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Posts Tagged ‘Ravascletto’

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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Forni di SopraA deafening crash of thunder, followed by a stampede of raindrops against the window, startled me out of my restless dreams at 4:30am. It was still dark outside, yet every few moments the valley was illuminated, just for a split second, by an electric purple-yellow sky. After the storm had subsided, I curled back up under the bedsheets and turned on the TV to watch the early morning news. The top story was the heat wave that continued to ravage southern Europe—Rome had hit 95°F, and parts of southern Italy had topped 100°F. There was also another transportation strike, this time affecting the airports; Alitalia had cancelled over 90 flights throughout the country.

It was my last morning in Ravascletto. After breakfast, I took a walk to the nearby market to buy a roll and a piece of latteria cheese for my on-the-go lunch. Though no longer raining, the sky was dark and overcast, a clue that another storm was brewing. I checked out of Albergo Bellavista and found a spot on their veranda to sit and relax until my departure time. Just like my last two travel days, the bus wouldn’t come until around noon.

I was headed to Forni di Sopra and would need to change buses twice—in Comeglians and Villa Santina. Both connections were extremely tight, and since my ticket only took me as far as Villa Santina, I had to purchase another bus ticket there. To my relief, each of my three buses was on time, the entire schedule running like clockwork.

Albergo CentraleI arrived in Forni di Sopra and within minutes found my hotel, Albergo Centrale, just steps from the main highway in a quaint piazza, much of which was under construction and boarded off. The hotel had no elevator, so the chivalrous owner insisted on lugging my bag—which was growing heavier with my expanding cookbook collection—up the three flights of stairs to my room.

Compared to the last few rooms I had stayed in, this one was rather dingy and cramped, the only window being small and too high to see out of comfortably. If I stood on tiptoes and craned my neck at just the right angle, I could make out some rooftops and a sliver of mountain and sky. To say that the bed was soft would have been an understatement. Instead of a mattress, there were two sheets of foam resting atop the springs. When I lay down, the middle of the bed sagged dreadfully, as if I were being swallowed up by a spongy taco shell. To make matters worse, something in the room—perhaps a trace of cat or dog hair on the bedspread or floor—soon began to trigger my allergies. (I continued to sniffle and sneeze for the three days I spent in Forni di Sopra.)

Municipio Vecchio in Forni di Sopra In the afternoon, I took a walk to explore the town. It seemed larger than any of the Carnian villages I had visited so far, though not by much. My hotel occupied the central piazza, along with the starkly whitewashed Vecchio Municipio (old town hall), used for temporary art exhibits during tourist season but closed at the time of my midweek visit. Everywhere, wooden balconies were lined with row upon row of red and pink geraniums. In the distance, I could see a jagged ridge of grayish peaks: the edge of the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti Friulane.

When it was dinnertime, I headed first to the restaurant in my hotel. Having grown tired of the mundane pensione meals at my hotel in Ravascletto and desiring a more authentic experience, I asked the waitress if I could take a look at the menu before being seated. She gaped at me like I was crazy—I suppose no one had ever asked her that before—but dug around and found a list for me to peruse. I was glad I asked, because it consisted entirely of run-of-the-mill Italian dishes—nothing particularly Friulian. My second stop was an osteria around the corner. They had a menu board propped outside listing some intriguing choices, but inside I was told that the kitchen was closed for the evening.

Finally, I stumbled upon the cozy Osteria Al Tulat at Albergo Tarandan. Just after I was seated, a sizable party rose to exit, leaving me alone in the empty dining room. I began with the antipasto buffet, a decadent table of goodies that included sausage-stuffed pomodori gratinati (tomatoes gratin), spinach quiche topped with ham and cheese, roasted bell peppers, mixed olives, and marinated anchovies. For my main course, I ordered the goulasch (Hungarian beef stew), which deviated from tradition in that potatoes were cooked within the stew rather than being served as a side dish. As I was tucking in, the chef peeked his head out of the closet-sized kitchen and asked, “Signora, conosce la polenta?” Do I know polenta? I had to laugh out loud at that—if he only knew how much polenta I had eaten in the past few weeks!

