If you want to do a wine tasting in Abruzzo, be prepared to put some time aside, as every wine you taste comes with a food course to match. “We never drink without food,” says local guide Luciana Masci. “It’s not the Italian way.” She’s right of course, whether it’s a plate of white anchovies marinated in olive oil and lemon juice served with a glass of trebbiano made at nearby Lidia & Amato Viticoltori, a 200-year-old vineyard, or fried pecorino with a glass of passerina. Food and wine is inextricably linked in this produce-rich and little-known province of Italy. Abruzzo lies on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, with its western border just 80km to the east of Rome. It has 129km of beach-lined coast and encompasses the dramatic mountains of the Apennines, whose peaks pierce the clouds to the west at almost 3000m high. This craggy mountain range has both protected and isolated the region, and it was not until the late 1960s that a motorway from Rome to the coastal town of Pescara cut the travel time from a full day of difficult driving to a much more manageable two hours. This lack of accessibility is one of the factors that has kept Abruzzo out of the tourist limelight, maintaining it as an insiders’ secret. Unlike Florence and Rome, where every vendor seems to speak five languages and is happy to arrange postage for your recent purchase, the small, family-run businesses of Abruzzo – especially in the region’s smaller towns such as Castelli (known for its striking painted maiolica earthenware) – speak only Italian. And, while they’re happy to wrap things carefully, how you get them home is entirely up to you. It’s a refreshing change after the cacophony of commerce that has overtaken some of the more widely visited cities and regions.
Life on the land has always been the mainstay for the people of Abruzzo (when not defending themselves from numerous invasions over the centuries) and the resulting foods each have their own stories. An impromptu visit to a cheesemaker one afternoon has our group crowded onto the front porch of their tiny factory tasting freshly made and aged pecorino, and homemade salami. Here, at the Di Pancrazio dairy, the herd of 600 sheep that graze just metres from the cheese room are guarded by Maremma Sheepdogs – Italian dogs bred to protect flocks from local wolves and foxes. The sheep are hand-milked every second day and the result is used to make ricotta and pecorino that are sold at just a couple of local markets each week. Over the course of our time in Abruzzo with Absolutely Abruzzo Tours as our guides, we eat pecorino on numerous occasions – most deliciously, the fresh variety, crumbed and pan-fried as an appetiser. The traditional annual migration of Abruzzo’s sheep – from mountain pastures south to the lower grasslands of Puglia as winter approaches – is a journey that’s been taking place for centuries, and the regulations surrounding it were initially set out by the Romans. Markers signalling where these tratturi (paths) originally passed can still be seen on rural roads and, even today, shepherds can be seen watching over their flocks.
Despite drizzling rain, Luna is excited to be at work. She bounds through a soggy field looking back at her owner for instruction. When given, this highly trained truffle-hunting dog is off like a shot, heading towards a stand of oak trees in search of the black gold hidden at its roots. Truffles are readily available in Abruzzo, but although there are about 28 varieties, only nine are eaten or are of commercial value. Truffles flourish throughout the year, the climate determining the variety grown. The black summer truffle season in Abruzzo officially opens in mid May – just days before our visit. Rain dampens a dog’s sense of smell, but Luna (perhaps aware of her audience) soon unearths a truffle and is rewarded with a treat. Her owner, Ginesio Tassoni, is one of the region’s most successful professional truffle hunters (there are 10,000 official hunters in Abruzzo, but only 1000 professionals). He also trains truffle-hunting dogs – each of which takes 59 days to train and sells for up to €4000. While truffles can be found in many of Abruzzo’s dishes, the majority are bound for export both within Italy and internationally; in fact, Australian chef, Tetsuya Wakuda, sources his truffle salt and pastes from Abruzzo. The region’s sought-after white truffles can fetch up to $10,000 per kilogram in the wealthy northern provinces of Italy.
Another traditional money-spinner for the region is olive oil production. In recent times, many of Abruzzo’s olive trees have come from Puglia – trees as old as 500 years transplanted to grace private villas and hotels. All olive groves in Abruzzo, however, are protected by the government and aren’t allowed to be removed without a special permit, even though national parks are diminishing to make way for the growing practice of solar farms, wind energy and hydroelectricity.
Despite growing modernisation, traditions and old ways still abound – Luciana, our tour leader (see Visiting Abruzzo, right), tells us how her mother not only sewed her own bed linen to take with her to Australia when she married, but made it from hemp she had grown and woven herself. There are also plenty of family businesses working the way they always have. An example is local jewellers, who uphold the tradition of making jewellery containing symbolic messages displayed inside a star, and surrounded by filigree. Historically, filigree was popular as it allowed a skilled jeweller to create a treasured piece without a lot of gold. This style of jewellery known as la presentosa (the presentation) is essentially a centuries-old way of publicising relationship status updates. For example, a young woman would wear a necklace given to her by her mother showing one heart – this would let admirers know she was single. A pendant with two hearts indicated the wearer was betrothed and was often given to women when their sweetheart had to travel away from home, perhaps while taking sheep to Puglia. Finally, a pendant with two hearts joined by a crescent moon meant the woman was married.
Whatever the state of your heart, it is traditions like these and the authenticity with which they’re preserved that have visitors to this untouched Italian region longing to return to Abruzzo.
The writer travelled in Abruzzo courtesy of Absolutely Abruzzo Tours.
Photography Simon Bajada
As seen in Feast magazine, March 2014, Issue 29. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.