Belluno and its Province
Belluno is the chief town of one of the provinces of the Veneto region, and it stands between the rivers Ardo and Piave, 390 metres above sea level; it lies on a ridge above a tributary to the right of the main stream in a picturesque situation affording defences and security against flooding.
The rest of the province, as well as a part of the basin of the Brenta tributary, Cismon to the west, includes the Brenta basin above Quero.
The area is wholly mountainous, the land being given over to forestry and pasture.
The beauty of the countryside, which includes the eastern Dolomites, has encouraged much tourist development.
The territory is subdivided into various zones : Bellunese, Feltrino, Alpago, Agordino, Livinallongo, Ampezzo, Cadore, Comelico. But the cuisine is everywhere linked to that of the mountain region including therefore, historically, polenta, cheeses and all milk products, fungi, game, pork with all its associated products and beef. The dishes which appertain to this territory are served in all the areas, although with quite some differentiation.
The classic sauce ‘peverada’, for example, includes many recipes from the simplest requiring only the ingredients broth, breadcrumbs, grated cheese and pepper, to the more complicated ones which include marrow and salamis. This accompanies meat courses, in particular, the boiled meats which are popular in this area as in many other parts of northern Italy.
One common feature throughout this zone are without doubt the bean dishes; the most renowned being that of Lamon in Belluno province, the beans being covered with cold water and set to cook with onions, various herbs and a flavouring derived from a ham bone or fresh pork rind. The beans are cooked slowly, literally “coadi” brooded or hatched, simmering for at least two and a half hours. One half is passed through a sieve and the resulting pulp is then cooked a little longer before the remaining beans are tossed in with the cooked pasta. This is then dressed with olive oil. Some consider it a blasphemy to add grated cheese, others recommend it. There are many variations.
The previously mentioned ‘hatching’ constitutes the cooking technique of one of the richest and most delicious of the local dishes – the ‘sopa coada.’ More than just a soup, it is a kind of oven-baked pie, made up of slices of bread soaked in broth together with boned pigeon. A richer variation is one in which capon or turkey are added to the pigeon, still with alternate layers of bread, which is then put into an earthenware pot, (any other type of material is not recommended). If there is not a fireplace or wood stove where the pot can be stowed in the warm, it can be placed in an oven at a very low temperature and left to simmer for many hours.
But where the Venetian cuisine is at its most superb, is in the recipes which utilise the animals and fowl of the farmyard; poultry, ducks, pigeon, geese, turkey and guinea fowl. There are many specialities: in Treviso one simply must try the ‘roasted goose with celery salad’; at Asiago, the ‘roe buck with sultana sauce’. But everywhere can be found young poultry and small turkeys (“paete”) cooked with various sauces such as that typical of the cold season which traditionally accompanies roast turkey, with a pomegranate base.
As well as those deriving from farmyard animals, game also used to provide, and still does to some extent, a rich and quite varied range of dishes. There is big game, from hare to deer, (but this animal is now protected in Italy and the meat imported), to wild boar: cooked in the oven, on the spit or jugged, depending on the dish and the age of the animal. These are the tastiest of dishes, which cannot be eaten unless served with polenta.
The rearing of cattle is extensive throughout this area, and the cows’ milk produced yields renowned cheeses such as ‘Asiago’ and ‘Monte Veronese’, both protected by DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin) and both employing different techniques, using partially skimmed or full fat milk. From these are derived many important products; still awaiting recognition of their origins, they are rightly and properly the by-products of traditional craft activities and are of particular interest, such as ricotta and “schiz”. The ‘schiz’ cheese is traditional and typical of the locality, and goes back to the period immediately after the war, when the farmers carried the milk taken from the few family cows to the dairy in order to make cheese. When the curd was closed in the moulds and pressed, the surplus curd would ooze out. At this point, it was cut away, carefully collected and taken home together with the mould of cheese. These would then be finished by ripening in the cellar; the surplus curd, known as the ‘schiz’, was cut into strips and cooked in a pan. It was a humble but very nutritious meal of the people from the Alpine pastures. Even today, the process for making the ‘schiz’ cheese has not changed much at all.
