black clothes were soon covered with yellow pollen from the bushes that pressed in on either side of me. After stepping across a shallow stream, I entered the woods again. This final leg of the hike took a full hour and was almost entirely uphill. Panting for air, I emerged at the summit and was instantly confronted by the foul stench of manure. Up ahead, cows roamed freely, grazing alongside the dirt road. I was elated with the thrill of my success. After three arduous hikes, I had finally found the cows I had been seeking for my photographs!

Malga Pozof cowsFollowing the path a short distance further, I reached Malga Pozôf. Settling in at a long, wooden table, I was welcomed with an assortment of cheeses, which included both fresh and aged varieties, as well as ones with herbs and spicy red pepper flakes. The plate also held a few slices of salami and polenta. As I savored each bite, I introduced myself to the trio at my communal table. A portly bunch, they explained that they were on a mushroom foraging expedition, and the wife guided my eyes to a table nearby where another forager was showing off his specimen of the day—a giant porcini the size of a soccer ball.

fogolar at Malga PozofAfter indulging in a slice of blackberry crostata for dessert, I gave myself a tour of the malga. A ring of stables encircled us, many cows wandering outside the enclosure, some lounging inside the pens. The main room of the malga was lined with small wheels of aging cheese. Following the aroma of smoke, I entered the adjacent fogolâr room, where balls of ricotta rested above the fire, on their way to becoming ricotta affumicata.

On my way out, I conveniently bumped into my lunch companions. They kindly offered me a ride—if I didn’t mind the occasional stop for mushrooms. The four of us crammed into their miniscule Fiat, which instantly whizzed into gear along its harrowing course, careening down the narrow, hairpin turns of the mountain.

Suddenly, the stout woman wedged into the backseat next to me shouted “Ferma! Ferma!” Her brother slammed on the brakes, while his wife jumped nimbly out of the passenger door and disappeared into the forest. A moment later she returned clutching a fistful of freshly picked porcini mushrooms.

We were barely on our way when the husband jerked to a halt once more. This time, both women skipped around to the back to retrieve some refreshments from a cooler, and we all enjoyed an impromptu snack of homemade custard and fresh raspberries. To drink, the threesome was well-prepared with both iced coffee and mint tea. Finally, we reached the foot of the mountain, where I was dropped off in the closest town, Ovaro.

As I waited for the bus, it was clear that there was nothing happening at the Mondo delle Malghe festival—I had made the right choice to wait until Sunday. My first bus soon dropped me off in Comeglians, where I made the connection to Ravascletto. Before returning to my hotel, I stopped at the market for some bananas. I also peeked into the shop where I had seen linens and dishes in the window. There, I selected a couple of embroidered dishtowels that I would someday use as props in my food photos.

I had just made it back to Bellavista when the rain started. By the time I had climbed the stairs to the top floor, it was hailing. I collapsed on my bed, thoroughly spent, listening to the pellets of ice pelt the windows, the thunder quickly developing from a low rumble into a resonating boom. I felt fortunate not to have been caught in the storm while on Monte Zoncolan. As the lightning flashed outside, the power inside flickered off a few times. A fast-moving storm, it was all over within what seemed like only minutes.

Since the storm appeared to have passed, I took my chances walking down the hill to eat dinner at Hotel La Perla. It began raining again, however, just as soon as I arrived. The restaurant was hosting a wedding reception, and though I was seated at one of the few empty tables at the edge of the dining room, I had a clear view of the festivities.

To start, I was served a complimentary antipasto of frico croccante. The crispy fried cheese was shaped into a bowl and filled with marinated radicchio di montagna, a wild green native to Carnia. My first course, the cjarsòns di Monaj, would have been equally suitable as a dessert: dumplings made from thick, gnocchi-like dough were stuffed with a rich, sweet filling of fresh ricotta, walnuts, and raisins. The dish was made even more decadent by a topping of melted butter, cinnamon sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Next, I ordered the toç in braide, a bowl of hearty polenta topped with a sauce of fresh ricotta, drizzled with browned butter and toasted cornmeal, and encircled with a garnish of sautéed mushrooms. Although I was quite stuffed, I felt no guilt, having burned more than enough calories on my hike!

Read Full Post »

TimauEven though it was mid-July, the weather in Carnia remained rather cool. In fact, my room at Hotel Poldo was downright chilly, forcing me to dig two extra blankets out of the armoire in the middle of the night. In the morning, my hopes were up for a fantastic breakfast—when I had checked in the previous day, the staff had described a spread of prosciutto, cheese, yogurt, and pastries. Alas, there was no prosciutto nor cheese, but there was yogurt, some pound cake, cookies, the usual rolls and packaged toast with jam, and an odd red juice that tasted like fruit punch.

