When I dig just a little deeper than my Roman birth to my Abruzzo roots, I think of a region of little mountain towns and the amazing food of my grandmother. It is where my mother comes from, and her family generations back. A small town in the mountains called Borrello, which never had more than a 1000 inhabitants and has now dropped down to a meager 300, most of them old people who refuse to leave. It is a lovely place, but the winter is inclement and there is no industry to speak of. Strangely, though, it may have to do with the fact that it is hard to reach, tourism there never took off, despite the fact that the nearby Verde Falls are the second tallest in Italy (and the tallest in the Apennines), and there is much unspoilt nature and quaint country towns all around. For many years I spent at least part of my summers there, and I definitely feel a deep connection with the land there.
Abruzzo is a varied region, with a lovely unspoilt coastline, rolling hills, mountains, and valleys. It lies on the eastern side of Italy, about half way down the boot. The mountain chain that crosses the region from North to South is the Apennines, older and lower than the Alps, but which has its highest peaks right in this area. The Apennines slope more gently towards Rome (which is only 50 miles away from the region’s westernmost border), the area in the region of Lazio, while there are taller formations that then slant more precipitously towards the Adriatic Sea on the Abruzzo side. The highest peak is Mount Amaro, part of the Majella massif, which dominated the view when I would spend time out there, and is at the center of the Majella National Park–traversed by about 500 km of hiking trails and home to two spectacular caves: Grotta Sant’Angelo and Grotta del Cavallone. As a matter of fact, Abruzzo is known as the Greenest Region in Europe, because a whopping one-third of its territory is set aside as national parks and nature reserves. This means that is is the home of many rare species, like the golden eagle, the Apennine Wolf, and the Marsican brown bear.
Like much of the rest of Italy, Abruzzo was part of different kingdoms, and occupied by various cultures, all of which have left a mark on the region. You can find Saracen artifacts and constructions along with echoes of Middle-Eastern languages in the dialect, for instance, but definitely most of the region’s history is connected to the Southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which is why it is considered part of the Meridione, the South, even though it geographically lies in the middle of Italy. Like much of Italy, tourism now plays an important role in the region’s economy, whether it be for attracting sea-goers with its incredibly many blue flag beaches, or appealing to nature lovers with its parks, or following in Tuscany’s footsteps as a haven for people seeking to spend time in quaint medieval country hamlets where food and wine is still made the old-fashioned way (just like we saw a rise of foreign-owned homes in what is known as Chiantishire, now there is talk of Abruzzoshire).
Indeed, apart from tourism, food and wine are definitely the other top drivers of Abruzzese economy. The region is full of organic and sustainable producers of quality grapes, olives, and meats. Perhaps its most famous export here in the US is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which is one of the most widely-exported DOC-classed wines in Italy.
What you Should See There
If you like to travel off the beaten path, Abruzzo is definitely the place for you. Still quite untouched by international travel, Abruzzo is an ideal place to explore the “real Italy.” If you feel up for a challenge, particularly with expert guidance there are plenty of hamlets that have not yet seen an American, except perhaps during WWII, and where people will be excited to meet you and eager to invite you to share their food and see their surroundings. If you are curious to discover your family’s roots, chances are, if they come from some small town in Abruzzo, you will be able to see a place that has changed little since they left. Old widows dressed in black from head to toe sitting on the sidewalk finishing their daily crochet, the town’s fountain complete with a drinking trough for animals and grooves on which to wash clothes, a mule carrying firewood from the forest to the farm… it is all there. Add to that splendid mountain vistas and luscious nature, medieval towns and castles perched on hills and mountaintops, rich valleys with vineyards and olive groves, rocky and sandy beaches… So many unspoilt places to visit! Yet due to the fact that there is no obvious signage and a lack of common knowledge about where to go, Abruzzo is the kind of place where a custom-planned trip can really help you open up to these hidden gems.
I am definitely partial to the Verde Falls–surrounded by a lovely park with hiking trails, you can approach the falls from the top and the bottom, and there are several other smaller falls and rapids to explore, not to mention meadows for a picnic, great grounds for hunting mushrooms (make sure you go with an expert to prevent picking and eating poisonous ones!), and plentiful brambles full of blackberries for you to pick (when in season, of course-July through September). The nearby town of Borrello, though definitely worth a short visit, is not the most picturesque of the surrounding area, though you should take some time to explore the area, like the Fonte Vecchia (the Old Fountain, built in the 18th Century), and the ruins of the Abbey of San Giovanni in Verde, built at the end of the middle ages, both on the road to Rosello. Not too far from there, about 13 kilometers away, the small town of Pizzoferrato, at 1251 meters of altitude, hugs a mountain peak, and is yet another splendid sight.
