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Posts Tagged ‘Sauris’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Gnocchi Croccanti di Sauris (Crispy Stuffed Gnocchi), a specialty at Ristorante Alla Pace in Sauris di Sotto. The gnocchi are stuffed with prosciutto and cheese, fried in butter until golden brown, and served on a bed of wilted arugula. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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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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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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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.

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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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Sauris di SopraThe forecast had predicted clouds and a chance of rain for my remaining three days in Sauris di Sotto. Sure enough, I awoke to a string of low, wispy clouds floating like gauze through the hills, with only a few scattered spots of blue sky peeking through. Later that afternoon, I had an appointment to tour the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris, so I took the opportunity to spend my free morning in Sauris di Sopra.

Although the buses in Carnia had so far proven to be highly punctual, the same compliment could not be paid to their frequency. At the time, there were only three buses to and from Sauris every day: early morning, midday, and evening. This made frequent travel between the two villages Sauris di Sotto and Sauris di Sopra nearly impossible for me. I did find, however, that if I took the 10:55am bus to the upper town of Sauris di Sopra, I’d have about an hour before catching the same bus on its downhill return. It didn’t seem like much time, but it was better than nothing.

Sauris di SopraBy the time I reached Sauris di Sopra, it was beginning to drizzle lightly. An hour turned out to be plenty of time to explore, given the inclement weather and the village’s small size. I walked up and down each street and along the wildflower-strewn meadow, my gaze fixated on the rocky Alpine peaks rising majestically in the distance. Just as intriguing were the homes with their uniquely Alpine character. Later, I would learn more about the architecture of Carnia and understand the subtle variations in each valley. While some areas were known for their green-tiled roofs or arched loggias, what made Sauris distinctive were its multistory, wood-framed homes, often with stone masonry on the lower floor and decorative woodwork on the external balconies. Like much of northern Italy, the feel was more German than Italian.

As I was waiting for my return bus, church bells began tolling the noon hour, while a faraway dog chimed in with its wolf-like howl. Seconds later, the bus arrived, and I was soon back in Sauris di Sotto—just in time for lunch. I went directly to Ristorante Alla Pace, now one of my favorite restaurants in Friuli. I ordered the frico con polenta and an insalata mista. The salad came first: greens from the family’s garden, shredded carrot, cucumber slices, canned beans, and sliced onion. The frico was a thick, six-inch pancake, browned to a golden crust on both sides. Made mostly of potato—the cheese was barely noticeable—it wasn’t at all greasy and held its puffy shape well.

After my meal, Signora Franca joined me again. This time, I showed her the manuscript for my cookbook. She thought my photos were molto belle and that I had included all the right recipes. This boosted my confidence a ton! Then she showed me a bottle of their house wine with a homemade label; the family photo had been taken 24 years ago at a touristy studio in Sacramento, California. Despite the kitschy costumes, it appeared, with its western style and old-fashioned sepia tone, to be a genuine photo of someone’s Friulian ancestors.

When I was ready to leave, Franca dismissed my request for il conto, saying that I could pay when I came back for dinner that evening. This was the Friulian hospitality that I had come to cherish so dearly.

Prosciuttificio Wolf SaurisAt 3:30pm, I showed up at the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris for my tour. Although the new, barn-like factory was not built until 1983, the business had been family-run since the mid-19th century, when village eccentric Pietro Schneider began selling his hams. (In addition to being a pork butcher, Schneider was also a church sexton, an unofficial dentist of sorts, and a self-proclaimed healer.) In 1962, his grandson Beppino Petris took over the business, officially naming the company Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris after Schneider’s nickname “Wolf.” As of my visit, the factory was turning out an annual 80,000 legs of prosciutto, 100,000 legs of speck, and hundreds of tons of pancetta, salami, cotechino, ossocollo, and coppa.