Despite my failed attempt in Sauris, I was still determined to find a malga. My plan for the day was to visit Malga Pramosio, located in the mountains along the Austrian border. Also an agriturismo offering both food and lodging, this dairy farm was accessible by car from the hamlet of Laipacco. Without a car, however, I was obliged to undertake another hike.

Malga PramosioFirst, I took a bus from Piano d’Arta north to the town of Timau, where, after searching the treeline at the base of the mountain, I found the entrance to the footpath. Cut through the beech forest called Bosco Bandito, the trail was incredibly steep and almost nonexistent in the less trodden spots. Like the typical Italian hiking path, red and white stripes marked the trees sporadically, but this trail was so overgrown in places that I often feared I might be lost. Inevitably, I always came upon another faint yet reassuring stripe of paint. Ninety minutes and 2,300 vertical feet later, I managed to reach the summit, where the woods gave way to a rolling, green meadow. Gray clouds loomed over the towering granite peaks that surrounded me, so I hurried down the lengthy path to the red-roofed, stone malga. I was disappointed to find no cows anywhere in sight—they were grazing in a higher pasture during the day, I later learned—but this time, at least, the malga was open.

Malga PramosioInside, a fogolâr (fireplace) roared, filling the entryway with thick smoke. As I sat at one of the communal wooden tables, waiting for the waitress to come by, I overheard someone speaking English—a real rarity in this corner of Italy. I went over to introduce myself and found there to be an entire family: a husband and wife, their two young children, the husband’s cousin and his wife. The husband was in the military, formerly stationed in Vicenza for eight years and currently living with his family in Stuttgart, Germany. The cousin and his wife lived in southern California. The family’s ancestors were from a small town near Maniago, and the group was taking a sort of family heritage tour of the region, with a special focus on its military museums and monuments.

They invited me to join them at their table, and I ordered a plate of frico con polenta. Crispy on the outside and soft and gooey in the center, the cheese and potato pancake was served with a side of soft, freshly made polenta. The others all ordered the gnocchi. Stuffed with herbs and cheese, these dumplings were rather like a savory version of cjalsòns.

ricotta pressAfter lunch, the family arranged an informal tour of the malga’s cheese-making rooms, and I tagged along. On a shelf across one wall sat stacks of metal ring molds that were squeezing the liquid out of newly formed wheels of cheese. Nearby, 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). Many more wheels, in various stages of aging, were stacked high to the ceiling. A worker wearing a green Alpine cap gave each of us a sample of an 11-month-old formaggio di malga, which had a deliciously nutty yet mellow flavor.

As we were leaving, trepidation began to set in about my return hike. Hesitantly, I asked this family if I might have a ride down the mountain. There was just enough room for me in their rented minivan, so they dropped me off in Timau on their way north to Austria, where they were planning to spend the afternoon.

Timau's Chiesa di Cristo ReI missed my return bus by just ten minutes and had a full hour and a half to wait for the next one. There wasn’t much to see in the town—only the unusual, modern façade of the Chiesa di Cristo Re, with its three rounded, bluish arches—so I found a spot to sit by the curb and rest, my eyes gazing skyward toward the mountain’s summit.

As the bus was empty when I boarded, I sat near the driver. A young man with stereotypically handsome Italian features, he demonstrated none of the cockiness that so often comes with such good looks. As we chatted, he showed a genuine interest in my day’s adventure and told me how he went skiing on that very mountain every winter.

Albergo Ristorante SalonThat evening, I headed up to Ristorante Salon once again for dinner. I began by ordering the flan di funghi, a mini mushroom soufflé served with creamy Montasio cheese sauce and sautéed mushrooms. Next, I had the gulash and an insalata mista. Compared to many of the other versions I had tried over the past several years of research, this gulash was rather uninspiring. It didn’t help that the side of four small boiled potatoes was equally bland. As always, Matteo prepared my salad to order. From his rolling cart, I chose a simple combination of fresh greens, tomato slices, and shredded carrot.

I had hoped to speak with Bepi Salon again, but unfortunately he wasn’t there. At least I would have two more dinners in Arta Terme—I was counting on meeting the sprightly proprietor once more before it was time to move on.

Read Full Post »

Sauris di SopraDespite the oompah band playing outside my window for half the night, I still managed to get to sleep, thanks to my trusty earplugs. It was now my final day in Sauris, and I was all fired up to go hiking in the mountains. At 7:30am, some patches of blue sky had opened up, letting the golden beams of morning sunlight come streaming into the valley below me. By the time I had finished my breakfast, however, the clouds had spread themselves over the sky again, like a thick layer of white frosting.

