Handy Food Tips from a Local
by chef Ezio Gentile
As a chef from the small town of Prezza in Abruzzo I often get asked “where’s Abruzzo?” and “where would I start in uncovering the flavours of this mysterious region?”.
Let’s start with my birthplace, the small but beautiful fortified medieval town of Prezza that overlooks the rich Peligna Valley, made famous by Ovid’s Sulmona and Corfinio, whose people first named the land ‘Italia’.
These savoury tasting notes are for the province of L’Aquila which Prezza is part of, and include some of the stop-offs or alternatives from my Italian cooking holidays that I share with my food & wine tour guests, and which we sample on site or take back as ingredients to our kitchen to cook with. We later contrast them with the other provinces in Abruzzo that we visit. L’Aquila may be landlocked but its mountains have sculpted a unique terrain that is both incredibly beautiful and home to a rich and diverse set of ingredients that creates memorable dishes that inspire and evoke the place and setting.
Abruzzo is now famous internationally for its dried pasta and rightly so, but when you’re over make sure you try pasta made with some of the lesser known ancient grain flours like those made from solina, spelt or farro. These are lower in gluten and will surprise you with their fuller flavour and texture.
Visit Pratola Peligna’s Pastificio Masciarelli.
The best chefs in Italy look to the saffron grown on the terraces of Navelli Alta for their Milanese Risotto. Its ability to take red juicy peppers and tomatoes, seafood and a bowl of simple pasta somewhere else guarantees it’s a spice worth investing in, especially when considering just how hard harvesting by hand this autumn crocus remains.
Visit Altopiano di Navelli’s cooperative – link http://www.zafferanoaltopianonavelli.it/
Make the most of the truffles during your stay in Abruzzo! 40% of Italy’s truffle production comes from the region and a large black one from Sulmona was recently served at Buckingham Palace. I’d always recommend going truffle-hunting for a chance to marvel at the ability of dogs to sniff this Italian style superfood. My simple favourites are summer or winter black truffles sliced thinly on some fried eggs or some good pasta and I am quite partial to a few slices of truffle cheese…
Buy Truffles at Sulmona’s Market in Piazza Garibaldi or arrange to go truffle-hunting.
Don’t get confused between Pecorino wine made from one of Abruzzo’s ancient grapes and the region’s pecorino cheese. It’s an everlasting testament to the Abruzzo of yesterday, when the Medici sought control of the region due to its sheep routes. Taste the family-produced cheeses which use raw sheep milk and you’ll get to taste some of 120 wild herbs and flowers that make up the high pastures of the region. Abruzzese Pecorino is less salty than its Romano cousin and is delicious eaten with raw young broad beans or drizzled with honey to be truly Abruzzese.
Try an organic pecorino cheese tasting at Scanno’s Agriturismo Valle Scannese.
Sulmona Red Garlic
I love this description by Slow Food of our aromatic local Sulmona Red Garlic that they describe as ‘kitted out in red tunics’. Beyond its wonderful flavour and aroma, the garlic is used locally for its medicinal properties as it has the highest amount of allicin of all the different types of garlic worldwide and which acts as a natural antibiotic. Locally we also eat Zolle, the garlic bulb’s flower shoots which resemble small asparagus buds and which we tuck into my personal favourite, a skinny omelette (frittatas).
Buy at Sulmona’s Market on Wednesdays or Saturdays in Piazza Garibaldi.
Despite many Americans not liking lamb I have yet to meet one that doesn’t enjoy the region’s tiny wood-skewered mutton kebabs that are then flame-grilled when they try. This was the food of the shepherds that is still served with bruschetta and shows that big is not always best. This is ideally sampled al fresco at one of the local village and town sagras that occur throughout the summer.
Abruzzo is recognised as where the north meets the south. This means it is where you’ll first notice that if it’s the season you’ll be served fresh chillies with a pair of scissors to snip into our dinner. As chillies go, they are sweet with gentle heat rather than the type that blow your head off; perhaps that is why it’s called Abruzzo Viagra. Out of season look for olio santo, peperoncini that have been cut into small pieces and preserved in olive oil.
Buy the preserved jars at Sulmona Market on Wednesdays or Saturdays in Piazza Garibaldi.
The province of L’Aquila is famous for its superb pulses and are something I never tire of eating. They are a lot smaller than anything you’d find dried in a bag or in a tin back home but their depth of flavour and tenderness makes them memorable. The red and white chickpeas of Navelli are worth trying; expect to eat them served simply flavoured with rosemary and saffron or in a stew infused with pepperoncini. Paganica beans are a DOP product famed in the province of L’Aquila; I prefer the white ones, they are so aromatic and buttery. Santo Stefano di Sessanio lentils are small, tender and packed with flavour – if you are offered a bowl never turn the chance down!
Look for them at Sulmona Market or L’Aquila’s farmers market.
My hometown of Prezza is famed for its exquisite artichokes that were served to the G7 when they visited Abruzzo. They only grow in one part of the town and their buds are much smaller than those you traditionally encounter, with a sweet nutty taste. They are worked into a cream that is fantastic simply stirred into some good pasta.
The artichoke cream you will find available in all good food stores across L’Aquila or if you are in the area in May visit the town for our Artichoke and Olive Oil sagra.
Salame Schiacciato Tipo Aquilano
This is a delicate rectangular-shaped salami that is made from organic lean cuts of pork, skimmed unpasteurised milk, salt & pepper which is set in a press. It’s an incredibly delicate salami that I miss badly when back in Rhode Island.
Buy from Prezza’s butcher, who makes all his own salumi – Macelleria Zaccardelli
Chef Ezio offers 3 & 7-day Italian cooking holidays in Abruzzo which explore the rich traditions and colourful customs of rural Italy from medieval Prezza and includes the food and wine based excursions to:
Truffle Hunting | Cheese Making | Wine Tasting | Olive Oil Tasting | Gastro fish dining aboard a Trabocco on the UNESCO heritage coast | Exploring Artisan Pasta & Confetti Producers | Market trip | Day trip to Scanno | Guided tour with Smartphone Camera Instruction | Castle-hopping