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For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Toç in Braide (Polenta with Ricotta Sauce). The creamy polenta in this dish is topped with a simple ricotta sauce and crunchy cornmeal browned in butter. The late Carnian chef Gianni Cosetti suggested serving the dish with asparagus, shaved truffle, or sautéed mushrooms, depending on the season. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Spilimbergo's Palazzo ErcoleThe early morning air was already hot and muggy, without even the slightest breeze to temper the oppressive heat. With only a couple more days left in Udine before the end of my five-week-long trip, I decided to revisit the town of Spilimbergo.

My hope was to find a restaurant that served balote: cheese-filled polenta balls, native to the mountains north of Pordenone. According to local tradition, when a young man wanted to propose marriage, he would present an offering of balote to the potential bride’s family; if the balote were immediately placed on the fogolâr (fireplace) to roast, it was understood that he had the family’s approval.

Spilimbergo's Palazzo di SopraI took the train to Pordenone and then caught a bus to Spilimbergo. Mike and I had driven through the town in May of the previous year, but since we were on our way to Carnia, with several stops to make en route, we didn’t have long to explore. This trip, I had plenty of time to visit the main sights. First, I set out to locate some of Spilimbergo’s famous painted palazzi. One of the most well-known was the Palazzo Ercole (a.k.a. Casa Dipinta), whose frescoes illustrated scenes from the mythical life of Hercules. Then, after a bit of an uphill hike, I found the brilliantly painted Palazzo di Sopra, home to Spilimbergo’s town hall. Set amid a neatly manicured lawn and framed by two tall palm trees, its white façade was decorated with intricate yellow designs and a Venetian winged lion of Saint Mark.

Spilimbergo's DuomoI was especially looking forward to seeing the frescoes on the exterior of the 15th-century Palazzo Dipinto, but when I reached the courtyard of the Castello di Spilimbergo where they were located, I was dismayed to find all the frescoes shrouded in scaffolding. My disappointment, however, was short-lived—my spirits soon lifted as I came upon the sunny Duomo di Santa Maria Maggiore, whose yellow Romanesque Gothic façade featured a pattern of circular cutout windows.

At lunchtime, I headed to Osteria Da Afro, as it was on my list of places specializing in Friulian cooking. Although it was past noon when I arrived, the restaurant was not yet open. I was told to wait in the lobby, where I spotted, through a crack in a partially open door, the staff gathered around a table eating their meal. Finally, I was shown to a table in the empty dining room. Despite my expectations, there were few Friulian dishes on the menu. The waiter explained that la cucina friulana was more of a winter cuisine and that they tended to serve lighter dishes in the hot summer months. Feeling inclined to agree with him on that point, I was quite content ordering the melanzane alla parmigiana and an insalata mista.

Since there were no other customers, the waiter was able to spend a good deal of time at my table answering some of my lingering questions. We talked about the restaurant’s preparation of baccalà (salt cod) and trout—and most importantly, balote, which they frequently serve in wintertime. He described their size (larger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball), the type of cheese they are filled with (traditionally the local salted cheese called asìno, but cubes of fresh Montasio may be used instead), and how they are served (no sauce but frequently with sautéed mushrooms on the side).

After lunch, I took the next bus back to Pordenone, where I caught the train back to Udine. For the third day in a row, I decided not to go out for dinner but to eat in my room instead. At the COOP supermarket, I bought some bananas, kiwis, and yogurt (happily, my room at Hotel Principe had a mini fridge). Then, at the nearby rosticceria, I picked up some sautéed zucchini and a slice of frittata. It was a light picnic, which my body was really craving after a full month of rich, heavy meals.

baloteHere is my interpretation of balote, as described to me at Osteria Da Afro. Since asìno cheese is not easily available outside Pordenone province, I have substituted a mixture of cream cheese (for the creaminess) and ricotta salata (for the saltiness). The texture is not as soft and creamy as asìno, but it holds its shape nicely when being wrapped inside the polenta. Consider serving the balote with some sautéed mushrooms.

Filling:
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces ricotta salata, grated (about 1-1/4 cups)

In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and ricotta salata. Divide the mixture into twelve equal parts, rolling each into a small ball. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Polenta:
4 cups water
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt

Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium pot over high heat. Stir in the cornmeal and salt. When the water returns to a boil, reduce heat to low; cook and stir until soft, about 25 minutes. Pour immediately into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish; spread evenly. Let cool for 15 minutes, or until just cool enough to handle.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice the polenta into twelve equal portions. Scoop out a portion of polenta and roll into a rough ball. Flatten slightly, place one cheese ball in the center, and smooth the polenta over to enclose the cheese. (The polenta will be very sticky, so work gently.) Place the finished polenta balls in a greased baking dish. Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes.

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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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costicine in brodo di polentaFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Costicine in Brodo di Polenta (Pork Ribs in Polenta), a hearty dish suitable for these cold winter months. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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prosciutto di SaurisThe next morning, I was awakened by a rooster’s crow and the heavy patter of raindrops on my window. Outside, all of Sauris was bustling to prepare for the opening of the Festa del Prosciutto. At booths lining the streets all through town, vendors diligently unloaded their wares, tents having been erected to shelter them from the downpour. Lazily, I decided to spend a few more hours indoors, where it was dry and cozy. Just as I had done the other day, I took my laptop downstairs to the bar and spread my work out at a corner table. This time, however, the bar soon became a busy thoroughfare. With new faces continuously passing through—men or women pausing in their work to say a friendly ciao or mandi (the traditional Friulian greeting) to old acquaintances—the buzz of excitement was palpable.

