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Posts Tagged ‘Venzone’

On the day of Venzone’s Festa della Zucca, I made my way to the train station in Trieste with some degree of trepidation. The last time I had visited Venzone, I had been stranded during a transportation strike. At the end of an interminable afternoon of waiting at the station for trains that never showed up, I had managed to catch the last bus of the day back to Udine. Fortunately, on this particular day when thousands of people would be heading to Venzone, I learned that extra trains would be added to the schedule.

I changed trains in Udine and arrived in Venzone around 1:00pm. The streets within the medieval-walled village were packed beyond capacity. Townspeople dressed in medieval costumes roamed the streets. Walls of visitors blocked the narrow alleys, watching groups of jugglers and other performers. In addition to the usual vendors selling local craft items, a display of medieval weaponry attracted the attention of passersby. I was too short to see much over the crowds, so I wove my way to the piazza where many varieties of squash were on display. Prizes would be given out later in the day for the largest, heaviest, longest, most beautiful, and most unusual.

I was especially drawn to the works of pumpkin art, including a crocodile carved from a long squash and a mosaic of Venzone’s cathedral using bits of multi-colored rind. My favorites were the intricate floral carvings. Mesmerized, I watched a couple of chefs demonstrate their skill on a gigantic pumpkin that must have weighed hundreds of pounds.

Anticipating plenty of street food, I hadn’t eaten any lunch beforehand. I ended up ignoring all the savory food stands, making a meal of nothing but dessert samples. I wanted to include in my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy some type of torta di zucca (pumpkin cake), but I had yet to settle on a recipe. I hoped to finally come to a decision today at the festival.

Most desserts were being sold in bite-size samples for €1 apiece. I tried several pumpkin cakes, all variations on the same ordinary yellow cake, some with raisins, others plain. Most were slices of what was labeled plumcake di zucca, though one was baked in cupcake form. There were more tarts than cakes on offer—tiny, round crostate as well as rectangles with a lattice crust—and even more varieties of bread and focaccia. In addition, I saw pumpkin strudel, krapfen (cream-filled doughnuts), and biscotti.

As I was filling up on these desserts, I was tempted by a sign for frico con la zucca (cheese and squash pancake), but the line wrapped all the way around the building. I just didn’t have the patience to wait. I’ve never really been one for crowds. The noise, being jostled by strangers, feeling trapped amid the chaos—it always made me long to escape.

Venzone is a remarkably tiny town, and so, despite the throngs of visitors, I was able to navigate the entire festival in an hour and a half. On my way back to the train station on the other side of the highway, I passed a couple of kids selling homemade cakes, tarts, and cookies outside their home. For €0.50 they gave me two pieces of torta di zucca.

On the train ride back to Trieste, my pumpkin dilemma suddenly became crystal clear. Instead of a recipe for pumpkin cake, I would recreate a version of pane di zucca that I had seen in abundance at the festival: braided loaves of pumpkin bread with raisins and walnuts. Here is that recipe:

1 small butternut squash (about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds), halved lengthwise
1 package active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons or 1/4 ounce)
1/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°F)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
3-3/4 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
• • •
1 egg, beaten to blend

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the squash halves on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 40–45 minutes. When the squash is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the seeds and membrane. Scoop out enough flesh to measure 1 cup. (Reserve any extra for another use.) Place in a small bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature.

2. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the remaining sugar, mashed squash, eggs, melted butter, and salt. Gradually stir in the flour until the dough forms a solid mass; stir in the raisins and walnuts. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes. (It may be necessary to occasionally scrape the ball of dough off the hook.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; knead briefly by hand. (The dough should be smooth and elastic.) Form the dough into a ball; cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hours.

3. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into six equal sections; roll each into a 12-inch-long rope. Form three ropes into a braid, tucking under the loose ends; repeat with the remaining three ropes. Place the braided loaves on a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F, placing a pan filled with water on the bottom rack to create steam. Brush the two loaves with beaten egg. Bake until golden brown, about 30–35 minutes.

