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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Postcard from Manoppello, Abruzzo

I had never heard of the town of Manoppello until June 2013 when I met Giulia Scappaticcio at a conference in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, high up in Abruzzo’s mountains, near L’Aquila. Giulia, the titolare (proprietor) of Casale Centurione Country House (a fine Bed and Breakfast establishment that lies on a fertile hill between Manoppello and Manoppello Scalo) is also a wife, a mother of three and a multilingual dynamo with a passion for customer service. Like others at the inaugural Let’s Blog Abruzzo conference, Giulia and I had joined locals and others with an interest in promoting Abruzzo as an Italian destination.

Abruzzo is unknown to many travellers, including many Italians, despite it having wonderful traditions, foods, historic sites and edifices, medieval hilltop villages, renaissance towns, major national parks and numerous regional parks… plus fabulous beaches, vineyards, olive groves and fields of ancient grains.

There is a bounty of charming accommodation and good food at every bend in the road, and no more so than at Casale Centurione Country House. Giulia provides accommodation in a renovated building from the 1800s  – complete with beautiful vaulted ceilings in the large communal dining and relaxation area. The bedrooms are all equipped with comfortable beds and pillows, modern bathrooms and spectacular views.

From Casale Centurione - view to old town of Manoppello

Olive groves and mountains Casale Centurione

Out walking near Casale Centurione

Walks near Casale Centurione - an olive tree

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Walks near Casale Centurione - roof tiles

I had the good fortune to visit Giulia twice within a month! My first visit coincided with a cooking class that Giulia was running for some guests from the Seattle, Washington in the US. I was invited to participate. The Seattleites, thankfully,  didn’t mind me gate-crashing their session! I arrived late but joined the group for a walk around the property, viewing the different types of grapes (Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Trebbiano) and wandering amongst the olive groves.

Then we got down to business making two types of pasta, chitarra and ravioli, some savoury ricotta-filled pastry parcels called fiadoni and some sweet biscuits called cantucci – all of which we got to enjoy after. Click to view a slideshow.

My next visit was in October with my husband, some of my sisters and their spouses, a niece, a nephew and a few old friends.

During our three night stay we took most of our meals at Casale Centurione. Breakfast was a great spread of both homemade cakes and savoury items like local cheeses and meats, plus bread, fruit, yoghurt, cereals and more. Fruit juice and freshly brewed coffee, hot water and warm milk were in jugs ready for us to help ourselves.

Giulia has a loyal group of helpers in the kitchen as well as her mother-in-law Francesca who helps her run the cooking classes.

The crew at Casale Centutione

The crew at Casale Centutione

Together with some of my Italian cousins, we did a similar cooking class to the one I’d done with the Seattleites, and made enough food for both lunch and dinner.

Giulia’s English is impeccable and together with Francesca she kept our large group engaged with having a hand at everything; rolling, kneading, filling, cutting and eventually eating the fruits of our labour. There were photos and videos and laughs galore for a few hours. Click away.

We had such a great weekend relaxing, walking around the countryside, laughing, eating, drinking and catching up with one another. Giulia was the most welcoming host of our unruly mob of old friends and family. Everyone felt as though they were truly at home.

Walks near Casale Centurione

There are two famous sites in the area that religious pilgrims visit and some of us made it to both: the church of the Volto Santo di Manoppello (church of the holy face of Manoppello) and the Abbey and Church of Santa Maria Arabona.

Besides her knowledge of the local region, Giulia was also able to offer us onward travel advice when it came time for us to leave. We didn’t want to leave, honestly, but the mountains and the coast were calling us…

To stay at Casale Centurione you can book through Air BnB. Search for Manoppello. Giulia has about six rooms listed. Alternatively, contact Giulia using the details below.

Contact details:

A weekend in Sulmona

A weekend in Sulmona is not enough. But I reckon even a short time spent there is better than none.

I’d been to Sulmona once before and enjoyed its refined, historic centre and relaxed vibe. Nestled in the Peligna Valley and surrounded by mountains, Sulmona is a destination in itself as well as a great jumping off point for day trips in all directions.

Most of the points of interest in the town are on or near the main street, Corso Ovidio, which runs roughly north-south. Narrow streets and parking restrictions in the centre make walking the best way to get around.

