If you want to discover Italian cuisine at its purest head to Abruzzo.
Abruzzo is located on the Adriatic coast in Central Italy. Because much of inland Abruzzo is mountainous and covered in National parks, the region was relatively isolated up until the 20th century and as a result still remains fairly unspoiled with lots of ancient villages, monasteries and castles. This ‘isolation’ has also meant that the Abruzzese people have maintained many traditions and customs without influence from the rest of Italy. As a result, the cuisine in this region is quite unique and many believe it to be the purest form of Italian food.
Seafood in Abruzzo
Abruzzo cuisine is very much linked to the land and the sea. The coastal areas have a great tradition for fish and especially for ‘brodetto’, a bouillabaisse-type fish soup which is slow-cooked in an earthenware pot, flavored with fresh tomato, herbs and various spices. On the region’s northern coast it has a strong flavour because of the use of peperoncino, whilst in the south this ‘soup’ is milder.
Meat and other produce
Inland Abruzzo is historically a land of ancient agricultural and pastoral traditions and this part of the region’s cuisine revolves around fresh seasonal produce, roasted meats, cured pork, aged cheeses and foraged foods such as porcini mushrooms, truffles and chestnuts.
The countryside is dotted with herds of sheep and goats, as a consequence lamb and kid are the most popular meat. These are often simmered slowly in sauce and served with polenta or pasta. On special occasions large pieces of milk fed lamb are spit roasted or lamb is also slowly cooked in a sealed clay casserole dish along with olives, lemons, hot peppers and oregano in a dish called ‘agnello alle olive’.
Beef is not so common in Abruzzo but many families still raise their own pigs and, as in Calabria, flavorful, lean pork meat and cured meats such as salami are produced from these often free-roaming pigs throughout the region.
Interestingly Abruzzo is where Navelli saffron, more often called L’Aquila saffron, is grown. This is generally agreed to be the very best saffron in the world. Its stigmas are longer, its aroma stronger and its colour deeper than any other. It is also known as the red gold of Abruzzo and sells for more than $200 an ounce! In the area around Aquila, saffron is used in many dishes including a wonderful pasta dish known as ‘cannarozzetti allo zafferano’ which includes sheep’s ricotta, pork cheek and saffron.
Other Abruzzese pasta
As in the rest of Italy, many meals in Abruzzo begin with a pasta course. One of the most well-known is ‘maccheroni alla chitarra’, or guitar pasta. The dough for this pasta is cut into quadrangular strips using a tool resembling an acoustic guitar, hence the name. The pasta is then traditionally served with a lamb and tomato sauce seasoned with peperoncino, garlic and bay leaves or a lamb ragu with sweet peppers. It is also often served with a simple spicy tomato sauce or with pesto Abruzzese which is a spicy pesto made with peperoncino, sundried tomatoes, black olives, pecorino and anchovies.
Other Abruzzo pasta dishes include Maccheroni alla Molinara, a very long spaghetti kneaded with salt water, and Cannelloni all’Abruzzese, pasta tubes filled with a mixture of ground pork, chicken and veal. ‘Sagne e Fagioli’, is a typical slow-cooked soup made with beans and simple water and flour noodles called sagne. These are boiled in broth with fresh tomato sauce, garlic, oil and the ubiquitous Abruzzo peperoncino.
Like other southern Italians the Abruzzese love spicy dishes! In fact, grated cheese is not as popular on pasta in Abruzzo as it is in other parts of Italy. Instead, the Abruzzese pass around a small bowl of oil, flavored with either dried or fresh peperoncino. I have read that it is even possible to see a whole fresh green chili being passed around with scissors for snipping!
Near the coast seafood pasta is the norm. Dishes worth mentioning (although there are lots more!) are ‘spaghetti al cartoccio’, a seafood and spaghetti dish which is finished off in the oven wrapped in baking paper and pizzichi di farro, pasta made from farro, an ancient wheat, with calamari, sepia, mussels, clams and scampi.
My Abruzzo pasta bucket list!
I have yet to visit Abruzzo but high up on my Abruzzo pasta bucket list is ravioli stuffed with ricotta, sugar and cinnamon and dressed with chunky pork ragu. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m dying to visit this region!! In the meantime I am planning to try out some typical Abruzzo recipes in my own kitchen and share them with you. I hope you’ll give some of them a try and let me know what you think!