Historically, there is the cheese Morlacco, a cheese from the summer Alpine pastures which is, unfortunately, nowadays very hard to find. It is made by a method following ancient tradition which is now considered to be against current regulations. It is still possible to find some cheesemakers who produce it, and this is then a rare tasting experience. It is made with untreated milk, skimmed, un-pasteurised and cooked only once. The curd is put into wicker baskets to strain out the whey. It is salted once it is dry. The maturation once took place either in a mould covered with clay or even placed under a bed of straw in the stables. Matured, Morlacco has almost ceased to exist. In its place there is the fresh kind, available only in summer when the cattle are at their mountain pasture. The crust is a straw yellow colour, the texture of the cheese delicate, ivory white with tiny holes and a salty flavour, slightly acid and very intriguing. It is exclusively eaten as a table cheese.
The Piave cheese should also be mentioned, obtained from the milk of two milkings, one of which is semi skimmed naturally. It is a product of the valley of the Piave river, between Belluno and Feltre and has some resemblance to the better known Montasio cheese whose preparation is the same. The cheese is compact, cuts easily, without any holes and is of a straw-yellow colour. The salting is carried out in brine. It is ready after the two month’s maturation and is a fresh cheese; at six months it is half matured and fully ripe after ten. With time it hardens and becomes a good grating cheese, nevertheless preserving with age the characteristic taste, and intrinsically smooth and delicate texture, as when young. It is cylindrical in shape, eight centimetres (3 inches) in height, thirty-two centimetres (12 ½ inches) in diameter with a weight of about six kilos (13 pounds). The fresh and medium matured are the best cheeses for the table, when ripe it lends itself to the preparation of oven cooked polenta, or can be grated over regional first course dishes.
Another characteristic of the area is the pork sausages, and also those of other meats. In the mountains in the Cadore and the area around Asiago, in fact, alongside the production of pork meat, one also finds sausages made from venison, chamois and of course goat. In the rural areas of the plain, where the humid climate renders the maturing more difficult, it is customary to smoke certain of the products in order to ensure safer preservation.
Pigs, which are almost wild, are also raised on the hillsides of the Pasubio and are fed largely on a diet of chestnuts and potatoes. Their meat acquires, therefore, a particular and inimitable flavour. The filling is made from roughly chopped meat and mixed with salt, pepper and garlic and left to marinade in red wine. When it is ready, the meat filling is put to hang in the cellar so that it can mature and it is left there for about a year. The atmosphere must be cool and dry to avoid the formation of green mould which would be damaging to the ageing process. After a proper maturation, the meat should be covered with a soft, white mould. Foremost of all the sliced meat antipasti, the pressed meat (soppressa) is cut into slices somewhat thicker than usual and is served accompanied by large pieces of polenta which have been roasted on the grill.
Amongst the typical sweets, we recall the ‘bigarani’, thin, ring-shaped biscuits, made with bread dough to which butter and sugar are then added and kneaded in a second time. Placed on a buttered baking tray, they are given a first cooking, then left for two days and after which time they are then put back in the oven to crisp up. They can be kept a long time. They are found in the cake shops in the region of Bassano del Grappa and the surrounding areas. As a local tradition, they are given as gifts of good luck to women who are about to give birth.
One finds moreover many other sweets which are common to all three Venezie: fruit desserts (usually apples), but also richer desserts which are Austrian in origin, sometimes sweets made with the very special honey which is abundant in the area. We remember particularly the balsamic honey of Asiago. A characteristic product of Asiago where it has bee refined by the bee-keeper, Guoli. This is the mountain honey in which are steeped droplets of the local ‘mugo’, gathered in the high mountain. The honey thus obtained is prepared in half kilo (1 lb) barrels which preserve the droplets, giving the product a light and subtle resin, conferring as well as a special and elegant taste, undisputed beneficial properties.
But where the Veneto has its own individual characteristics is in the production of spirits: grappa, whether made from marc from grapes of a single variety of vine or from fruit, it is certainly the most widespread and best known, but one must not overlook the mountain spirits, above all products of the high plain of Asiago. These include china-coca, a product derived from cinchona and aromatic herbs, of kumetto, obtained from kummel, of ginepral, from juniper berries and bitter ‘cimbro’ which blends a mixture of wild medicinal herbs growing on the high plain. All these products are gathered together under the label ‘the spirits of the High Plain.’