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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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Tolmezzo's DuomoWhen I woke up the next morning, I turned on the news to hear reports of another heat wave sweeping Italy, with temperatures climbing once again into the upper 90s. I was glad to be in Carnia, cooled off by the refreshing breezes that swept effortlessly down from the mountaintops. For breakfast, I tried one of the crostate I had bought in Paularo. About three inches in diameter, the tart was made with a shortbread cookie crust and filled with raspberry jam. A thin glaze of gelatin glistened underneath the neatly woven lattice top.

My plan was to take the bus from Piano d’Arta into Tolmezzo for the day, but I had one errand I needed to do first. I wanted a photo of Albergo Ristorante Salon for my book Flavors of Friuli, but it was always too dark by the time I arrived there for dinner in the evening (I didn’t have a flash on my old SLR film camera). So I hiked up to the restaurant, where a group of older men sat lounging at the tables outside the entrance. I was relieved not to see the creepy guy who had tried to pick me up the previous night. The sun, however, was still low in the morning sky; the shadow cast across the front of the building meant that I would have to return for my photo later that afternoon.

With plenty of time to catch my bus, I ambled back down the hill to wait at the stop. Within minutes, a car drove by and parked across the street. It was the old sleazeball, stalking me again. He waved, got out of his car, and came to sit next to me on the bench. Had he spotted me at Salon and followed me? Or perhaps one of his cohorts had played the informer? This was starting to freak me out! Though he obviously didn’t speak any English—and I tried not to let on that I understood his Italian—he attempted to explain about the previous night, to make sure that I hadn’t misunderstood his intentions and that he hadn’t offended me. “Va bene,” I said, “non c’è problema. Arrivederci.” Instead of dropping the issue and moving on, he offered to drive me wherever I was going. Of course, I listened to my instincts and refused. But at the same time, I remembered overhearing him tell someone at dinner the night before that he was going to Tolmezzo today. With my luck, I would run into him there, too! Finally, my bus pulled up, giving me an excuse to flee.

Tolmezzo storefrontWhen I arrived in Tolmezzo, I spent a long while wandering around the town center. Most of the shops were located on one main street, and it was here I spent most of my time. I found the arts and crafts galleries especially fun for window shopping. My favorite featured a display of fantastical characters, such as fairies, gnomes, and sbilfs (woodland elves in Carnian folklore). Other stores showcased locally made furniture, jewelry, and textiles. But it was at the bookstore that I felt most at home, browsing through the cookbook section and adding four Friulian cookbooks to my growing collection.

Albergo RomaI was excited to see that the restaurant at Albergo Roma had finally reopened. Home to renowned Carnian chef Gianni Cosetti, it had closed for renovations after his death in 2001. But at lunchtime, I was the only guest in the massive banquet hall. With tables around me dressed in yellow and white linens and studded with crystal glasses and elegant china, I felt uncomfortably out of place in my casual shorts and hiking boots. When the menu arrived, I was disappointed not to find any of the traditional dishes that Cosetti was known for—little, in fact, that sounded even remotely Friulian. Apparently, the new chef had made significant changes to the menu. Feeling rather awkward, I tiptoed out before the waitress could return.

Cooperativa CarnicaTo this day, I still feel somewhat ashamed of myself, since the food at Roma was most likely very good. Nevertheless, it was my mission to scope out authentic Friulian cooking. There was not nearly enough time on my trip to visit every restaurant in each town—and therefore very little room for error—so I headed to a place where I knew I would find exactly what I was looking for: Antica Trattoria Cooperativa.

There, I started with the insalata di pere e Montasio, a salad of lightly dressed greens topped with pear slices and a pile of shredded fresh Montasio cheese. I didn’t recognize the spice that garnished the dish, but when I inquired, I learned it was, of all things, ground coriander. Next, I ordered the cjarsòns, which came in both savory and sweet varieties. I requested half a serving of each type. The savory cjarsòns were filled with herbs and ricotta, while the sweet ones contained ricotta, raisins, and cocoa. Both were prepared with a rather heavy potato-based dough and served in melted butter.

On the bus back to Piano d’Arta, I breathed a sigh of relief, as it occurred to me that I had managed to avoid running into that obnoxious guy in Tolmezzo. Whew! Before returning to my hotel to rest, I made another trip up to Ristorante Salon. The same group of old men was still sitting outside—and my “friend” had since joined them. Although the courtyard entrance was still somewhat shaded, the sun was in a better position, and I was able to get my photo within minutes. This time, I slipped away without being followed.

Fides & Bepi SalonSeveral hours later, I returned to Salon for one final dinner. It was the busiest I had ever seen it there. A large tour group filled an adjacent dining area, everyone seated at one long table. Shortly after I sat down in my usual spot, the proprietor’s wife, Fides Salon, took a brief break from her duties in the kitchen to come greet me. We were cut short as the regular guests—all the families, couples, and singles that I had grown accustomed to seeing over the past several evenings—filed in, as if on cue. Being the only server, Matteo began bustling from table to table, rattling off the day’s specials. Despite the frenetic pace, he never lost his boyish ebullience.

