The problem with writing a blog about Italian food is because the country’s not only culturally and politically fragmented, it’s culinarily fragmented too. (If there is such a word as ‘culinarily’…)
What you eat in Tuscany; or Sicily; or Rome; or Milan probably won’t be found in Abruzzo.
And even that’s not strictly true either, because Abruzzo’s four provinces mirror Italy in having their own highly localised cooking styles and dishes. A foodie jigsaw-within-a-jigsaw.
Eat something round where we are; then go 50km away – and you won’t find it on any menu. But you will find something you’ve never come across anywhere else before.
And so it goes…
One not insignificant reason for moving to Italy was that we really liked Italian food. Pasta Alfredo was creamy and comforting; Spaghetti and Meatballs were just the thing for a cold winter’s evening; Pepperoni Pizza was the perfect combo of gooey cheese, tomato and spicy sausage. Chicken Parmigiana and Pollo Sorpresa.
Yum. Yum. And yum again.
First hard-earned lesson was that Pasta Alfredo; Spag and Meatballs; Pepperoni Pizza; Chicken Parm; Pollo Sorpresa; and a whole host of other Brit and US favourites are all about as authentically Italian as Sushi.
Seek – and ye shall not find.
And if you want something authentically Italian – but not authentically Abruzzese. Or authentically Abruzzese – but not authentically local to Chieti Province – think again. You probably won’t find that round here either.
Bottom line is Italians are notoriously snitty about any dish that wasn’t invented, grown and cooked within a 10k radius of home.
Or even better – at home. Because it’s a known and scientifically-proven fact that nobody – but nobody – cooks anything better than Mamma.
Out for a local dinner one night I asked Paolo if he could rustle me up a nice bowl of Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. Pasta with a sauce of pecorino cheese and ground black pepper. He looked at me aghast. “No !…We don’t make that here ! It’s…Roman…”
Enquiring in a pasticceria one Christmas whether they sold Panforte. “You want Panforte ?” came the reply. “Go to Siena.”
A nice bottle of Barolo to go with your restaurant steak ? “Do you come from Piedmont ? What’s wrong with Montepulciano D’Abruzzo ?”
And at micro level, don’t expect to get Scripelle ‘mbusse – pancakes served in broth and sprinkled with cheese – in this part of Abruzzo, because it’s a speciality from Teramo province, 135km to the north.
Or the famous fish soup/stew Brodo Vastese in Teramo, (or Pescara, or L’Aquila), because that comes from nearby us on the coast in Chieti province.
Or even Sulmona’s renowned Confetti – sugared almonds and other candies often made-up as edible ‘flowers’ – in our local shops, because Sulmona’s in L’Aquila province and all of 90km away.
So yes, what you eat in Italy will be largely governed by where you live – or are on holiday.
And the lesson is you kind-of eat what you’re given. And you know what ? It’s never less than good, and can reach wondrous heights.
The fact the ingredients are locally-produced; fresh; and prepared by cooks who understand completely what they’re doing, the results have an integrity that’s made me realise and appreciate that good eating – and in particular, good everyday eating – is neither a privilege; nor expensive; nor even something to be remarked on as unusual.
Good bread. Good oil. Good wine. What better foundation could you want ?
But for me, the appeal is not so much what you can find when you eat out. It’s also about a local style of home cooking.
Abruzzo doesn’t have the culinary heritage of – say – Emilia Romagna. It’s not – and never has been – a wealthy region. Meat is expensive. Crops can fail, But you still have to eat.
So welcome to Cucina Povera. A cross between what to eat when you can’t afford to buy very much – or there’s nothing to actually buy – and food for free.
It’s a tradition, originally born out of necessity, but now – in this part of Abruzzo at least – alive and well not (thankfully) because people can’t afford to buy food – but because they actually rather like this style of cooking.
I suspect that Cucina Povera is maybe a style that with innumerable regional variations, is in robust use throughout Italy.
As regards the Abruzzese version, it’s about the most full-on type of cooking you’ll ever have tasted.
Its huge flavours are captured perfectly in Pizz’e Foje. Principal ingredients are broccoli rape; maybe a potato or two; possibly a few lumps of polenta; and weeds. Or call them field herbs if you’d like to dress it up a bit.
Weeds are plentiful, but young beet leaves are the best ones to forage.
But Pizz’e Foje ? Where does that name come from ? It’s Abruzzo dialect. Maybe – educated guess – that Foje comes from Foglie ? Leaves ? The two are pronounced pretty much the same. Other than that – not a clue.
Cook everything up; decorate with a dried anchovy and a dried chilli. Eat very hot. It may not win too many awards for looks, but I love it. It’s my absolute favourite local speciality.
Interestingly, some posh local chefs returning to their roots have started serving perhaps more aesthetically-pleasing versions of Pizz’e Foje, turning it into little breadcrumbed, fried antipasti fritters. They’re pretty tasty too.
If you like the strong iron-y taste of some leafy greens, you’ll like Pizz’e Foje too. If not – then not.
But you probably might like wild asparagus. Round here in March and April, the countryside’s studded with foragers searching out ultra-prickly clumps of wild asparagus and the reed-thin sprues that grow almost inaccessibly in their midst.
You see them returning home with big bundles of the stuff to turn into a frittata.
I have to place hand on heart and say I’m immune to wild asparagus’ charm. Why ? Because also in March and April the shops are full of thick, fat spears of ‘proper’ green asparagus of such quality; and of such abundance; and at such giveaway prices, that it seems a no-brainer not to buy and go on buying.
