The Molise people are proud of their own identity, even today with the homogeneity of consumer products and customs; they know how to defend the most ancient culinary traditions, preserving with pride the recipes of long gone centuries with the appreciation of the flavours, aromas and fragrances of times passed.
The flavours and aromas are strong and lively. The cuisine of these people has its strength in the simplicity of the dishes and in the genuineness of the ingredients: but, having said this, the list is not lacking in unusual combinations and interesting solutions. The variety of the meals presented on the table is large and full of imagination, and is also not devoid of the influence of nearby populations: the crejoli are close relatives of the maccheroni alla chitarra (a special pasta dish) from Abruzzi, the ciufeli and the tanne de rape resemble the orecchiette con le cime di rapa (ear-shaped pasta with turnip greens) of the Capitanata area. The combination of pasta with all types of vegetables leaves space for any number of enrichments and variations. The taccozzelle con i fagioli (taccozzelle pasta with beans) from Carpinone, enriched with finely chopped ham fat and a generous addition of chilli pepper, can be compared and contrasted with the dishes known as risciuscie in which cereals and legume vegetables make up a tasty and unbreakable bond.
Polenta is present throughout the territory: the success had by pasta has not weakened the eternal everyday relevance of polenta, an almost exclusive food for the poor populations of the Po valley at the extreme buttresses of the Apennines. Just like the polenta in the Abruzzi, in Molise it is generally dressed with rich pork or lamb sauces. In a number of places in the region, polenta dishes are enriched by very special types of ingredients: an example is the «polenta a tordiglioni» from Pozzilli, close to Isernia. This is prepared with vegetables sautéed in the frying pan, flavoured with chilli pepper and garlic and then mixed with polenta. In other cases, polenta is the ideal side dish to accompany grilled sausages: it is prepared in a fairly dense consistency and then cut into slices and grilled together with the sausages it will accompany. And then we wish to recall the dish called «macche con il miele» (macche with honey); this is a polenta made from the characteristic corn grown in the mountainous areas. It is made with a very dense consistency and cooked at length, then it is cut into slices with the help of a piece of string. It can be eaten in two ways: cut into slices, arranged in layers in an oven dish and then covered with a pork meat ragù sauce or by slices of pancetta (Italian spiced bacon) or sausages, and then gratinated in the oven; in another version, the freshly served polenta is accompanied just by vino cotto (‘cooked wine’) or honey.
As in the nearby Abruzzi region, lamb and mutton reign amongst the meat dishes (as well as offering the possibility of some excellent sheep’s milk cheeses). Bucolic tradition indicates the roast as being the preferred cooking method, but the rustic imagination of the local cooks also supplies a whole series of tempting suggestions for cooking both lamb and mutton. In the inland trattoria restaurants it is still possible to come across the old recipe of «pecora alla brigante»,(‘mutton brigand’s style’) which is a kebab of meat flavoured with plenty of aromatic herbs.
A rather extraordinary dish which is typical of the pastoral society is that of the «torcinelli»: these are roulades made from lambs’ intestines stuffed with liver, sweetbreads and hard boiled eggs; the same raw ingredients are used for making the "annodate di trippa" (‘knots of tripe’), but in this case, the intestines are filled with vegetables and lard and boiled, with the result that connoisseurs consider it to be excellent.
There is, in fact, a festival dedicated to mutton dishes, known as the sagra della "pezzata" di Capracotta. This is celebrated every year in the first or second Sunday of August at Capracotta, in the province of Isernia. It is the most characteristic gastronomic festival of the region and has its origins in rituals dating far back in time and which are linked to the times when the grazing animals were moved to different pastures with the changing of the seasons. The festival attracts large crowds and takes place in the area of the summer pastures of Prato Gentile, at one thousand six hundred metres (close to five thousand feet) above sea level. Folk music groups entertain the public with songs and dances while the shepherds prepare the "pezzata", a dish of mutton and lamb barbecued over wooden embers.
But worth remembering are also the kebabs of rabbit meat which are enriched with sausages, slices of ham and sage leaves, and a dish made with kid meat wrapped in thick slices of ham fat and then barbecued. The typical «pamparella» from San Martino in Pensilis is also decidedly original: this is pork pancetta which has been dried out using plenty of chilli pepper; it is then soaked in white (or red) wine and cut into small pieces and added to meat sauces as a flavouring.