I couldn’t resist ordering the cjarsòns one last time. In contrast to the doughy ones I had for lunch in Tolmezzo, these were prepared with regular pasta dough, delicate enough to allow all the flavors of the dish to shine through. The first element to register on my palate was the undercurrent of sweetness—not rich but rather ethereal from a light touch of sugar and crushed biscotti. Apples, pears, dried fruit, jam, and lemon peel balanced the sugar with just the right amount of tartness. Hints of salty and smoky savoriness peeked through from the butter and ricotta affumicata. Finally, the cinnamon, cocoa, and herbs proffered an exotic complexity of tastes and aromas that lingered on my tongue long after the last bite.

As usual, I ordered a salad to go with my meal. The array of choices on Matteo’s rolling cart was beyond compare. In addition to the usual fresh ingredients—greens, radicchio, tomato, shredded carrot—there was always a variety of cooked vegetables as well. This time, I selected a mix of string beans, yellow bell peppers, and tomato. Unexpectedly, Matteo also brought me a small side of purè (mashed potatoes), a complimentary gift from the kitchen.

Even though I was too full for dessert, I remained at my table long after most of the original diners had left. My stalker had finished his dinner and was now sipping an espresso at the bar. Six tables—guests that had arrived much later—were still being served. I was hoping to have one more opportunity to speak with Bepi Salon, so I waited and waited. Finally, when I had a chance to get Matteo’s attention, I learned that Bepi had had to leave early. Despite my disappointment, I felt gratified to have had the honor of meeting both Bepi and Fides on this trip.

When I left, the sleazeball was now outside in his usual spot, smoking and chatting with the same cluster of old men. This time, he jumped up and started to follow me on foot! He caught up with me at the base of the hill and asked if I wanted to accompany him to a Latin American dance somewhere in town. This was the third instance he had followed me from the restaurant, and once again, I vehemently declined the offer. Tomorrow I would be leaving for Ravascletto—while I knew I would seriously miss Salon’s cjarsòns, I was greatly relieved to get away from this guy once and for all.

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Tolmezzo's DuomoLast night at dinner, my friend Liviana had mentioned it might be snowing in Carnia today, so I dressed in extra layers. Five layers on top and three on the bottom may have been overkill, but the past few days were close to freezing! I sat on the upper level of the double-decker bus for an optimal view of the landscape. Zooming along the autostrada, we spotted the town Gemona del Friuli in the distance, crossed the Tagliamento River, and then bored through mountain tunnels to arrive—50 minutes later—in Tolmezzo, the gateway to the Carnian Alps.

A short walk brought me to the center of town and the Duomo di San Martino. With a modern façade completed in 1931, this 18th-century church features a gold-gilded white interior and an angel perched atop its campanile. Snow-capped mountains loomed overhead as I strolled along the town’s narrow streets. Every so often, a few flakes of snow drifted from the overcast sky.

After my brief walk, I made my way back to the bus terminal and took the next bus to Arta Terme, only 15 minutes away. Unfortunately, it seemed that everything in this tiny town was closed except for the tourist office. There, I got the information I needed about the festival (Festa dell’asparago di bosco, del radicchio di montagna e dei funghi di primavera) that I was hoping to attend in May. Next, after a 20-minute hike to Piano d’Arta, the upper half of Arta Terme, I was disappointed to find everything closed there as well. (As I would later learn, summer is peak season for most towns in Carnia, with the exception of those with ski resorts such as Ravascletto and Forni di Sopra.)

I returned to Tolmezzo just in time for lunch and chose Antica Trattoria Cooperativa for its variety of traditional dishes. Although it is not typically Friulian, I ordered a pasta dish called casunziei simply because it sounded so intriguing. Typical of the Dolomites in the neighboring Veneto region, these half-moons of thick pasta were filled with fresh ricotta tinted bright pink with beets, served in bubbly brown butter, and sprinkled with poppy seeds and ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese). I also chose to partake in the restaurant’s elaborate self-service buffet of side dishes, filling my plate with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, eggplant, artichokes, and beans.

Afterwards, I got up the nerve to ask for the casunziei recipe. The owner, Patrizia Bonora, responded, “Non c’è problema, fra 5 minuti.” So I waited and waited, but she didn’t seem to have any minuti to spare. As I lingered at my table, a scruffy, old man in the corner asked the waitress in his rasping wheeze for “un cognac, così buono come Lei” (a cognac, as good as you). Feeling a bit uncomfortable with his sleazy vibe and afraid he would start hitting on me next, I approached Patrizia with the excuse that I needed to catch my bus, and we agreed to stay in touch. I never did get that recipe!

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloWhen I arrived back in Udine, it was still extremely cold and windy. After a brief late afternoon nap—from which I always found it difficult to rouse myself, especially on dark, winter evenings—I set out for what was becoming my customary fall-back, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. It was early—seven o’clock sharp—and the wrought-iron lamp above the door had just flickered on.

The waiter, beginning to recognize me as a regular, showed me to the same table as my last couple dinners. The elderly signora was already seated in her usual corner spot, tucking into a bowl of comfort food. Craving something warm and comforting myself, I ordered orzo e fagioli (barley and bean soup), followed by the baccalà con polenta. This salt cod stew was simmered in milk with notes of cheese and cinnamon, deliciously salty and creamy without being overly fishy. As I would later learn from chef Mario, the dish was based upon the recipe for baccalà alla Vicentina. Just like the casunziei I enjoyed at lunchtime, it was one of many dishes that had made its way from the Veneto into the kitchens of Friuli.

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