Wake me if you must, but it’s been nearly three days and I’m still dreaming about Saturday night’s dinner with “The Glorious Friends of Abruzzo,” prepared in my kitchen by Joe Cicala, chef at Philadelphia’s Le Virtù restaurant — the same restaurant named yesterday by Zagat one of the “hottest Italian restaurants in the U.S.”
“How did this happen?” people have been asking. “Can I be one of the “Glorious Friends?”
Well, it all started when Francis Cratil Cretarola and Catherine Lee, owers of Le Virtù, and ardent promoters and supporters of this too-little known, mountainous region of Italy, held a fund-raiser for a project there — maintenance of the tratturi, the centuries-old trails used by shepherds to transport herds during the seasonal migration.
My friend Helen Free, co-founder of “Italy, In Other Words,” the workshop in Abruzzo that I now co-teach with Kathryn Abajian, suggested we get a group of friends together and place a bid. So we did. And we won!
l. to r. Chef Joe Cicala, Ciao Chow Linda, Francis Cratil, Cathy Lee, Doug and Helen Free
Fifteen of us were seated around my dining room table, including our special guest — Domenica Marchetti, author of many cookbooks, including “The Glorious Pasta of Italy.” Domenica’s mother hails from Abruzzo and travels there frequently for research and to visit family and friends.
The meal exceeded our expectations, beginning with the stuzzichini, or appetizers that were served before we were seated. Stay with me because this was a meal with many courses, and there’s a recipe at the end for you too. Let’s start with crostini topped with sheep’s milk ricotta that was blended with saffron (Navelli is the town in Abruzzo noted for its production of the much prized pungent spice). Sprinkle with toasted almonds, drizzle with honey and you’ve got something you can’t stop eating.
Have some potato croquettes too, oozing with cheese and tantalizingly hot.
What about arancini, crackly and crispy on the outside, giving way to soft and luscious nuggets of rice, small peas and cheese on the inside? I got carried away with munching and forgot to take a photo, so the one below is courtesy of Stacey Snacks, a fellow blogger, friend and guest at Saturday’s dinner.
Do you know about arrosticcini, one of Abruzzo’s iconic dishes? They’re kebobs of uniformly cubed lamb grilled over an open fire. Traditionally, the meat is not marinated in Abruzzo, where the quality of the lamb is far different from what’s available here. To compensate, chef Joe marinates his arrosticcini in olive oil, minced rosemary, peperoncino, garlic and lemon zest.
I could have eaten a dozen, but I knew these were just the opening act so I restrained myself – barely.
We took our seats at the table, as Joe brought forth wooden boards laden with affettati, house-cured salumi made at Le Virtù – pancetta, guanciale, salame nostrano (a simple pork salame), capocollo,
cacciatorini (small pork salame), lamb salame, sweet and sour carrots
and onions and roasted peppers. I felt like I had been transported back to Italy, where many meals start with plates of similar cured meats.
Next came a soup so delicious it could warm the body and soul of any shepherd tending his flock in mid-winter. I’m not the only one at the table who was wishing for the recipe, and Joe graciously gave it to me. Its monochromatic color may not win any beauty contests, but let me assure you it could take first prize for flavor with its arresting combination of chickpeas, chestnuts and farro.
Before I go any further, let me mention that Joe stepped aside from the stove long enough to describe each course as it was served. Meanwhile Francis, seen in the photo below toasting Domenica (seated next to him), talked about the different wines — all from Abruzzo — as they were being poured.
Are you ready for the primi piatti? That’s primi not primo, and piatti not piatto, because there were two of them. The first was a dish of gnocchi made not with the predictable potato, but with flour and water only, dressed in a creamy sauce of sheep’s milk ricotta from Abruzzo and sautéed bits of lamb sausage. A dusting of pecorino topped the dish.
Nothing says Abruzzo like maccheroni alla chitarra, a pasta made with a wooden, multi-stringed traditional implement called a chitarra. The pasta was tossed with a lamb ragù. If you weren’t an aficionado of lamb, an animal that’s been crucial to Abruzzo’s economy since the Middle Ages, you might have struggled with Saturday night’s lamb-centric menu. But as each plate was cleared from the table, I detected no lingering bits of food from unhappy diners. Had I been eating in private, I would have licked the plate clean — or at least sopped up any remaining sauce with bread, “scarpetta” style.
