Author Archives for Mary Louise Tucker

About Mary Louise Tucker

Writer, blogger, traveller, Italophile. Adelaide based, heart in Abruzzo. Keen eater and bike rider. http://heartinabruzzo.me http://mltatlarge.me Twitter: @mltatlarge

Lunch on Abruzzo’s Trabocco Coast 

Those of you familiar with the central Adriatic coast of Italy, from southern Abruzzo to northern Puglia, might know about the unusual-looking trabocchi (the plural of trabocco). They are spidery-looking wooden fishing houses at the end of a long plank, off rocky areas of the coast. Nets are suspended from the long arms to hopefully catch some of the fish that live near the rocks.

It’s easy to miss the turnoff for the trabocchi as many are privately owned and no longer used; and the tracks down to the beach are not well worn. However, in recent years, families have begun to fix the trabocchi and build small kitchens to prepare meals for seafood lovers. During the warmer months, the trabocchi are popular with couples or groups celebrating an occasion or just wanting a beautiful day eating fresh seafood in an interesting setting. 

Some background. Last year I was travelling alone in Abruzzo and met a merry band of women on motorcycles called ‘Le Presentose’ after a traditional filagreed pendant, in short, a valuable bit of jewellery. I developed a friendship with some of the group and we have maintained contact through social media. When they heard I was back in Abruzzo with my husband, some of the women organised a get together with friends and family on a trabocco. 

We were fortunate to have such gracious hosts, who endured my attempts to speak Italian, and with whom we could share this grand feast. The food was simply and deliciously prepared, and there was lots of it… 

Another highlight of the day was to discover a new (to us) grape variety called Cococciolo. A white wine that’s fresh and crisp and a perfect accompaniment to a fish meal. 


I didn’t photograph everything we ate and some things I was half through before I thought to take a snap!  Here are some photos I managed and one or two of Roo’s photos as well. If you like fish and have the opportunity, visit a trabocco. Generally they are only open from about mid-April through early October, but best to check and reserve a spot! 







A slow bike ride and a Slow Food lunch in Pacentro

On a dark and very rainy day in 2013, I first visited Pacentro, a medieval village perched at 690 meters above sea level on the side of Monte Morrone, near Sulmona.

Lucky to be in Sulmona again in this year, I decided to see nearby Pacentro in the sunshine. I thought, “I’ll rent a bike for the day and ride there. There’s just a bit of a hill at the end”. Well, there is a hill at the end, but I underestimated it big time.

The ride

Riding out of Porta Napoli in Sulmona, I located a small side road that my map promised would rejoin the busier road, the SR487, further along, close to Pacentro. The trip was full of surprises.

I didn’t expect to ride four kilometres on a gravel track only to find a washed-out bridge, causing me to turn back and find an alternative route. But, like many detours, the alternative turned out to be as good, if no better. I pedalled through beautiful small farms on a sunny, late-spring day in the heart of Abruzzo. There were olive groves, fruit orchards, grapevines, dairy cattle, and newly mown hay for the animals.

I passed no other bikes and only one or two cars for the two hours. The ride didn’t require two hours, but I was compelled to stop often and take photos. And that last kilometre was all uphill.

Lunch

Proud that I hadn’t needed to dismount my trusted rental bike on the final push uphill into Pacentro, I decided to treat myself to a proper sit-down lunch. Not just a panino in the piazza. The first restaurant I came to once in town was Taverna de li Caldora.

Needing to freshen up after the hill, I nipped into the ladies room to behold the best washroom view in Abruzzo, overlooking old tiled roofs towards the Valle Peligna (Peligna Valley).

A glass of local Cerasuola (a rosé from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape) and a bowl of ravioli (sheep’s milk ricotta-filled) were all I needed to replace the carbs spent cycling. It was a Monday afternoon, and though off-season, the restaurant was busy. The buzz of happy lunchers warmed me so, replacing the memory of that rainy June day three years prior.