prosciutto di SaurisJust like the previous day, the tour group comprised a busload of older folk, plus a young Italian couple who had overheard me asking about the guided visit. It felt a little like entering Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, only it was not candy but the salty, smoky aroma of ham that wafted through the air and tantalized my senses. Surrounded by sterile, white walls, stainless steel equipment, and impeccably clean floor tiles, workers wearing white hats and aprons took freshly butchered legs and transformed them—over a period of months, through the magical process of smoke- and salt-curing—into the delectable prosciutto di Sauris.

prosciutto di SaurisAlthough the tour guide spoke only Italian, I could understand most of what she said as we passed through the various rooms: the refrigeration room, where the hams began their curing process with a coating of salt; the smoking room, where the hams were smoked for four to five days using woods and herbs such as beech, maple, fir, birch, oak, pine, chestnut, juniper, thyme, sage, and rosemary; and the curing rooms, where row upon row of hams hung from floor to ceiling.

By the time the tour was over, I was craving a nibble or two. Fortunately, we were dropped off in the factory store, where the guide handed out bread sticks draped with gauze-thin slices of the rosy, pink meat.

Shortly after I returned to my room, it started to rain. I spent the rest of the afternoon there—writing, watching the news, and playing a few games of Solitaire on my computer. By the time I turned off the TV, it was raining hard. Before heading out again, I laid in bed for a bit, listening to the sound of the rain pelting the roof and dreading the wet walk down the hill to dinner.

Back at Alla Pace, Signora Franca recommended the gnoccho croccante. Since she was so insistent that I try the dish, I felt it would be rude to even glance at the menu. It was a good call. Those gnocchi were some of the best I had ever eaten. Shaped like little footballs, the potato dumplings were filled with a mixture of minced speck and cheese; then, after a brief boil, they finished cooking in a skillet of butter, which gave them a nice golden crispness on top and bottom. Five of these gnocchi were presented in a circle over a bed of wilted crescione (garden cress). Potato gnocchi can often be tough, but these were soft, delicate, and crispy all at the same time, with an amazing flavor boost from the salty filling.

For dessert, I ordered a slice of torta di mele. Finally, I had found an apple cake worthy of recreating for my cookbook! While the cake itself was similar to the ones I had at Ristorante Kursaal and Albergo Morgenleit, the presentation was a step above. Thin slices of apple were set obliquely into the cake in a spiral pattern; to serve, the cake was then dusted with powdered sugar, cinnamon, and slivered almonds.

Gnocchi Croccanti di SaurisHere is my version of Alla Pace’s gnocchi croccanti. While the restaurant uses speck, prosciutto di Sauris would also be a delicious choice. If neither is available, use prosciutto di San Daniele or even prosciutto di Parma. In addition, if Montasio is not available, you may substitute any aged cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

FILLING:
8 ounces prosciutto or speck, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup grated Montasio stagionato
1 tablespoon whole milk
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Blend the prosciutto, Montasio cheese, and milk in a food processor until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Stir in the chives. Form the mixture into three dozen balls.

DOUGH:
1-1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 egg

Place the potatoes in a large pot filled with water; bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until tender, about 20–25 minutes. Drain the potatoes and place in a large bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature. Add the flour, salt, and egg; mix thoroughly to form a soft dough, adding a little extra flour if the dough appears too sticky to handle. Form the dough into three dozen balls. Press a ball of filling inside each ball of dough, wrapping the dough around the filling to seal tightly. Roll gently to form an oblong shape.

TO PREPARE:
6 tablespoons butter, divided
12 ounces arugula

1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, place the gnocchi in the water, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Cook until the gnocchi rise to the surface; remove them promptly with a slotted spoon.

2. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add half the gnocchi; cook until the bottoms are crisp and golden brown, about 3–5 minutes. Turn the gnocchi over and cook 3–5 minutes to brown the other side. Repeat with an additional 2 tablespoons butter and the remaining gnocchi.

3. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the arugula; cook, covered, until wilted, about 4–5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Divide the arugula among serving plates. Top with the gnocchi; drizzle with any excess butter from the skillet.

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