How could you not when the food was so delicious? The main course followed the night’s theme — juniper smoked lamb loin, served with roasted potatoes and broccoli rape. It was succulent and tender enough to cut with a butter knife or even a sturdy fork — and cooked to the perfect temperature.
Like any respectable Italian meal, there has to be a cheese course, and this was no exception. This was, in fact, a tour de force with cheeses imported from Abruzzo by Bob Marcelli, who was also a dinner guest and who explained each cheese and its characteristics. He should know what he’s talking about since he owns Marcelli Formaggi, importers of products from Abruzzo including cheeses made on his family’s farm. They were served with a selection of artisanal honeys from the region.
At this point you might be wondering if dessert was served and whether any one had room for it. The answer is yes, and yes. As with many special occasion meals in Italy, there is no rush to the process and the portions are not super sized as they are in the U.S. We started the evening around 7:30 and were still seated at close to midnight. So there was no need to move my belt by even one notch when dessert was served — a creamy semifreddo made with fragrant star anise and pine nuts, served with pears poached in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine and drizzled with mosto cotto.
But wait, there was still more to come — a platter filled with Italian cookies – biscotti, ferratelle (Abruzzo’s version of pizzelle), jam-filled cookies and struffoli — all made in-house at Le Virtù. P.S. Joe’s wife Angela is the pastry chef there.
As much as I didn’t want the night to end, all good things, as they say must …… what? they must? No they mustn’t, dang it. Not if you live anywhere near Philadelphia they don’t. You can get yourself to Le Virtù and experience these delights for yourself at the restaurant at 1927 E. Passyunk Ave. Want an even more authentic experience? Francis and Cathy are taking a small group to Abruzzo in April on a culinary tour. I can’t imagine a better way to visit the region, unless you have relatives there. And if you’ve been thinking about writing a personal memoir, a food or travel memoir, join me and Kathryn in June for a week in the magical Abruzzo village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio for the Italy In Other Words workshop.
OK, I hear you. You don’t live near Philly and you can’t get to Italy this year. So here’s something for you too — Joe’s recipe for that unforgettable soup is below so you can cook up a bit of Abruzzo right in your own kitchen.
It may not be as complete as Saturday’s dinner with “The Glorious Friends of Abruzzo” but it sure beats frozen pizza or Chef Boyardee.
Thank you Joe, Francis and Cathy for a night I’ll be remembering for years to come and thank you “Amici Gloriosi d’Abruzzo” for your participation.
La zuppa di farro, ceci e castagne Farro, chickpea and chestnut soup
From Chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtù printable recipe here
1/2 cup mirepoix (minced celery, carrots and onions)
1 tablespoon diced pancetta (or any other salame scrap)
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz peeled chestnuts
6 oz chickpeas (that have been soaked over night)
4 oz farro
1 gallon chicken stock (we also use rabbit stock)(I used about 6 cups when I made this – one gallon seemed like too much).
1 tablespoon minced rosemary
Sweat the mirepoix, pancetta, olive oil and chestnuts until the nuts are soft/tender, add chickpeas and chicken stock.
cook until the chickpeas are almost tender.
add farro and rosemary
cook until tender.
serve with pecorino cheese and drizzled olive oil
Maccheroni alla chitarra is a typical Abruzzese pasta made with an egg dough and an implement called a “chitarra,” the same word used for the musical instrument, the guitar. It’s a multi-stringed rectangular wooden implement with metal wires across the top.
Before the invention of the chitarra in the mid-19th century, the same shape was achieved by cutting the pasta with a shoemaker’s hammer called a rintrocilo. In some places in Abruzzo, the rintrocilo is still used, although now it’s made expressly for pasta, not for shoes, and it looks like a grooved rolling pin. Centuries ago, the rintrocilo was made of iron, but today it’s made out of soft wood like beech.
