Saturday, 22 December 2012

Abruzzo and Molise

The region of Abruzzo lies to the east of Lazio. The region has a harsh continental climate, due mainly to the regions proximity to the Appennines. Abruzzo is the region where the Appennines reach their highest point, the summit of Gran Sasso reaches 2,912 metres. Half the region is taken up by national park, which has been protected by the state since 1872. Today the national park has grown to 44,000 hectares and is populated by Marsican brown bears, Appennine wolves, Abruzzo chamois, deer, golden eagles, otters, wildcats, Dalmatian woodpeckers and many more species that are practically extinct in the rest of Italy.

The climate of the Abruzzo is cooler, so here the chilli reigns. Everything is pungent and spicy; from the Centerbe liqueur to the intensely peppered roast meats. Up until a few decades ago, herdsman and breeders was the main vocation of Abruzzi people. Only recently has industry begun to develop and change the character of the region.

The cooler climate explains the abundance of proteins in the Abruzzi diet. With all those mountains it s difficult to farm and grow crops, and the region of Molise lays on seismically active land. The economy is based upon tourism and animal breeding, however, as said earlier the last twenty years has seen a shift in the regions economy towards building product manufacture, ceramics and glass. As for animal breeding, cattle naturally cannot graze on the steep Appennine slopes, so Abruzzo is a grazing land for sheep and goats. Breeding sheep and goats has been a tradition in the region since the time of the ancien Greeks. As in other regions of Italy, rejected lambs and unweaned kids naturally found their way on to the table. Abruzzi cooks are wizards at cooking kid meat, which according to Molise customs, is stewed in red wine with rosemary, sage, bay leaves and spicy red pepper.

One of Italy's most iconic pasta dishes, pasta alla carbonara, was born here. The regions hard working herdsmen and shepherds all had access to salt pork, usually guanciale (pork cheek), pancetta or fatback, and goats cheese - all you need for a good pasta carbonara. A fish egg could always be found in the woods, either from a quail, wild hen or wild duck. Pasta carbonara is an easy dish to cook over a fire whilst out on the mountains tending to their flock.

The people of Abruzzo have been ruggedly withstanding nature for hundreds of years, not only the harsh environment of the mountains but also against flooding. One of the regions, possibly Italy's, biggest planning projects was to reclaim the land around the plains of Lake Fuciano. In true Italian style, the project started in ancient Roman times and was finished around the time of Italy's unification in 1860. The first major effort was to prevent the lake flooding and reclaim the marsh lands surrounding it was started by the Emperor Claudius in the first century AD. Claudius had an underground sluice designed to drain water from the Fuciano. Then a deviation channel 4,700 metres long was dug at a depth of 14 metres, which took eleven years and 30,000 slaves. Once this was completed water could flow into the river Liri river. Unfortunately, the tunnel continually blocked and in the twentieth century the tunnel was disastrously damaged by seismic activity in the region.
The people of Abruzzo are suspicious and quite severe. People here a very superstious. The capital of the region, L' Aquila, was established in the thirteenth century, which was based upon ad design by the holy Roman emperor Frederick II. The city was formally inaugurated 1254, but it was ordered to be destroyed in 1259 by Manfred, emperor Frederick's illegitimate son, to prevent it falling into the hands of Manfreds enemy, Charles of Anjou. Charles however, took possession of the cities ruins and rebuilt it according to the original plans.

In Molise and Abruzzo Maccheroni alla chitarra, guitar-style macaroni, is made, cut on a special piece of equipment aptly called a guitar, which is a wooden rectangular frame with a series of strings stretched across the top, and the pasta is cut by placing a sheet of pasta over the strings and rolling a rolling pin over it so the strands of pasta are cut and drop through between the strings. The pasta is then left for fifty to sixty hours to air dry. Only then will it behave properly during cooking and only then will its surface be rough enough to hold certain regional sauces, and in Abruzzo some of these sauces are so good it would simply be a crime to use the wrong pasta. The food of Abruzzo is good for two reasons, that the Abruzzi cooks themselves are able to prepare such good dishes, often from very limited readily available ingredients and because the cooks of the region are masters of the subtle art of using spice, such as saffron, a typical product of the region. Saffron is collected from the stigmas of crocus flowers. To produce one kilogram of saffron , it would take around two hundred thousand crocus flowers. The cultivation of saffron requires a lot of work, however the fields of crocus flowers do make Abruzzo one of the most picturesque landscapes in the world. The inside of the flower is red , the petals are purple and the flowers pistils are yellow. Saffron used to be used to colour paints and dye fabric. Risotto Milanese was said to have been born when a distracted artist, who was painting a stained glass window of the cathedral in Milan, accidentally dropped his yellow paintbrush into the rice he was cooking for lunch. In reality saffron was brought to Italy b the spaniards in the 1500's. The cultivation of saffron was introduced to Abruzzo long before the cooks of Milan made it their own. Like so many other agricultural innovations in Italy, saffron spread across the country through the monasteries. Ancient documents found in the Dominican monastery of Gran Sasso, saffron was brought to Italy by Dominican monks in the twelfth century an the Dominican monks still cultivate saffron today. The cost of finished saffron is as high as ten thousand euros per kilogram, considerably moe than the white truffles of Alba. In the thirteenth century saffron was used as currency. Not everyone is as fanatical about saffron as the cooks of Abruzzo and Molise, seasoned traveller Goethe wrote -

" a chicken boiled with rice is certainly no to be despised, but an immoderate use of saffron is as yellow as it was inedible."

In general, the Abruzzese know how to add the right amount of spice to their dishes to get an aromatic, spicy taste without overdoing the aromas. It is popularly said that the taste receptors of Abruzzese cooks pick up more nuances of flavour than those of the average Italian. This makes people of Abruzzo great candidates for restaurant staff, chefs and expert tasters.

The Wines Of Abruzzo And Molise

While the Marches geographically belong to central Italy, but their wines show the transition between northern and southern Italy. Abruzzo and Molise are most definitely south, but not always to the liking of the regions residents. The landscape of Abruzzo is very similar to that of the Marches and from a wine making point of view the regions are very similar in their use of the noble Montepulciano grape (click here to find out more about The Wines Of Abruzzo & Molise ).

Typical Dishes Of Abruzzo And Molise

First Course

Maccheroni alla chittara - fresh pasta cut on a wooden Chittara served with a meat sauce of mixed veal, lamb and pork with pancetta and pecorino.

Spaghetti with chilli, oil and garlic.

Tanne de rapa - pasta with turnip greens.

Pasta with mutton sauce.

Mozzarella with fried potatoes and saffron.

Second Course

Pecora alla brigante (pasta bandit style) - skewers of cubed adult sheep coated with spices.

Castrato alla baraccara (shanty style) - dish made of castrated young mutton cooked in a clay pot.

Torcinelle - fresh fat sausages made from lamb sweetbreads and intestines with parsley, pepper, garlic and lemon.

Annodata di Tripa (knotted tripe) - made from lambs sweatbreads and intestines.

Pamparella - pork meat with garlic and red pepper soaked in vinegar.

Calamari alla Pescara - squid stuffed with shrimp, soft bread, garlic and parsley.

Scapece - slices of skate and dogfish marinated in vinegar and saffron.

Pescara-style fish soup - scorpion fish, dogfish, skate, octopus, shrimp, mussels, onion, red pepper and saffron.

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