Alf in Italy, Eating in AbruzzoMay 18, 2015
A few days ago Sandra and I were talking about Italian food. Because of its simplicity the cuisine relies absolutely on using the best top quality ingredients available. My food experiences in Italy illustrate how true this is. Many times I have sat down to a meal where wonderful ingredients, simply cooked, have given me indelible food memories. To show what I mean here are a few stories of eating in Italy, of meals that changed my understanding of Italian food. These experiences took place far distant from the usual Rome, Florence, Venice, Amalfi Coast tourist destination. These are recollections of everyday, genuine, true Italy. We are not going to some well known, romantic Tuscan village polished for visitors. We are going to real Italy. We are going to eat in Abruzzo with Sandra’s family.
The first meal…………
When we go to Abruzzo we stay with one of Sandra’s sisters. Paola lives in a beautiful area in the hills above Pescara surrounded by farms, vineyards and olive trees and Antonella in a restored farmhouse with a wonderful view over the village of Citta’ Sant’Angelo and the Apennine peaks of Maiella and Gran Sasso. On this first visit we stayed with Antonella. I will never forget the first meal we had together with Sandra’s family.
Salumi, cheese, bruschetta, lamb on a stick cooked over charcoal and tumblers of red wine so young it was still purple. This simple, very typical meal was my first taste of Abruzzese cuisine. We had driven through a labyrinth of hills and valleys. Tracking through the countryside, the narrow, sinuous road lead us along ridges, down into wooded valleys, across streams on a general tour of rural Abruzzo. Where were we going? I had no idea. Of course I knew we were going for dinner but I didn’t know what to expect when we arrived. In fading light we came to what I thought was the outskirts of a village. We got out of the car at a white house surrounded by other white houses. Opposite there was a vineyard, so we must have been on the edge of a town.
In front of the house was a concrete terrace which suggested a service station minus the pumps. The long tables with cliched check table cloths suggested that it wasn’t. This was Bar Rosticceria Pertilli. The speciality here is arrosticini, hand made in house. Lamb skewers with a generous sprinkling of salt quickly grilled over charcoal. For such simplicity to be successful the lamb must be perfect. I cannot remember eating lamb with such a harmony of meatiness, juicy fat and balance of just the right amount of char from the fire and just enough salt to highlight the flavours. The Abruzzese adore eating this culinary reminder of the region’s pastoral history and I immediately understood why.
Artichokes and broad beans………………
Again we are staying with Antonella and Enzo and it’s a long time since my arrosticini introduction to Abruzzese food. Both Sandra and I adore artichokes (carciofi) and on this night we are having them for dinner, because its spring, artichoke season. Antonella says that we are having our own Sagra dei Carciofi at home. A sagra is a festival celebrating local food specialties held throughout the year in many Italian towns and villages. Enzo and I go shopping. Shopping for ingredients is as important as the cooking in every Italian meal. I watch as Enzo chooses artichokes. He picks one up, turns it around looks at it carefully and gives it a squeeze. Those that are too hard or too soft and limp are rejected. Only those that pass his judgement are chosen for our “Sagra”.
On the way home there’s a truck loaded with broad beans (fave) parked beside the road. Enzo pulls over, gets out and starts to examine the beans. “These fave”, he tells me, “are from Puglia. They are much better than those grown in Abruzzo. It’s because of the soil and the Pugliese sun that they have so much more flavour. This seller gets a higher price in Pescara, so it’s worth bringing them all the way here”. And being a good Pugliese, Enzo buys the beans but pays an Abruzzese price. As we get back into the car he nods toward the man with the bean truck and says with that typically Italian doubt that things may not be as they seem. “He grows the beans himself, or so he says.” Now we drive home to have our “Sagra dei Carciofi e Fave”.
Having bought the best it’s time to cook. This is the most uncomplicated cooking. First the broad beans. Peel the broad beans, put a little oil in the pan add onion, cook a while, add the beans and as an afterthought some peas. Put the lid on the pan and let it cook slowly. It will be ready when it’s done. Now the artichokes. It’s a bit fiddly to prepare them but the result will be well worth the effort. The first batch will be stuffed with breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic and cooked in the oven, the second slowly simmered in local extra virgin olive oil on the stove, Antonella is in charge as this is Nonna Emma’s recipe and she got it from her. That was it. The simplest cooking to let the flavours of quality produce shine.
When we sit down to eat the Australians at the table are amazed by the incredible bright green colour of the cooked vegetables and the pure intensity of the flavours. We are in artichoke lovers paradise. The Pecorino wine bought in bulk from the cantina just up the road for three Euros a litre could be the best wine in the world when paired with real food like this.
And more broad beans…………….
So great broad beans can be bought from the back of a truck, but as I discovered there is another way to get a supply of the freshest, most delicious fave you have ever had. For a lot less. There is probably no better way to enjoy fresh young broad beans than to shell them, peel the outer skin off each bean and eat them as an accompaniment to a piece of good Pecorino cheese. A generous glass of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo will add to the enjoyment. We where at Sandra’s sister Paola’s for a party. She lives in a semi-rural area surrounded by small scale farms. The farmer who lives next door makes possibly the worst wine I have ever tasted. Of course he thinks it’s fine and likes to share it. Especially with unfortunate visiting Australians.
Simone, Paola’s partner cooked on the night; frittata with wild asparagus and porcini, prosciutto layered with cheese and more of the wild asparagus he had foraged himself. We ate the most delicious olives from Rosciano and ventricina, a soft, spicy, spreadable salami that is a specialty of Abruzzo. Even after all this Simone thought we needed more. We had cheese and bread. Now what goes well with cheese? Broad beans! There were none, but Simone knew where to get some even if it was close to midnight. The farmer next door might have the worst wine in the whole of Italy but he has a great crop of fresh, young, tender, tasty fave just waiting to be picked. So led by Simone, armed with a torch to provide some weak light we stumbled into the bean crop. Simone, Enrico and two silly Australians (my son and I) are on a great fava bean raid. We thrash around grabbing armfuls of beans, trying in vain not to trample the plants into the soil and then we stagger back in triumph. Yes wine was involved, but those beans with a sprinkle of salt, a splash of oil and fresh bread and cheese were the best I have ever had.
For a true and delicious Abruzzese eating experience in Melbourne Dario Di Clerico of Stick on Grill produces great arrosticini. Follow this link to find out where to enjoy Abruzzo’s regional specialty, https://www.facebook.com/stickongrillarrosticino. As for fava beans, the best are home grown and eaten early in spring when they are tastiest and and most tender. If you want a good crop don’t tell me where you planted them!
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)