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The region of Abruzzo sits east in Italy’s long, narrow peninsula. About two-thirds of the region is mountainous, but also boarders the coastline along the Adriatic Sea. It is considered part of Southern Italy.
The province's economy is supported by the farming of local fruits, olives, and livestock. The ventricina teramana is produced between the mountains and hills of the Gran Sasso; an especially fat salami which is fine-grained and spreadable, light in color and spicy. The Millefiori mountain honey is especially tasty. Extra-virgin olive oil, also harvested in Abruzzo, seasons many typical dishes of my region. One of the most recognizable symbols of the Teramo Province's cuisine is the sheep arrosticini, little pieces of mutton cooked on a skewer. Abruzzese lamb in general is considered superior in flavor to other meats and lamb found elsewhere because of the animals’ mountain-grazed diets rich in herbs. The steep mountains in part of the countryside lend themselves well to sheep and goat herding. Pork is an omnipresent meat staple and a particular favorite in Italian sausages, as well as smoked and cured meat products. Chicken, turkey and wild fowl are plentiful. Parsley, rosemary and garlic hold prominent places in the flavoring of dishes.
Also famous in my region are the spreadable sausages flavored with nutmeg, liver, garlic and spices. They are made with large pieces of fat and lean pork, pressed, seasoned and encased in the dehydrated stomach of the pig itself. It is then sealed in jars, and serves as lunch with some fresh bread for those working in the fields. Mortadella is another famous product from my region, a small cured meat, with a longish oval-shape. Inside, the meat is married with white columns of fat. They are generally sold in pairs. Together, they are about as big as two cupped hands put together. Another name for Mortadella in Italian is "coglioni di mulo," or donkey's balls.
Several flavors and dishes rise far above the others to help define Abruzzese cuisine. In this cheese-loving region, mozzarella and scamorza are very important to the dairy market. Both are cow’s milk cheeses, they are mild, creamy and sweet with a smooth texture that allows them to hold up equally well in baked dishes or on their own as table cheeses. Although tasty, these cheeses play second fiddle to the Pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk in the most remote mountain towns, like that of my hometown Poggio Valle.
Ragus are quintessentially Abruzzese, and refer as a generalized term to any type of meat-based sauce. Ragus are heavily associated with the cooking of Southern Italy as well, and seem to have begun their migration southward from this particular region. Pairing perfectly with hearty Abruzzese dishes is a locally-loved table wine, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, made from Montepulciano grapes grown in Tuscany but employed heavily in the winemaking of the Abruzzo region. From the basics – olives, grapes and pasta – to the bizarre – lamb’s intestines cooked with intentionally rotten cheese – Abruzzese cuisine is beginning to again capture the attention of cooks around the world seeking to return to the heart and soul of Italian cooking.
The most flavorful local recipes started out as necessity, ways to use readily available ingredients and leftovers to produce food that was both practical and pleasant. Almost every edible part of any ingredient is utilized somehow in Abruzzese cooking. Nothing is wasted, and little is lost. The people are frugal, but hearty. Today’s Abruzzese dishes hold true to their past, and marry earthy flavors with spices to make the palate sing. Isn’t that what we really want from Italian food? It is how I have prepared meals for my family and friends for decades. Along the coast, it is possible to taste the seafood hors d’oeuvres, typical of Giulianova; it is based on prawns, squids, clams and sole. On Christmas Eve it is traditional to cook stockfish, a very tasty dish based with oil and spices that requires hours of preparation.
Many travelers came and went through the center of Italy, through Abruzzo’s provinces of Teramo, Pescara, Chieti and L’Aquila. Some left influences from distant parts of Italian culture and from other countries as well. Travelers and pilgrims came and went, and some stayed, lending more and more diversity to the heritage of Abruzzo, and to its cuisine. The region’s history of variety has culminated in contemporary times to produce some of Italy’s most unique and interesting dishes.
Today, the Abruzzo region of Italy lies somewhat outside the country’s normal tourist route, and many travelers who come choose to visit the beaches of Pescara and Giulianova. Other travelers take the more traditional tourist attractions in the Lazio region (home to the country’s capital of Rome) adjacent to Abruzzo over the Gran Sasso Mountains or a pilgrimage to the shrine of San Gabrielle in Isola, my husband’s hometown.
Abruzzo, then, is a perfect destination in which to discover the time-tested flavors of old-world Italian food unencumbered by the normal tourist trappings. While Abruzzo is fascinating year-round, August is full of festivals, family gatherings, and food preparation for the winter months. It is when we prepare our most important pantry ingredient, tomato sauce!