At this point, I divulged that I was writing a cookbook, Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. The chef disappeared momentarily, then brought out not only a small plate of polenta for me but also a hefty cookbook. Titled La Cucina Friulana by Emilia Valli, the tome was a comprehensive guide to the region’s cuisine. I stayed there quite late, taking notes and copying recipes for such dishes as cjalzòns di Pontebba (pasta filled with ricotta, prunes, and dried figs), cialzòns di Ovaro (pasta filled with ricotta, bread crumbs, and raisins), risotto alla Maranese (Marano-style seafood risotto), paparòt (spinach and cornmeal soup), gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi), costolette al latte (pork ribs cooked in milk), toç de purcìt (Carnian pork stew), and zucca in purea (butternut squash purée). I also elicited a good deal of information from the chef, such as his favorite way to cook trout (with butter and sage) and his preferred method of cooking baccalà (in the oven).

Before I left, the chef introduced himself as Giuseppe, although he said everyone called him Rocky on account of his black belt in karate. Chef Rocky then invited me to return the following evening, offering to prepare some traditional Friulian dishes especially for me.

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Albergo Ristorante BellavistaOn my last day in Ravascletto, I chose to stay in for most of the day. After breakfast, I stationed myself on the veranda of Albergo Bellavista, setting up my laptop on a table overlooking the expansive Valcalda valley. The deck was lined with window boxes of red geraniums, and a couple of birdcages stood close-by. The dismal, gray clouds that had greeted me upon awakening cleared away by mid-morning to reveal a sparkling, blue sky. I was entirely content sitting there in the cool breeze, with nothing to distract me from my writing, except perhaps the intermittent canary song. At one point, the owner came over to chat. He showed great interest in my cookbook project and didn’t seem the least bit offended at my repeated failure to show up at mealtimes.

At noon, I packed up my computer and headed down the hill to eat at Hotel La Perla for the third time in as many days. This time, I ordered the gnocchi di mele. Along the lines of the more prevalent gnocchi di susine (plum gnocchi), these dumplings were made with a light and tender potato-based dough, filled with apples and raisins, and topped with melted butter, toasted bread crumbs, and cinnamon. I also took advantage of the mixed vegetable buffet, having been so impressed with it the prior evening. Today’s plate included string beans, potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, and spinach. For dessert, I continued the apple theme with a slice of apple strudel. Prepared in the traditional Viennese style, the dough was paper thin and stuffed with apples, raisins, and lots of cinnamon.

My afternoon was spent much like my morning, transcribing notes and working on the first draft of Flavors of Friuli. By late afternoon, another band of dark clouds had gloomily crept into the valley. This storm brought with it more thunder and lightning, and even a burst of hail.

As the rain was still pouring at dinnertime, I decided to stay indoors and have one more meal at Bellavista. The choices were just as dull as my first dinner there, and I ended up having a bowl of vegetable soup, a plate of prosciutto e melone, and a side of potatoes that were described as arrostite (roasted) but turned out to be disc-shaped tater tots instead. Dessert was a tart filled with pastry cream, strawberries, and blueberries. As I was eating, I noticed a nearby table being served an order of frico—and yet another table a plate of cjarsòns. If only I had had the gumption to insist on the regular menu! Still, I had learned a valuable lesson about the workings of Italian pensioni and vowed not to make the same mistake again.

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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.

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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!

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Piano d'ArtaPassing through Tolmezzo earlier in the week, I had noticed a sign at the bus station announcing a transportation strike that was scheduled, most inconveniently, for today, the day I was leaving Piano d’Arta for Ravascletto. To my great relief, as I read the fine print, I learned that service was guaranteed between noon and 3:00pm—so it looked like I would make it to my destination after all.

I ate breakfast in my room again—another of those crostate from Paularo, this one a rectangular slice with blueberry jam and a lattice crust. After checking out of Hotel Poldo and leaving my bag at the reception desk, I strolled down the hill to a market, where I bought a small roll and a hunk of fresh Montasio cheese. Back at my hotel, I parked myself outside at a patio table in the shade and spent the rest of the morning nibbling on my meager picnic and waiting restlessly for my departure time.

At 12:30pm, I caught the bus heading north. My schedule, printed from the Internet, showed a connection in Sutrio, but the friendly driver urged me to continue on to Paluzza. It turned out that my bus to Ravascletto originated in Paluzza, and sure enough, it was sitting there waiting for me.

