Ah, Abruzzo

Photography: sharyn cairns

In the trembling aftermath of my brush with a black viper, I discovered the best way to restore the senses was with a three-hour feast beside a dry-stone shepherd's hut in the Italian countryside.

The heroic spread at Il Tholos, a handsome labyrinth of a restaurant brimming with festive families, commenced with two bowls; one of a ginger, fig and chilli chutney, and the other containing a punchy creamed pecorino that we smeared on thin grissini stalks. A tin platter splayed with prosciutto and capocollo - similar to prosciutto but made from the back of the pig's neck - followed, then a rustic tart of ricotta on a base of fried zucchini. Pomegranate seeds sparkled atop a salad of rocket, orange, apple and pecorino; locally grown spelt was baked with autumn pumpkin, mozzarella and Parmigiano...

By this stage in the proceedings I was well and truly recovered from my snake fright, which happened earlier that day during a visit to the Celestine hermitage of San Bartolomeo. I was also well and truly convinced that our nine-strong group was blessed to be visiting one of the best-kept secrets of the Italian Peninsula.
 
Abruzzo, land of vineyards and olives, erstwhile brigands and hermits, birthplace of the poet Ovid (and of Madonna's ancestors) and poor cousin to the glamour regions of Tuscany and Umbria to the north, was proving to be quite a find. It has none of the A-list attractions of a Lazio or Lombardy, but it is a region of simple charms - such as the thousands of shepherds' huts or tholos that punctuate the land - and age-old traditions undaunted by progress.

Conventional wisdom has it that few tourists venture to Abruzzo, bordered by the Apennines on one side and the Adriatic on the other, but Monica from Mooroolbark soon disproved that theory. During a wander through Il Tholos's maze of interconnecting rooms, smiling warmly at extended groups celebrating birthdays, engagements, life, an elderly lady asked in Italian if I was from Australia. I said yes and her daughter piped up, in broadest Aussie, "Melbourne or Sydney?"

This was Monica, from Mooroolbark in Melbourne's outer east, and she was, frankly, astonished to find a group of nine Australians in this remote patch of country she calls her ancestral homeland. "I can't believe I travel 3000 miles to come and have a holiday in the mountains in Abruzzo," she said, "to get away from it all...and there's a table of bloody Australians in the next room!"

The story of how we came to be there was quite simple. All of us, seven guests from Queensland, two Americans, Sharyn, the Gourmet Traveller photographer and I, were travelling with Luciana Masci and Michael Howard, the husband and wife team behind Brisbane-based Absolutely Abruzzo Tours. Masci, a former physiotherapist whose family (like Monica's) hails from this little-publicised region, always believed Abruzzo was a special part of Italy and was determined to one day introduce Australians to its charms. She and Howard, a tenor who spent 20 years performing in the opera houses of Europe, escorted their first guests here in 2006.

The tours capture Masci's own heritage; she has roots here that go back generations and lend her commentary a genuine depth and understanding. The experience is often a journey among her friends and acquaintances, so there is an easy camaraderie and warmth to encounters over the dinner table or in the fields. And Masci and Howard proved to be extremely accommodating hosts; they would do anything for guests to make their holiday memorable.

Gourmet Traveller tagged along for five of the nine days of the October tour, through a landscape that was invariably lovely, meeting modest but friendly people, visiting disarmingly charming villages and exploring the history of a region that has had a fearsomely rugged reputation since ancient times. (Roman records refer to the tribes who inhabited this region as 'very hairy with huge beards'. The locals are slightly more civilised these days.)

Then there's the incredible abundance of food, all of it delicious and doled in groaningly generous helpings at family-run agriturismos or village restaurants. The culinary highlights ranged from that leisurely, hours-long lunch at Il Tholos - which continued with a wood-fired cannelloni of sheep's milk ricotta, and spezzato di pecora, the slow-cooked lamb casserole famous in the region - to the finest lasagne we had ever tasted.

This was my first proper visit to Italy and just before I left home I stumbled across Samuel Johnson's daunting judgement that, "A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see."  Fortunately for my inferior education, I had Masci, Howard and my fellow travellers - most of them serial visitors to Italy, and virtually all fresh from touring the lodestar cities of the north - to provide the necessary perspective for me to appreciate the appeal of Abruzzo.

For starters, there are comparatively few tourists. When our tour minibus pulled into the gorge-hugging village of Roccamorice in the Majella National Park, there was just us and a handful of promenading locals in their Sunday best to people the medieval streetscapes.

Because it is so little known or visited, Abruzzo carries none of the high expectation or the potential for disappointment of the more famous Italian regions. Freed from any preconceptions, we were frequently delighted by beautiful villages or the rustic charm of a crumbling stone farmhouse, and surprised to learn that the Majella mountains are home to the highest concentration of monasteries and hermitages in the Christian world. In some ways Abruzzo is an unassuming canvas on which you can impose your own interpretation. For example, one day as our bus wended its way through a patch of pastoral loveliness, one of the two Americans announced, "This landscape reminds me of Philadelphia." That would be the Philadelphia laced with grape vines and studded with olives, of course, whose rolling hills are punctuated with baroque citadel towns of impossible beauty...

