Friuli Venezia Julia
Administratively, Friuli corresponds to the provinces of Udine and Pordenone. Friuli is made up of a plain which slopes gently towards the
Adriatic Sea, and the circle of mountains surrounding it. It embraces the Carnic Alps and the Eastern Julian Alps. The plain is divided into high and low, referring to the line of resurgence. The high plain is more or less arid and seems occupied by extended “magredi” the term used in this area for the permeable terrain of alluvial origins and poor of vegetation. The low plain is often swampy. The most important watercourse is the Tagliamento which has its source in the Carnic Alps. Some of the important lakes to be remembered are the Cavazzo and the San Daniele.
The mountainous area by the name of Carnia has different traditions and cuisine and will be considered separately.
Friuli is a poor region in which native cuisine is made with products of a difficult agriculture. Potatoes, turnips, barley, corn and pigs are the principal raw materials. There are meals without much inspiration, but natural and free of sophistication and contamination. One example is given by a kind of lettuce, Gorizia dwarf radicchio. It is cultivated in greenhouses and is small, velvety green and delicately bitter. It is ready to be picked in the spring and is absolutely delicious. The inhabitants of Friuli, when they are far from home, have the seeds sent to them in an effort to try to reproduce this radicchio, but the result is so far from the original that it does not even seem to be the same vegetable. From a dwarf, the plant becomes large, and the flavour is normal, without that unmistakable touch of bitterness.
A typical “Friuli meal” always begins with a steaming bowl of soup. The soups are the most interesting part of the local cuisine. They are flavoursome, simple to reproduce and are often, to the Mediterranean palate, surprising. There are soups, minestrine (broth with small pasta), minestrone (vegetable soup), sweet soups, hearty soups, soups for every taste and every occasion. The most distinctive is perhaps, “iota,” which lends itself to many variations. The basic recipe for this soup calls for beans and sauerkraut with the addition of cornmeal, all of which is dressed with the “pestat,” a mixture of chopped lard, onion, sage, parsley and garlic. “Iota” can be enriched with meat or pork rind (it then becomes a single, very substantial dish) or with vegetables and barley.
Perhaps the height is reached with “minestra di fagioli” (bean soup). It is very flavoursome and does not require pasta or bread because it is already thick and hearty on its own. The beans, small and speckled with red, are shaped like little cushions. They are flavoured with lard and various herbs and the result is extraordinary.
The most common meat is pork, and all of the pig is used. Just think of the “marcundela,” a typical sausage of Friuli which can be compared, to a certain extent, to the “mazzafegati” of the Marches and the Abruzzi and with other common salamis from other regions of Italy. The mixture is made with the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs, spleen, giblets and fat of the pig, encased in the natural, aged intestine of the pig. The sausage is cut into slices and fried in butter, then served with a plate of pasta or an omelette.
The “muset co le brovade” is typical. “Muset” is a small sausage flavoured with spices. It is similar to cotechino (fresh pork sausage) and, like cotechino, it is boiled until the casing breaks and the meat comes out and starts to crumble. The “brovade,” a speciality of Friuli, require long, knowledgeable workmanship. They are white turnips harvested after the first frost of the year. They are left to shrivel for approximately ten days so that they become softer and juicier. The top from which the leaves sprout is then removed. The roots, however, are left on even if they are long and bearded. They are then immersed in a vat where the “trappa” has already been prepared. This is a liquid made up of three parts water and one part of highly tannic wine from the press, which give it its characteristic, sour flavour. The vat must be covered and the turnips fermented for at least two months. When they are used they are shredded with the appropriate grater. They are used in various soups in this way, or they can also be a dish by themselves, or a side dish. Their decisive flavour combines wonderfully with pork.
With regard to pork, it is obligatory to make a stop to talk about the exquisite ‘prosciutto di San Daniele’, with its characteristic violin shape. Rose-coloured and sweet as the hills where it is born, with very little fat, it has a delicate flesh and a mild flavour, which come from the particular salting and the climatic and environmental conditions. Residuals of salt are left on the surface of the prosciutto, which are then exposed to humid winds which come from the mountains and which help the natural penetration of the salt into the meat.
In the area around Gorizia, the Easter period tradition of cooking prosciutto in bread, probably of Czech origin, has survived. The leg of a small pig, about 2 kilos (4 ½ lbs.) is used. It is completely rolled in normal bread dough of a thickness of approximately one centimetre (1/2 inch). It is baked in the oven of an artisan’s shop, better still if it is a wood-burning oven, and it is removed when the crust of the bread has reached a proper golden colour. It is served hot, or warm, cut into slices including the crust, with grated radish on top.
In terms of meats other than pork, Friuli boasts ancient recipes for farmyard animals and game. Not to be omitted is “piccione in scrigno” (pigeon in a casket), which requires a long preparation using the following ingredients: a white potato large enough to hold a young pigeon, the liver and giblets of the pigeon, 50 grams (2 oz) of lard, 60 grams (2 ½ oz) of lean prosciutto crudo (cured ham), 50 grams (2 oz) of porcini mushrooms, 5 or 6 sprigs of parsley, 5 or 6 capers, two or three pickled cucumbers, sage, rosemary, salt, pepper, two tablespoons of olive oil, one cup of dry white wine and brandy. Wrap the whole potato in tinfoil and cook it slowly in the oven. Wash, dry, salt and pepper the pigeon, then roll it in the prosciutto, place it in a pan with the sage leaves and rosemary, add the two tablespoons of olive oil and cook on low heat until it is three-quarters cooked. It is then placed in the oven with the white wine and a spray of brandy. In the meantime, make a pulp of the liver, giblets, lard, mushrooms, parsley, capers, cucumbers, sage and rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste, then cook over low heat with a bit of butter to form a sauce. Cut the potato in half length-wise to form two equal parts, hollow them out and place the pigeon and sauce in one half and cover with the other. Place in the oven for ten minutes in a buttered pan. It should be served very hot with a garnish of black verjuice grapes.