Another must-visit place is the lovely city of Lanciano, one of the most famous among tourists, which offers well-kept medieval city walls, numerous churches from various eras, and, perhaps most importantly, the Sanctuary of the Miracle of the Eucharist, within the church of St. Francis, where the first Eucharistic Miracle took place around the year 750 A.D. You can now see a piece of what looks like flesh and 5 pieces of coagulated blood, kept in an an intricately adorned reliquary within the church with its unassuming front, and the heavily decorated sanctuary, which was recently restored to its Baroque-inspired splendor for the Jubilee in the year 2000.
And, of course, you should not miss the city of Sulmona, home of the almond confetti, at the foothills of the Majella National Park. Yet another city rich with history, boasting an incredibly well-conserved medieval aqueduct running through town, and the famous Complesso della Santissima Annunziata, a church and palace built in the Renaissance, filled with beautiful frescoes, and architectural details. Sulmona also has a few small museums, like the Museo Civico, and a museum dedicated to the costumes and culture of the area, particularly as it relates to transhumance (the traditional migration of herds which was a huge part of the local economy).
What you Should Eat There
All the home cooking I grew up around was at the very least influenced appreciably by Abruzzi-style cooking–although my nonna never refused experimentation, incorporating flavors that she picked up as she moved around the country. And one thing that I noticed was that almost anything, from wine to pasta sauce, tasted better when we had it there. Flavors change as you transport ingredients, and ingredients have a different taste depending on where they grow. Famously, goat and sheep meat from the mountains is leaner and tastes much different than the same animals grown in the low country.
While there, you definitely should not miss the classic Sagne a Pezze, large pieces of rustic homemade pasta, cut either in diamond shape or in irregular long rectangles. The irregular big pieces are part of what makes them appealing, though it originates as a poor food, dough prepared without eggs (though nowadays you will often find them all’uovo, with eggs), and cut in big, easy-to-cut pieces that could be prepared quickly without requiring much space (the dough can be wrapped around the rolling pin, and cut directly on it). The classic sauce for the Sagne is made with very liquid tomato sauce and beans or chickpeas – a testament, again, to the poor roots of this dish. You will often find it “dressed up” a bit, with pork rinds either added to the beans, or substituting them.
A bit more elaborate and still fantastic pasta dish (so tasty, that it is the classic base for al cacio e pepe, meaning the only “sauce” is a bit of oil or butter, a handful of pecorino, and a spray of black pepper) is Pasta alla Chitarra. A kitchen does not feel complete in my mind without the cool-looking tool necessary to make it. The Chitarra (yes, literally, “guitar”) is a rectangular tool with a bunch of thin metal strings. You put a layer of pasta dough about as thick as the spaces between the strings on it, and use a rolling pin to press it through–you end up with strings of square diameter that are very hearty, and allow the sauce to stick to them nicely.
Another typical “poor” dish that will delight your taste buds is the Pecora alla Cottora (similar to the Pezzata from Molise). This dish finds its origins in the traditional transumanza, where shepherds would take their herds to graze far and wide, staying away from home for months at a time. When a sheep would die or become lame, the herders would be allowed to eat it, and thus had to find a simple way to cook it with the small amount of materials they carried. Being unable to marinate the meat to soften it, they would cook the meat for a very long time (about four to six hours), to the point that it would almost fall apart, adding herbs and spices they could pick along the way, like thyme, rosemary, hot peppers, onions, and laurel. Traditionally, the liquid would then be sopped up with old bread and eaten under the stars. Quite a few little towns now hold sagre (food festivals) dedicated to this food, where you can have the experience of eating this food the way it has been for centuries: with a group of people, out in the open.
Of course, you can’t talk about Abruzzo without mentioning the classic Confetti di Sulmona. A must as a wedding favor in Italy, these delicious sugar-coated almonds are also appropriate for any occasion that calls for good-luck wishes. Bright red ones are to be found at most university graduations, and pink or blue ones accompany the birth of a new baby. I was never a huge fan of confetti until I tasted them in Sulmona. Turns out, freshness is a big factor in their flavor, as are top-quality ingredients. Since these sweets are so popular, you can find some industrially-made ones that just do not do this traditional confection justice. If you are in the area, take time for a trip to to Confetti Pelino, where you will also find a little museum dedicated to the old tools of the trade (this company dates back to 1783), or William di Carlo, where you can find confetti innovations with flavors like pear, cinnamon, and saffron.
