The mountainous terrain of Abruzzo makes it the ideal location for raising sheep, cultivating grapes and hunting for black truffles in the abundant forests. The food of Abruzzo is different from the more Mediterranean regions of Italy. The culture of this region is strongly linked to pastoral farming traditions that give a more alpine flavor to the foods produced there. During a study abroad program in the small abruzzese town of Gagliano Aterno, my colleagues and I had a chance to try first hand the region’s artisanal products.
During the study program we were invited to sample traditional cheese at a small farm in the province of L’Aquila. There the farmers produced pecorino, a hard, sheep’s milk cheese that is produced in sheep rearing regions all over Italy. After seeing and petting the sheep from whose milk the cheese was made we were led into a room where the cheese was aging. The round, pale discs of cheese were stacked up on metal racks, giving off a pungent but pleasant odor. The farmers explained that the the quality of the grass eaten by the sheep affects the flavor of the cheese. The sheep regions of Abruzzo are located on mountain tops, far away from major cities and pollution. The result of eating cleaner grass is a pure, earthy flavor to the cheese. Later on, when we had a chance to sample the cheese, we tried it on its own first and then dipped in a sweet and spicy pepper jam. We also tried it grated over pasta after we returned to our lodgings.
The strange part of petting the sheep at the farm was that later on we were offered meat from the very same sheep. Arrosticini (grilled sheep meat) is a uniquely abruzzese tradition. Small squares of tender sheep meat are put on skewers and grilled over narrow charcoal grills. I’ll admit that I didn’t try it because I’m a vegetarian but my colleagues certainly enjoyed it. They liked it so much that they ate it again when Gagliano Aterno had its summer festival or “Sagra” where you could pick up 10 skewers of arrosticini with a pint of beer for a low price.
Abruzzo is also a region where top quality wines are produced. On another outing we visited a family owned winery called the Antica Casa Vitivinicola in the medieval town of Vittorito. This beautiful wintery has been producing wines since 1791. During our tour of the winery we were led into the cellar where we saw some truly gigantic aging barrels. Our tour guide, herself one of the winemakers, explained to us that wine barrels that large are no longer being built and that there is now a standard size used by winemakers in Italy. The family kept the antique wine barrels because of their historical value. At the wine tasting, we sampled three traditional abruzzese wines, the white Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, the rosè Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo and the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo which has a D.O.C label . All three were delicious but the Montepulciano was of exceptional quality. This dry, tangy red is becoming increasingly popular and available in the United States.
Black truffles grow in forests and cannot be commercially produced. Abruzzo is a truffle region and these black gems can be found more readily available here than most places in Italy. Truffle oil, as well as whole black truffles can be purchased at artisanal shops and local grocery stores. During a trip to a pizzeria in L’Aquila, Abruzzo’s capital, I found that black truffles are a common pizza ingredient. Only in Abruzzo can you find an aromatic pizza topped with black truffle, potatoes and rosemary. The small amount of black truffle used adds a lot of flavor to whatever it is added to. Aside from pizza, my colleagues and I tasted black truffle grated over pasta and risotto.
The traditional mountain foods of Abruzzo are unique among the traditional foods of Italy. There is much to taste and appreciated in this beautiful and often overlooked region.