The Abruzzi

Chieti and its province

The city of Chieti rises up on the right hand side of the Pescara river, fifteen miles from the sea, on a narrow ridge running alongside the river, as does its straight and flat main street, corso Marrucino, the urban stretch of the Via Valeria.
Its province includes the eastern and southern slopes of the calcareous massif of the Maiella with its ramifications between Sangro and Aventino, and the sub-Apennine region furrowed out by the middle and lower Sangro, and by smaller water courses. Although it faces onto the sea, it is prevalently an agricultural province with a large production of cereals, rich in vineyards, olive groves (especially in the band of hillsides parallel to the coast between Chieti and Vasto) and fruit trees. The coastline includes some fishing ports (Francavilla, Ortona, Vasto) which supply the typical products of the sea.
Thus, the gastronomy of the area is characterised by a cuisine of seafood side by side with –a much more widely spread - inland cuisine. A fundamental element for each of these is the simplicity and the good flavours of the dishes. In Vasto, for example, one can find a special type of «brodetto» (fish soup) known as «alla vastese» (Vastese style), which is made with almost any kind of fish and which is often served on large slices of toasted bread.
But oysters are also not lacking, and can be accompanied – as a hors d’oeuvres – with small, raw squids in lemon juice and chilli pepper, along with date shells and venus clams; we should also point out the excellent «seppioline ripiene» (‘stuffed cuttlefish’), the mussels served with husked beans (which are both cultivated and consumed in large quantities in the whole of the area), the «polpetti in purgatorio» (‘octopuses in purgatory’), the highly flavoured, baked sea bass; the «frittura di scopetta del marinaio»(fried fish) is also typical of the area.
As far as the inland cuisine is concerned, the «spaghetti alla chitarra» are also much used in this area, dressed in a variety of ways and alternating with the «sagne e fagioli», a home-made pasta dish with tagliatelle no longer than seven or eight centimetres (two and a half to three inches) in length, dressed with beans which are husked, boiled and flavoured with oil, garlic and chilli pepper, the same way used for the «pacconi» which instead have a four cornered shape measuring about three centimetres (just over one inch).
For about the past twenty years in this region, but more especially in the province of Chieti, there has been great interest in cracked wheat (spelt), traditionally used in the preparation of soups and also in food pastes. Cracked wheat soup, known as «sfarrata» can be eaten all over the area, whereas, for example, «cracked wheat linguine with red mullet fillets and tomato» are a speciality which has spread into the best restaurants of Lanciano and its environs, as has the dish «cracked wheat spaghetti with carpet shells» or with small anchovies; another excellent dish with cracked wheat linguine (flat spaghetti) pasta is called «alla fiumarola» (‘riverside style’) due to the fact that they are dressed with freshwater, European lobster.
From the culinary countryside traditions comes the dish of «i caciatelli» which are generally eaten as an hors d’oeuvres and for which, as follows, we give the old recipe which calls for eggs, grated pecorino cheese, salted pork bacon, green sweet peppers, onion, chopped tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, parsley, chilli pepper, salt. In a wide, flat pan put in the oil, the bacon chopped into small cubes, the sliced onion, the chilli pepper and sauté. Add the green peppers cut into strips and continue to sauté over low heat. Add the chopped tomatoes. In a plate, prepare a mixture of the cheese, eggs and finely chopped parsley, and when the sauce is simmering, spoon in the mixture delicately. In this way, the "caciatelli" are formed, or the puffed up little balls of egg and cheese. Continue cooking until the sauce has thickened.
A meat which is eaten a lot all year round is lamb, which is cooked in a variety of ways: from being cooked on the spit to being stewed (the dish known as “coatto” which is also made with mutton), from being baked in the oven to fried lamb chops, and to the careful preparation of all the liver and lights. The «mazzarelle» and the «coratella cacio e uova»(offal with cheese and eggs) are real specialities. The recipes of both are as follows.
For the «mazzarelle», you need lamb’s interiors (offal and intestines), lettuce, parsley, marjoram, fresh garlic and onion, extra virgin olive oil, bacon fat, salt and pepper. Firstly, wash the intestines carefully with vinegar and salt and then with plenty of water after having opened them up using scissors. Cut all parts of the offal into strips. Arrange a couple of strips of each type onto a lettuce leaf (heart, lung, liver) along with some parsley, marjoram, fresh garlic and onion. Delicately close up the leaf like a little parcel and tie the intestines around it. Sauté in oil in a pan the bacon fat, garlic and a small piece of chilli pepper. Add the «mazzarelle» carefully and sprinkle with white wine. Cook slowly. If you wish, you may add some chopped tomatoes. For the dish «coratella cacio e uova», you need lamb offal, four eggs, sheep’s cheese, tomato sauce, chilli pepper, garlic, rosemary, sage and mint, extra virgin olive oil, white wine and salt. Cut the offal into tiny pieces and sauté in a wide, low earthenware dish with oil, garlic, the herbs and the chilli pepper, adding little by little a small quantity of white wine. At the end of the cooking time, add the tomato sauce, season with salt and bring to the boil again, cooking over a moderate heat until the sauce has boiled down and become thick. Beat the eggs in a plate with the cheese, pour into the dish, stirring delicately for a few minutes.