Around noon, as if on cue, the rain began to taper off, and masses of visitors flooded the streets. After dropping my computer off in my room, I ventured outside, where there was already a long line forming at the nearest food tent. Its large menu, posted high above the register, featured a number of cheese plates, each one served with a slice of polenta. Among the listings were fresh and smoked ricotta, formaggio di malga, and formadi frant, but it was the top item, frico, that caught my eye. One of the dishes that had sparked my obsession with Friulian cooking, frico is essentially fried cheese—in this case, a pancake made with cheese and potatoes.

polentaI waited a full half hour in line to order my plate. As I neared the front of the line, I could see two steaming cauldrons of polenta, the cooks standing watch, calmly stirring the bubbling mixture with wooden paddles as large as oars. When ready, the polenta was poured onto a board, quickly cooling into a two-foot-wide mass, and then sliced with a long piece of string. Unlike the bright yellow polenta in my fridge at home, this was darker—more of a goldenrod or yellow ochre color—and speckled with flecks of brown.

Festa del ProsciuttoAs I got closer, I could also see the frico being prepared. To my disappointment, they had been pre-made, each one packaged in a zippered plastic bag, and were being reheated in a microwave oven. With thousands of people expected to descend on the festival over this two-weekend period, I should not have hoped for anything more—how could such a small team of cooks be expected to prepare that many frico to order?—but I was nevertheless dismayed to find the center cold and the usually crisp exterior soggy. As I stood off to the side eating (though not truly enjoying) my lunch, a trio of musicians marched down the hill and into the tent. To the peppy oom-pah-pah tunes of an accordion, tuba, and guitar, people around me began tapping their feet, swaying, and belting out lyrics as if in a Munich beer hall.

salamiAfter I had finished eating, I spent the next couple hours exploring the various booths and food stands. Naturally, there was plenty of prosciutto di Sauris to sample, as well as many other types of salumi produced at the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. Then, there were the cheese vendors. One in particular specialized in frant, a cheese made by mixing other cheeses in various stages of maturation. I tasted two varieties; unlike the pungent, golden-hued frant I had tried in Cividale, these were white in color and had a tangy flavor reminiscent of sharp cheddar.

honeyAll sorts of artisanal products were for sale, vendors having driven from the far corners of Carnia to display their goods. Stacked high on tables were jars of homemade salsa piccante, a spicy purée of carrots and other vegetables; honey flavored by acacia, chestnut, and rhododendron; preserves made from apples and berries; and fruit syrups in such tantalizing flavors as dandelion, elderberry, and red currant. Bins overflowed with mushrooms, including fresh chanterelles and dried porcini, while pint-sized baskets were brimming with wild strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. Of course, there was also Zahre Beer, a local brand produced right there in Sauris.

Carnian liqueursAs popular as beer seemed to be at the festival, grappa was a close second. Throughout the region, fruits such as apples, plums, and berries are used to make distilled wines and liqueurs. One such vendor offered me a taste of something in a Dixie cup, but his accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand exactly what it was. Bottles of Elisir di Mora and Elisir di Lampone (blackberry and raspberry liqueurs) stood on display, so I guessed it was one of those. Knowing the alcohol would be too strong for me (wine is more my speed), I tried to decline, but the gentleman was very insistent. I politely took a sip and then discreetly threw it in the trash once I was out of sight.

In addition to the food, there were dozens of craft tables at the festival—the same ones that I would start to recognize at each of the festivals I attended that summer—selling everything from soap and candles to dried flowers and woodcrafts. At one booth, I chanced to overhear someone speaking English. This was such a rarity in Friuli that I felt compelled to introduce myself. It was a young girl traveling with her aunt and grandfather, who was originally from Carnia. The family was spending summer vacation at their farm in Cleulis, a village just south of Timau.

crostataAs I wrapped up my tour of the festival, I found myself at the bottom of the hill in a tent filled with scrumptious-looking pastries. There had been other desserts available elsewhere—the ubiquitous gelato and some cups of fruit salad—but I knew immediately that I would have to buy something here. While I felt tempted by the apple strudel, what ultimately drew me in was the selection of crostate ai piccoli frutti. Topped with jam and a neatly woven lattice crust, these extra-large rectangles typified Carnia in a dessert: rustic, sweet but not overly sugary, and full of the wild berries so abundant in the area. While some were made with a cornmeal crust, I chose a regular one with crust much like a spiced shortbread cookie and topped with blackberry-blueberry jam.

When I emerged from the dessert tent, the crowds were growing even larger. Songs of two oompah bands, marching along different streets, fought for my ears’ attention as I made my way back to Hotel Morgenleit. Even though it was early July, the weather at this high mountain altitude had turned cool, and I was shivering without my jacket.

It was only 3:00pm, yet my room still hadn’t been made. I waited in the common room until the housekeeper was finished, then spent the rest of the afternoon writing in my room. I could still hear those competing oompah bands outside my window, but eventually I managed to tune them out and focus on my work.

Ristorante Alla PaceAt dinnertime, I went straight to Ristorante Alla Pace. Luckily, I had had the foresight to make a reservation, for the restaurant was nearly as jam-packed as the streets. I ordered the orzotto and an insalata mista. Prepared risotto-style, the barley dish was nicely al dente and soupy, topped with bits of crumbled sausage and sliced zucchini blossoms. For dessert, I couldn’t resist a slice of apple strudel—perhaps I was still reflecting on the one I had passed up earlier. With a filling of apples, raisins, walnuts, and pine nuts rolled up in paper-thin dough, the strudel was served warm and topped with powdered sugar, cinnamon, and a dollop of whipped cream.

As I hiked back up the hill toward my hotel, the street was still overflowing with people drinking beer from disposable yellow cups, the night air filled with music and laughter. Having read that there would be music and dancing until 1:00am, I crossed my fingers that my room would be quiet. I needed to get a good night’s sleep, for I had a demanding hike planned for the next day.

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