My recent trip was last-minute and finding accommodation was problematic. There must have been some event on in town because the seven or so places I tried were fully booked for at least one of my desired nights. I contacted Katy of Welcome to Sulmona to see if she had any suggestions. As it turns out, the Welcome to Sulmona site has a list of accommodation possibilities to suit various tastes and budgets.

Although not affiliated with any official city or regional travel body, the site authored by local residents Katy and Susanna (both of whom I met through the Abruzzo Blogger Community) is a storehouse of information. Welcome to Sulmona is my go-to place for things to do and see in the Vale Peligna.

Fortunately, I had luck with one of the places listed, B & B Il Marchese del Grillo. My room was beautiful and the breakfast was fresh, varied and plentiful (a highlight was the lemony yoghurt cheesecake).

My room

A corner of my very comfy room

 

The cheesecake

The cheesecake

Between proprietress Marta’s broken English and my more-broken Italian, we managed the business end of the weekend and had a chat about Sulmona’s dining scene.

One evening, wanting an early night and a light meal, I ate at La Cantina di Biffi, on via Barbato, just off the main street of Sulmona. Biffi is a relaxed restaurant that’s a cross between a wine-bar and a bistro and has an excellent choice of wines, many of which you can taste before deciding. There is no printed menu rather a boar of what’s on today.

I chose a crisp white wine, a ‘Pecorino’ to accompany the soup of the day, Farro and Chickpea Soup (Zuppa di Farro e Ceci) which was almost a stew. The staff were friendly and generous with their time in answering questions about the menu, which changes daily. Along with a generous basket of assorted breads plus some complementary small-bite appetisers, I left feeling just the right amount full.

Biffi

Biffi

 

Zuppa di Farro

Zuppa di Farro e Ceci

Another evening I ventured to the southern end of town to Il Vecchio Muro on via M. d’Erato.  I had eaten pizza here on a visit a few years ago, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. This evening, I decided to try Il Vecchio Muro’s ‘Arrosticini’ and a big ole’ mixed green salad. Arrosticini are skewers of lamb (ok, a castrated male sheep, or ‘wether’ in sheep talk) cooked over charcoals; they aren’t marinated or seasoned with anything but salt. When done well, as these were, they’re a real Abruzzo treat. And all washed down with a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo…hard to take.

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On my last visit to Sulmona, parts of the Museo Civico e Archeologico (Civic and Archeological Museum) were closed. This time some of the archeology rooms were still closed but I took the opportunity to visit the open rooms plus the fabulous display of traditional women’s costumes from the various parts of Abruzzo. (As an aside, read this interesting article on traditional costumes that just popped up in my feed!)

The Museo is housed in the stunning Annunziata Complex, comprised of the museum building and the attached church. The complex has been rebuilt over many years and there are both gothic and renaissance features still visible.  

Below are photos of some of the costumes and artefacts. Click any picture to enlarge and view as a slide show.

In the Piazza XX Settembre you’ll find a statue commemorating local poet Ovidius, a Roman poet in the time of Augustus who was a contemporary of Virgil and Horace.

Ovid, Roman Poet

Ovid, Roman Poet

Without leaving town you can do any or all of the following: stroll the charming narrow lanes, visit the medieval aqueduct (1256), people-watch from one of the cafes along Corso Ovidio, ponder the fate of Ovid, plus admire the beautiful shop windows and confetti (sugared almond) displays  – I even managed a load of washing at a self-serve laundromat! –  and that’s your weekend.

You could base yourself in Sulmona for weeks, explore the city and surrounding area, do lunch at the family run Gino’s (which I missed out on this time) and still only scratch the surface. But even if you only have a day or a weekend, I highly recommend you visit Sulmona.

I’ll be going back… 

Postcard from Vasto, Abruzzo

After three weeks in Lanciano, I was a little sad to leave, but also excited to see more of Abruzzo. The still-hot weather drew me to the coast and the ancient city of Vasto.

Views galore

Views galore along the belvedere – lookout

Vasto has a great seafaring and fishing tradition which is expressed with perfection in the most famous dish of the region, the Brodetto Vastese (in dialect, ‘lu Vrudatte’). Unlike other soups, this brodetto does not begin with a ‘soffritto’ which is a mix of things like onion, celery, garlic and carrot to start a soup, sauce or stew. The brodetto is made while at sea and uses seasonal fish and shell-fish to create the ‘broth’. Depending on what was available when the crew left shore, there could be tomatoes garlic and parsley to throw into the pot for added flavour and nutrition. Some old bread, toasted over a flame or on a grill is served with the dish to sop up the broth.

