Tag Archives: Italy

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.

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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.

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.

Click to enlarge, scroll and read captions.

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.

Click to enlarge, scroll and read captions.

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…

Bringing Abruzzo Home

Saragolla wheat pasta and lentils from Santo Stefano

Sharing a meal of eggplant parmigiana accompanied by saragolla wheat pasta from Morro D’oro and lentils from Santo Stefano Sessanio

Normally, at home in Australia we pride ourselves on how lucky we are to have a great climate (mediterranean, in the case of Adelaide) which gives us access to a variety of fresh local food and produce, year round.  Living by the low food miles philosophy is possible here. Sometimes I break from the philosophy, particularly when I come back from Italy laden with goodies as I did this year.

Legions of migrants have enriched Australian food culture enormously. One of the earliest ‘foreign’ cuisines in Australia was Italian and it is still much loved here resulting in formerly exotic varieties of fruits, vegetables and other ingredients being quite common now. We have great producers of  Italian-style meats, cheeses, wines, pastas and sweets. Siamo fortunati! We are lucky.

My recent trip to Italy was impulsive,  brief (for me) and truly enlightening. I’ve been to the Abruzzo region in central Italy many times now but this last time I felt that I connected in a more meaningful way. It’s always my aim when I travel to immerse myself in all a place has to offer in the way of history, culture and local tradition. Nothing speaks more of cultural patrimony than what people grow, raise, produce and consume.

In Santo Stefano Sessanio, near L’Aquila, high up in the mountains of the Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga, we ate at a restaurant, Il Ristoro degli Elfi. The Lentil soup alone was worth the trip, and we complimented our hosts Anna and Silvan on its flavour and delicacy. After finishing our meal and settling the account, our hosts presented my fellow diners and I with a bag of lentils each.  We had eaten Slow Food designated lentils, and as well as being restaurateur, Silvan Fulgenzi was the grower of the lentils.  So we were eating at the source.

The lentils of Santo Stefano Sessanio

The lentils of Santo Stefano Sessanio – produce by Silvan Fulgenzi

At my wonderful and quirky little B & B in Roseto degli Abruzzi, my grandfather’s hometown,  I was lucky to befriend the owner, Lucia Simioni.  She is passionate about the Abruzzo region and all it has to offer in the way of art, historic hill towns, ancient ruins and interesting initiatives by local people. She has a wonderful garden full of flowering plants and herbs all of which she obtained from a local supplier –  a medicinal botanical garden and agricultural enterprise near the tiny town of Morro D’oro, where my grandmother came from. One day we made an appointment to visit the garden.

The beautiful Giardino Officinale (Orto Botanico Azienda Agricola) with its small classroom and shop, is run by the friendly and knowledgable  Filippo Torzolini.  If you have been to the Abbey at Santa Maria di Propezzano then you were very close.  Filippo opens the gardens, classroom and shop to students and visitors interested in learning about the medicinal value of plants. Products made from plants, such as essential oils and flower-infused liquors and cordial drinks are available.  Filippo also told us about their pasta manufactured from the ancient grain Saragolla. This grain had fallen out of fashion, but he is now growing and producing various pasta shapes. I bought a few bags to try.

Saragolla Pasta

Saragolla Pasta

Click the photos below to see a slide show.

When I returned to Australia I had a cache or lovely Abruzzo products to share with my loved ones. As well as the pasta and lentils I had saffron from Barisciano, also near L’Aquila. And I was armed with techniques and ideas for meals to share.

Other bloggers have sung the praises of Abruzzo producers who are passionate about retaining their long history of gastronomy and I want to add my voice to the chorus that salutes their efforts. I urge you to read my new friend and fellow blogger Michelle’s recent post on this topic at Majella Home Cooking.

We are fortunate to have wonderful products in Australia to cook with and we owe a lot to our Italian migrants who have kept up traditions that bind families and communities together. May we be fortunate enough to go back to the source often. Buon appetito e salute a tutti!

Food inspiration ~ Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli

 

Food inspiration takes many forms: a favourite meal remembered, a key ingredient you’ve been wanting to try, a special request from a loved one, a new recipe. Well, my beloved husband Roo has been the lucky recipient of a new kitchen tool, a little press for cutting out ravioli. This is his inspiration.

