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
Wouldn’t you like to get away from the throngs of tourists following the same old itineraries through the same old well-trodden tourist sites? Sure, if you come to Italy you don’t want to miss the major art cities like Rome and Florence. But if you want to experience something unique, come to Abruzzo and eat on a trabocco, found only in this small area of Italy’s Adriatic coastline.
The writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, who was born nearby in Pescara, described these spindly wooden structures as “a colossal skeleton of an antidiluvian amphibian.”
Regular readers of this blog may remember a post I wrote a couple of years ago here introducing trabocchi (plural of trabocco). This year, I actually got to cook on a trabocco with the owners and enjoy an unforgettable meal cooked in a miniscule kitchen beside the sea.
This particular trabocco, Trabocco Punta Tufano, is owned by Rinaldo Veri and his wife Maria, and was rebuilt seven years ago, following a storm in 2006 that destroyed the former structure. But his family has owned a trabocco on this site, near San Vito Chietino, since 1777. They’re typically made of a wood from trees that grow nearby and are resistant to the weather, called robinia pseudoacacia, commonly known as the black locust, or false acacia. Large nets are lowered from the long wooden arms and fishermen haul in fish that live near the rocks, such an anchovies, squid and octopus.
Inside this wooden building is the kitchen where Maria guided me and a few other visitors in preparing a meal using traditional recipes from the region.
Starting with these anchovies – looking and tasting nothing like what we get in those small cans in the U.S.
Maria showed me the technique used in opening them with one swift move, and removing the skeleton to end up with a fillet.
Then marinating them in vinegar, lemon juice and white wine.
The octopus was cooked in a pot of water, wine, vinegar and lemon juice for about 40 minutes.
And emerged looking like this:
After it was cooled, it was cleaned of some of the suckers and placed in a pot with olive oil, onion, peppers and bits of cherry tomatoes.
Olive oil, garlic, cherry tomatoes and red pepper were also used in the preparation of these tiny clams.
Maria also showed us how to open mussels and mix the ingredients for stuffing the mollusks.
After they’re stuffed, they’re cooked in a tomato sauce and given a few minutes in the oven at the end.
A classic dish of this part of the coast is brodetto, a fish soup made using the catch of the day. In this case, it was scorfano (scorpion fish), merluzzo (cod), and dentice (sea bream or red snapper).
Brodetto is cooked in the traditional terra cotta pots made in the region.
By this time, our group had worked up an appetite and we were ready for a drink of prosecco and an appetizer.
We started with the fresh anchovies that had been marinated and served on slices of bread sprinkled with olive oil, cherry tomatoes, salt and parsley.
We moved on to the stuffed mussels, and octopus served over polenta.
The clams were next, loaded with flavor. We sucked every drop of liquid from the shells, before dipping our bread into the liquid left on the platter.
Then came the pots of brodetto, dotted with clams and mussels above the whole fish.
I’m sure I went back for two and three helpings.
Oh yes, and I can’t forget the marinated mackerel fish, bathed in olive oil and sprinkled with salt.
We had to finish with something sweet, and in this case, it was the classic ferratelle or pizzelle, from Abruzzo. All accompanied by various homemade liqueurs, including genziana, a plant that is omnipresent in the Abruzzo countryside.
Afterwards, Rinaldo demonstrated how the nets are lifted above the sea to haul in the fish.
I want to thank this handsome fellow – Fabrizio Lucci of Italia Sweet Italia, for inviting me and a few other bloggers who attended Let’s Blog Abruzzo to come along for this unforgettable experience. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more posts on other adventures in Abruzzo, courtesy of Italia Sweet Italia.