Wouldn’t you know, Abruzzo has another claim to fame… The city of Amatrice, now in Lazio, was actually once in Abruzzo (until 1927), and the famous Amatriciana, or, in Roman dialect, ‘Matriciana pasta. This pasta, so beloved in Rome and all around the world, is a simple, hearty dish of Abruzzese origins, and a perfect example of its cuisine, often based on the needs of shepherds, who could easily carry the ingredients for this recipe made with guanciale (similar to jowl bacon), pecorino cheese, olive oil and/or lard, and tomatoes (of more recent addition in the mid-18th Century).
And then, of course, there are the wines. It doesn’t stop at the world-famous Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, an intense dry and robust red which goes exceptionally well with the traditional Cottora and other red meats and aged cheeses. A subspecies, as it is made from the same Montepulciano grapes, is the Cerasuolo, which now has its own D.O.C. denomination, and is a lighter, fruitier wine, with, as the name suggests, hints of cherry (ciliegia in Italian is “cherry”). As an interesting side note, these grapes are the only ones that do not require removing the skin to obtain a rosè wine. As for whites, the most common Abruzzese wine is the Trebbiano, one of the most common white grapes in Italy, which adapts incredibly well to the Abruzzo hilly terroir, developing a pleasant dry but fruity taste. Pecorino, named for the pecore, or sheep, that graze between the vines is another characteristic Abruzzese white that pairs beautifully with many of the region’s cheeses.
Bring Abruzzo to Your Kitchen Table
Torrone has a special place in my heart, tied deeply to my childhood and family traditions. Every year, it was an important part of the spread on the major holidays: Christmas and Easter. It was a special treat, one that initially had to be planned far in advance, because it had to be bought “back home” in Abruzzo and then brought to us in Rome. Everyone in my family was a fan of Sorelle Nurzia, the first company to make soft torrone, so much more pleasant to bite into and to cut into pieces to share than the classic hard kind.
But, even still, hard torrone is a joy for the tastebuds. I got the Sorelle Nurzia classic white, which is so delicately sweet that it doesn’t overwhelm the almonds, and has that lovely hint of citrus in the back which creates such a pleasant contrast. Trying to break off a piece to share with my man was a bit of a challenge, just like taking a small bite – it pretty much breaks off and crumbles according to its whims, not yours. So I had to fuss with it a bit to have it give up a manageable piece, but once it was in my mouth, pleasure and memories came rushing back. Crunchy bits give way to the softer almonds, then become more chewy as you sink your teeth into it a couple of times. Fragrant nuts, in torrone and other confections, but also sitting in a bowl for us to peel were always a huge part of Christmas, along with the taste and smell of oranges–staples of the season.
I was happy to hear that my partner really enjoyed his torrone, especially as the consistency had intimidated him a little initially. He said the flavor was unique, and really enjoyed the complexity and the aftertaste. The almonds were obviously fresh, and the texture was very pleasant, too. He wondered about something that felt very soft and smooth, and I told him that was an ostia (the Italian word for communion wafer) they wrap it in. On the box it just says “wafer,” but it is the same stuff they make communion wafers with! Much less exciting, it’s called “wafer paper” in the U.S. – it is pretty much completely flavorless, but the texture is really interesting: it is very smooth, and melts away quickly when you chew it.
Since an Italian kitchen simply cannot function without olive oil, my other item from Eataly was Ursini Extra Virgin Olive Oil. A first for me, I never knew that single-source olives to make oil with were a thing. The manufacturer writes on the bottle that blended oils tend to flatten the taste of the olives, while using only one varietal allows you to fully taste all the characteristics of that particular type of olive. Well, color me intrigued! Soon enough, I will be treating my olive oil like wine, and attempting to match the best oil to each dish… Of course, a superior way to taste-test the oil is to put it on a neutral white bread, so that is what I did. The flavor is definitely among the best I’ve had: it manages to be bold and peppery without being overwhelming, and it even has a hint of sweetness in the aftertaste. So I also tried it on a salad, composed mostly of arugula and romaine, where it contributed to the nuttiness and spice so well, it definitely became a favorite.
@ItalyFoodies: Join Our Discussion-What’s Your Take
1. What are some perfect pairings for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo?
2. Homemade pasta is a huge pleasure, and Abruzzese cuisine is full of simple pasta recipes. In my experience, making your own pasta is not as daunting as it seems. What are your tricks for quick pasta making and cleanup?
3. How is torrone traditionally made? “Sorelle Nurzia” famously invented soft torrone–what is the trick?