Aquila and its Territory
Aquila is located seven hundred metres above sea level on a mountain range to the left of the Aterno River, at the centre of a large basin which opens between Gran Sasso and the Monte d’Acre mountain range.
The territory does not have access to the sea. It spreads across the highest and most mountainous areas of the central Apennines.
It is an area rich in water. Its principal agricultural products are cereals, potatoes, fruit trees, grapevines, beets and other vegetables. It is especially known for its saffron, grown in the plateau of the Aterno. The raising of sheep with seasonal transferral to and from the high pasturelands is widespread as is also pig rearing.
As a result of sheep breeding, its cuisine is rich in cheeses made from sheep’s milk, and also in salamis made not only from pork but also from sheep, like the famous and distinctive salami which, once widespread in Abruzzi, has now become a rarity. One of the areas where this tradition survives is Anversa degli Abruzzi, a small village located between the parks of Abruzzi and of the Maiella, near the beginning of the rise toward Scanno.
Another typical salami from Abruzzi is the “fiaschetta aquilana,” made from lean meat from the thigh of the pig, finely chopped and flavoured with salt and spices, then stuffed into a natural intestine casing and placed under pressure for a period of time. The shape of the salami is similar to that of an ancient “fiaschetta portapolvere” or powder flask used to hold gunpowder in the age of muzzle loading firearms. The salami is lightly smoked with softwood, which serves more to dry the sausage than to flavour it. They weigh from one to three kilograms (2 lbs 3oz to 6 lbs 9 oz). The mortadella di Campotosto is also exquisite. These small mortadellas are commonly called “mule’s testicles.” They are, of course, made of pork, the mule only being part of the image. It is a fine-grained salami of choice meat with a square column of lard in the centre. According to some of its admirers, the tri-colour composition (the white lard, the red meat and the black pepper) has greatly contributed to the commercial success of the product, whose fame has long spread past the borders of the region.
Basciano boasts a very special prosciutto. Basciano is a town near the Val Vomano motorway tollbooth, a few kilometres after the Gran Sasso tunnel when travelling from Aquila toward Teramo. The area is caressed by cool breezes from the mountains, making for ideal conditions for the ageing of highly esteemed prosciutto. The method used is the classic one which distinguishes all country style prosciutto. The thigh, cleaned and trimmed, is placed in a press for a couple of days so that it loses its internal humours. It is then salted by dry massage with a mixture of salt, garlic and hot peppers. The prosciutto is then hung to age and is ready to be eaten after one year.
Among the agricultural products, the garlic of Sulmona, the lentils of Santo Stefano and the vegetables of Fucino are specialities of the area.
The red garlic of Sulmona is a celebrated quality of garlic that is grown on the hills around the town of Torre di Nolfi and Campo di Fano, a few kilometres from Sulmona. It is a very unique garlic which cannot be compared to the other two types, red and white, usually cultivated in Italy. The external skin is, in fact, white, but the internal skin that encloses the individual cloves is reddish purple. It is planted in November and harvested in July. That it is a special product is attested to by the fact that the land, after having been used to cultivate this type of garlic, needs four or five years of rest before it can be used again. This is on the condition that, in the intervening seasons, wheat, barley or oats and not, for example, medicinal herbs, broad beans, onions or leeks, have been cultivated there. It is obviously a plant that has precise agricultural needs. An integral part of most of the cuisine of Sulmona, red garlic is at its best when one clove is sautéed in a pan where steamed green beans are prepared, or the tomato sauce for “maccheroni alla puttanesca.” In the areas where it originated, a festival is held in the height of the summer to honour it. The festival boasts stands that display braids and garlands of garlic while the restaurants prepare dishes based on garlic.
Santo Stefano di Sessanio is a small village in the province of Aquila. It is worthy of note and a visit for having preserved medieval structures as well as the mullioned windows and open galleries of the sixteenth century, when it passed from the hands of the Medicis of Florence (whose coat of arms is still visible on the entryway to the main piazza). For connoisseurs, Santo Stefano di Sessanio is noteworthy as the place where the best lentils in Abruzzi are produced. They are small and black, have a higher iron content than lentils produced in other places and, a small and important detail, have an extremely short cooking time. Steamed and served as a side dish with many dishes, lentils from Santo Stefano become the centrepiece of a special soup, simple to prepare, that is a speciality of Aquila. The lentils, after being soaked and softened in water overnight, are boiled in water and oil with a clove of garlic until they become a soup. The soup is then poured into plates over pieces of bread which have been toasted in the oven or fried in oil.