The rearing of sheep allows for a plentiful production of sheep’s milk cheeses which are widely diffused and without great differences throughout the whole region. Amongst the many varieties of pecorino cheese, the cheese from Farindola merits a special mention: it is produced in the village of the same name which is located on the left hand slopes of the Gran Sasso, not far from Penne and from Loreto Aprutino. It is a very particular type of pecorino, with a strong and characteristic flavour due to the fact that it is born with the help of rennet taken from a pig’s stomach cut into strips and then “bottled” with a good quality red wine.
There is also no shortage in the use of the pig, the meat of which is used for the preparation of many types of sausages and salamis, amongst which there is the «fegatozzo» (which, however, is found in many parts of the Abruzzi), a typically winter preparation with a base of pig’s liver to which are added salt, garlic and chilli pepper and then the mixture is packed into the finer intestines, tied into single sausages giving them the consistency and the size of small sausages only a little larger than a cacciatorino (small salami). Prepared in this way, the fegatazzo sausage is left to dry out and is then, according to the most traditional method, preserved in oil or, using more modern systems, is packed in a vacuum pack.
The «ventricina» is also typical, even though it is also appreciated outside the borders of the Abruzzi region. It is essential to start with the minced up pieces of the pig and the addition of rosemary and plenty of chilli pepper. In some cases sweet pepper is often added. There are various types of «ventricina» (every town, in fact, has its own recipe). A typical product in most of the Chieti area, its most famous centre of production is at Guilmi, a characteristic mountain village in the Vasto hinterland. Its preparation requires the use of parts of the leg, the shoulder and the loin, with a certain percentage of pancetta, all flavoured with salt, pepper, red chilli pepper and wild fennel seeds, packed into the bladder, tied into a cross shape and hung to mature for a minimum of three months. The result is quite a coarse textured salami characterised by it bright red colour and which is sliced like any other salami.
Amongst the specific products which come from special cultivations, there are the cherries from Giuliano Teatino (which are used for making excellent jams), the quite superb quality of table grapes (exported throughout Europe) produced between Ortona a Mare and Tollo, from which is also extracted a singular grape extract, and the famous Cupello artichokes from Vasto which are cooked mostly in the pan with garlic and mint.
There is also a large variety of cakes and desserts; the most used ingredient for these are almonds ground down to a powder or also left whole, cooked grape must, honey and chocolate. Grape jam is much appreciated, an irreplaceable ingredient of a long series of ciambelle (ring-shaped cakes) and taralli (biscuits) which are a must for occasions such as weddings, baptisms, graduations and celebratory events in general. Tied more than other places to respecting its customs, the Abruzzi region, still today, respects the ancient connections between the calendar and cakes and sweets. This means that there is no Easter without the appearance in shop windows and shelves of the «fiadoni», which are small, cheese-based pies, excellent both in the savoury and in the sweet version. Just as there is no Christmas without «calcioni», small ravioli filled with almonds and cherry jam diluted with rum or some other liqueur.
A particular delicacy is the «crostata di fichi e arance» (fig and orange tart), the ingredients of which are as follows: two hundred grams of flour, a whole egg plus one yolk, two hundred grams of sugar, one hundred grams of butter, three oranges, one kilogram of washed and peeled figs, two teaspoons of fennel seeds, and the tart is prepared in this way: Pour the flour into a heap onto the pastry board and put the eggs into the middle of the heap along with half the sugar and the butter and mix together. Prick the skin of the oranges with a fork and boil them in water for a couple of minutes. Repeat this boiling three times, changing the water each time. Then, dry the oranges well and cut them into thin slices without removing the skin. Put the orange slices into a casserole dish with the remaining sugar and half a glass of water. Cover and cook over a low heat for ten minutes. Drain the slices of the syrup and keep to one side. Roll out the pastry into a layer large enough to fill a flan case lined with baking paper. Cover the pastry with the slices of orange and arrange the sliced figs on top. Pour the orange syrup over the figs, sprinkle with fennel seeds and bake in the oven heated to 180° C/350° F/Gas Mark 4 for about forty five minutes. Remove from the oven and serve.
The Abruzzi cuisine should be tasted on location, not having been exported further than from one local area to the other within the same region, and being very much tied to the local products; it is, therefore, a cuisine of ancient flavours, enriched by the fragrances of aromatic herbs, simple but nevertheless elaborate in requiring lengthy preparation to which the women of the Abruzzi dedicate themselves with religious commitment.