Our favourite way of eating them is steamed, on garlic-rubbed, toasted home-made bread, drenched with our own oil, with generous shavings of parmesan and topped with a runny-yolked poached egg.
We’ve conclusively proved that you can actually have too much of a good thing, because nearing the end of the asparagus season – just as it morphs into the strawberry season – we’ve eaten so much that we’re praying for it to end. Yet reluctant for it to stop, in the knowledge that when it’s all gone – that’s it for another year.
OK. So going out and buying a bundle of asparagus isn’t exactly Cucina Povera. But going out on a warm summer’s evening after it’s been raining to forage for snails most definitely is.
We don’t get slugs round here. It’s too hot. But snails are a different story, living in great profusion in old stone walls and under rocks. They’re stewed with tomatoes, oil, chilli and garlic. Again – ultra-delicious.
One step up from free food in the Cucina Povera pantheon is food that doesn’t cost very much – and with just a couple of exceptions, that’s where this style of cooking and I can part company.
The nadir is Mazzarelle. These are the coarsely-chopped innards of a lamb, wrapped in a cabbage leaf, bound-up with the lamb’s intestines, and braised.
Better – a bit better – is a widely-available dish known round here as Cif e Ciaf; (and further north in Teramo as ’ndocca ‘nodocca.) Same deal.
These are the leftover bits of pig, once it’s been butchered and turned into prosciutto, salami, salsicce, lardo and pancetta together with fine grilling and braising cuts.
The local contadini – smallholders – can rival the Chinese in using-up every bit of pig except the oink, but there’s always a bucket or two of assorted bits and pieces left over that have to be used up.
So they’re chopped into bite-size morsels and deep fried. And I have to say, when they’re scaldingly-hot, straight from the pan, they can be pretty tasty. But when it’s all cooled down a bit, and you discover that what you’ve been chewing on thoughtfully for the past minute or so is actually a rapidly-congealing lump of pure gristle – not so good.
Interestingly – for those of you still with me – the one bit of pig that is resolutely off the menu (at least as far as my best bud Rocco is concerned) are the pig’s kidneys.
Because they smell of pee.
So instead of chucking the kidneys at his dogs, Rocco performs a ritual pantomime of holding his nose with one hand, while stretching out his other arm at full length to hand over a grisly – and admittedly fairly whiffy – plastic bag to the bizarre English couple down the end of the lane, who are actually going to eat the two blood-soaked lumps inside.
Which is how and why a couple of times each winter when the pigs are butchered, we get to have Steak-and-Kidney Pie.
But not all examples of our local Cucina Povera are quite as red in tooth and claw. If there’s such a thing as Abruzzese comfort food, it’d have to be Cace e Ove, little dumplings of breadcrumbs, egg and grated cheese, gently fried and served with a tomato sauce. I can – and have been known to – eat platefuls.
And, yes – polenta. I’d actually believed this to be more a northern staple, but seems not.
When Rocco’s wife Angela makes polenta, she scorns plates and serves it – topped with a rich sauce of tomato, salsicce, garlic and chilli – on the heavily-scrubbed kitchen table. Occasionally, when she thinks Pauline’s not feeding me enough, she’ll appear at the door with a plate laden with the leftovers.
Irritatingly, for something seemingly as simple as polenta, it’s one thing I just can’t get the hang of cooking. Angela’s is rib-stickingly good. Twice elsewhere, I’ve eaten polenta that’s been the food of the gods. Once, oddly, at a (non-Italian) place in London as an accompaniment to a plate of roast chicken legs; once, of a creamy, garlicky unctuousness in a now-closed eaterie in Sulmona.
(And can I replicate this ? I can’t even get close. My polenta is solid and heavy enough to be used as ship’s ballast. Why ?)
Take another step up to a massive and bewildering array of regional speciality pastries which to be honest don’t do a great deal for me. Except maybe Taralucci, little baked twists stuffed with a filling of finely-chopped Montepulciano grapes, (or bitter Amarene cherries) almonds and white wine.
And at the top of the pinnacle, the twin Abruzzo street-food specialities of Porchetta and Arrosticini.
Porchetta maybe not an exclusive Abruzzese speciality. But Arrosticini most certainly are.
The former, a boned, stuffed and very, very slow-roasted young pig will vary according to the fancy of the vendor. Some stuffings – or to be more accurate, flavourings, rather than an added ingredient – can be herb-driven, either with sage or rosemary. Or with garlic. Some vendors add almonds. The secret is to produce skin of astonishing crispness – but with the meat still tender and succulent.
And with time spent living in Abruzzo comes the knowledge of just the right moment, as the pig is being carved away, to place your order. (For me, just past the halfway point when you get the prime bits of loin).
Or maybe you’d prefer Arrosticini. Char-grilled, pencil-thin skewers of mutton. They’re an Abruzzese passion. Obsession even. Produced and eaten in prodigious quantities at fairs and festivals. If you’re at a table with friends, a single order of 50 – or more – will be taken as fairly restrained.
Again, there are subtle differences in style. Early each summer, against the medieval backdrop of Crecchio Castle near us, vendors compete for the prize of being judged the best Arrosticini maker in Abruzzo: the Arrosticino D’Oro – the Golden Kebab. And you get to eat the winner !
Funnily enough, I’m not a big Arrosticini fan. But tell you what…I’ll swap you mine for your Porchetta.
Oh…and in case you’re wondering and/or worried, yes – in addition to the strictly local specialities, there’s enough in the way of new takes on delicious pasta, pizza, meat and fish to keep you happy and full for a month of holidays.
Just no Pasta Alfredo…