Come with me to Abruzzo and hunt for truffles amid spectacular vistas of hilltop towns, fields of grain and abundant fragrant wildflowers. When we’ve got our truffles, we’ll make maccheroni alla chitarra and shave our bounty over the top. Interested? Follow me.
We’ll start here – at the home of Ettore Altieri, out in the countryside not far from the village of Lentella. Ettore is a sculptor who holds classes for anyone interested in chipping away at stone. He was more than generous to open his home and property to a small group of us who had arrived following the “Let’s Blog Abruzzo” workshop. He and his companion Barbara, his mother Carla and father Angelo were so warm to us during our visit, that we felt part of their family. How did we find such welcoming folks and this unique experience? Through Fabrizio Lucci, owner of Italia Sweet Italia. Fabrizio seems to know all the nicest people in this area of Abruzzo who were willing to share their talents and time with us. This is a photo of Ettore, but believe me, this picture doesn’t really convey his friendly demeanor. It’s one of the few times when he didn’t have a broad smile on his face.
Here is one of the many of Walter’s creations you’ll find throughout the property.
It’s hard to take your gaze off the panoramic view from his home, with the Adriatic sea far off in the distance.
You don’t have to go truffle hunting if you don’t want. Bring your children here and just let them enjoy the animals, including the donkeys.
the goats love attention too,
and there are myriad cats roaming the property amid Ettore’s art scattered here and there:
But we were here to hunt for truffles, so off we went, led by Walter, a local veterinarian and friend of Ettore’s, who knows his way around the property.
Walter was also adept at directing Frizz on where to search for the truffles. Frizz is a lagotto dog, a breed particularly good at sniffing out truffles. Lagotto dogs are well tempered and make good pets (my brother in Pennsylvania has one named Lana that I wrote about here). Normally they have very curly hair, but Frizz’ had recently been shaved due to some problem with an insect that infiltrates through the hair.
Most truffle hunters won’t reveal their secret places for finding these treasured tubers, so we felt particularly lucky to be given this insider’s look. Truffles grow near the roots of oak trees, and those roots extend far beyond the trunk of the tree. Fritz was on the scent almost at the start of the path.
He scampered about in delight, sniffing out the musky smell.
It wasn’t long before his nose led him to a spot where he started digging. Take a look at this one minute video to see him in action:
These are black summer truffles, known as “scorzone.” They’re available from mid-May to late August and are less costly than other types of truffles. At the market, they’d cost about $30 per pound. The most valuable truffles – the white truffles – are found between October and late December and can cost upwards of $600 a pound. In between are truffles called “il bianchetto” that are found from mid-January to late April and cost about $60 per pound.
This is what the black summer truffles look like straight from the ground:
And here they are cleaned up and ready to be used:
Afterwards, we headed back to Ettore’s home for a taste of homemade wine and munchies before we were put to work making pasta.
We were treated to the best ventricina I’ve ever eaten, made by Ettore’s mother. Ventricina is a spicy pork-based salumi typical of Abruzzo. It was hard to stop eating it.
Then began the pasta making, guided by the expert hands of Ettore’s mother Carla.
Everyone enjoyed the lesson, including my friend Helen Free (right), co-creator of “Let’s Blog Abruzzo.” We rolled the dough over a “chitarra” or the traditional stringed implement that’s synonymous with Abruzzese pasta.
Meanwhile, Ettore blended the shaved truffles with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.
While we finished making the pasta.
“Butta la pasta,” is the Italian phrase that literally means “Throw the pasta.” While Carla went to work “buttando la pasta”, she also warmed the ricotta and truffle sauce on a burner nearby.
The pasta and sauce were tossed together, Ettore shaved more truffles on top and we sat down to a great meal.
Dessert — a delicious almond cake made by Carla — was served outdoors.
Along with homemade liqueurs like this drink called “genziana” made from the gentian plant. Recipes for these kinds of herbal drinks are passed down through the generations and are thought to aid digestion.
But we still weren’t finished. Ettore and Barbara disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a basket of wild flowers and leaves gathered from the property. Ettore and Barbara, who is an artist, showed us how we could create some of our own art, using the natural colors of the local plants.
They gave us each a postcard and set us loose to experiment with nature in our artistic way. We were all amazed at the colors that came through, merely from rubbing the leaves and flowers on the paper.
It was hard to leave after such a fun-filled, sensory filled day with such kind, talented people. On the way down the hill from Ettore’s place, we passed the beautiful village of Lentella.
But I had a special place in my heart for the village in the distance – Fresagrandinaria — where my mother-in-law was born.
Did you enjoy this virtual visit on a truffle hunt? If you’re in Abruzzo and want to participate yourself, click here to contact Fabrizio at Italia Sweet Italia. He’s got plenty of other ideas too for genuine Abruzzese experiences far from the typical tourist traps, some of which I’ll be writing about in posts to come. In the meantime, here’s a recipe for the truffle and ricotta sauce.