All of the food in this land, particularly the meats, are cooked with great care in order to preserve and exalt the original flavours. A place of honour should, therefore, be reserved for the actual utensils used by the cooks of the Molise, and in particular, the ‘tiana’, a terracotta pot which can be used for cooking everything, with the certainty that no aromas will be lost.
Being similar to that of the Abruzzi region, Molise gastronomy is its rival in the cultivation and preparation of vegetables. Sweet peppers and broccoli, celery and fennel are often the cause of authentic village feuds, tenacious parochial rivalry. It has not, in fact, been defined whether it is the sweet peppers from Boiano, or those from Castelmauro which should be considered to be the best – and the opinions are, and have always been, contrasting and also deep-rooted (with valid motives on both sides). There is then the bitter dispute concerning whether to give the first prize for the best small and most flavoursome cannellini beans to Boiano or to Castelmauro. Carpinone boasts of its black broccoli and Acquaviva Collecroce of its small, black and superbly sweet zerniza figs; then the peaches and the apricots of Monteroduni are also a matter for contention, as are the limoncelle apples from Campobasso. These are disputes which take us back to ancient times, when food was a luxury and took on a certain holiness, when it was something which deserved special attention because fruit of great sacrifice, a pause in the daily poverty.
But the oldest and most bitter argument is the one which divides (and in a certain way also brings together) Boiano and Acquaviva Collecroce: both of these two towns sustain to have, in its own extremely fertile vegetable gardens, the best fennel plants and the most flavoursome white celery – and what is more, even the largest in size. It has now become more of a dispute fought in terms of centimetres and grams rather than based being on flavour and taste.
These vegetables, inevitably, arrive on the table having passed via the hot plates of the stove. One of the typical dishes being: large, stuffed sweet peppers, first toasted over charcoals and then filled with a tasty filling of breadcrumbs, anchovy fillets, parsley, basil, salt and chilli pepper, all sautéed in the frying pan and then covered with a thick sauce of puréed tomatoes. They are baked in the oven for about one hour before serving. There are also a number of festivals dedicated to the various vegetables: the one at Isernia in the celebration of the onion is very well known; it takes place on Saint Peter and Paul’s day, 29th June, when the products of the land are celebrated in a very picturesque way. Officially, it is the “festival of the onions”, but it also includes the glorification of all types of fruits and vegetables. The onions from the countryside around Isernia are particularly flavoursome and are the protagonists of the festival: they are displayed on the stalls tied together in plaits and wreaths, and the town’s restaurants prepare various dishes with an onion base. It is an ancient festival founded in 1254 by the earl Ruggero di Celano, establishing the date for the rites dedicated to Saint Peter. It is popularly believed that the onions purchased at the festival at Isernia are better and have significant medicinal powers.
The short length of coastline gives life to an important tradition of fish gastronomy: like in the Abruzzi region, an unusual method of preserving fish is used, called lo scapece: a marinade in small wooden vats which preserves the boned fish which is cut into pieces and fried.
But there are many delicious fish dishes, two of which are truly exceptional: the red mullet soup and the spaghetti with cuttlefish. In particular, at Termoli in August, there is the traditional fish festival with the «pentolata», a huge cauldron of soup made from red mullet of the Adriatic Sea. The inhabitants from many of the towns in the Molise region converge in this pleasant little town for a taste of the soup, celebrating the treasure of this fish offered up by the sea.
And finally, the cakes and desserts: a topic which has its significance since it permits the encounter of different traditions, traditions which are linked to the history of the territory and to religious or family festivities, as well as exalting the different influences which have left their traces over the passage of the centuries. One cake which has almost disappeared is the «o core»; it belongs to the traditions of the village of Ielsi, inhabited by people from far off Bulgarian origins. Even more interesting is the family of the "calzoni" (in dialect,"cauciuni"), which uses chick peas in the filling, a custom probably derived from the preparations of the distant Middle East, or else chestnuts. In practice, each town has its own speciality which can be discovered by travelling and investigating inside the bakeries, the cake shops and in the memories of the families.