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Gnocchi di ZuccaFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Gnocchi di Zucca (Butternut Squash Gnocchi), in honor of this month’s Festa della Zucca. After having been cancelled for the past two years due to financial difficulties, the popular festival is returning to the town of Venzone on the weekend of October 24-25. In addition to a plethora of medieval-themed entertainment and activities, the town’s taverns and restaurants will be offering special tasting-menus, naturally featuring the celebrated pumpkin. Gnocchi di zucca will undoubtedly be one of the star dishes. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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BordanoAfter three weeks in Carnia, it was a shock to be back in the stifling summer heat of Udine. The night was a restless one, what with my tossing and turning and constant fiddling with the air conditioner. Nevertheless, I had to rise early in order to catch the 7:30am train to Venzone.

Once there, I set out immediately across the bridge spanning the wide Tagliamento River. My destination was Bordano, home to the Casa delle Farfalle, Europe’s largest tropical butterfly garden. Since Bordano was not reachable by bus or train, I had no choice but to make the journey on foot. It was a peaceful hike along the shady highway—very few cars and no hills, the river on one side, dense woodland on the other.

Casa delle FarfalleI arrived in Bordano after about an hour, weary but delighted by the kaleidoscope of color that greeted me. The town’s tranquil streets were adorned with brilliant murals of butterflies—on houses, shops, office buildings. Even the post office had a butterfly painted above its sign.

The Casa delle Farfalle itself comprised three greenhouses, containing over 400 species of butterflies from Africa, the Amazon, and Indo-Australia. The butterflies were free to fly, surrounded by exotic vegetation in a miniature rainforest setting of vines, rare palms, and colorful orchids. The air was damp, filled with the echoes of mist and fluttering wings. Indigenous birds, reptiles, fish, and other insects completed the realistic ecosystem.

I made it back to Venzone by noon and settled down at an al fresco table at Locanda Al Municipio for lunch. I ordered the stinco di vitello: two thin slices of rather fatty veal, served with gravy and slices of tomato and cucumber. Since I still had over two hours before my return train, I lingered awhile at the restaurant and then even longer at the Duomo di Sant’Andrea. In the quiet afternoon shade outside the church, I phoned my contacts at two prosciuttifici in San Daniele and made appointments to visit the following day.

Venzone's Duomo di Sant'AndreaFinally, it was time to head back across the highway to catch my train to Udine. The station had no biglietteria, no WC, no waiting area—just a platform on either side of the tracks and a small shelter where the train schedule was posted. Given the small size of the town, I was not surprised to find only one other person waiting, a young guy over on the other side of the tracks.

Three o’clock came and went, and my train still had not come. I crossed to the opposite platform to double-check the schedule. The young guy was still there, pacing back and forth, making calls on his cell phone. He had learned that a transportation strike was in effect, and there was no way to predict whether any of the afternoon trains would be arriving. A little worried but still optimistic, I waited a bit longer to see if the next scheduled train would come. It didn’t.

Trying to fend off the panic that was starting to set in, I headed back across the highway and inside the stone walls of Venzone. I found only one business to be open at that hour, a bar in the piazza by the Duomo, and I went in to inquire about the strike. They had no information about it, nor did they know whether any buses would be running either. At least I was able to find out where the bus stop was situated along the highway and that my train ticket, which I had already purchased, was also valid on the bus.

There was one last train scheduled that afternoon, and seeing that the station was on the way to the bus stop, I thought I’d give it another chance. But my waiting was in vain—that train didn’t show up either. My last hope was the bus, but I had no clue as to its schedule until I arrived at the stop. As it turned out, the last bus of the day would be arriving within a half hour. My stomach was tied in knots as I waited, seated on the curb, not knowing if the buses were also on strike—not knowing what I would do if I were truly stranded there. The air was hot and muggy, and sweat trickled down my forehead as the minutes ticked by. Then, precisely at 5:40pm, I spotted the blue SAF bus heading my direction. Once on board, I collapsed into a window seat, closed my eyes, and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloBy the time I reached my hotel, it was practically time to head out for dinner. I had planned to go to Hostaria Alla Tavernetta, but the sign posted in their window said they would be closed for the next two weeks. So, without a second thought, I continued on to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, my consistently reliable fallback. As a treat after my harrowing ordeal, I ordered my favorite dish, frico con polenta. The cheese and potato pancake was freshly made and cut into a huge wedge. It came with a rectangle of grilled white polenta, a welcome change from the soft, yellow cornmeal that Chef Mario usually served. To complete my meal, I also had my favorite of his side dishes, zucchini alla scapece (zucchini sautéed with vinegar, herbs, and spicy pepper).