“Capriolo in salmì” (roebuck marinated in herbs and wine) requires one kilo and eight hundred grams (3 ½ lbs.) of young, female roebuck meat, captured in the summer-autumn period. It should be left for twelve hours in a marinade of one litre (1 ¾ pints) of red wine, one cup of wine vinegar, a small amount of carrots and celery, onion, two cloves of garlic, rosemary, sage, bay leaf, parsley, juniper berries, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and thyme. The meat is drained and browned in a base of prosciutto fat and butter with all the ingredients of the marinade, but fresh ones should be used. While the meat is browning, a sauce is prepared with the wine from the marinade, the meat scraps, green chilli peppers, pickled cucumbers and anchovies. It should be finished with the sauce and served with potato dumplings sautéed in the refined sauce of the roebuck itself.
The cheeses of Friuli also boast ancient traditions. The most important among them is Montasio, the most typical of all the cheeses of Friuli, protected by the DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin) label. This cheese takes its name from Altopiano di Montasia, an isolated area on the north eastern border among the Alpine peaks, an extension of approximately 1000 hectares (5000 acres) at an altitude of 1500 metres (5000 feet). It is an area protected by the tops of the Jof Fuart and the Jof Montasio, both of them over 2700 metres (9000 feet). It is a cooked cheese, obtained from cow’s milk. The cream is allowed to rise from the evening milking and the milk is mixed with the milk from the morning milking. The coagulation takes place at approximately 32 degrees C (0 degrees F) and the curd is briefly left to rest before being broken by the appropriate instrument, called a lira, then it is brought to a temperature of 45 degrees C (113 degrees F). At the end of this first phase, the curd is deposited in the appropriate hoops, where it is kept under pressure for several hours. During the course of the operations the moulds are turned frequently. The next step is salting, first in brine and then dry, before passing to the ageing period. Fresh Montasio, da tavola (table cheese) is ready after a month and a half. After six months it becomes mezzano (medium) and after a year it becomes vecchio (mature). The cheese is straw yellow and crumbly. With age, small holing appears. For long ageing, forms made with the milk of the summer period are preferable since they are immune to the risk of fermentation and the consequent excessive number of holes. The cylindrical form has a diameter of approximately thirty-five centimetres (13 ½ inches), and is approximately eight centimetres (3 ¼ inches) high and weighs approximately 7 kilos (15 ½ lbs.).
Ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese) is also produced. This is a typical preparation of ricotta, common in various cheese factories in the mountains of Friuli, very typical of Val Canale in the area crossed by the Udine-Tarvisio motorway, above all in the towns of Pradis di Sopra and Malborghetto. The ricotta, made from cow’s milk whey after the processing of Montasio, is compressed into brick-shapes and smoked with beech wood aromatised with juniper and herbs. A tasty table cheese, smoked ricotta is also used to accompany typical local first courses such as gnocchi di patate (potato dumplings) and “cialzons” (stuffed pasta).
Lastly, remember a dish whose origins are tied to the poverty of this land. The dish is called “frico fiulano” (melted cheese fritters). Today it is a compulsory starter in traditional meals in Friuli, but its origins are humble. The farmers, before bringing the herds to pasture, would leave a pan with leftover cheese rinds on the hot ashes of the hearth. When they returned, they found the cheese rinds melted, transformed into a sort of golden fritter. Today it is prepared in two ways: a few spoonfuls of grated Montasio cheese are poured over melted butter and browned, or pieces of potato are first added and then flattened when they are tender, and then covered with Montasio cheese.
The olive oil deserves a mention. Even though it borders on an area where there should no longer be olive trees, the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia produces a small but significant amount of oil which has found its place and value in recent years. The areas involved are those of the eastern hills of Friuli, between Udine and the Slovenian border, in the hilly area on the shoulders of Cividale, the entire vine growing area of Collio Gorizano and, in the southern part of the region, the narrow southern basin around the populated areas of Muggia and San Dorligo della Valle. In any case, the amount of oil produced is limited, but the quality of the extra-virgin olive oil is nevertheless interesting. It is fluid and clear with a surprisingly refined aroma.
Last but not least, the desserts. The people of Friuli and the people of Venezia Giulia could seriously debate the differences between the “gubana”, a focaccia cake typical of Friuli, and the “putizza” which is prepared in a similar way and is made only in the area of Trieste. The truth is that there is more than one kind of “gubana.” The one made in the valleys of Natisone is different from that of Cividale, and in Trieste the “putizza” has been absorbed into the “presnitz” (sweet pastry roll with raisins, nuts and candied fruit), which is of Hungarian origin. To complicate matters, sometimes sugar is used as a sweetener and sometimes honey is used. Apart from this small complication, the two areas are united by a series of more or less similar biscuits. And among the high-ranking cakes there are the great cakes of Viennese tradition, from the “Sacher” to the “Dobos.”