When I had paid ‘il conto’ I had a look around the other rooms in the restaurant and there was my second surprise of the day. The archway of one room was adorned with awards from the Slow Food movement, one for each of the last 10 years.

snail

The iconic snail on the Slow Food award (appropriately, a dinner plate) indicates that the establishment has been judged by its peers to contribute to the quality, authenticity and sustainability of the local food supply. And all that takes time…

I hadn’t set out to eat in a Slow food recognised restaurant, so I was pleased to support a local business that has a similar food ethic to my own. May the Taverna de li Caldora continue to serve excellent food and collect more snails.

A castle

After lunch I left my bike parked and strolled uphill through narrow passages, past piazzas, the local coffee bar, Monday laundry drying on balconies and the parish church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

At the high point of the village sits the Castello Caldora (Caldora Castle) with its three tall square towers and four smaller, round reinforcing towers at corners of a roughly square base. Parts of the castle date to the ninth through 13th centuries, although restorations have occurred as recently as the 1970s. It was closed when I got there so I couldn’t go inside. I later saw a sign post indicating that the Castle is only open by appointment.

My return bike ride to Sulmona was gloriously downhill all the way. I was back to town within 45 minutes, plenty of time for a shower and a museum visit before dinner.

Bikes of Pescara – Bici di Pescara

Pescara is flat and the beachfront is long. It’s perfect for cycling year round.

The commercial centre, just east of the railway and bus stations, has a large section of pedestrianised streets (area pedonale). All day and well into the evening, when the weather is fine, this area is filled with people strolling, standing in groups chatting, or slowly cruising to another part of town on their bikes.

I was so pleased to see the range of people from all age groups and walks of life out on their bikes on a Friday evening and throughout the weekend. Going home from work. Meeting friends for a drink. Heading to the beach. Doing a bit of shopping.

No one was speeding and everyone was considerate of the pedestrians, strollers and dogs. And not one person felt the need to wear a helmet.

Would more people hop on their bikes here in Adelaide for those short trips if helmets were not mandatory?

The Slow Food Train in Abruzzo

There’s a striking railway journey that connects the Abruzzo province with neighbouring Molise. This journey is named the TranSiberiana d’Italia due to the evocative and remote scenery of the trip which crosses the Appenines, covered in snow much of the year.

Historic towns, railway stations, mountains, valleys and plains of wild beauty are traversed on a formerly-abandoned railway line. The journeys are organised in major part by the ‘Amici della Ferrovia – Le Rotaie Molise‘ a volunteer organisation created to preserve old trains, promote train modelling, and since 2014, carry tourists on historic routes with themed journeys. Collaboration with the Foundazione FS Italiane (the Italian rail foundation) ensures the train line stays alive.

In 2015, Le Rotaie Molise was awarded a GoSlow prize from Co.Mo.Do (Confederazione Mobilità Dolce) – ‘comodo’ translates as ‘comfortable’ –  an organisation that aims to promote a national ‘soft mobility network’ through the recovery of abandoned land infrastructure such as railways, roadways, embankments and historical paths.

I was fortunate to acquire a ticket to ride on the Slow Food themed train journey from Sulmona to Roccaraso, which is about half of the potential journey to Isernia, Molise.  All of this trip was within Abruzzo.

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The journey began at 9am when we met and departed from Sulmona Station. We returned to Sulmona just before 7pm. In between, we made five station stops along the way. At each there was a degustation of artisan-produced foods such as cheese from cow, goat or sheep milk; various honeys; traditionally produced and preserved salami; peperoni dolci – sweet peppers; truffles; artisanal beer; porchetta from the black pig, seasoned with fennel and farro; wines of the Peligna Valley; genziana, a locally made amaro (bitter liqueur)  of the Gentian root; various local sweet treats; and polenta.

The train was from the 1930s and had old wooden seats. The trains were used during the 30s and 40s to transport soldiers and supplies. But comfort didn’t matter; the views along the way were breathtaking and I spent little time in my seat, always trying to grab a good photo of the passing beauty. Most of the journey passed through the Parco Nazionale della Majella (Majella National Park).