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I recently arrived back from a month in Italy during which time I attended a blogging conference in the Abruzzo region of Italy. There were inspired speakers and technical sessions as well as a bit of food and wine! Most of the bloggers were focussed on food, wine and tourism with a particular interest in the Abruzzo. As a thank you for keeping the home fires burning I brought my husband a few kitchen implements and the ravioli cutter was amongst them.

Armed with the ravioli cutter, a bag of locally grown Pangkarra stone-milled wholegrain durum wheat, and some fresh ricotta and spinach, Roo decided on spinach and ricotta ravioli with a simple tomato sugo. Rather than describe the process, I have photographed it. The recipe will follow the pictures.

The Recipe ~ Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli  (about 40 ravioli – four servings)

Pasta:
200 grams Pangkarra wholegrain durum flour
1/3 cup water
2 eggs
Pinch of salt
Dash of olive oil
2/3 of a beaten egg for helping pastry stick
Grated pecorino cheese and pepperoncini to serve
Filling:
125 grams ricotta
1/3 of a beaten egg
1 large handful of blanched spinach
Pinch of nutmeg
2 teaspoons of pecorino cheese
Salt & Pepper
For the pasta:
  • Blend ingredients (except pecorino, beaten egg and pepperoncini) in a food processor (or just create a well in the flour and mixing with hands) until combined.
  • Knead until smooth, about 10 to 15 minutes. Moisten with more water if the pasta seems too dry (wholemeal flour is more absorbent).
  • Roll the pasta into a ball, cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, for the filling:
  • Blanch, cool and strain the spinach.
  • Season the ricotta with salt pepper and some pecorino cheese.
  • Blend the cooled spinach into the ricotta.
After resting the pasta:
  • Put a bit of flour on the bench and begin rolling out the pasta with a rolling pin. Note: if you have a machine, flatten the dough a bit to fit through the machine then start running it through the machine.
  • Continue rolling out, trying to keep the pasta thin and in a rectangular shape. You want a thin and satiny pasta.
  • Roughly mark out half of the pasta sheet, using the cutter to determine the size of each raviolo. You need to make sure you have 2 more or less equal pieces of pasta as one has to lay over the top of the other after the filling has been placed at intervals.
  • You can put a few light marks in the dough with the cutter to indicate each square, being careful not to push right through.
  • Place a dollop of the ricotta in each square that you have marked out.
  • Brush some of the beaten egg around the perimeter of each dollop.
  • Loosely cover the pasta sheet that you dolloped the ricotta onto with the top sheet.
  • Lightly press around each dollop to remove air bubbles.
  • Use the cutter to press through and create individual squares (see picture).
Pop the ravioli into a pan of boiling salted water and cook for about 8 minutes (this may seem excessive, but wholegrain flour takes a little longer).
Strain and serve with a simple tomato sauce  topped with grated pecorino and pepperoncini (or your favourite sauce).
Buon Appetito!

Italy ~ a nation of foodies

When in Italy, the conversation always turns to food. Whether on the bus, riding a bike along the lungomare (seaside esplanade), sitting on the train, waiting at the post office, at a coffee bar, with friends and family. It’s everywhere. There is talk about foods in season, the price of cheese, the colour of apricots, different types of tomatoes and their qualities, the preparation of a particular ingredient, legendary family cooks and their dishes, regional specialities. It is endless this talk. There is passion and memory and pride.

On occasion I manage to get photos of the foods I eat but sometimes I get so excited I dig right in completely forgetting the photos until after. Here are some images from my 10 days in my grandfather’s village, Roseto degli Abruzzi, in 2013.

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In one day as I went about my way in Roseto degli Abruzzo, I overheard these words:

Pranzo = lunch
Ai fungi = with mushrooms
Prosciutto = cured ham
Magre = thin (describing someone who did not ‘mangia’ enough)
Sale = salt
Mela = apple
Melanzana = eggplant
Salsicce = sausage
Frittura = fried, as in a frittura di pesce, a mixed fried fish dish (drool)
Sugo = sauce
Olio = oil
Piccante = hot (spicy)
Pasta = pasta or pastry, such as for baking
Limone = lemon
Pistaccio = pistachio
Alla braccia = on the grill
Al forno = in the oven

The speakers of these words were from all walks of life. Two men in business attire at a coffee bar discussed cooking salsicce alla braccia. An older woman and a young mother on the beach compared methods for making a torta di mela and the consistency of the pastry for the base. Two teenage girls expressed their love for the fritto misto (frittura di pesce) at a local beach restaurant. A vigorous discussion took place by the beach with three 20-something guys discussing the best gelateria in town. From the passion and the hand waving I was sure the discussion had to be about calcio (soccer/futbol), but no. A consensus was not reached in the end.