Most local restaurants serve a Brodetto Vastese and it’s usually designed for two. Travelling alone has its benefits, but when it comes to trying a variety of dishes or dishes designed for two, well, sometimes you have to miss out.

On the recommendation of a local, I decided to have lunch at Cibo Matto. There was only one couple in the restaurant when I arrived. I usually prefer a full restaurant as a sign that the food will be good, but I decided to trust local knowledge and stayed.

The couple seated near me had just received a large clay serving dish at their table and I knew it was the brodetto. With their permission I took a few photos and entreated them to enjoy!

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Back at my table I happily ordered a glass of local Pecorino wine (not to be confused with the sheep’s milk cheese), a first course of pesce crudo and a main course of spaghetti vongole, one of my favourite meals in Italy when done well.

Between my courses one of my neighbouring diners approached my table with a small plate containing a generous portion of their Brodetto Vastese. She explained that it was just too much food for the two of them. Since I was alone and didn’t have the opportunity to try the dish alone, she wanted me to have a taste. My eyes welled with tears at her utter kindness to me, a perfect stranger. This generous soul was Lucia Egidio from near Benevento in Campania. She works as an ‘Estetiste’ or beautician, but also has training in the travel industry and would like to make a career in that field. I wish her well and hope that her generous nature and personality give her an edge in life. I will think fondly of her always.

I thoroughly enjoyed the strong fish flavour balanced with tomato, both fresh and dried herbs plus a little olive oil. I didn’t waste a drop of the lovely broth and left nothing but some small bones in my dish.

Having tasted the signature dish of the town, I was able to then get on with the business of being a tourist.

Vasto has a close affiliation with the City of Perth in Western Australia and the local commune flies an Australian flag. Many emigrants, including my American cousins’ father, have family who came from Vasto. There is a small park with a statue commemorating the many who left for the new world.

A famous son of the town, (exiled to England) the writer and patriot Gabriele Rossetti, is honoured with a statue in the main piazza of the old town. Rossetti’s daughter was the poet Christina Rossetti.

Statue of Vasto local Gabriele Rossetti

Statue of Vasto local Gabriele Rossetti

I visited a number of churches but the remains of San Pietro were most captivating, sitting alone on the edge of a cliff. An old building which formerly housed wealthy citizens, Palazzo d’Avalos, now houses art galleries and an archaeology museum. The grounds of the palazzo are beautiful and lush and include some Roman columns.

I spent many a happy hour walking the long ‘belvedere’ on the edge of town, drinking in the view and contemplating the next stop in my ‘giro d’Abruzzo’, Manoppello. But more on that later.

Quiet Lanciano streets in the midday sun

So much of life in Abruzzo is lived outside in the warmer months. Air conditioning in homes is rare. Families live on pretty balconies, terraces and courtyard and gather in parks and piazzas for shade and company.

During my recent stay in Lanciano and my travels beyond, I wandered the streets, chatted with strangers and enjoyed the wonderful street life. But in the heat of the afternoon, when everyone was inside to ‘fare un pisolino’ – take a nap – the streets were silent and still and mine to photograph…

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A few weeks in Lanciano and beyond

Athena International Italian Language School

Athena Scuola Internazionale di Lingua Italiana – International Italian Language School

In this age of technology you should be able to have an electronic postcard within seconds of the writer completing the text. However, I am actually some kilometres from Lanciano, where I recently spent three weeks studying Italian and exploring the region around Lanciano with fellow students and the staff of Athena International Italian Language School. Just like a real postcard, this one has been written in one place and read some days or weeks later in another.

My primary motive for going to Lanciano was to attend Athena. I chose this school because it is in Abruzzo, a region with which I have a family connection, and because I had heard good reports of the school and its quality teachers.

Learning a language is never just about the words and the grammar. It’s a mix of words, culture, history, current events and daily life in a country where the language is spoken. I was fortunate to be in classes with students who were committed to learning and who had an interest in the local culture and history. It was a privilege to be in the care of Palma, Virginia, Marina and Paola, our teachers. Palma is a font of knowledge about local history and she encouraged us to join excursions with her and the Athena family. 