On board were volunteers of the Amici della Ferrovia to explain anything we wanted to know about the journey or the train. Also on board were volunteers of the Peligna Slow Food convivium to tell us more about the territory we would pass through and what foods were historically (and still) produced in each zone. The passion for all things slow was clearly visible with a large crew of volunteers on hand at the stations as well. The volunteers I spoke with were so proud of their land and traditions, and rightfully so.

The photos below show the scenery, the people and some of the foods encountered along the way.

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If you are planning a trip to the Abruzzo or Molise provinces, check with the Amici della Ferrovia–Le Rotaie Molise and join one of their journeys. Each train ride is different and station stops vary according to theme. A journey’s theme could be artisan beer, local wine, or Christmas. Some trips simply celebrate the art and culture of various villages (borghi) along the route. Even if the train didn’t stop, the territory is unbelievably grand as it passes through Italy’s green heart.

The current calendar of journeys can be found on the Le Rotaie Molise site here. Or send an email Le Rotaie Molise on info@lerotaie.com. Their English is, well, better than my Italian…

Four weeks in Lecce and the Salento

I just finished four weeks of study at the Scuola d’italiano per Stranieri in Lecce, Puglia. The trip was organised through Learn Italian in Lecce, an Adelaide enterprise set up to give students an opportunity to immerse themselves in Italian culture and language through classroom study, cultural events and excursions with Italian speaking teachers and guides.

The city of Lecce is down on the heel of Italy, in a region known as ‘the Salento’. Like all Italian regions, it has unique cuisine, language and customs. Along with a group of other learners from Australia plus learners from Spain, Columbia, US and Egypt, I had a full immersion in all things Salento.

Below is a selection of photos highlighting my time in the Salento. Thanks to fellow student David Bishop for allowing me to use some of his photos here. David has a keen eye; I have noted his photo with the initials(DB) in the caption. Click any photo to enlarge it, read the caption and scroll to the next.

Martano – Kurumuny Festival

We started off the weekend with a cure for jet-lag: Pizzica music and dancing. The 2016 Kurumuny festa was dedicated to Lucia Assunta De Pascalis, a great interpreter of the oral tradition of Salento folk song and protagonist and promoter of the previous  May Day celebrations (Kurumuny).

Il cibo e il vino – Food and wine

Like much of the south of Italy, the diet springs from what was traditionally available. The term ‘cucina povera’ is heard often, but this isn’t what we think of as the ‘food of the poor’. What we tasted used simple ingredients and cooking methods that be achieved by home cooks — and language students! We tried our hand at a few Italian and Salento dishes each week with Cooking Experience Lecce‘s irrepressible Gianna and her sous chef Andrea. Both are also knowledgable about wines and our dishes were always served with a selection of local wines.

Apart from the meals at Cooking Experience Lecce, we had many good meals on day trips around the Salento and in the town of Lecce.

Day tripping

The Scuola d’italiano per Stranieri and Learn Italian in Lecce organised day trips to various places in the Salento and beyond, including: Martano, Otranto, Bari, the Adriatic coast (plus the bottom of Italy, Leuca) , a Masseria (with winery and olive oil production), Ugento, Felline and more. We visited a working farm near Ugento where vegetables are cooked, dried or otherwise preserved for sale. We experienced degustations, meals, local traditions, festivals, fireworks and parades. We danced, ate, drank, chatted with locals and smiled a lot!

Around town

The people of the Lecce welcomed us with open arms. The teachers, baristas and waiters, tour guides and host families alike wanted us to experience life as it is lived year in and year out. They are proud of their heritage, traditions and culture.  This is not a show for tourists. Lecce and the Salento are real. And really fantastic.

If you’ve been considering studying Italian in Italy, I would highly recommend this trip organised through Learn Italian in Lecce. Raffaele is well connected and has a true passion for the Salento. The trip contacts and costs can be found on the website link above.

The teachers and administration at Scuola d’italiano per Stranieri in Lecce, were top notch and I know our group of students felt well cared for, regardless of our level.

