As one of ancient Romes most distant and proudest conquests, the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia still holds the mark of its ancient conquerors, through both its laws and construction, and its imperial name. The words "Friuli" and "Giulia" are derived from the ancient Roman forum julii, which in turn comes from the name of the ancient Roman Julian clan. Despite these strong historical links to ancient Rome, the region itself is much more influenced by its Slavic neighbours and its proximity to the Balkans. The Friulian dialect, though Italian in its roots, still, even today, has a Slavic resonance to it and its vocabulary. As with most Slavic cuisines, Bread is of great importance to the region, however, in some areas of Friuli, bread disappears from the table completely, its place being taken by Polenta.
In the Roman era of the Middle Ages, Friuli was of great importance to the Roman Empire due to its, then very opulent capital city Aquileia, famous for its mosaics, gold and, more importantly to the Roman Empire, its maritime trade links with northern Europe and the east. Nowadays, Trieste, is the capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, however, the ghost of long forgotten city of Aquileia is still present in the mosaics, traditions and history of the region. Friuli is still, even today, one of the poorest regions in Italy. After the Romans, the region fell into neglect and desolation, due mainly to the ancient Venetians using the Friulian menfolk in the construction of their capital city, Venice. This decline in the population of Friuli led to a rise in uncultivated land, which led to a fall in agricultural produce and eventually in turn led to poverty and hunger, a situation the region never truly recovered from.
The plight of the poor Friulians was made worse by their diet, due to the regions poverty many Friulians lived on Polenta, consuming for nearly every meal. This unvarying diet led to disease, namely Pellagra. The great traveller Goethe diagnosed the cause of Friulian peasants poor health during his travels through the region in 1786.
"I believe their unhealthy condition is due to their constant diet of maize and buckwheat, or, as they call them, yellow and black polenta. These are ground fine, the flour is boiled in water to a thick mush and the eaten. In the German Tyrol, they separate the dough into small pieces and fry them in butter, but in the Italian Tyrol the polenta is eaten just the as it is or sometimes with a serving of grated cheese. Meat, they never see from one year to the next. Such a diet makes the bowels costative, especially in children, women and the elderly, and their cacchetic complexion is evidence of the damage they do to themselves".
Nowadays, the Friulians eat polenta much more wisely, serving it either toasted or wet, or with meat, fish, salami, vegetables or cheese, therefore, eliminating the risk of Pellagra completely. Friuli is known throughout Italy for dishes such as Frico (Montasio cheese rinds, fried in butter with sliced potatoes and onions). Due to Friuli mountainous landscape, shepherding is one of the most important trades in the region. When the husband went off into the mountains to bring the sheep back in, the wife would take the Montasio rinds, from the previous evenings polenta most probably, and place them in a pan with the sliced potatoes, onions and butter, then leave it on a shelf above the stove and go out to assist her husband. When they came home, the butter and cheese had melted and the potatoes and onions softened to form an amazing meal from the previous evenings meal, true Italian cooking.
Due to the Friuli climate, the longest and snowiest winters in Italy, Friulians have over the years learnt to make the most of the raw ingredients this often inhospitable region gives them. Even now, many Friulians raise pigs, especially those that live in the wooded areas where the fruits and nuts of the oak, chestnut and hazelnuts allow the pigs to naturally forage for food, which in turn gives the resulting pork a great depth of flavour with minimal fat. Once a year, usually in July/ August, the Purcitar (swine butcher) makes his way around the pig keepers of Friuli slaughtering the pigs ready for the family's to butcher and preserve the pig ready for the winter. All the pig is used, nothing is wasted, children, parents, aunts and uncles, grand parents all get involved in turn the freshly butchered carcass into food for the family. Some items such as the blood, need to be dealt with while fresh, so blood sausages would be made using the lesser meat cuts and intestine and hung to cure. Sometimes family would make Pan de frizze dolce, a sweet bread made with still warm pigs blood. Salami would be made the same way, as would lardo, prosciutto and other cured products.
In the San Daniele area of Friuli, one of Italy's most famous prosciutti crudi (uncooked, cured prosciutto) is made and enjoyed across the region as an antipasti served with figs or melon. In the north of Friuli, around Carnia, they also make speck (smoked ham) and Montasio cheese.
Wines of Friuli
Friulians also make wine, which is no mean feat in the regions climate. Wines such as Collio, Grave del Friuli, Colli Orientale, are among some of Italy's most famous wines, all of which are made in the Friuli region (Click here for more information on The Wines of Friuli-Venezia Guilia ). In Friuli, wine is an important part of the Tajut which is practised daily throughout the region. The Tajut (little drink) takes place throughout the bars and cafes of Friuli after work, around five o'clock, every day where Friulians sit outside with friends and family with a small glass of wine and share the news of the day. The Tajut can be summed up in one great Friulian phrase . . . "the glasses may be small, but the friendship is big".
The wine, as one would expect, is accompanied by food, often Pinze (focaccias) and Presnitz (little cakes made from walnuts, raisins and candied fruits).
Friuli is also when known throughout Italy, and possibly Europe, for the fine Grappa (click for more information) it distills, the finest of which can fetch anything between 500 to 1000 Euro's per bottle.
Typical Dishes of Friuli
Bisna - yellow polenta with sauerkraut and beans, flavoured with a Friulian soffritto (finely diced salt pork and onion).
Brodetto Gradese - Grado-style fish soup with small fish from local rivers.
Rane Pescatrice - Monkfish and perch cooked in olive oil, garlic and vinegar.
Plum Gnocchi - Gnocchi but using pureed plum flesh insted of eggs to bind and flavour.
Iota - Friulian soup, made with white beans, milk, white turnips and cornmeal, or, in north eastern Friuli, potatoes, sauerkraut and smoked pork.
Pistum - Gnocchi made with breadcrumbs, sugar, eggs, herbs and raisins which are cooked in pork stock.
Brovada - Pickled turnips (white turnips fermented in marc, grated then stewed with salt pork in wine).
Cevapici - Spicy pork and beef meatballs, cooked on a grill.
Smolz - Beans cooked with olive oil, salt pork and onion.
Granseola - Spider crab meat fried with oil, garlic and parsley.
Testina alla Carnaiola - Sliced calves head with a sauce of boiled brains with horseradish.
Frico - Potatoes cooked in oil and butter with onions and leftover Montasio cheese rinds.
Other dishes include, Goulash and Gypsy-style hare in white vinegar are considered Friulian specialities.