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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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My bus ride to Sauris was one of the more hair-raising I have endured. After changing buses two times—and squeezing myself into a seat amid a sizeable group of motion-sick school kids—the final leg of the journey traveled through dark mountainside tunnels and across a precipitous bridge suspended over the turquoise Lago di Sauris. I arrived on a breezy, overcast July day—a welcome respite from the heat wave that was blanketing the rest of Italy. The scent of rain hung in the humid air, threatening to dampen the upcoming weekend’s prosciutto festival.

More so than any other Carnian village, 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. Intricate patterns cut into the woodwork adorn railings and balconies, along with a rainbow of potted flowers. Throughout the town, chickens crowd backyard pens, while hay, deftly woven into the latticework, dries on the upper floors of Alpine farmhouses. Above it all towers the onion-domed steeple of Chiesa di Sant’Osvaldo.

Sauris actually consists of two towns: the upper Sauris di Sopra and lower Sauris di Sotto. I was staying in the lower village, the location of not only the Festa del Prosciutto but also the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. During the free days before the festival, my primary objective was to explore the inner workings of this prosciutto factory—but upon inquiry, I learned they couldn’t give a tour to someone traveling da sola (alone). I could, however, tag along with their next busload of Austrian tourists, which was expected the next afternoon.

Nestled in the hills above Sauris di Sotto, the barnlike Wolf Sauris factory produces a prosciutto that may not be as famous as Friuli’s other ham, prosciutto di San Daniele, but is deservedly celebrated in its own right. As I followed the Italian-speaking guide through the sterile rooms of white tile and stainless steel, the salty, smoky aromas were pleasantly overpowering. The curing room, where endless rows of prosciutti hung from floor to ceiling, left me craving a nibble or two. Happily, the tour ended with the guide handing out breadsticks draped with gauze-thin slices of the rosy, pink meat.

On the morning of the festival, I was awakened by a rooster’s crow and the patter of raindrops on my window. I stayed indoors until lunchtime, when the rain began to taper off and masses of visitors emerged onto the streets. After spotting a sign that advertised frico con polenta, I immediately jumped in the long line to order a plate. This frico was the version made with potatoes, but having been pre-cooked, packaged in zippered bags, and then reheated in a microwave oven, mine was still cold inside. The polenta, on the other hand, was freshly prepared. Large cauldrons bubbled with hot cornmeal as cooks stood watch, stirring the mixture with long, wooden paddles. When ready, the polenta was poured onto a board, quickly cooling into a two-foot-wide mass, and sliced with a long piece of string. Given my disappointing, microwaved frico, I might have fared better with one of the other selections, such as ricotta (both fresh and smoked) or formaggio di malga (cheese made during the summer in a mountaintop dairy called a malga).

After 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 Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. Then there were the cheese vendors. One in particular specialized in formadi frant, a cheese made by mixing other cheeses in various stages of maturation. I tasted two varieties, which were white in color, with a tangy flavor reminiscent of sharp cheddar.

All 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.

As 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 my liking (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.

Ready for dessert, I patrolled the remaining food stalls to the tunes of two competing oom-pah bands. Ultimately, 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.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Risotto con gli Asparagi (Risotto with Asparagus), in honor of Tavagnacco’s Festa degli Asparagi. Held over a span of three weekends from late April into early May, this festival celebrates the town’s locally grown white asparagus. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Tagliolini al Prosciutto (Tagliolini Pasta with Prosciutto), in honor of Aria di Festa, the prosciutto festival that takes place in San Daniele every June. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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gnocchi croccanti di SaurisFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Gnocchi Croccanti di Sauris (Crispy Stuffed Gnocchi). As the town of Sauris, located in northern Friuli’s Carnia mountains, is gearing up for their annual Festa del Prosciutto this month, it is only appropriate to feature this dish from Ristorante Alla Pace in Sauris di Sotto: potato gnocchi stuffed with locally cured prosciutto, pan-fried in butter, and served on a bed of wilted arugula. For my adaptation of their recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Prosciuttificio ProlongoToday’s destination was San Daniele del Friuli, where I had appointments to visit two prosciuttifici (prosciutto factories): Prolongo and Il Camarin. I took the bus from Udine and luckily had the foresight to get off while still in the outskirts of San Daniele, before the bus headed up the hill into the old section of town. Otherwise, it would have been a long walk back down.

At first, I was quite disoriented. I had no idea where I was in relation to the address I was looking for, but after walking up and down the street a few blocks, I got my bearings. Once I found the correct street, I spent another few minutes puzzling over the fact that the odd numbers on one side of the street didn’t correspond to the even numbers on the other side. About five minutes later, I arrived at Prosciuttificio Prolongo.

Alessio ProlongoI was greeted by siblings Alessio and Arianna, whose grandfather started the business. They took me on a tour of the factory, a fairly small operation, producing only 7,000 to 8,000 hams per year. Alessio spoke no English, so Arianna helped translate—though I actually understood most of his Italian. We visited the refrigeration room, where the hams were kept during the salting phase, and then the curing room, where rows of hams hung from wooden beams. They explained that the entire curing process takes a minimum of twelve months. Alessio demonstrated how to test for readiness—by inserting a horse-bone needle into the meat and judging its quality by the aroma released.

After a sample of their product, we said goodbye. It was only 10:00am, and my next appointment wasn’t until 2:00pm. Checking my map, I saw that it wasn’t too far away, so I decided to take a chance and head over there early. I had a little trouble finding my way—they had given me the wrong street number in their email—but after asking a passerby for directions, I arrived at Prosciuttificio Il Camarin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis factory was much larger than Prolongo. Their website advertised guided visits, and picnic tables were set up outside, waiting for the throngs of tourists to arrive for a day of prosciutto tasting. Since he wasn’t expecting me until the afternoon, owner Sergio was busy taking an inventory count. He did, however, take time out to show me through the various rooms, where thousands of hams lined the walls and rafters. In contrast to Prolongo, Il Camarin produces 15,000 hams annually.

I was finished by 11:00am and headed up the steep hill into San Daniele proper. For the next hour, I sat inside the Duomo, organizing my notes from the morning.

Ristorante Alle Vecchie CarceriFor lunch, I headed straight to Ristorante Alle Vecchie Carceri—my third time eating there. To start, they brought their usual complimentary small plate of polenta topped with ricotta affumicata and poppy seeds. I ordered an appetizer of smoked duck breast, sliced thin like prosciutto, served over a bed of mixed greens and cubes of salted cheese. The menu had said that the salad also contained apple, but there didn’t seem to be any in mine. Then, as always, I couldn’t resist ordering the cjalsòns. Up until I had tasted the amazing ones at Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme, Alle Vecchie Carceri’s had been my top favorite. They were now my second favorite, still better than most, the delicate disks of dough plump with a sweet-savory filling of potato, caramelized onion, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. At least, they used to contain raisins—today, the fruit was conspicuously absent. Nevertheless, the cjalsòns tasted divine, swimming in melted butter and topped with cinnamon, sugar, and smoky ricotta affumicata.

After arriving back in Udine that afternoon, lethargy began to set in. It had been exactly a month since I had left San Francisco, and the constant exertion and extreme heat were taking a toll. I decided to forgo dinner out and have a picnic in my hotel room—something that I would end up doing for the remaining few days of my trip. At the rosticceria around the corner, I picked up a piece of cold, dry chicken and some marinated artichoke hearts, sour and oily. It was not an especially good meal, but all I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep.

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asparagi con prosciuttoFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Asparagi con Prosciutto (Asparagus with Prosciutto), as May is peak season for white asparagus in Friuli. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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