A friend waxed lyrical about her mother’s timballo and then invited me to lunch with the family. My Bed and Breakfast host Lucia and her husband Fernando have a penchant for the foods of Puglia and shared with me, amongst other things, the famous pasta and ceci. Simple, tasty, squisito.

Home cooks and restaurant chefs alike prepare food all over Italy with a long culinary history, simple ingredients and above all, pride. I am so fortunate to have shared their passion for good food, lovingly prepared.

Thank you Sabrina and her parents Elisa and Dorino, cousins Walter, Adriana, Stefano and Annamaria, as well as new friends and proprietors of Luci a’ammare, Lucia and Fernando.

I applaud the chef Carlo and staff at Il Covo del Pirata for being brave and serving raw fish antipasti. All dishes show flair and are well executed.

Also, mention goes to the old favourite, Lo Spizzico for great fried seafood and that Crema Catalan (Creme Brûlée). We’ll be back.

Day trip from Sulmona to Scanno

If you find yourself in Sulmono, a town in the L’Aquila province within the Abruzzo region, ‘senza macchina’ – without a car – it is worth the effort to catch the local bus to picturesque Scanno. And if you go on a school day when the teenagers from Scanno are travelling home from Sulmona, expect a little adventure.

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On the day we went, a normal city bus departed Sulmona and climbed up through a forested, hilly area, with ever narrowing roads. Eventually we reached a small tunnel and I thought, “no way this bus will get through that”. The driver stopped and all of the teenagers piled out of the bus. My sister and I looked at one another. In my broken Italian I asked if we had to get out. A girl responded yes and indicated we should follow her.

So, off we got and followed the others into a side track where there was a minibus parked. The group of 40 people crammed into the 22 seater. Some older women (not my sister and I) told the teenagers to get up and give their seats to ‘l’anziane’ – the elderly. We sat. After a 20 point turn, the driver maneuvered out of the side track, on to the road and through the tunnel. When we reached the other end of the tunnel we all piled out and into another full size bus waiting at the side of the road to make the rest of the journey to Scanno! I was a little curious as to why we didn’t stay in the little bus but one does not question the wily ways of Italian public transport, especially in a remote place!

We managed to have a little bit of sunshine while we walked around the old town but the afternoon came over all rainy. Not before we got a few pictures of the old town, il centro storico.

 

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Scanno is a charming town and is known for its women dressed in traditional costume. But on this rainy, mid-week, off-season day, we only saw a few stray dogs and some teenagers in the old town. I expect the women had watched the weather forecast…

Learning to be a better blogger in Abruzzo

I have to admit that the idea of going to Abruzzo to learn more about the art and craft of blogging has struck some of my friends and colleagues as an odd thing. To be honest, most of them have never heard of Abruzzo. Unless, of course it’s just the humorous mention of it by a character in the recent Australian film ‘Red Dog’. The mine worker, Vanno, is always singing the praises of his homeland in Italy, “Ah, now in the Abruzzi…” followed by any of “…the women are the most beautiful” or “…the food is the best in the world” or “…the scenery is fantastic”. As a migrant in a desolate, woman-less, remote mining outpost of Western Australia in the 1970s it’s easy to see how Vanno would have a sense of Abruzzo as a paradise on earth! But there’s a lot of truth in this idealised vision of our character’s homeland.

Casa DRocco Morro d'Oro

From the kitchen window of the DiRocco family home in Morro d’Oro, Abruzzo

As someone who also has heritage in Abruzzo, I seem to have an attraction to web sites or blogs that discuss Italy (refer previous post here) and more so if the content mentions the word ‘Abruzzo’. So when I learnt of the Let’s Blog Abruzzo event (yes I have been following the blog of one of the organisers) I thought, “what a wonderful alignment of the planets”. A visit to Bell’Abruzzo. A room full of people all interested in Abruzzo food, wine and tourism. A room full of people who know so much more than me about blogging. A session to help me with my photography. A list of sponsors who produce food and wine that we will be able to taste. An opportunity to meet people whose blogs I have been following for ages. It was a ‘no brainer’…

I am so looking forward to seeing family, attending the conference in a part of Abruzzo that I’ve not been to before – the hill-top town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio – and immersing myself in all that Let’s Blog Abruzzo has to offer. Ci vediamo presto!