Lecce and the Salento will enchant you.

Pescara seafood feasting

Abruzzo’s most populous city, Pescara, has a reputation as a brash new city, however its history pre-dates the Roman Empire.  The Lombards, Spaniards, Turks and French have all attacked or ruled over the centuries.

As a key Adriatic port city, much of the old medieval centre was bombed and destroyed during WWII. It has the appearance of a new city. Luckily, there is a wealth of tradition here and enough of a vibrant young population to put Pescara on a culinary par with better known cities.

The Romans dubbed it Aternum, which was also the name of the river that divides the northern and southern parts of the city. It wasn’t until 12th century that Pescara was known by something resembling its current name – then it was Piscaria, meaning ‘abundant in fish’. I visited in October, after the summer high-demand period when fish stocks are low, so luckily, I was able to taste some of this bounty.

When it comes to the old and the new of food in Pescara, you are spoiled for choice. I was wowed by the few restaurant meals I had and the flavours in one establishment were as edgy as any I have had in the ‘new world’.

Twice I lunched at Berardo Caffé, a big open air establishment at the beach end of Corso Umberto I. The front of the building is a popular coffee, cake and gelato place, and the back, a restaurant with just a few choices and specials on offer.

The setting is modern, but the treatment of the food was quite authentic and true to the region known for seafood.

There was a selection of different vegetables on display and one day I simply needed veggies.  So I indulged in the grilled pepper, zucchini, fennel and chicory accompanied by the delicious homemade bread and a glass of local Ceresuola wine. This wine is rosè in colour but has none of the lolly sweetness of some rosè wines. It is made from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape but spends less time on the skin to achieve its beautiful hue.

Another day, I dined with friend Amanda on the timeless classic Frittura di Pesce, a delicately battered then deep-fried mixed seafood dish. We followed with spaghetti vongole (my death bed meal) tossed with fresh cherry tomatoes that had just been lightly crushed. The vongole (clams) at Berardo were pan steamed with the tomatoes then the pasta was tossed in and warmed together to create a lovely emulsification. And veggies, more veggies.

Fritto Misto - Frittura di pesce - plus a side of roasted and grilled veggies at Berardo Caffè, Pescara. Classic, timeless, perfect.

Fritto Misto – Frittura di pesce – plus a side of roasted and grilled veggies at Berardo Caffè, Pescara. Classic, timeless, perfect.

 

Spaghetti Vongole at Berardo Caffè, Pescara.

Spaghetti Vongole at Berardo Caffè, Pescara.

 

One evening I was lucky to catch up with the sister of a my friend Sandra. Sandra runs the wonderful La Cucina di Sandra in Melbourne, Australia and she and sister Paola are natives of Pescara. Paola and her beau Simone were fortunately free one evening while we were in Pescara and suggested a restaurant I’d had my eye on! So with my friend Amanda, we joined Paola and Simone at La Baracaccia, around the corner from the Esplanade Hotel.

Me with locals Simone and Paola at La Barcaccia, Pescara

Me with locals Simone and Paola at La Barcaccia, Pescara

What we experienced next was nothing short of fabulous. The restaurant inside appeared quite old school formal and the service was impeccable. However, the  food was as modern and fresh as any I have eaten anywhere. So I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

Raw fish paired with fruits and other flavours. Genius!

Raw fish paired with fruits and other flavours. Genius!

 

Raw prawns with pear and pomegranate. Who thinks of these yummy combos? They deserve a prize.

Raw prawns with pear and pomegranate. Who thinks of these yummy combos? They deserve a prize.

 

Squid, lemony oil, onion and chilli. Just the right amount of hot!

Baby squid, lemony oil, onion and chilli. Just the right amount of hot!

 

Calamari with orange, olive oil and hazlenuts. Insanely delicious.

Calamari with orange, olive oil and hazlenuts. Insanely delicious.

 

Large prawns with passionfruit. I know, just crazy, but it works.

