Abruzzo, a Region of Good Food and Strange Superstitions
By Wendy Hughes
Abruzzo, a region situated in the eastern section of the Italian peninsula, is an area located high up in the desolate mountains, surrounded by lush green pastures which are carpeted in an array of alpine flowers in the spring. It is sparsely populated and the home of the unique brown Marsican bear a symbol of the Abruzzo National Park, which is a subspecies that is genetically different from alpine bears and is endemic to Central Italy. Recent scientific research have estimated that there’s only a population of about 40 individuals within the Park territory and surrounding areas.
The name Abruzzo, originally Aprutium, appears to have been derived from the Praetutti, one the aboriginal tribes that settled here long before the Romans, and due of its harsh rugged terrain only suitable for agriculture. Therefore the importance of keeping sheep and goats to these people will come as no surprise, but what may surprise you is that although lamb is very popular, especially in spring, you will rarely find mutton in any form in this area.
Bordered by the Apennines, it holds some of Italy’s wildest terrain, silent valleys, fortified villages, and vast untamed mountain plains with delightful waterfalls and springs. However it does have some great historic towns too, and those to look for are: Laniciano, beautiful medieval city dating back to 1098 B.C with its unique character was well as a wide range of coffee shops, restaurants and even a football stadium and shopping centre. San Vito has a panoramic view of the mountains and sea, and is famous as a bathing location, whereas Ortona is famous for its history and monuments that survived the last war. Other towns to look out for are Fossacesia, with its rail link between Pescara, and Gessopalena, dating back to ancient times. The medieval citadel was destroyed by the Germans in World War Two and what was left of the ancient centre has been restored and transformed into the open-air “Museo del Gesso”. One of Gessopalena inhabitants, Domenico Troilo, was a leader of the Abruzzese Resistance was Domenico Troilo and he was awarded a silver medal for his bravery. The Brigata Majella was formed in the October 1943 by partisan officers and soldiers from the Italian army, and joined by many local peasant villagers. There were very young and preferred to fight separately, but in the summer of 1944, they operated under the command of the British 8th Army until the end of the war. The Brigata was the only partisan brigade awarded the Gold Medal for Military Bravery.
Many of these cities are rarely visited by outsiders, and despite attempts to bring modern industry to the area, it is the home-based crafts such as pottery weaving, knitting, iron working, goldsmith working and lace making that has remained, as well as the shepherd, the dominant symbol of Abruzzo. These gartered and goatskin-jacketed shepherds can be seen throughout the region, carrying their heavy clubs, as they move their vast flocks over the upland pastures in summer. They live in stone huts, where they can be heard practicing their huge bagpipes and the ‘a piffera,’ a kind of rustic oboe. As winter approaches these shepherds can be seen making their way down to the plains, along the grassy tracks into the busy lowland
towns, where they mingle, and often curse the modern day motorist. Occasionally they treat the visitor to a one-man bagpipe and piffera band, much to everyone’s amusement, but like most mountain folk they do not care to compete with the big cities, preferring to tend to their animals and carry on maintaining traditions and country skills, this is their way of life.
Sheep farming dominates this area, and the diet consequentlyis made up of lamb. For example abbacchio, unweaned baby lamb, is usually cut into chunks and roasted. These young lambs are milk-feed and at the time of butchering weigh between 10 and 20 pounds (5-10k). Abbacchi is often sold whole, although you can also buy them cut in half or quartered, but be aware that if you do buy abbacchio in pieces, remember that the animal should be small. If it’s too large, then it is no longer abbacchio). The meat is distinctively light in colour, very tender, with a delicate flavour, little fat, and best cooked simply with mild seasonings.
Classic recipes include castrato, castrated lamb, often cooked as a casserole with tomatoes, wine, herbs, onion and celery (intingolo di castrato). When in the region look out for a dish called agnello a cutturo, an aromatic herby casserole served with bread. The other crucial ingredient is chilli (peperoncino in the rest of Italy, but known locally as pepedinie). It is used liberally in all kinds of dishes, and in a region prone to magic and superstition, is believed to be a cure for many ailments ranging from neuralgia to arthritis. Most famous of all dishes is the maccheroni alla chitarra, made by pressing a sheet of pasta over a wooden frame wired like a guitar, which is usually served with a tomato or lamb sauce. Other local pastas include the roughly cut strengozze and maltagliati, both served with a lamb sauce. Cheese tends to be pecorino, and most often mature and grainy like parmesan, but you may also find young cheeses that are still mild, soft and milky.
As you can imagine the culture of Abruzzo is steeped in legends and superstitions, for example a knife or axe is always kept on the windowsill to keep away evils spirits, and a paternoster, the Lord’s prayer in Latin, should be said when a moth flies around a lamp or a star falls, so releasing a soul from purgatory. The funeral feast still exits to this day, although the dishes must not be washed in the bereaved house to save the family from further sorrow. The men still wear red or blacks capes and the funeral of a child is most moving as music is played and children dressed in white, follow the coffin to ensure that the new little angel has a good send off to its heavenly abode.
On a happier note weddings are equally as interesting as colourful ribbons are held tightly across the road. The bridal party is not allowed to cross until they give a gift to the couple. If a widow remarries, a commotion must be caused by the banding of pots and pans during the service, to frighten away the dead spouse who could ruin the whole affair. If you are looking for a holiday with a difference why not check out the Abruzzo region with its unique cuisine, traditions and way of life.