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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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Festa della ZuccaCheck out my new travel “Highlights” on Afar.com: a pumpkin festival and my favorite village in Carnia.

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The next day, I took another early train from Udine to Gemona del Friuli. After passing endless, barren fields in varying shades of brown, we reached the Alto Friuli—the gateway to the Alps. From the station, Gemona’s centro was a peaceful 20-minute walk uphill. The streets were quiet in the morning light and took on the unreal appearance of an empty movie set. The buildings, though built in the ancient style, were perfectly unblemished and looked to be brand new. Well, in fact, they were newly built after the two devastating earthquakes of 1976, which destroyed practically the entire town.

The Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta suffered major damage, and it took ten years of skillful restoration to return the church to its original state. The façade now looks as good as new, with its large rose window and 23-foot-high stone relief of Saint Christopher. Inside the nave, however, I noticed that some of the pink- and white-striped columns were still leaning.

As I strolled through the pristine town, I spotted an occasional bit of rubble, such as the 15th-century Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie that was all but demolished. Just a portion of the façade remains, its doorway set like a picture frame against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Up on a hill above the old town were the ruins of a castle, along with an unsightly green crane still working on the reconstruction.

After stopping briefly at the tourist office (one of the very best I have visited), I took a detour through a quiet, residential neighborhood on my way back to the train station. I made it just in time for the next train to Venzone, one stop further north.

From the station, I had to cross the busy highway to reach the nearest entrance to Venzone, the only Friulian town surrounded by a medieval stone wall. Like Gemona, Venzone was devastated by the 1976 earthquakes, but despite the restoration, Venzone has retained much of its medieval character. Stark, gray stone buildings and cobbled streets blend with the surrounding rocky mountains to give the town an otherworldly sort of charm.

It was lunchtime, and so I headed straight for the first restaurant I saw, Ristorante Caffè Vecchio. The menu posted outside listed cjalsòns and gnocchi di zucca. Inside, however, there was no menu, only a verbal recitation of the daily offerings: two choices of pasta, two choices of meat (rabbit or veal), and a side of beans. I chose simply the farfalle with gorgonzola and artichokes, disappointed that none of the Friulian dishes from my list were available. (This would become a common occurrence over the next two years of research.) Despite the limited menu, the ambiance was enchanting: a white vaulted ceiling, rustic chairs, graceful glass wine decanters, and a fogolâr (fireplace) with a blazing fire.

Across from the Duomo di Sant’Andrea sits the 13th-century Cappella Cimiteriale di San Michele. I bought a token for the entrance (along with my return train ticket) at Bar Da Bruno across the street. The tiny, round crypt houses the result of a peculiar natural phenomenon—corpses mummified by a rare parasitic mold that covered the bodies and blocked decomposition. While the exact age of the mummies has not been determined, the oldest—named Gobbo, meaning “hunchback”—was discovered in 1647 during construction work on the Duomo. Twenty-one mummies were originally uncovered, although only fifteen were salvaged intact from the ruins of the 1976 earthquakes. Five are now on display, including Gobbo, a mother and daughter, and two noblemen.

As I later explored the perimeter of the town, the wintertime smell of burning wood filled the air. Near one of the portals stood the remains of the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista, still in ruins after the earthquake. Portions of the double stone wall were accessible, and I could see how the wall was once used as a moat.

Back in Udine that evening, I had planned on eating at Ristorante Al Vapore, but they were closed while going through a change of management. So instead I ended up at Osteria Alle Volte. Down a set of stairs from Via Mercatovecchio, the cave-like setting was enhanced by stone walls and a vaulted ceiling and dressed up with elegant navy and white damask tablecloths.

I had my heart set on having gnocchi di zucca and frico, but the waitress reported that they were out of the gnocchi. So instead I ordered a raviolo: two plate-sized squares of pasta—a plain square embellished with a green leaf design angled atop a green square—filled with shrimp, scallops, and sole in a saffron sauce. The frico (fried cheese and potato pancake) came with a side of polenta, but I was too stuffed to finish it—the consequences of culinary research were beginning to take a toll on my appetite!

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