Discovering the Undiscovered
La Terra Fortunata:
Don't you just love the Italians?
While the national sport of Switzerland is counting, and the French think they are DeGaulle, "In Italy," lamented the late Luigi Barzini, "every driver operates his vagone as if he is Christ and resurrection his birthright."
But the unbridled Italian chutzpah that is sometimes amusing to admire from afar is just as easily admonished close up. Consider, for instance, Italy's cockeyed tourism priorities.
By clogging her better-known cities with more and more tourists who think that constipated traffic and hobnobbed piazzi are a reasonable price to pay for simply being in each other's company, the amministrazione has pulled off what few nations dare ... made visitors their own main attraction. Meanwhile, even as Venice buckles under the tonnage of too many Lucite heels, and hordes of tourists seem always to stand between you and the work of Florentine art you have traveled thousands of miles to see, totally ignored by the dolce vita bureaucracy is one of Italy's ... and the world's ... most refined centers of wine and food culture.
Here, in arguably the most cosmopolitan of the country's twenty regions, Hemingway, Joyce, and Rilke lived, ate, and wrote about it, and came into renown. And yet, it remains among Italy's best-kept travel secrets, a cornucopia largely unknown to many Europeans and most North Americans.
Bordered by Austria to the north, Slovenia to the east, the Adriatic to the south, and the Veneto to the west, Friuli-Venezia Giulia was a flourishing civilization centuries before Venice. Comprising virtually every type of terrain except desert, it is a blessed land of rich soil, rolling hills, deep water lakes, mountain ranges, and major fishing and seaports ... the extraordinary combination of which produces the magnificent grapes of her top-rated white wines and Italy's best grappi; a remarkable variety of produce; impressive seafood, fruits, beef, cheese, and grains; and among the best air-cured hams the world knows.
The area from Venice to Vienna has been important strategic ground since the days of the Roman Empire. For centuries it has been invaded and dominated by Ottomans, Hapsburgs, Venetians, Nazis ... even Attila had a crack at it. Each conqueror exacted crushing tribute, draining the region of her rich food resources. Almost the entire production of San Daniele prosciutti, for example, was long paid in reparation to the Doge of Venice. Impoverished by the unenlightened self-interest of distant warlords, the region's resourceful cooks learned to make do with what was left ... barley, spinach, wheat, vinegar, horseradish, wine, cornmeal, eggs, cabbage, apples, and the like. This, coupled with Trieste's emergence as a spice port, encouraged home cooks to create masterpieces out of the most ordinary ingredients. Among these, orzotto (barley cooked in a manner similar to risotto, with mushrooms, carrots, and grapes); polenta in a ricotta-chive sauce, draped with prosciutto di San Daniele; gnocchi filled with plums; apple wine soup; Triestine sauerkraut and bean soup; mussels with anise; sea scallops with almond sauce Even the region's signature dish, the crispy golden cheese snack known as frico, is eaten not only on its own but betimes filled with gnocchi in a Montasio cheese sauce with poppy seeds and prosciutto, or with potatoes or onions or apples or pears.
Unlike most regional or national cuisines, the food of Friuli-Venezia Giulia offers few impressive preparations but plenty of satisfying ones ... most intended to showcase the variety of tastes and ingredients from all over the territory in a succession of small plates. In part the absence of antipasti-primi-secondi-conterni dining is a vestige of long domination by Venice, where the small-plate practice also obtains. Contributing too is a local tradition known as mirenda de peron, or the "fork snack." Workers who started laboring before dawn grew hungry by late morning. A small plate, say cinnamon-scented veal stew or cooked pork with fresh horseradish, tided them over.
Despite his impressive credentials as an author and opera executive, there is reason to doubt Fred Plotkin's bona fides as a kitchen theoretician but no question at all about his skill as an eater. Accordingly, very little in the way of words is given in his book to technique but a great deal of attention focuses on the enjoyment of his 160 or so cookable, easy-to-follow recipes ... more often than not with a well-selected glass of Friulian wine. According to Plotkin, one of the things that most distinguishes the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is that its cooks seem to understand the interactions of food and wine. Since the region produces Italy's best whites and some outstanding reds ... with more grape varieties than any other area of the country ... his book features a useful and detailed (though highly opinionated) list of the region's bottlings and winemakers. It closes with a chapter about traveling in the region useful to readers researching a trip.
Until now, very little has been written in English about la terra fortunata. Plotkin's important new book, though not heavily illustrated, will go far to insure that it does not remain terra incognita too much longer. Publishers, a cookie-cutter crowd if ever there was one, will soon note a void in their cookbook lines as Plotkin's ground breaker flies off the shelves, and will hasten to fill the gap. Meanwhile, if you are interested in Italian home cooking, here is an original book that belongs near at hand.