Molise: A Hidden Gem Almost Lost in Obscurity
by Cathy Mantuano
For a very long time the region of Molise was part of the Abruzzi, an area of central Italy with a western border on the Adriatic Sea. Abruzzo the larger, northern region was more well known while Molise was considered isolated and thus forgotten. In 1963 Molise officially split from Abruzzo and became Italy’s second smallest region. Rich with forests and mountainous slopes, along with the traditional industry of agriculture and sheep herding, Molise has some of Europe’s most uncontaminated nature. The countryside reveals medieval villages, well-preserved castles and remarkable ancient ruins. The most well known cities are Campobasso and Isernia.
Molise was home to i Sanniti or the Samnites, a warrior tribe that was considered to be one of Rome’s more challenging opponents. In fact, up until the 1st century BC, the term Gladiator and Samnite was one and the same, and eventually the Samnites were conquered and assimilated into Roman culture.
What You Should See There
This truly secluded part of Italy, where tourists hardly venture and old cultural ways still exist, is slower paced, with events focused around the seasons.
Visits can enjoy the yearly event: La Carrese in San Martino in Pensilis, which is held in small hill town in the province of Campobasso, among olive groves, green pastures and vineyards. Dedicated to the town’s patron saint San Leo, this local ox cart race is deeply cherished by the local population and has ancient origins. The oxen taking place in the race represent the unpredictable forces of nature, which man tries to stir,so as to waken from winter to spring. Preparations take all year as the oxen are specially cared for and trained for the event. Beginning at the end of April and culminating on May 2nd there are 3 days of festivities, starting with a concert in the main square, an evening parade with floats and fireworks, the blessing of the oxen and the riders in front ofthe church, the race itself and the final procession. Meanwhile everyone prepares and consumes the local specialty pampanella, a spicy red pepper marinated roast pork.
During the event, there are three teams represented, each with different colors: white-blue is Giovani, yellow-red, Giovanotti and, yellow-green Giovanissimi. Each team has three riders in their wagon, three men on horseback behind pushing the cart with long poles, and additional men on horseback riding alongside the oxen. The race is nine kilometers long and starts near the sea at the cattle track with last year’s winner first in line. Halfway through the race, there is an exciting exchange of the oxen. The race ends as the carts race down the main street to the Church. It is a riot of color and action with each team’s fans lined along the route cheering and waving flags in support; a good-natured rivalry amongst the teams. After the race local food artisans and artists sell their wine, cheeses, knives, lace and other products in the main square. The winning wagon has the honor to lead the May 2nd Saint’s Day procession with St. Leo’s statue.
Just 8 miles from San Martino in Pensilis is the medieval town of Larino. The cathedral is decidedly worth seeing. The facade is divided into two parts: the lower area with a widened door and sculpted architectural detail while the upper has two mullioned windows and in the center a rosette composed of thirteen rays. The facade is decorated with twisted spirals, leaves, flowers and intertwined patterns. On the portal there are also sculptural decorations in the round, depicting lions and griffins as well as high reliefs depicting heads and wild animals. Inside the cathedral are preserved parts of frescoes dating back to the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Other great things to see in Larino include an ancient amphitheater built in the 1st century, Palazzo Ducale which houses a museum of ancient artifacts from 500 BC and photo galleries and Villa Zappone built on an old bath house of frescoed floors.
Just 15 miles east of Larino, the seaside town of Termoli, once a fishing village, is now a resort town with serene, quality beaches. Many streets are for pedestrians only and with its seaside restaurants, it is an excellent spot to taste the local brodetto, anchovies, mussels and red mullet. After a relaxing afternoon in Termoli, on your way back to Rome via Campobasso, visit the prehistoric Roman and Samnite ruins of Saepinum near Sepino.
What You Should Eat There
Molise produces fine olive oil, delicious wine, excellent cheeses and even black truffles! Recipes resemble the cooking of surrounding regions Abruzzo, Campania and Puglia, so Molise has both northern and southern Italian cooking influences while adding its own local rustic ingredients and traditions. From the wealth of the pastures and the forests, lamb, goat, rabbit and pork are mainstays. Sharp, sheep’s milk cheeses like Pecorino, or cow’s milk Caciocavallo and Scamorza are used in cooking with eggs, vegetables and on pizza. Local cured meats like smoked prosciutto, fennel scented salsicicca, blood sausage and a variety of other sausages add to the menu. Porchetta, or roasted whole pig, Torcinelli, rolled strips of lamb tripe, sweetbreads, and liver are also enjoyed. Pasta e fagioli, pasta with beans is soul food and cavatelli or lasagna with lamb or goat ragù are typically served for Sunday dinner. Cardoons, cauliflower, sweet and hot peppers, artichokes and potatoes show up in soups, pasta sauces and side dishes dressed with local olive oil and fresh herbs. The coast is naturally the best place for seafood.
Wines from Molise are improving! Tintilia, the indigenous grape produces a velvety tannic, full-bodied, deep garnet red that you rarely see in the states. Cantine Salvatore’s Tintilia del Molise named “Rustilia” is imported and goes best with Molise’s hearty pasta, meat dishes and rich cheeses. Another quality producer that is more widely available is Di Majo Norante. They produce wines from Montepulciano, Aglianico, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Ramitello Molise Rosso is their Montepulciano and Aglianico blend from the Ramitello estate on the Adriatic coast. It has dark berry aromatics, and is soft, plush and full on the palate with hints of plum, spice and licorice.
Bring Molise to Your Table
Caciocavallo which means “cheese on horseback” gets its name from the manner in which the cheese is tied together and straddled over a wooden board to drain and age, is shaped like a tear drop with a waxed rind.
When I went to the vast Chicago Eataly store to get the cheese, I thought, what recipe would showcase this delightfully spongy, slightly salty cow’s milk cheese in a delicious and fun way? Then I remembered this simple and satisfying dish.
Baked Caciocavallo Cheese
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer
– 1 pound caciocavallo, wax removed, cut into ½ inch slices
– 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil2 sprigs each fresh rosemary, sage, thyme, and parsley
– Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Pour the olive oil into the bottom of a 10-inch ovenproof baking dish. Arrange the cheese in an even layer in the dish and scatter the herbs on top. Bake until the cheese is soft and gooey, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately from the oven with plenty of crusty bread.
@ItalyFoodies: Join Our Discussion-What’s Your Take
1. What other uses are there for caciocavallo cheese?
2. Do you taste any differences in the caciocavallo when melted versus cut from the piece?
3. What does the Sangiovese from Molise taste like when compared to Sangiovese from Toscana?
[box border=”full”] As an Italian-American with origins in the hidden gem region of Molise, Cathy Mantuano is passionate about wine, food and Italy. She has traveled the length and width of the Italian peninsula and enjoys discovering new aspects of the wine, culture, and cuisine with every visit. Cathy currently lives in Chicago Illinois, and is a wine consultant as well as the author of the popular cookbooks The Spiaggia Cookbook: Eleganza Italiana in Cucina and Wine Bar Food. Cathy and her husband Tony Mantuano are also known for their restaurants dedicated to expressing authentic Italian ingredients and cuisine, including the James Beard multiple nominee Spiaggia. She is also the wine director at other Chicago-based locales such as Bar Toma and Terzo Piano. [/box]