I arrived in Ravascletto and checked into Albergo Bellavista, where Mike and I had eaten lunch the previous year. Perched high in the hills, the hotel truly lived up to its name with a “beautiful view” out over the entire Valcalda valley. My room was quite spacious, with a slanted chalet-style ceiling, a large but rather firm bed, and a wooden writing desk. The bathroom had recently been renovated, although a few quirks left me somewhat nonplussed: the toilet had one of those uncomfortable square seats, the overhead light had burned out, and the door could barely open halfway before bumping into the sink. These slight imperfections melted away, however, when I glanced out the picture window at the imposing peak of Monte Zoncolan directly ahead.

Albergo Ristorante BellavistaShortly after settling in, I took a walk to orient myself. There was one small piazza with a market, an ATM, a tourist office, and a shop selling dishes, linens, and various craft items. Even though everything was closed at this hour, I did see a flyer that put a wrench into my schedule. One of my main reasons for visiting Ravascletto was to attend the Mondo delle Malghe festival in nearby Ovaro. The information mailed to me by the tourist office prior to my trip listed the dates as both Saturday and Sunday. Now, according to this flyer, it looked like the main events of the festival were taking place only on Sunday, when there was no bus service between the two towns.

My other goal in Ravascletto was to visit Malga Pozôf atop Monte Zoncolan. At least it looked like this might be possible—the sign in the window of the tourist office announced that the funivia (ski lift) would reopen tomorrow. I really didn’t want to have to tackle another hike like the one I undertook a few days ago to Malga Pramosio!

Despite the overcast sky, the air was warm and muggy. On my way back, I passed the tiny bar adjacent to the hotel. The door was open, though I found no one working inside. In the corner sat a freezer of packaged ice cream treats, and I took out a lemon Popsicle. I then seated myself on a bar stool at the counter to cool off and enjoy my snack. The cashier returned shortly, at which time I promptly paid my Euro. As I finished eating, we chatted—about the weather, my travels, the local cuisine—but when I stepped down to leave, she abruptly demanded that I pay for the Popsicle. To my polite reminder that I had in fact already paid, she let fly a flurry of impassioned Italian that I could scarcely keep up with. It was only when I pulled the receipt out of my purse that she grudgingly acquiesced.

Back at the hotel, I ran into the owner in the lobby. Surprisingly, he remembered me from over a year ago. He even recalled with remarkable specificity where Mike and I had eaten our lunch: at a corner table in the informal dining area on the ground floor. Upon his inquiry, I agreed to have dinner in the hotel that evening. As far as I could see, there was only one other restaurant in town, and it was located all the way down the hill in the valley.

By early evening, rain had begun to fall. Dark gray thunderclouds loomed in the distance, casting shadows across the mountains and valley. It was a relief not to have to go out in the storm in search of dinner. The drawback to dining as a hotel guest, though, was that I was restricted to the limited pensione menu. There were only a couple of choices for each course, with nothing sounding particularly Friulian. I started with the cannelloni filled with spinach and ricotta, served in a cream sauce. Next, I had a whole grilled trout with a side of baby carrots sautéed in butter. Dessert was a simple bowl of fresh raspberries.

All throughout my meal, as the thunderstorm raged outside, I felt a secure sense of coziness in the refuge of the dining room. Later, back in my top floor room, I sat glued to the window, staring out into the darkness, lulled by the sound of heavy rain pounding against the glass panes and mesmerized by the occasional flashes of lightning that illuminated the Valcalda.

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Flavors of FriuliIt was June 2004 when Mike and I returned to San Francisco. I had over a year to prepare for my next trip, which would take me once again throughout Friuli–Venezia Giulia. Since Udine made a convenient home base for me to explore the region, I planned two separate weeks there, bookending a three-week journey through Carnia. Two of my main objectives were to visit at least one malga and to attend several more food festivals, so I arranged to travel to Carnia’s major villages—Sauris, Arta Terme, Ravascletto, Forni di Sopra, and Forni Avoltri—all by bus. During my time in Udine, I would take day trips to now-familiar towns such as Cormòns, Cividale, and San Daniele, as well as new ones like Marano Lagunare, Bordano, and Maniago. I would tour three prosciutto factories, climb two mountains, and panic during one very frustrating train strike that stranded me in Venzone. Please join me in the weeks and months to come, as I continue chronicling my Friulian adventures.

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