The repertoire of products from the earth that bring pride to the region is truly vast. During a journey in the area, the vegetables produced in Fucino are not to be missed. These include carrots, fennel, potatoes, and the radicchio produced in the swampy area.
One part of the territory of Aquila is occupied by chestnut woods. The most highly esteemed production in all of Abruzzi is that of Valle Roseto, whose chestnuts are of the highest quality in the region, and are cooked in the most various and flavourful ways. As a first course we have the typical “ravioli di castagne e panna” (chestnut and cream ravioli) which are prepared according to the following ancient recipe. Shell one kilogram (2 lbs 3 oz) of chestnuts, boil them in cold, salted water then peel and puree them. Collect the puree in a pan, add two hundred fifty grams (9 oz) of milk, five hundred grams (17 ½ oz) of sugar and thicken over a low flame, mixing with a wooden spoon. Allow the mixture to cool, add salt, pepper, chopped parsley, two eggs and a package of sour cream. Fill the ravioli in the usual manner. Boil the ravioli and dress with butter, cream and sage.
But the chestnut ravioli can be prepared and dressed with a sauce made by braising a black truffle in foaming butter and doused with Madeira wine and one or two spoonfuls of good veal sauce.
Another first course is “minestra di riso e castagne” (rice and chestnut soup) in which cooked, peeled chestnuts are heated in milk and butter and then for a few minutes with rice which has been cooked beforehand.
Naturally the first courses include all of those typical to Abruzzi, from the “scrippelle” (crepes made from batter including fresh parsley), used both in a timbale (layered with spinach, meat and giblets, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese) and in broth, to the “maccheroni alla chitarra” (fresh egg pasta).
The black truffles, which are available all over the area, make up a distinctive part of the cuisine of Aquila. They show up even combined with cracked wheat, or particularly with linguine, in a very typical dish.
A particularly tasty first course is “pennette di farro alle olive” (small cracked wheat penne pasta with olives), for which we shall provide a precious recipe. Five hundred grams (17 ½ oz) of cracked wheat fluted quill pasta are called for, along with twenty five to thirty pitted black olives, the equivalent of a portion of chicory, steamed and lightly salted, two cloves of garlic, three or four peeled tomatoes, a spicy chilli pepper and forty grams (1 ½ oz) of Parmesan cheese. To prepare them, do the following: Chop the chicory, olives and hot peppers. In a pan big enough to hold all the ingredients, sauté the minced garlic in oil. When the garlic has taken on a little bit of colour, add the tomatoes and allow to cook for five or six minutes, mashing the tomatoes continuously with a fork. Add the minced mixture at this point and mix until an even mixture is obtained. Drain the pasta, add to the pan and mix for a few minutes over a medium flame. Add a few spoonfuls of the cooking water if necessary (the dish should not be very dry) and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
The meats, both from sheep and cows, are abundant, especially roasted or cooked over hot coals, even if pork, without a doubt, dominates. The pork is prepared fresh in addition to being used in salamis and sausages. The abundant mixed grilled meats predominate on the tables of the area, real signs of gastronomic opulence. There are also boiled meats that mix all types of meat, from farmyard animals to sheep. This is a dish which is tied to the mountainous territory rich in every type of livestock.
As far as desserts are concerned, the very famous confetti (sugared almonds) of Sulmona and the chocolate torrone (a kind of nougat) from Aquila must be remembered. The torrone is made of hazelnuts, sugar, honey, egg whites and chocolate coating. Chocolate torrone is an absolutely unique product with the characteristic of remaining soft even if taken to the equator or the North Pole, on the beach in the summer or a ski slope in the winter. The secret is in the measurement of the ingredients and in the workmanship. The abundant production of ricotta cheese has brought about the creation of many cakes with ricotta cheese, enriched with cinnamon and various liqueurs.
There are many types of digestive liquors typical to the area, where the various infusions are named for ancient lands. The most celebrated liquor is “ghentiane,” made with gentian root, a natural liquor often offered as an “ammazzacaffè’” (after coffee drink).