Together, we visited the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery in the nearby town of Ortona. The battle against the German defensive line, known as the Gustaf Line, cost the Canadians dearly. However Ortona was taken after eight days of fighting. The Canadian War Cemetery contains the graves of 1615 Commonwealth soldiers, with 50 remaining unidentified and 1375 of them being Canadian.

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The composer Francesco Paolo Tosti was an Ortona native and we were given a tour of National Tosti Institute by the husband of one of our teachers, who happens to be a librarian at the Institute. One room in the Institute recreated Tosti’s London music salon and study. One of our students, a violinist, treated us to two Tosti songs to complete our visit.

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A recreation of Tosti’s London music salon and study

After the business end of the visit, we strolled the remains of the Aragonese castle then enjoyed on a seafood lunch at a local beach restaurant.

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Aragonese castle at Ortona

My time in Lanciano coincided with the Feste di Settembre (celebration of September) which includes various events, traditions, foods and public celebrations like rides for the kids and fireworks for all!

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Arrosticini time

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Porchetta panino

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Fireworks – Fuochi d’artificio

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Illuminations

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Beer and Arrosticini

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Everyone out on a hot, end-of-summer night

Lanciano’s Basilica (the church of Madonna del Ponte)is the focus of an annual tradition of ‘Il Dono’ or the gift. This is an important tradition whereby the local parishes in the Lanciano-Ortona diocese provide gifts of food and other items to the church for distribution to families in need. The celebration takes the form of a procession led by bullock-drawn carts, down the main street leading to the Piazza followed by locals of all ages, representing different communities. There are men, women and children in traditional costumes on the backs of carts and truck and on foot, carrying gifts to be donated. There are bands playing. Traditional breads and sweets plus plastic cups of wine are handed out to the crowd. It’s a real spectacle and a family event.

Another memorable excursion took us to the Abbazia di San Giovanni in Venere. Tradition tells us the Abbey was built over the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Venus. Possibly built around 540 AD, the buildings we see now were reconstructed in 1165 for Benedictine monks. The church and grounds are stunning as are the views from the lookout across the Adriatic. Click any photo to enlarge and view as a slide show.

So much happened during my three weeks in Lanciano and I can’t possibly fit it all in one post. I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve included and keep following for more (there will be more food of course).

Ciambellone – an Abruzzo specialty

The Ciambellone is the sweet symbol of every Abruzzese nonna (grandmother). Recipes vary from nonna to nonna.  Some incorporate a touch of sweet, citrus-scented liquor; some a spoonful of cocoa powder; and others a sprinkling of crusty, crystallised sugar on top.


This recipe is based on the recipe used by Lucia at my favourite B&B in Roseto degli Abruzzi. Grazie Lucia per la ricetta!

Lucia's Ciambellone with cocoa

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

Serves 6-8 people, depending on how hungry!

  • 300 g plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 150 g sugar
  • 3 whole eggs
  • a drop of vanilla extract
  • a pinch of salt
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 glass of milk
  • 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder
  • 1 packet of lievito per dolci (16 g) if you can find it *
  • butter and a little more flour to grease the pan

* Substitute 1 tablespoon of baking powder & 2 teaspoons baking soda if you can’t find lievito. See picture below.

Method

  1. Add all dry and wet ingredients, except the cocoa, into a bowl.
  2. Using a hand mixer, mix for 15 minutes until blended thoroughly.
  3. Heat the oven to 150 centigrade (@305 F).
  4. Butter and flour a ring (kuglehopf/bundt) pan.
  5. Add half of the batter to the pan.
  6. Sift most of the cocoa onto the batter and gently run a skewer through in a wave pattern to mix the cocoa in (this will give you subtle stripes of cocoa, not a chocolate cake).
  7. Pour the rest of the batter into the pan.
  8. Sprinkle the remaining cocoa on top in a random fashion.
  9. Cook in the oven for about 35 minutes or until done.
  10. Allow to cool on a rack then turn onto a plate.
  11. When cool, sprinkle with a small amount of confectioner’s sugar to serve.

Delicious for breakfast, morning tea or afternoon coffee break (pretty much anytime, actually).

The ‘lievito per dolci’ is pictured below, along with a serving suggestion for breakfast! There are many brands available in Italy but I have never noticed it in Australia.

Buon Appetito!