Liliana made the dough with flour and eggs and rolled it out in rectangles, using a short rolling pin, in preparation for running it across the top of the chitarra. The pasta emerges at the bottom in long strands that are square shaped. She also demonstrated how she uses a large rolling pin for cutting tagliatelle or making ravioli. When she finishes rolling it out, the sheet of pasta covers nearly the whole table.
For the tagliatelle, after making the dough, she holds the opposite edges of finished sheet with her hands and rolls each side toward the center. It looks something like a jelly roll with a slit in the middle. She then slices it, lifts it from the center using a long knife as a guide and it unfurls into separate strands.
Liliana favors orange clogs, just like the well-known American chef Mario Batali.
Here are Liliana and her husband Carmelio, each with a different size rolling pin, or mattarello. Their son Silvan, whom I introduced you to on my last blog post featuring lentil salad, is a lentil grower and owner of a new bar in town called “Il Ristoro degli Elfi.”
That night at dinner, we ate Liliana’s maccheroni alla chitarra, plus a few other dishes she made, including ravioli with mushroom sauce.
And gnocchi too.
The meal started with a platter of homemade affettati (sliced cold meats) and a spicy eggplant and hot pepper spread.
The grilled smoked scamorza was excellent, better than anywhere else I’ve tried it.
Here’s a video of Liliana making pasta for our group. Take a look at a real expert making the dough.
And check out her technique in rolling out the dough:
Now for the giveaway. Wouldn’t you love to own one of those wooden implements to make your own maccheroni alla chitarra at home? I’m giving one away so you can try it yourself.
All you have to do is leave a comment stating your favorite pasta dish and sauce. Please don’t leave your comment in my email – you need to leave it on the blog to be eligible. You don’t need to have a blog, but I need some way to contact you if your name is chosen (by random number generator), so leave an email or home address please.
For the pasta, follow the step-by-step instructions and recipe here:
For the sauce – use your favorite or this one – a tradition sauce made with lamb and peppers from Italy Dish by Dish:
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 lb lamb, cut into small pieces
1 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 lbs. peeled tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. fresh marjoram leaves (substitute basil if you don’t have it)
a pinch of hot pepper flakes
1/2 red pepper, cut into strips
1/2 yellow pepper, cut into strips
1/2 green pepper, cut into strips
grated pecorino cheese
Saute the onions and garlic in 1 1/2 T. olive oil, then add the lamb and brown. Add the wine, tomatoes, bay leaf, marjoram and hot pepper flakes and lower the heat. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Let the sauce cook while you make the pasta. After the sauce cooks about an hour, saute the peppers in the remaining olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Cook the pasta in salted water, drain and toss with the peppers, then with the lamb ragu. Serve garnished with grated pecorino cheese.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a town in Abruzzo that beckons with a quiet beauty. It doesn’t scream to be noticed, but its austere, centuries-old architecture and setting in the Gran Sasso National Park is a welcome balm to the visitor jaded with tourist traps and rushed itineraries. It’s a place to savor a slower pace, a quieter time and to honor traditions of the past. I’ve written about it here and here, and went back six weeks ago to help co-teach the Italy, In Other Words writing workshop with Kathryn Abajian. This year, I was just as captivated as ever by this mysterious, enchanting village. I can’t think of a place better suited for a week of writing, and I’m sure the other writers on this year’s trip would agree. Nature lovers, history lovers and anyone who values the work and world of cultures who came before us would find welcome respite here too, away from the frenzy of Rome, an hour and a half to the west.
It wouldn’t be so captivating a place were it not for one Daniele Kihlgren, who in 1999, happened to be riding past the village on his motorcycle, when he was mesmerized by Santo Stefano di Sessanio.
Daniele Kihlgren and his omnipresent bulldog
Like many rural villages in Southern Italy, young people were fleeing to the larger cities, leaving behind empty homes and a sagging economy that was destined to become worse. The population had dwindled to about 100 at the time, from about 3,000 in the 16th century when Santo Stefano di Sessanio was a thriving way station on the wool trade route. Kihlgren, whose mother is Swedish and father Italian, decided to do something about it. Fortunately he had the means to fulfill his vision, since his family had made a fortune in the cement industry. He bought up much of the uninhabited buildings, and set about creating Sextantio, an albergo diffuso.
