The Food of Abruzzo
The region of Abruzzo is the centre of the Italian peninsula outlined by the Apennine Mountains to the west and reaching quickly down to the waters of the Adriatic to the east. Its western border is about 80m km from Rome. Over two-thirds of the region is rugged mountainous terrain which includes some of the highest peaks in the Apennines. Both the Gran Sasso and the Maiella ranges are close to 3,000 metres high.
I said reaching quickly to the Adriatic because from the sea-shore I enjoyed a spectacular view of the snow-capped Gran Sasso, i Gemelli peaks in particular.
And in between are gently rolling hills and plains.
For at least a thousand years, the tradition of transumanza—the seasonal movement of flocks of sheep and goats from mountains to grazing pastures and back again—has been practiced up and down these rocky slopes.
An Abruzzese lamb specialty is arrosticini: small hand cut pieces of lamb meat alternated on skewers with small chunks of lamb fat and grilled over a wood fire. I wanted to slide the chunks of meat off the skewers but was told that the way to eat the arrosticini is to slide the skewers through the teeth kind of like eating a cob of corn. In that way you get the juicy sweet combination of one piece of lamb and one piece of fat in each bite!
An Abruzzo tradition is to serve many, many different types of antipasti. Likely because there was a Canadian in the trio of guests the antipasti kept coming and coming. It was an unseasonably cool day in March but the dining room of the agroturismo was toasty warm because of the long wood burning grill. In front of the fire-place there was a long work table. There was a bowl full of ruby-red radicchio on the table and we watched as the sous-chef made the salads right there. The sous-chef also grilled the breads for the bruschetta, sliced the various house salumi, pancetta, sopressa, grilled sausages, and he hand sliced the prosciutto. All these leisurely made their way to our plates. The salumis just melted in your mouth with bursts of spicy flavors. My favorite sausage though they were all delicious was one made with liver – fegato. But it did not stop there.
The chef was in the kitchen and came out each time to present the next dish. I tried to write it all down later that evening but was not able to remember them all: A small piece of grilled polenta con verdure and pecorino, a ricotta pie with zucca (squash) and limone served on a red speckled yellow lettuce leaf, asparagus frittata, deep fried cheeses (formaggio fritto), lightly battered and tiny fried artichokes (carciofi fritti) I could have eaten these all day long.
Spaghetti alla chitarra
In the valleys and plateaus of the middle of Abruzzo some of Italy’s finest hard durum wheat, or semolina, is grown and used to make pasta. It is called alla chitarra because sheets of egg dough are cut using a flat rolling-pin on a wooden box with strings (a “guitar”). The pasta strands end up kind of thin squared off strands rather than round strands. There were tiny meatballs in a light tomato sauce with the chitarra pasta, all so delicious that I had recurring “memories of “ that taste!
Scrippelle which means crepe in the Abruzzo dialect, is a very light version of a crepe made with water and not milk. The scripelle are layered and in between each layer is a light sauce with tiny meatballs like the one used for the chitarra, small pieces of cheese and often green peas. Traditional comfort food at its best!
There are many different versions of this recipe which call for pieces of artichoke, or spinach for example instead of the green peas.
But there was still the second to come – a whole coniglio al cacciatore, succulent pan fried pieces of rabbit, with onions, carrots, and olives!
Dessert was pizza dolce – sweet pizza- but not pizza at all. It was layers of a light as air sponge cake, with a crema pasticciera and crema al cacao between each layer and all soaked in a sweet liqueur. The owner brought us a honey grappa to drink with the cake!
It was obvious that the chef and owner wanted this Canadian to feel very welcome and they did not fail to impress me with their hospitality, the quality of the food and most of all the enthusiasm for their creations. There were many hugs and auguri extended before we left!