Still, we do tend to view new places through the prism of what we already know. And anyone who knows the glory of Italy may see tinges of Tuscany, hints of Umbria and echoes of Puglia in the mountains-meet-the-sea scenery of Abruzzo. But if you can, it is better to come here with fresh eyes, a knowledgeable escort and an empty stomach.

That last point is crucial. Eating in Abruzzo is an epic undertaking, which is why this story starts with eating and, probably, will end with it too. If there was one constant of our time there, it was food: mountains of it, almost all of it incredible, uplifting, amazing. Invariably it was peasant food, cucina povera, and often the recipes had been originally devised to feed ravenous field workers at harvest time. We didn't eat in critically acclaimed establishments but in well-loved village restaurants or in agriturismos that, by law, must make their own products or source them from the immediate region. Hence everything that passed our lips was authentic local produce, often made by the same people who served it to us.

We tasted olive oils that had been bottled days earlier, their jewelled green hues and peppery finish unlike anything available on Australian shelves. Every family has its own olive grove, and each year - on All Souls' Day in early November - they harvest the fruits and make oil to last another year. (No-one buys olive oil in Abruzzo.)

We sampled all manner of handmade cheeses and meats, enjoyed unique wines and liqueurs, and passed fields planted with peaches, walnuts, figs, quinces and pomegranates. In between eating there were visits to museums and markets that only served to reinforce to us how central, how inseparable artisanal foods are from Abruzzese life.

In seaside Pescara, at the Museum of the Abruzzo People (housed in an 18th century Bourbon jail), we discovered ricottiera, holey cups for draining ricotta cheese, and elaborately carved buffalo horns once used to carry olive oils. We learned the different shapes of the baskets woven to carry figs, birds and snails, and encountered a tomato sieve, a clever contraption for separating the skin of the fruit from its flesh.

We even learned to cook like the locals. One afternoon we gathered beneath the vaulted stone ceilings of Le Magnolie, the comfortable farmhouse where we stayed for the first few nights, and inhaled the secrets of Abruzzese cuisine from Olga, mother of Le Magnolie's owner Gabriella De Minco. Armed with eye-wateringly sharp knives, Olga and her capable kitchenhand Milva boned two fat ducks, surgically separating carcase from flesh with mesmerising strength and dexterity. They seasoned the birds with soffritto, dredged them in salt and pepper then stuffed them with pork and veal mince before sewing them whole again and banging them in the oven, garnished with rosemary sprigs.

Then it was our turn. In the dining room the long table had been set with mounds of flour to which we added salt, one egg and Le Magnolie's six-day-old misty grass-green olive oil, then kneaded and rolled our dough until Olga or Gabriella were satisfied with its smoothness and thinness and gave us permission to press and roll the pasta on our chitarra (guitar) machines. There was such an excited buzz among us as the thin wires of the chitarra sliced our dough into perfect, flat-edged spaghetti. The local wine we had been sipping so enthusiastically - a Trebbiano, the region's trademark Montepulciano red or the rosé-style Cerasuolo - enlivened proceedings, too.

The highlights of that evening's convivial, fun-filled feast were an oil-tasting lesson with De Minco who, among her other talents, is an EU-accredited olive oil taster; a musical interlude with Howard, who serenades guests at regular intervals during the itinerary; and of course our homemade spaghetti alla chitarra, served with a very simple tomato súgo. It was a unanimous success.

The only pasta to receive a better reception was the one we had the next day at the neighbouring farm of Leo and Dea di Pasquale. We had been visiting an organic winery in the morning for tasting (read: drinking) in the morning sun and, as usual, were running a little behind schedule. Dea had been on the phone to Masci wanting to know the exact time of our arrival - her lasagne was apparently a finely honed creation and she wanted it to be at its optimum.

Seated in a traditional casolàre or peasant's farmhouse, with Leo's hunting trophies lining the walls, we faced yet another prodigious feast. To start, a platter of salumi, olives and cheeses. Then the first of two pastas arrived, which was Dea's temperamental timballo. There is no béchamel in her lasagne, just layers and layers of thin egg-pasta sheets, handmade by her and lightly smeared with a tomato ragù spiked with pork and veal mince. It was phenomenally good, the sort of food that can restore faith or the will to live. Quite a few of us agreed it was the best lasagne we had ever tasted.

There were many other memorable dining moments: among them a ravioli of autumn walnuts and zucchini flowers served with rose petals, homemade cherry liqueurs consumed in the shade of 500-year-old olive trees, a spelt pasta soup with chickpeas and rosemary. It was a prolonged, sunny encounter of exceptional food and drink that, with every mouthful, provided an insight into the age-old culture and traditions of this rewarding region of Italy.

 





THE FINE PRINT

Getting there
Seven night/eight day tours depart Rome Fiumicino airport or Rome Termini station at least once a month from May to October. Various airlines fly to Rome from Australia.

Tour prices start from $4350 per person, twin share. Absolutely Abruzzo Tours, 1800 641 136, www.absolutelyabruzzo.com.



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