An albergo diffuso, or “diffused hotel” is one with rooms scattered in various buildings throughout the town. The unique difference is that Kihlgren didn’t want to transform Santo Stefano into a “theme park,” but wanted it to be “authentic and real,” maintaining the integrity of time-honored traditions and materials, while providing comfort to hotel guests. “We didn’t want to erase the traces of people who lived here,” said Kihlgren, who has completed a similar project in Matera and also plans to renovate nine other towns he bought. The walls look just as they did centuries ago, the bedspreads are woven by the local women, but modern amenities are sprinkled here and there too – note the headboard photographic mural combining old and new.
Young children can be accommodated too, with small beds like this one, of handmade wrought iron:
Bathrooms are equipped with uber-modern fixtures, such as tubs by Phillip Starck.
The sinks are equally sleek, a counterpoint to the wooden towel rack and tin trash bucket.
Bring your own soap if you must, because the hotel provides only these artisanal products in the shower area, in glass bottles on wooden shelves. No aluminum, no plastic anywhere.
In some buildings, hotel rooms have a common space shared by several hotel guests.
The hotel also provides guests with a bottle of home-made liqueur, something typical of the region such as this rosa canina, ratafia, or saffron-flavored liqueur. Hand-woven linens serve as placemat.
Sadly, in April 2009, three years after the hotel opened, a devastating earthquake struck the Abruzzo region. Santo Stefano was luckier than many places that were totally destroyed, like Onna, but it still suffered some damage, including the collapse of its iconic tower (seen in scaffolding) that hails back to the days when the Medici family controlled the town. The hotel’s buildings, however, remained intact, thanks to reinforcement of the buildings during the renovation.
Even though the tower and parts of the town remain in scaffolding, Santo Stefano is still a beguiling place — with graceful arches and floral sculptural detailing evocative of the Renaissance:
Its beauty is due partly to the Medici family, whose coat of arms is still visible on a wall in town:
But some of the enchantment comes from the locals who plant flowers in the town’s little picturesque nooks:
You’ll find courtyards tucked away in exquisite solitude:
And mysterious arched passageways:
And public piazzas too, where locals gather for a bit of fun:
The hotel’s restaurant beckons with a candlelit entrance:
Views of majestic peaks of the Gran Sasso mountains and far-off villages like Castelvecchio also lure the visitor to stay a while. “The real value of this place is the mutual and changed relationship between the historic village and landscape around it,” Kihlgren said. “And if you’re going to keep this relationship for the next generation, I think we are doing something very important.”
While we were in Santo Stefano this year, a Swedish TV crew filmed Daniele Kihlgren and some members of our writing workshop talking about the town. If you have a few minutes to listen and watch, you too, may become spellbound by this hidden gem called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Don’t worry, even though the beginning is in Swedish, it segues to nearly all English after the first 40 seconds.
My friend Helen, along with Sammy Dunham, of Life in Abruzzo, is hosting a blogging conference in Santo Stefano this September called “Hands On L’Aquila.” Proceeds help the people and region of Abruzzo. You can find out more about it here.
….How could I not still be longing to be back in this beautiful country and the people I spent time with in the last few weeks? Once I’m caught up with things on the home front, be on the lookout for future posts about recipes, sights and sounds I encountered during the last few weeks — and a giveaway too. Stay tuned ….
You haven’t seen me post any cookies, cakes or pastries on the blog for a long time and there’s a reason for that. Desserts really are my weakness so I thought I might give them up for Lent this year. The good news is that I succeeded in not succumbing during the entire 40 days. The bad news is that I compensated with far too much pizza, pasta and panini, including those similar to the photo above, made with homemade focaccia. I’m rethinking this whole idea of renouncing something for Lent and next year will skip it. Instead, I think I’ll spend more time in reflection, meditation and prayer – something I never seem to find time for on a daily basis, but that I think would be more meaningful than giving up a portion of tiramisu and gorging on other foods instead.
