Have you ever heard of the Sirente crater? It is a seasonal lake located near the village of Secinaro, in the Sirente-Velino regional park. If you are a nature lover and history buff, visiting the lake should be on your list of things to do in Abruzzo.
Late spring and early summer is in its full glory, filled with rain water reflecting the blue sky, with a few cows munching on the green grass around it. In summer the lake dries up and looks more like a large dirty puddle. Although bikers and hikers visit this place, you won’t see crowds of tourists and only few know that the shallow lake is somewhat of a mystery.
The Sirente crater, as the lake known, was the subject of heated discussions in the scientific world some years ago. A number of experts believe that it is an impact crater created by a meteorite that hit the plain around the 4th century. They link their theory to the story of Roman emperor Constantine, who was believed to have seen a large falling star in the sky in 312 AD that he interpreted as a sign from God and converted to Christianity.
Local oral legends also tell a story of a star that outshone the sun and hit the Sirente mountain with a huge force causing fire and an earthquake. Is it possible that this shallow puddle beloved by local cows holds a key to the event that changed the world’s history?
The National Geographic made a fascinating documentary, “Fireball of Christ”, trying to find the answer (you can watch it below).
Other, less impressive suggestions exist regarding the origin of the Sirente crater: it could be a man-made watering hole for the cattle or an old mud volcano.
When I was there last time the Sirente mountain was still covered with snow, the birds screamed their sun salutation hymns and the trees stood with their buds ready to burst with leaves any day. A perfect setting for a peaceful day and contemplation about mysteries of the universe…
How to get there: follow signs to Secinaro. About 13km after the village you will see the mountains on your left hanging over a small valley with the lake. There are BBQs and a picnic table by the road. You can stop there and walk on a path parallel to the main road towards the lake.
There are so many things to do in Abruzzo in summer! Lazing on the beach is great but to get to know our beautiful region better make sure you check out some these events to understand local life and traditions. There is something going on almost every day: big festivals, smaller local celebrations, village feasts. Here are just a few of my picks of the top events not to miss this summer.
Loreto Aprutino (PE), June 8-10
The festival is celebrated 50 days after Easter, so the
dates vary every year. On Pentecost, the beautiful town of Loreto Aprutino,
celebrates its patron saint, San Zopito. For three days, the locals will attend
church services, participate in religious processions, enjoy live music and
street food. The most interesting procession re-enacting the arrival of the
saint’s relics will take place on Monday evening. A large white ox decorated
with bright ribbons and pompoms will carry an Angioletto, a little girl dressed
in white with a flower crown on her head. Accompanied by bagpipers and a group
of farmers, the majestic ox will slowly walk through the town’s historic centre
stopping at several churches to kneel. One of the stops will be at the noble palace
of the Valentini family, the famous wine producers. They will treat everyone to
tarallucci biscuits and wine.
The festival’s origins go back to an event in 1711. A local farmer Carlo Parlione worked with a white ox in the fields. He didn’t stop working when the religious procession that was bringing the saint’s relics approached Loreto Aprutino but his ox kneeled at the sight of the cortege. At that moment, a sick farmer’s relative was miraculously cured. For more details see the event’s Facebook page.
Pescara, July 8-22
The International Jazz Festival in Pescara is turning 50 years this summer. Over the decades, it has hosted such famous jazz stars as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis Group, Dizzy Gillespie, Tracy Chapman and many others. During the two weeks of festival there will be 24 concerts, many of them free, at different venues across the city. I love the great atmosphere that it brings to Pescara, open air concerts on balmy summer evenings and the buzz of the eclectic crowds of locals. Tickets for some performances such as that of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Joshua Redman or Jacob Collier will sell fast, so don’t wait, book them now. See the full programme on the Pescara Jazz Festival’s website.
Castel del Monte (Aq), July 13-14
During this small but fascinating event you’ll be able to
visit old cellars in the town that have been used by local families for many
centuries to store cured meats, wine, cheese or keep animals. In each cellar
you’ll taste local specialities such as the pecorino canestrato cheese,
marcetto cheese made with larvae (it is served without them, don’t worry), a
local drink la tromba, pasta dish ciafrechìglie e fagioli, see how locals make cheese and pasta or
dye wool with natural pigments. There will be traditional music, dances and a
A jousting tournament is held in Sulmona over two weekends in July and August. Popular in the Middle Ages, the event was stopped in the 17th century due to lack of participants. The city of Sulmona revived the tournament in 1994 in a modernised version without bloodshed (in the past, knights and warriors hit each other with spears). Seven neighbourhoods of the city are represented by a rider compete for the highest score by hooking rings with their lances on the city’s central square, Piazza Garibaldi. During the tournament weekends, you can see stunning costumed parades, flag throwing, birds of prey shows. The city’s neighbourhoods are decorated with flags and livery with drummers and trumpeters entertaining visitors. For more details and tickets go to the Giostra Cavalleresca website.
Scanno (Aq), August 14
One of the most beautiful events in Abruzzo, Il Catenaccio (or “Ju Catenacce” in dialect) is a re-enactment of an ancient marriage procession. Locals, dressed in traditional festive costumes, walk the narrow cobbled streets of the medieval village in pairs led by the bride and groom. Now and then, youngsters block their way with a ribbon demanding to be bribed with sweets or coins. The women’s costumes are made exactly the way they were in the 1700s. Luckily, several documents dating back to the 18th century describing the bride’s outfit have survived, which allowed the organisers to recreate it down to a minute detail. The procession finishes in the central square with dances and traditional music. You can see the same re-enactment in May. For the event announcements follow this Facebook page.
Sagra della porchetta
Campli (Te), August 18-23
Put this event on your list of things to do in Abruzzo if are a carnivore! The oldest food festival in the region, la Sagra della porchetta will be celebrating its 48th edition this summer. Every year a dozen or so of porchetta producers gather in Campli to compete for the gold medal. This moist boneless pork roast has been made in Abruzzo for many centuries. For five days the town fills up with divine smells of roasting pork and sounds of music as various bands play Italian pop, rock, indie and Latin American tunes. The best part of the festival? You can become a judge and taste all porchetta for free! The organisers make a call for volunteer judges a few months before the festival, so keep an eye on their website. Please note, when I was writing this post the dates for 2019 hadn’t been announced yet. Please check the exact dates on the website before heading to Campli for the porchetta feast!
Abruzzo has its share of castles, some of them are just glorious ruins while others have been beautifully restored. Almost every village boasts a tower, foundation or a few walls remaining from an ancient stronghold that remind us of this land’s glorious past, thriving economies, powerful nobles, bitter feuds and bloody sieges. Here are a few of my suggestions to put on your list of places to see in Abruzzo.
The formidable fortress above the village of Calscio has
been named one of the most beautiful castles in the world by National
Geographic. It is also the most photographed place in the region but don’t
worry, you won’t have to elbow your way for the best Instagrammable spot.
Although, it gets a fair amount of tourists in August, most of the year you’ll
have the castle to yourself. Built in the 10th century, Rocca
Calascio was used as an observation point from where signals were sent, using
fire torches at night and mirrors in daylight, across the Tirino Valley and
Navelli Plains. The fortress was enlarged over the following centuries.
According to local legends, during the nights of the winter and summer
solstice, ghosts gather around the castle. You can wonder around the ruins and
admire stunning panoramic views any time of day or night. The observation tower
is open every Sunday in summer.
Castello Piccolomini di Balsorano
Very few foreign visitors have heard of this one. A few decades ago, it used to be one of the most popular filming location with more than 30 Italian movies shot here. I have to add, though, most of them were horror or … ahm… pornographic works of questionable quality. Constructed in 1470 by the Piccolomini family, it was always used as a residential castle rather than a military fortress. The legend has it that the Piccolomini practised the “jus primae noctis”, the right of the first night with newly married women of the village. The ones that refused to sleep with the were thrown down from the ramparts. Despite the serious damage after the earthquake in 1915 and a not-so-careful restoration of some parts, the castle still retains its original Gothic and Renaissance features and beautiful frescoes. It houses a hotel and restaurant and is open for visits on request (call 00 39 337 668 068 to inquire).
Castello di Celano
One of the best-preserved ancient military structures in Abruzzo, the fortress dates back to the 14th century. Badly damaged in the earthquake of 1915, the castle’s splendour was restored in the 1950s but its magnificent frescoes were lost forever. Today, it is home to a sacred arts museum and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage offices. The views over the Fucino plains are to die for. I’ve seen some old paintings picturing Castello di Celano overlooking the Fucine lake, once the third largest in Italy, and am convinced that if it had not been drained in the 19th century, this part of Abruzzo would have become a major tourist destination today.
Castello di Bominaco
There is not much left from the castle but it still should
be on your list of places to see in Abruzzo for several reasons. First of all,
it is in a stunning location. Second, there is a beautiful chapel, Oratorio di
San Pellegrino, near the castle with magnificent frescoes that is worth a
visit. Constructed in the 12th century to guard the thriving Benedictine
monastic community of Bominaco, the castle was one of the 99 castles that,
according to a legend, founded the city of L’Aquila in 1254. In 1424, the
mercenary captain Braccio da Montone during his rampage tour through Abruzzo
destroyed the castle and the monastery. Although it was partially re-built in
the 15th century, the fortress never regained its glory. Some locals
believe that spirits of the victims massacred by Braccio da Montone still
gather around the tower on dark moonless nights.
Another reason I love the Castello di Bominaco is because it gives you a clear idea how the fortresses in the area used to communicate. If you stand near the tower, you can see the castles of Rocca Calascio on the horizon as well as the fortress of San Pio Delle Camere across the valley and a few towns on the hills around. Being visible to each other, hey could send important messages lighting fires and flashing mirrors.
Castello di Salle Vecchio
As far as I know, this is the only castle in Abruzzo that has been in the same family for the last 400 years. Built in the 10th century as part of the defensive belt of the San Clemente Abbey (located in Castiglione a Casauria), Castello di Salle was an important military outpost in the Valley D’Orta. Over centuries, it changed many hands until it became a home of the noble Di Genova family in 1636. It remains in their possession today. Badly damaged in several earthquakes, the stronghold was restored by the owners 50 years ago and registered as a protected national monument. Small and rather cosy, the castle houses a history museum with the family’s collection of medieval arms, metal armor and documents. Visitors are allowed to take a glance at the private rooms of the nobles and see the bed where Napoleone Bonoparte once slept while visiting the Di Genova family. There is also a restaurant in the castle, which is open in summer.
Castello Ducale di Crecchio
Like any great castle, this one comes complete with a ghost. They say, the spirit of Duke De Riseis d’Aragona wonders inside the building on some nights. The castle has been through many turmoils: plundered and pillaged by Saracen pirates and feuding lords, damaged by earthquakes and reduced to rubble by the Allied forces, it rose from the ashes after a thorough restoration in the 1970s. The royal Savoy family visited this splendid abode on numerous occasions. Last visit was in 1943, when the last King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, his wife and son stayed here before fleeing on a boat from the port of Ortona. Historic documents say that the lady of the castle, Duchess Gaetana De Riseis, tried to convince the king to return to Rome. The room and bed where the King stayed miraculously survived the bombings. Today, the castle is home to the museum Museum of Byzantine and Early Medieval Abruzzo. In summer, the town of Crecchio hosts a wonderful event, A Cena con I Bizantini, with locals dressed in period costumes, guided visits to the castle and medieval food stands.
Visiting Abruzzo during the Easter holidays? You are in for
a treat! There are so many traditional events taking place all over the region.
Religious celebrations start on the Thursday before Easter Sunday. Almost every
village has a procession or re-enactment during the Holy Week. Here is a quick pick of the most interesting Easter
events in Abruzzo.
Giovedi Santo in
Organised by the local confraternity Morte e Orazione di San
Filippo Neri, the procession of Maundy Thursday is solemn and almost hypnotising
with its beautiful music written especially for the event in the 19th
century. The confraternity members dressed in long black tunics carry flame
torches and symbols of the Passion of Christ. The central figure is il Cireneo,
who is chosen by the Prior shortly before the ceremony as a reward for his
dedication and passion for the brotherhood. Il Cireneo, barefoot, carries the
heavy cross in the procession.
The procession starts at the Santa Chiara church at 10pm. You can arrive earlier to see the preparations.
Venerdi Santo in
You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the atmospheric
Good Friday procession in Chieti. The oldest of its kind in Italy, the rite has
been taking place in Chieti every year since the 9th century. Local
confraternities dressed in hooded tunics walk along the streets of the old town
centre carrying various stations of the cross symbols. They are
accompanied by 150-members strong orchestra and choir, who play and sing the Miserere.
The procession begins at 7pm at the San Giusto Cathedral. The choir and orchestra start practicing in the morning. There is a shuttle going to the town centre from the free parking space at Chieti Tricalle.
Venerdi Santo in
On Good Friday, early risers can see the processions of the stations
of the cross symbols, which starts at 5am at the Chiesa del Purgatorio. In the
evening at 8pm, another procession departs from the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle
Grazie. It is lead by a group of 250 women, all in black. In the past, they were
mostly widows, who lost their husbands in sea.
For over six decades the picturesque village of Barrea organises a beautiful theatrical revocation of the Passion of Christ. In different locations of the village various scenes are enacted by locals: the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, betrayal by Judas, the crucifixion. It is fascinating to see biblical characters and centurions on the narrow streets of Barrea.
The event starts at 5.30pm. Get there early to find parking and walk around the village.
On Easter Sunday, Sulmona hosts La Madonna Che Scappa in
Piazza, the famous revocation of the moment when Mary sees her risen son. The
statue of Madonna is carried by the Confraternity of S. Maria di Loreto’s
members along the main street. When they arrive to the central Piazza Garibaldi,
at midday, they pull the black mourning cape off the Madonna to release 12
white doves and run towards the statue Christ. The run accompanied by the excited
applause of the people in the square and music. The event starts with a mass at
9am. It attracts thousands of people, so arrive early.
Orsogna hosts the festival of Talami, a biblical scenes
re-enactments, twice a year: on Easter Monday and on Ferragosto (August 15). It
is an old tradition connected with a miracle when Virgin Mary appeared in front
of a few locals in the Middle Age. The town of Orsogna announces the theme for
the scenes and chooses seven best ideas to be re-enacted. Six floats are put on
tractors and one, like in old days, is carried by local men.
This year’s celebration, on April 23, will start at 10am with fireworks and continue with the parade and traditional music. For more details see the event’s website.
Easter Monday Pasquetta
Easter in Abruzzo means big feasts and picnics. On Easter Monday, locals pack picnic baskets and head for parks and picturesque mountain locations to celebrate Pasquetta. Many restaurants offer a Pasquetta menu. The Majella Brewery in Pretoro organises a great picnic on the grounds with live music, street food and their excellent craft beer. Another lively place for Easter Monday is Ristoro Mucciante in Campo Imperatore, where you can buy meat, sausages and arrosticini to grill outdoors.
Featured image by Madonna Che Scappa in Piazza/Facebook
At the end of March, market stalls in the Chieti province start
selling a local variety of a delicious artichoke called Mazzaferrata or
carciofo di Cupello. Locals say it is beautiful like a flower and sweet like a
dessert. This particular variety is green-purple, without sharp thorns and has
generous fleshy hearts.
Wild artichokes growing in the area around Vasto were
mentioned in a travel diary of a Dominican friar visiting Abruzzo in 1575, so
most likely they were already used in local dishes back then. A later document
exists dated back to the 18th century that confirms that artichoke of
Cupello was cultivated by many local families and sold at the market in
Lanciano . However, its cultivation on a commercial scale started only in the
Today, the growers in the area of Cupello, Furci, San Salvo and Vasto sell three million artichokes, fresh, turned into pate or artichoke hearts in oil. Since 1965, in April, the village of Cupello celebrates the harvest with a festival “Sagra del Carciofo di Cupello” attended by thousands of people. Local restaurants and street food stands sell various dishes made with the prized artichoke: grilled, baked, boiled artichokes, omelettes with mint and artichoke, lasagne and even tiramisu with carciofo! The last festival, in 2018, was a record with 8000 people turning up to celebrate the humble thistle and eat over 12,000 artichokes.
This year’s festival takes place on April 25-28. The programme will be published shortly on the event’s website and Facebook page.
How locals eat it:
One of the most popular dishes in Cupello is artichokes
stuffed with a mix of cheese and eggs. In spring, local restaurants also serve a
soup with artichokes and beans. Locals will tell you that they do not throw anything
from the precious artichoke. The leaves discarded when cleaning the delicious
thistle are boiled with lemon juice to make a broth for risotto. You can also
throw them in a juicer, simmer in a frying pan, mix with cooked stems, the
water that you cooked them in and oil. Blitz the mix until it is smooth and you’ll
have a Michelin-star restaurant worthy sauce.
Artichoke hearts are boiled with vinegar and preserved in oil.
Where to find:
Osteria La Volpe & L’Uva, Via XX Settembre, 33, Cupello.
A rather refined osteria, where the owner and chef Marcello
Potente cookes hearty dishes heavily influenced by local traditions with a
modern twist. Here you can taste pasta with an artichoke sauce as well as
delicate baked artichokes, all from local growers.
Pizzeria Ristorante Lo Scarabeo, Corso Mazzini, 3, Cupello
A small simple place where you can taste a number of dishes
with local artichokes (carciofo ripieno, pizza alla cupellese).
Check out this beautiful video to see how carciofo di Cupello is harvested and cooked.
I get many queries from independent travellers asking about special places to stay in Abruzzo. It is hard to choose just a few as there are so many of them in every corner of the region. I, personally, prefer smaller ones with a character and unique philosophy. Here is my pick of the most romantic places to stay in Abruzzo that stand out from the rest.
By far my favourite place to stay in Abruzzo! The extravagant prices might trick you into thinking that this is a luxury hotel. It is not. Sextantio Santo Stefano di Sessanio it is more of an experiential stay in a medieval mountain village. It is a “scattered hotel”, which means the reception, restaurant and rooms are located in different restored buildings dating back to the 13th-16th centuries. Everything has been done to preserve their character. Low ceilings, small windows, uneven walls blackened by age and smoke, dim lighting, and stiff, heavy wooden doors with large skeleton keys give guests a taste of humble living, along with old wobbly chairs, woodworm-scarred tables, and a few old jugs.
Don’t skimp on the price and get a superior room or a suite for
the best views of the mountains, extra space and a freestanding bath in the
bedrooms. Underfloor heating, locally-made natural toiletries, luxury
handwoven bed covers, crisp white bed linens add a luxurious touch. Lit
candles, scarce but strategically placed designer lighting and the magic
atmosphere of the village make this place utterly romantic.
Camping in an olive grove
At Kokopelli Camping you choose a spot under an olive tree for your tent. The views from here are stunning: the picturesque village of Serramonacesca, majestic mountains of the Majella and Gran Sasso, romantic ruins of an ancient castle. You can rent a standard small tent or choose a spacious cotton-canvas bell tent equipped with a proper mattress, rugs, lamp, picnic table & chairs. For an extra romance and peace, come in June, early July or September and you’ll easily find a quiet corner, away from other campers. The camp owners, Jacqui and Kevin, keep chickens and a beautiful organic garden, so there is always a generous supply of fresh eggs and vegetables.
Colourful tree house
Feel like unleashing your inner child? Spend a night or two in this colourful tree house in Lentella. Created entirely from recycled materials by Ettore, a sculptor, and his wife Barbara, this cosy romantic abode comes complete with panoramic views over the countryside. A welcome aperitif is served on your arrival on a tiny terrace. Every morning, a delicious breakfast is sent up the tree in a basket. Barbara and Ettore run a small farm and you are welcome to wander around to get acquainted with two friendly donkeys, goats, sheep and chickens.
Loggia is a lovingly restored 16th-century farmhouse in a small
village of Barisciano. Even farms looked utterly elegant in Renaissance times!
The building has a beautiful loggia with round stone arches where you can sit
on a hot summer day sipping a glass of wine. Vaulted ceilings, fireplaces in
most rooms, antique furniture, grand pillars, tapestries and old family photos take
you back in time. It is comfortable in any season: on a hot summer day sip a
glass of wine on the beautiful loggia with stone arches, in cooler months
cuddle up by a fireplace.
The small village of Fontecchio is a perfect place for a romantic getaway. Surrounded by majestic mountains, this tranquil place has one of the best-preserved minuscule medieval squares complete with a fountain. At Torre del Cornone you can rent a teeny-tiny apartment located inside a tower that was used to send and receive alarm signals to and from the surrounding villages in the Middle Ages. You can admire the views of the Valley Aterno from small windows in the bedroom upstairs, which is accessed by steep and narrow steps. Breakfast is served in the small garden outside under a charming pergola overlooking the green surrounding countryside.
Want to add a wine tour or a bespoke culinary experience to your romantic stay in Abruzzo? Contact me and I will organise something special for you.
To find the best wineries for my wine tours in Abruzzo, I do a lot of research (and drinking!). One of my latest discoveries is Chiusa Grande.
The Chiusa Grande winery started making organic wines before it became a trend. Its owner Franco D’Eusanio is often called a “vinosopher” for his unusual approach to wine making. He descrives himself as a vigneron, who rejects fads and seeks to be unique. Chiusa Grande wines are born as dreams first. Franco says that he creates a wine in his mind, thinks of the emotions it will convey and then he chooses the grape, vineyard and methods for realising his dream. He has the utmost respect for local traditions, draws on rural heritage and weaves both into the production process.
One of his latest creations is In Petra line: two wines, In Petra Rosso and In Petra Bianco, an elegant reverence for the ancestors’ ingenuity. Grapes are pressed and macerated in large stone vats, just as it was done centuries ago in the small village of Pietranico (called Petra Uniqua in the past). From the 1300s to the 1900s, the vineyards in the area were dotted with hand-carved stone vats where local farmers left the grapes to macerate for a short period and then brought the wine home.
The magic happens when the grapes come in contact with the natural stone. D’Eusanio says that it is somewhat of a mystery what exactly occurs in the stone vats at the chemical level but it certainly makes In Petra wines distinctively different from the rest of Chiusa Grande’s offerings. In Petra Rosso is 100% Montepuciano d’Abruzzo DOC grapes grown on the hills around Pietranico. The notes of blackberry, morello cherries, rosemary are balanced with a pleasant hint of spices, a well-pronounced minerality and savoury earthiness. I really like its slightly coarse character that reminds of the old days when farmers used wine to quench thirst while working in the fields.
In Petra Bianco is a blend of Trebbiano DOC and Pecorino. Drinking the wine you can easily imagine rolling in a summer meadows fragrant with honey, herbs and ripe figs. The wine’s clear-cut minerality balances out any notion of bucolic frivolity. After all, it is a wine made in Abruzzo, the land of no-nonsense hard-working shepherds and farmers.
Do you want to visit the best local wineries? I run wine tours in Abruzzo. Contact me to book your tour.
Christmas is almost here! Have you decided what you are serving for the festive family feast? If you are looking for ideas for traditional Christmas dishes from Abruzzo, here is a list of my favourite ones.
Cardoon soup (zuppa di cardo) is considered a lighter festive dish, although, as calorie count goes, it is still quite rich. In Abruzzo, thistle stalks are called “Christmas greens” and the soup is traditionally made for pranzo natalizio, on December 25. Check out the recipe in my post about the Christmas thistle soup from Abruzzo.
Baccalà fritto in pastella
On Christmas Eve, most households in Abruzzo sit down for a meat-free meal. The tradition is to have fish instead. Baccalà (salted cod) is devoured in large quantities on December 24. I am very fond of fresh baccalà fritters, or baccalà fritto in pastella. In old days, they were made in large quantities to last until the Epiphany on January 6. Although, you can buy baccalà fritters in some supermarkets, the best ones are made at home and eaten hot. Click on the image below for a video recipe that shows you step by step how to make them (in Italian with English subtitles).
Parrozzo is a relatively recent addition to the regional cuisine. Luigi D’Amico, a pastry shop owner in Pescara, created the first parrozzo cake for his wealthy customers in 1919. He was inspired by the ancient corn bread called “pan rozzo” with a distinctive semi-spherical shape, bright yellow inside and a burnt black crust. D’Amico’s sweet luxurious version of the poor shepherds’ bread called for many of eggs, almonds and dark chocolate. You can buy an industrial boxed version of D’Amico’s parrozzo but, naturally, the best ones are made by artisans in small bakeries across Pescara. See this recipe for parrozzo in English.
Torcinelli abruzzesi is another traditional Christmas treat. Different versions and shapes of this deep-fried dough with boiled potatoes dessert exist across Italy. Torcinelli is one of my favourite Christmas dishes from Abruzzo not only because they are tasty (especially freshly fried and hot!) but also because, like many other tipical dishes here, they remind about the region’s humble past when peasants came up with delicious recipes using simple local ingredients. Torcinelli were made on Christmas Eve while fasting, so it was a torture for kids to see chests full of these treats and not being able to eat them until next day. Watch this video recipe to learn how to make torcinelliabruzzesi. Don’t worry if your Italian is not up to scratch, it is easy enough to follow.
As you can see, there is a lot of frying going on in Abruzzo coming up to Christmas. It takes a while to make these deep-fried sweet dumplings but they are totally worth it. The most common filling of chickpeas, cacao, grape must and cinnamon might seem like a strange combination for a modern palate but give it try. There is also a version with nuts, grape jam and must, which is popular in the Chieti Province. In supermarkets you’ll also find caggionetti with… oh, horror, Nutella! See the recipe for traditional caggionetti here.
This year has not been great for olive oil producers in Abruzzo. An early spring freeze damaged many groves, strong winds during the flowering season, heavy rains and the olive fruit fly attacks made the situation worse. Regional production dropped by over 20% this year. Some organic oil producers couldn’t do the harvest at all because of the poor fruit quality. One producer said to me: “A few more years like this and we might have to give up organic oil production.” Let’s hope it never comes to this. How can we help? By buying high quality extra virgin olive oil from Abruzzo! Here are a few things to know about olive oil if you want to buy the best.
Extra virgin. Always buy extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). All other grades of olive oil are held to a lesser standard. EVOO has no defects, acidity level of no more than 0.8g per 100g and is cold pressed using only mechanic methods (pressing or centrifugation). EVOO should taste fruity, has a peppery bite to it and a bitter note. The slightest hint of stale walnuts, mustiness, soil or pond water means the oil is defective and is not extra virgin.
Healthy olives. If you are buying directly from a producer, go to the olive mill and check the olives that are being pressed. Do they look healthy? Are they in perforated boxes rather than plastic sacks? The sacks make olives “sweat” and drastically reduce their quality. Surprisingly, many farmers in Abruzzo still use plastic sacks to transport their olives and sometimes store the fruit in them for several days. To make EVOO, olives have to be milled within 12 hours after the harvest otherwise they’ll lose their nutrients and flavour and could begin to ferment.
Press type. Ask or see for yourself what kind of press the producer is using. The old style machinery with stone grinders and hydraulic presses that use round grass mats might look romantic but they significantly reduce the quality of oil. Those grinding stones and mats are very hard to clean and residues can spoil olive oil. They are also slower and the production chain is more exposed to air, so the olives oxidize quicker than in more modern machines.
Filtered vs unfiltered. Unfiltered oil doesn’t always mean better. If you are buying large quantities of EVOO, choose filtered oil as it will last longer. Unfiltered oil tastes good and is often marketed as healthier but because of organic residues it has a very short shelf life, not more than a few months.
Colour doesn’t matter. Our brain likes the colour green and people tend to think automatically that greener oil tastes better. So much so that some industrial scale producers tint their cheap olive oil green to help sales. The truth is the colour never reflects the quality. That’s why professional tasters use blue glasses, so the oil’s colour doesn’t affect their judgements.
DOP. Look for “DOP” (Protected designation of Origin) on the label as it is a guarantee of quality. It means that the oil was was produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area following strict standards. There are three DOP areas for oil in Abruzzo: Aprutino Pescarese, Colline Teatine, Pretuziano delle Colline Teramane.
Single cultivar vs blend. You’ll find different olive cultivars in each Italian region. In Abruzzo, the most prevalent are Gentile, Intosso, Toccolana, Leccino, Dritta. Each varietal has particular characteristics and a unique taste. For instance, Dritta oil is milder than others, with a note of artichoke. Intosso olive oil is characterised by intense taste, with a hint of fresh walnuts and tomato leaves. If you after an olive with a strong character, go for a single cultivar (it will say “monocultivar” on the bottle). Blends tend to be milder and tamer.
Cooked or raw. Single varietals tend to have more character and a stronger taste, so you might want to use them raw, e.g. on salads. I cook and bake with an oil, which is a mild blend of Dritta, Leccino and Gentile. I find that the peppery Toccolana and more bitter Intosso are best generously drizzled on a slice of fresh bread or on raw vegetables.
Heat, light and air. These are olive oil’s enemies. Never buy olive oil in a clear glass bottle even if the label says “extra virgin olive oil”. Light trigger the oxidation process and it quickly becomes rancid. Keep your EVOO in dark glass bottles in a cool place where the temperature never exceeds 20C (ideally it should be between +14C and +18C), so a wine cellar or a dark basement would be the best places. I keep bottles of olive oil in a refrigerator. It solidifies (a good sign, which means it is monounsaturated, the real deal!) and the natural waxes crystallise. I take it out of the fridge 30 mins before using it and it becomes liquid again without any harm to the flavours. In proper conditions, extra virgin olive oil should keep for up to two years.
Bitterness is good. Olives are bitter, so a bitter note in EVOO is a sign of quality and freshness. Younger olives make more peppery and bitter oil. Certain cultivars can be bitterer than others, so train your palate and find the level of bitterness you love. If you like bitter chocolate or beers like ale, stout, porter, you will find it easier to enjoy fresh stronger EVOO.
Let’s admit it: very few of us like the stress of Christmas shopping. Especially when you want to buy something special for your loved ones and can’t seem to find anything suitable. With only a few weeks to go to the holiday season, there is no time for procrastination. We all know that although there are plenty of food artisans and high-quality traditional crafts in the region but finding them online is a hell of a task if you want to buy gifts for Abruzzo lovers. I thought, a roundup of the best gifts from Abruzzo might make your life a little easier.
A gift for pasta lovers
One of the first things that come to mind when you think of Made in Abruzzo gifts is, of course, la chitarra (or “lu carratur” in dialect), a traditional pasta making tool. Every self-respecting Abruzzo cuisine lover must have one of this wooden frames with tight strings. You roll a pasta dough sheet over them (not as easy as it sounds!) to make delicious square spaghetti, pasta alla chitarra. You can buy one here.
The tradition of delicate bobbin lace from Scanno goes back to the 16th century but there are very few women left, who still make it. Federica Silvani learnt the craft secrets from two old ladies in the village and together with the goldsmith Francesco Rotolo started creating exquisite jewellery. If you happen to be in Scanno, make sure you visit her beautiful workshop (Via Vincenzo Tanturri, 1). You can order rings, earrings, pendants or bracelets on her website or her Amazon shop. Prices start from €105 for a pendant on a silver chain.
Another staple of Abruzzese cuisine is pizzelle (or neole, nevole, ferratelle, depending on where they are made as, it seems, every village in the region has a different name for them). Just a few decades ago, nearly every family had irons for baking the waffles on fire. Nowadays, electric makers are used. Check out this pizzelle baker for making thin crispy pizzelle.
Bed covers with history
Lanificio Vincenzo Merlino of Taranta Peligna has been manufacturing traditional high-quality Abruzzese blankets since 1870. Their stunning bed covers are made from pure wool or cotton. The factory has an online shop and ships worldwide.
One of the most iconic Abruzzese ceramics designs is a centortavola, a bread plate, with cut-outs. This one is hand-made in the town of Villamagna and decorated with the old-style “Fioraccio abruzzese”, a floral design used for traditional kitchen utensils.
Wines from Abruzzo
Choose three bottles from some of the famous Montepulciano D’Abruzzo producers that will be sent to you in a gift box. You can’t go wrong with magnificent wines from Cataldi Madonna, Praesidium, Emidio Pepe! Buy a Montepuciano D’Abruzzo gift box here. Shipping within Italy and Europe only.
Abruzzo photo book
This photo book by renowned landscape photographer Michael Kenna is one of very few publications on Abruzzo and it is stunning. Printed on matt art paper it presents 65 stunning images of the region, published for the first time.
The greatest gifts are experiences rather than things. I organise foodie breaks in Abruzzo for those who are curious to explore the region’s culinary traditions. A break includes accommodation for two nights for two people, a hearty dinner in a traditional restaurant, wine tour and a cooking class. You will see off-the-beaten path towns, taste the best local dishes and enjoy excellent wines.