Large prawns with passionfruit. I know, just crazy, but it works.

 

Spaghetti with mussels and squid. This was subtle and divine.

Chitarrini with mussels and squid. This was subtle and divine.

 

For years I have treated Pescara as a transit hub, but from now on I vow to go to Pescara each trip to Abruzzo and try more of the delicious offerings.

 

Guardiagrele with Abruzzo4Foodies

During my recent trip to Italy I organised a half day of food and sightseeing for family and friends with Emiliana of Abruzzo4Foodies. Emiliana is a native of Abruzzo with a passion for travel, food and the Abruzzo region. She runs customised tours in a few languages, including English!

We were staying in Manoppello (see previous post here) and Emiliana suggested a few hours wandering around Guardiagrele about a 35 minute drive away. The town is set in an extraordinary background of the foothills of the Majella mountains and has a population of about 10,000. Emiliana knows this place so well; she can tell you the history, geography, agriculture and customs of the place as well as the food traditions. She has a well established network based on her years of experience living and working in the area.

On Sunday local farmers and producers bring their fruit, vegetables cheeses and meats to sell at tables in the piazza. There are both cow and sheep milk cheeses for sale from the backs of refrigerated trucks. Being early October, there were still plenty of local tomatoes and green vegetables. A van was selling spit-roasted chickens, sausages and, of course, the ubiquitous porchetta (fennel and garlic seasoned suckling pig which is rolled and slow roasted over charcoals or wood).

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The porchetta van

In addition to food, various shops displayed locally crafted wrought iron and copper home decor and cooking implements. One of Abruzzo’s favourite sweets, the pizzelle (also known as ferratelle or neole) are made on decorative irons held over the fire. One shop had a selection with different patterned pizzelle irons on display.

Pizelle irons

Pizzelle irons

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One of the cheese vans

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Fruit and veg vendors

Guardiagrele’s most famous sweet is indisputably the ‘Sise delle Monache’ or the ‘Nun’s tits’.  The distinctive mound of three cakes is meant to represent how the nuns would stuff their tops to make their breasts less obvious, but actually creating the appearance of a third breast.

Descendents of the Palmieri family (one of the town’s original producers) still make this special treat, not in the original shop though, which has changed hands, but in another shop just down the road. We sampled our Sise delle Monache at Pasticceria Emo Lullo.

Shop front

Emo Lullo

Poster of the famous

Poster from original makers

Guar-nunstits

Sise delle Monache

Our tour continued between food stops. We gazed upon the Cathedral of Guardiagrele (Santa Maria Maggiore) which is made of the local Majella stonework from the nearby Majella mountains. It was built in the 13th century on the site of a pagan temple (430 AD) with a massive bell tower added.

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Most impressive to me were the elegant porches on the outside with a highly decorative sculptural surround on a fresco of the Madonna del latte (Madonna of the milk) and coats of arms of Guardiagrele nobility. There’s also an impressively large fresco of Saint Christopher (patron saint of Travellers) under another porch.

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Coats of arms representing noble families

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Maria Lactans (Madonna of the milk) fresco

Cathedral fresco St Christopher 1473 Andrea Delitio

I just love this St Christopher fresco

A short walk away is the Monastery of San Francesco parts of which date back to the 14th century.

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San Francesco

In the courtyard between the monastery and the church is a peaceful cloister where we enjoyed a tasting of local cheeses, salamis, grilled vegetables and frittata, accompanied by Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine. As if this wasn’t enough, we were treated to more typical sweets and a liquor called Genziana, made from the root of the gentian plant. Gentian grows in alpine regions and is common in Abruzzo’s Apennine mountains.

Typical sweets

A single nun’s tit accompanied by a soft, jam-filled pizzelle

Genziana - herbal liquor

Liquor of gentian root

I would love to get back to this lovely town one day. Not only does it have a wealth of man-made wonders and delicious culinary traditions, but it’s also a gateway to the Majella National Park.

Ah, what I’d give for another lifetime to explore Abruzzo!

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