So onto the focaccia – a simple dough that’s easily made, but there’s an important word for you to learn first — temperature. Yes, temperature of the water is key. Too cold and the yeast takes forever to do its thing. Too hot, and you’ve killed the yeast. So grab a thermometer and take the temperature of the water. It should be between 105 and 110 degrees. Proceed from there and mix all the ingredients, then knead the dough, roll into a ball, and place in an oiled bowl. Cover and wait a couple of hours.
The yeast will work its magic and it will double in size.
Cut it in half and spread half of it in a cast iron skillet. Push down with your fingers and “dimple” the dough, then sprinkle with coarse salt and chopped rosemary.
Here’s what it looks like when it comes out. Leave it in the oven longer if you like it more golden.
You could cut it up and serve it as bread with a meal, or you could split it and make panini instead.
Fill the focaccia with whatever floats your boat. This one’s filled with prosciutto, burrata cheese and arugula fresh from my garden, a return crop from last year.
This one’s filled with those wild greens I gathered recently, as well as melted mozzarella cheese (place the filled focaccia in the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese).
But this one — well this one’s my favorite. It’s filled with cooked sausage, broccoli rape, roasted red peppers and drippingly delicious melted provolone cheese. Buon Appetito.
********************************************************************************** Join me and Kathryn Abajian in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Italy to savor the slow life, to start or refine your memoir or other writing and explore a lesser-known part of Italy. Only a couple of spots left for this week in an unspoiled village amid stimulating company, great food each day and excursions to interesting places nearby. Life is short – go for it. It’s really as good as it sounds, so don’t dally – check out “Italy in Other Words.”
2 1/4 t. dry yeast (1 package)
1 t. sugar
4 cups flour (I used bread flour)
1 1/2 t. salt
1 1/4 cups warm water (between 105 and 110 degrees)
olive oil to drizzle on top
coarse, or kosher salt for the top
Dissolve the yeast in about 1/4 cup water and add a tsp. of sugar to help get it started. The temperature of the water is very important. I use a meat thermometer to get the right temperature. Too cold and it takes forever for the dough to rise. Too hot and you kill the yeast.
After the yeast has sat in the small bit of water and sugar, it should start to bubble up in about five minutes.
Mix it with the flour, the rest of the water and the salt. You can use a food processor or just mix it by hand in a bowl until it’s all blended. Add more flour or water if needed. Knead for about five minutes, then place in a greased bowl and cover it with a dish towel, plastic wrap or a large plate. Let it rise in a warm place until doubled. This could take a couple of hours.
Punch down the dough and split it in half. Spread out half in a cast iron skillet if you have one. If not, just make a free-form circle of dough by rolling and stretching.
Let it sit for about five minutes in the pan, then use your fingers to dimple the top. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with coarse salt, then some minced rosemary.
Bake in a preheated 500 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Check to see the bottom is browned and if not, take it out of the pan and place directly on your oven rack. Repeat with the other half of the dough once the cast iron skillet is cool enough to handle.
Through the years, I’ve been to every region in Italy and many of the islands too, but I’ve never come across this soup at a restaurant or in anyone’s home. Italian wedding soup, or “zuppa maritata” in Italian, is really an American-Italian invention. Maybe it’s served at some weddings, but more likely, its name derives from the marriage of all the ingredients, creating a hearty and delicious blend. The meatballs add a lot of flavor to the broth, even if, like me, you use ground turkey to make them.
My mom made this soup for holidays when I was growing up, and I know it’s not because it was something she remembered from her childhood in Italy. I’m sure she adapted the ways of her new-found country in putting this soup on the table. It will be the first course at my Easter table this year, maybe with those little butterfly pastas you see in the photo, or maybe with tortellini, depending on how the mood strikes me.
It’s usually served with escarole, but for the photo above I used some of those wild greens I’ve been foraging in the fields lately. Spinach or swiss chard or kale would work well here too. Sometimes a raw egg is dropped in the soup too, making it a “stracciatella” wedding soup. I prefer to keep things simple, since the soup has enough going on for it without the egg.
You can make the meatballs ahead of time and freeze them, as I did. I used my basic meatball mix but with turkey instead of the traditional veal, pork and beef mixture. I made some large meatballs to throw into spaghetti sauce, but kept some meat aside and also made 50 little meatballs for the soup. I broiled them rather than fried them, to keep things healthier and give them some color, then put them on a cookie sheet and placed the whole thing in the freezer until the meatballs were frozen solid. Once frozen, I popped them into a plastic bag or container and put them back into the freezer.
I made my chicken soup ahead of time too, and froze that separately. Before you’re ready to serve, defrost the soup, then heat on the stove. You can add the meatballs straight from the freezer and let them simmer with the broth for 15 minutes or so until they’re heated through. Add the chopped up greens and whatever pasta you like and cook until the pasta is done. Serve in bowls with parmesan cheese on the side. Wine optional.
1 chicken, 3-4 lbs. or chicken thighs1 onion3 cloves garlic1 carrot1 stalk celerysmall bunch of parsley2 tsps. salt8-10 peppercorns
I like to start out with skinless chicken, so you have less fat in the soup. If you’re just using thighs, skin them, but don’t use boneless ones, if you can help it. The bones add to the flavor.Place the chicken in a large pot, then add water to cover by at least an inch or two. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Skim off the scum that forms on the top, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about two hours. Meatballs
I used to deep-fry these until several years ago, when I started broiling them to eliminate a lot of the fat. Nobody ever notices any difference and it’s a lot healthier.
2 1-2 – 3 pounds of ground meat (I’m more likely to use ground turkey now, but the traditional mix is pork, veal and beef)
about 1/3 of a large loaf of sturdy white Italian bread, preferably a day old
about 1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
Trim the crusts off the bread. Dry the crusts in the oven and use to make bread crumbs for another recipe. Tear the bread into chunks and place into a bowl with the milk. Let the bread soak for at least 15 minutes or until it has absorbed the milk and softened. Squeeze as much milk as possible from the bread and discard the milk (or give to the cat). Squish the bread pieces with your fingers into a bowl with the ground meat until there are no big lumps. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well with your hands. Shape into round balls. Place on a baking sheet or broiling pan and broil or bake at high heat (450 – 500), watching carefully so they don’t burn. When they have a nice brown crust, turn them over and brown on the other side.
Bring the chicken soup to a simmer. Add the meatballs and cook for about 15 minutes or until the flavors have had a chance to blend. Add a handful of chopped greens (escarole, spinach, or wild greens) and some pasta (tortellini, small bowties, tubetti or whatever you like.) Cook until the pasta is done and serve with grated parmesan cheese.
Do you have stories from your past you want to get down on paper? Have you thought about writing a memoir? What about doing it in Italy in a beautiful, unspoiled village amid stimulating company, great food each day and excursions to interesting places nearby? It’s really as good as it sounds, so don’t dally – join me and sign up right now – only a couple of spots are left for “Italy in Other Words.”
Need some inspiration to get a kick-start on that memoir, food or travel piece you’ve been thinking about? Want to learn about traditions of a lesser-traveled region in Italy? Then spend a week in a medieval hilltop village where time moves slower and you can really savor the sights, sounds and flavors of daily life. Come to Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in Abruzzo, a UNESCO world heritage site, and take part in a workshop called “Italy, In Other Words.“
I was there as a participant earlier this year and wrote about my experience here and here. Next year, I’m returning, but this time to lend a hand in teaching the cultural portion of the program. Kathryn Abajian, who teaches the writing portion, will return to give her expert guidance once more.
The workshop will take place from May 26 to June 2, 2012 and you can read the full details and register by clicking here. You won’t want to miss it. It’s a great opportunity to polish your writing with excellent feedback from a great teacher and other writers in a unique setting.
And you’ll have time for eating wonderful meals too, like this homemade spaghetti alla chitarra.
Time to meander the nearby fields and think, renew your spirit and recharge yourself.
Time to walk to a castle along ancient paths where shepherds once trekked with their flocks.
Time to visit a local cheesemaker and savor his pecorino cheese.
Time to explore the village and more — so what are you waiting for?
Don’t put off what you’ve always dreamed of doing. It may be just the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.
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.