Truffle and Ricotta Cheese Sauce recipe courtesy of Italia Sweet Italia
I don’t normally start my day eating tarts filled with freshly made ricotta cheese and topped with amaretti cookies. My weekday breakfast also doesn’t typically include a crostata made with fruit jams, marble cake, apple cake or any other number of sweet treats either.
Ditto for prosciutto, salami, pecorino cheese and practically still warm-from-the-cow giuncata cheese.
I’m usually not lucky enough to have Emanuele asking me every morning if I’d like to have a freshly made frittata either.
But for one week in June I was. These were all part of the daily breakfasts served in a cavernous room called the “cantinone” (big cellar) that could have doubled as a backdrop for a movie set in the Middle Ages.
It’s also where I popped in occasionally before dinner for a glass of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and some munchies.
I wasn’t alone during the week. I was one of a group of five writers from California, New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico taking part in a workshop in Santo Stefano di Sessanio called “Italy In Other Words.” The group was led by Kathryn Abajian and Helen Free, two gifted teachers who helped us find our writing voice and discover the treasures and traditions of Abruzzo.
Kathryn conducted the writing classes each day, focusing on first person writing. Although I had worked as a journalist for decades, and write a food blog now, memoir writing is an entirely different genre and I had a lot to learn. Kathryn gave me the tools and the kick start I needed to get me moving in the right direction, in a teaching style that was both firm and generous at the same time. Sadly, she lives on the opposite coast from me. Otherwise, I’d be signing up for any classes she teaches. Listening to the other women’s own stories and receiving their feedback was an invaluable part of the week as well.
Top row, Julie and Lori and Cynthia. Seated, Linda, Kathryn and Diane
Helen instructed the group on Abruzzese traditions that link us with our past, regardless of nationality.
We read the words of Italian writers such as Ignazio Silone, who wrote about the long-ago struggles of peasants in Abruzzo, struggles that are still relevant around the world today. We walked in the footsteps of shepherds who led their flocks in a twice-yearly migration over hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous paths in search of warmer climes, a custom known as “transumanza.”
Near the Gran Sasso mountains we ran for shelter as the rain fell, while the cow nearby didn’t budge:
We returned on a sunnier day to climb higher on the path through the town of Calascio.
Lori, Diane, Juli, Linda, Helen and Cynthia
Until we reached the ruins of a fortress built in the 10th century, once owned by the Medici family.
Nearby in isolation overlooking the mountains stands an octagonal church erected between the 16th and 17th centuries, on a site where legend has it, locals fought and won a skirmish with brigands.
Santa Maria della Pieta
We also had time to think, in a place with few tourists, and no television or telephones in our rooms. We had time to roam the village and reflect on its quiet beauty and on our purpose for being there.
Time to explore the mysterious narrow streets and pathways.
Time to wonder who lived in houses like these:
And wonder how long ago someone rode this old motorcycle.
Even time to let Federica, who lives in the village, have a go at painting with my travel watercolor set.
We had time to walk below the town where poppies bloomed beside a church boarded up since the 2009 earthquake:
Where fields of yellow mustard greens swayed in the wind beside stalks of wheat and more poppies.
Where road signs indicated the distance it took to ride between towns on horseback:
We had time to transfix our gaze on the broad, open views to other hill towns in the distance.
Naturally, we had time to eat too – from restaurants where the atmosphere was funky-
and the food traditional like these gnocchi:
To restaurants that were more formal –
And that served modern interpretations of food, like these veal cheeks and potatoes with citrus flavors:
“Italy, In Other Words,” gave us time to slow down, to appreciate all the beautiful sights, sounds and tastes around us, and to write about what was important to us. Thank you to Helen and Kathryn, and to all the friendly townspeople of Santo Stefano and to the employees of Sextantio, the hotel where we lodged, including Gabriella, who offered me the recipe for the luscious torta shown at the top of this post.
Arrivederci Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Alla prossima!
This recipe was enough for a very large pan – probably 10 to 12 inches in diameter.
for the dough:
2 1/4 cups flour
2 sticks butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. baking powder
For the filling:
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 cups milk
grated peel from one lemon
1/2 cup to 1 cup ricotta, depending on taste
amaretti cookies crumbled on top – about 1 cup or so
Blend the flour, sugar and baking powder together in a bowl. Add the softened butter by hand or put everything in a food processor until it forms a ball. Roll out and place into a buttered 10 to 12-inch baking dish or tart pan.
For the filling:
Bring the milk to a boil with the lemon peel. Meanwhile, beat together the eggs, sugar and flour. Slowly add the mixture to the hot milk, stirring together for two or three minutes until it is thick and amalgamated. Let it cool slightly, then add the ricotta, using as little or as much as you like. Crumble the amaretti cookies on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes
Procedimento: Impastare il tutto e intanto preparare il ripieno:
per il ripieno:
150 grammi zucchero
75 grammi farina
buccia di limone
500 ml latte
100-150 grammi ricotta
Procedimento: Far bollire il latte con il limone e intanto sbattere le uova, lo zucchero e la farina.
Stendere la pasta e metterci la crema e la ricotta. Sbriciolarci gli amaretti sopra. Cuocere a 180 gradi per 25 minuti.