I left my hotel around 10:00am, when the food stands of the Festa del Prosciutto were scheduled to open. Since it was still early on that Sunday morning, there were no lines yet. I bought a panino filled with prosciutto di Sauris to take with me, as well as a slice of crostata—this one with strawberry jam and a cornmeal crust—to round out my picnic.

My destination was Casera Festons, a malga (dairy farm) located in the mountains above Sauris di Sopra. Because buses normally ran only three times a day between Sauris di Sotto (where I was staying) and Sauris di Sopra, I had not been able to attempt my hike until now. To my great relief, I had learned that free shuttle buses would be running continuously between the two villages for the duration of the festival, so that visitors would have the freedom to park in both spots.

goats grazing in SaurisAn annual ritual every June, cows are herded from dairy farms in Carnia’s valleys to mountain huts called malghe, where they can graze in tranquil Alpine pastures all summer long, providing their milk twice a day for the making of formaggio di malga. I anticipated that today I would not only see lots of cows but also get an inside glimpse into the cheese-making process.

From the bus stop, I skirted the edge of Sauris di Sopra until I found the entrance to the trail to Casera Festons. It began as a narrow, paved road that wound tightly up the mountain into the clouds, its steep switchbacks zigzagging like a slalom ski run through the forest. Once I cleared the woods, the trail opened up into an expansive meadow, where a herd of goats was placidly grazing in the misty mountain air. The roughly paved road had by now turned to gravel and dirt, damp and muddy from the recent rains.

As soon as the summit came into view, it began to drizzle. I had been climbing for over an hour and was ecstatic to finally reach the top. Along the way, I had not encountered a single soul, save for two vehicles that had passed me on the ascent: a tiny, blue three-wheeler and a maroon station wagon that was now parked in a dirt lot next to a couple of picnic tables.

Casera FestonsA little ways ahead I could see the malga, a tiny speck amid rolling green hills, with a few snow-capped peaks poking up behind them in the distance. Even though the rain was coming down harder now, I continued on, past a couple of marshy ponds, until I reached the gate. There were no cows to be seen, no people, no cars—no sign of life whatsoever. The surrounding gate was locked, with a formidable sign that read Proprietà Privata, discouraging anyone from passing through. As far as I could tell, Casera Festons looked to be abandoned, although I knew this was impossible. There was supposed to have been a guided excursion here just yesterday. Then it occurred to me that perhaps everyone was down in Sauris di Sotto enjoying the festival. But where were the cows? Before long, I would learn that it was common practice to herd cows to higher pastures, away from the malga, to graze during the day.

I felt exhausted and utterly disappointed. In the distance, I could barely make out the next closest malga, Casera Malins, but I just didn’t have it in me. The rain was now pouring, so I headed back, umbrella in one hand, panino in the other. The descent took only an hour, despite the occasional pause to rest. Surprisingly, this downhill portion was much more challenging than the trek up. The road was so steep in places that I had to turn around and walk backwards much of the way to relieve the pressure on my knees.

Immediately upon reaching Sauris di Sopra, I caught the shuttle bus back to Sauris di Sotto, where the rain had suddenly ceased and the festival was in full swing, with crowds even larger than the previous day. Hotel Morgenleit was hosting a tasting event, offering samples of prosciutto, cheese, and beer. The lobby was packed, the line for food extending out the door and down the street. I felt fortunate to have picked up my lunch when I did. With my thighs and calves aching from the hike, I gingerly climbed the stairs and spent the rest of the afternoon curled up in bed, reading and napping.

At dinnertime, I made my way down the hill to Ristorante Alla Pace for one last meal. To start, I was served a complimentary plate of prosciutto di Sauris, topped with some fresh greens, walnuts, grated horseradish, and a balsamic dressing. For my entrée, I ordered the capriolo in salmì, a venison stew served with triangles of grilled polenta. I had been in the habit of ordering a mixed salad with my meals, but Signora Franca urged me to try the verdure cotte (cooked vegetables)—on this particular evening, the chef had prepared boiled beet greens.

crostataSince I had saved that slice of crostata for my dessert—it had been too tricky to maneuver eating while hiking backwards downhill in the rain—I skipped dessert at Alla Pace and said a final goodbye to Franca. Just as I reached my hotel, it started pouring again. With any luck, the storms would soon pass, for tomorrow I would be moving on to my next town, Arta Terme.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: