Friuli: Italy’s secret garden

There is a place, at the very geographic center of Europe, that is home to one of the most refined food and wine cultures in the world.

Hemingway, Joyce, D’Annunzio, Rilke and Pasolini all lived in this place, and yet it is nearly unknown in the United States, and even in much of Europe. It has been occupied by Julius Caesar (for whom it was named), the Celts, Attila the Hun, the Ottomans, Napoleon (who brought French grapes), the Hapsburgs, Yugoslavia and, ultimately, by Italy.

Cividale del FriuliIt suffered some of the heaviest damage in Europe during two world wars. Much of it was leveled in 1976 by earthquakes. Yet, its people rise again and again, roll up their sleeves, plant food and vines, and plan for a better life.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the tiny region on the far northeast fringe of Italy where Europe’s three principal cultures — Latin, Slavic and Germanic — converge. It is the home of a subtle cuisine that combines local products with influences that are, literally, all over the map.

The land provides an outstanding array of fruit and vegetables that are eaten only in season. And the Alps offer exquisite herbs that women gather to use in soups, pastas, omelets, poultry dishes and desserts.

The region is also the birthplace of grappa, and the source of an astounding variety of wines, despite its diminutive size. The town of San Daniele has produced a sweet, delicious prosciutto for centuries that rivals Parma’s.

Friulian rivers are full of trout, the forests full of mushrooms and game, the plains planted tall with wheat, rye, hops, barley, and corn for white and yellow polenta.

Underappreciated culinary regions of Europe don’t stay that way for long (just think of Provence or Emilia-Romagna), and then come the tour buses.

But here, in this utterly distinct and yet diverse place, the people are careful guardians of their land and traditions. It feels as if it will stay that way for a long time.

I have family in Friuli and so I visited many times in the 1990’s.

Italians tend to see Friuli-Venezia Giulia as Germanic or Slavic and not really part of their own nation, though much blood was spilled to claim it. Germans, Austrians, Slovenians, Croats and Serbs see it as some middle ground between themselves and Italy.

I quickly learned that the region is deeper, more subtle and infinitely more interesting than its neighbors.

Friuli geography

Università di UdineThe area called Friuli (from Forum Julii, or Julius’ Forum) makes up about 70 percent of the region, mostly in the south, west and north. The main city is Udine, a handsome, hard-working city of 200,000, distinctly Venetian in aspect.

There are more than 100 special little towns in Friuli, like Cividale, which has superb art treasures, excellent local cooking and wonderful wine produced nearby. It is also home to gubana, a yeasty cake filled with nuts and spices and soaked with grappa or plum eau de vie.

The Friulani are fanatically industrious, and have what they call “brick sickness” — an insatiable desire to build. After the 1976 earthquakes, they rebuilt whole cities.

Venezia Giulia

The remaining part of the region is Venezia Giulia (Julian Venice), also named for Julius Caesar. Its citizens, known as Giuliani, resent the fact that most people call the whole region Friuli.

When Friuli was a backwater, Venezia Giulia was a jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Venezia Giulia’s largest city, Trieste, ranked just after Vienna and Budapest in importance and was the empire’s chief port. Cormons is renowned within the region for fantastic food and wine.

Most people in the region speak Italian, and many speak Furlan (the native tongue that incorporates Latin, Slavic and Germanic influences), while Trieste has its own singsong dialect.

Trieste is certainly the most cosmopolitan city in Italy. Rome, Florence, Venice and Naples, for all their charms, are quite provincial. In the end, Milan is trendy and Euroglitzy.

In Trieste, people with many religions and languages all live side by side and interact much in the way New Yorkers of every origin do. There is a vibrant cafe society rivaling Paris’ and Vienna’s, where literature is read, art displayed, and the issues of the day debated.

wine in a Trieste caféThis has always been a city of ideas, and was the first in what is now Italy to embrace Freud and psychoanalysis. In the 12 years Joyce lived in Trieste, he wrote “Dubliners,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and part of “Ulysses.”

Trieste is the leading coffee importing and roasting city in Europe, the home to Illy Caffe and Cremcaffe, among others. It is also a major spice port: Cinnamon, nutmeg, poppy seeds, pepper and other flavors entered local cooking as they were transported to Vienna and Budapest. Paprika came from Hungary. Phyllo arrived from Greece and Turkey (and also Vienna).

Just south of Trieste is Istria, a large peninsula on the Adriatic that many Giuliani regard as an amputated limb. In 1954, most of Istria was handed over to Yugoslavia. This led to a mass migration of 350,000 Istrians (in a scene that resembled the recent exodus from Kosovo), many of whom settled in Queens and Los Angeles.

One of the most famous of them is Lidia Bastianich, who moved to New York as a child and grew up to become one of the city’s leading chefs, restaurateurs and cooking teachers.

The dishes at her restaurant, Felidia, are mostly from Istria and Venezia Giulia, while Friulian food can be found at Frico, which Ms. Bastianich owns with her son, Joseph. (A frico is a crisp made of Friulian Montasio cheese, and is the calling card of most restaurants around Udine.)

The people of this region, a product of so many foreign influences, are above all a product of their own land — from the high Alps to the gorgeous hills of the wine country, from the incredibly fertile plains to a mostly pristine and fish-rich part of the Adriatic.

It is land that gives these people their identities. In 1997, I met a 70-year-old Friulian — a former mayor, a businessman and quite worldly, yet in love with his region. He told me, with misting eyes, “When I go for a walk on the land and then come home, I almost feel guilty when I scrape the soles of my shoes.”

Food and cuisine

For its variety, delicacy, sophistication and sheer pleasure-giving, the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is on the level of the cuisines in Emilia-Romagna and Liguria, Italy’s finest food regions.

If one were to construct a seasonal Friulian menu, it would begin with a springtime of fresh herbs — like mint, verbena, valerian and tarragon — cooked in omelets, with seafood and pounded as sauces for meat.

The star dish is cjarsons, an Alpine filled pasta served as a first course that contains about 40 ingredients, including a dozen herbs, cinnamon, nutmeg, chocolate, lemon and ricotta.

In the plains, white asparagus is served with chopped boiled egg that has been softened with wine vinegar. Orzotto, or barley risotto, is made with fresh-picked hops. Soft pork sausage is shaped in patties and sauteed in delicate wine vinegar.

Summer means seafood, so fish stew from Grado might be featured, along with polipo alla dalmata (octopus with potatoes), cozze alla triestina (mussels in a broth made with thyme, onion, garlic, white wine, bread crumbs and parsley) and sea scallops broiled in their shells with local olive oil and thyme. Omelets will contain zucchini flowers and smoked ricotta.

Gnocchi are filled with the fruit of the moment (apricots, then cherries, then plums) and are served with cinnamon, sugar and melted butter.

In autumn, delicate prosciutto di San Daniele will be served with September figs (with grated fresh horseradish at other times). After the harvest, grape skins will be used to make grappa or to ferment beets to make a dish called brovada. Vegetable soups are typical first courses, followed by venison cooked with spices or berries.

Although polenta is eaten year-round, it is the central dish of winter. Large copper pots yield slow-moving rivers of this meal, which is poured onto round wooden boards, where it hardens and is cut into sections with thread. Stews, including goulash made of equal parts beef and onion, are supporting players.

When polenta cools, it can be grilled, pan-fried or served to children with cinnamon and sugar. Hearty soups, grilled pork, stewed fruit and frico all come to the table, with warming snifters of grappa.

Friuli wines

And then there is the region’s wine. With sheltering hills, generous sun, cooling sea breezes and skilled growers and winemakers, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is one of the world’s great zones, although its production is quite small compared with other regions’. The Collio zone (in Venezia Giulia) and the Colli Orientali (in Friuli) are the most outstanding.

Native white grapes like tocai, ribolla gialla, malvasia istriana and verduzzo make wines of distinct character. Pinot bianco, pinot grigio, chardonnay, riesling, traminer aromatico, mueller thurgau and, especially, sauvignon blanc have found congenial terrain there.

Often, winemakers will blend different grapes to produce wines of extraordinary structure, depth, character and finish, like Collio bianco, a blend of tocai, ribolla gialla and sauvignon blanc.

Friulian red wine is not as well known, in part because most people associate fine Italian red wine with the Tuscany’s Chianti and brunello or the Piedmontese Barbaresco and Barolo.

A native Friulian red grape, pignolo, is only now being discovered abroad, and at its finest (by Walter Filiputti and Abbazia di Rosazzo, and some older Dorigo vintages) it makes a miraculous wine, with flavors of sun, earth and fruit.

Lighter native reds like refosco, schiopettino, terrano and tazzelenghe are distinctive on their own or in blends. Pinot nero, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and, especially, merlot make outstanding wines.

All of these grapes are used to make grappa. In the early 1970s, the Nonino family were the first to realize that each grape had its own properties, and rather than blend them into harsh firewater, they distilled each grape individually for a range of postprandial libations of great delicacy.

With its splendid fruit, Friuli also produces some of the finest distillates of plums, peaches, pears, cherries and apricots.

Friulian winemakers have also invented another blend, fitting for a place so close to the Kosovo war, yet where Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Orthodox followers of the Greek, Serbian and Russian churches live in harmony.

It is called Vino della Pace, Wine of Peace. A blend of international grapes, it is sent to world leaders as a metaphor for coexistence.

As planes return to their hangars in NATO’s Aviano air base in Friuli, the people of this region, who have known too much war and have chosen peace, will be making the last Vino della Pace of the century, and will toast to the moment when enjoying the pleasures of the table and companionship will be more important than finding yet another way to cause suffering.

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One Response to “Friuli: Italy’s secret garden”

  1. Shannon says:

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