Barbara Gunnell treks with the sheep to a high-altitude feast in the Abruzzo Mountains.
We left Rome for the mountains of Abruzzo when the temperature reached 38°C, with 40°C expected. However, Romans in the Cinecitta suburb of 1950s apartment blocks have ways to deal with such heat.
Life spills noisily outside at night when it’s cool enough to eat; families shout above shrieking quiz shows into the small hours. Fellini’s films celebrated the abundance of this working-class part of Rome, but I needed sleep.
An hour north-east on the motorway towards Abruzzo and the mountains, we were already wondering about the decision. The car’s dashboard showed the outside temperature remained stubbornly at 38°C. Soon we noticed spirals of smoke rising out of yellowed hills.
Abruzzo Food: the problems with forest fires
Like much of Europe, Central Italy has been suffering a spate of forest fires. Still, when we reached Rocca Calascio — at 1460m, the highest medieval castle in the Apennines — the billowing smoke was below us.
From the castle, we could see black smoke wafting down the valley. Far below us, a dinky-toy bowser hurried along a dirt track to take water to a field of wheat on the edge of the smoldering brush. Later, planes ditched the pool and finished off the job, but not before a black scar had been carved into the rolling lower slopes of the Gran Sasso massif.
It seemed entirely appropriate that, in this 15th-century setting, the first half-dozen “locals” we met should be wearing a medieval costume and carrying swords and shields. Ignoring the full force of a heatwave’s breezeless afternoon, one young soldier sweated in a padded velveteen suit. Another, layered in wool, told me, in fair English, what he and his friends were doing. It was a battle reconstruction in which two groups were fighting for possession of the castle. He faltered as he used the descriptions Christians and Saracens — may be out of political correctness or may be uncertain how to translate Saracens — and decided instead that the bad guys were, oddly, from the Isle of Man.
The good guys were Italian, of course. The mock battles were not for tourists but private events fought over weekends throughout the year in the hill villages.
Rocca Calascio, perched on a peak, with its spectacular view across the valley to Gran Sasso, was a particularly authentic setting for their enactment. But there are hundreds of castles in the Abruzzo hills; the ancient Romans opened up so many roads through the Apennines that villagers were sitting ducks for invaders.
Abruzzo Food: They and their sheep regularly needed refuge.
In the first half of the 15th century, there were more than three million sheep in Abruzzo. Today, there are about 450,000. In summer, they graze in the mountain pastures; in winter, they move to the grassy lowlands of Puglia. This seasonal movement of flocks up and down the mountains (called the transumanza) defined the landscape of Abruzzo. Spring and autumn, the sheep would graze their way along with a network of broad tracks (a hundred meters wide in places) covering hundreds of kilometers, the shepherds paying for the use of the paths along the way, and thus supporting local economies.
But gradually, over the first decades of the 20th century, it became more economical to move the sheep by truck and train and local people to use the paths for crops. After that, the sheep economy started to flounder; the hill villages of Abruzzo were abandoned.
Until a few years ago, the collection of houses at the foot of Rocca Calascio had been uninhabited for many decades. But an enterprising couple reclaimed two for a bar and restaurant, hoping to entice trade up the hill. It worked. They expanded, reclaiming more houses to provide accommodation for walkers and cross-country skiers, some basic and cheap, some more luxurious. Now a few families have returned, and there’s a small shop, but the village remains un-manicured and authentic. Since it lies within a regional park, it may even stay that way.
Abruzzo Food – Rocca Calascio – The rebirth
Rolando, trim and tanned, with iron-grey hair, has a mission to foster Abruzzo culture. He looks like an art impresario, but his day job is cooking, and for the restaurant’s Saturday dinner, he was doing an Abruzzo special: Pecora (sheep, not lamb) with mountain herbs and potatoes. It’s a secret recipe, he said, but I’m going to reveal it.
It is what you need: a 35-kilo sheep; two crates of flat-leaved parsley; a container of rosemary branches; a few armfuls of just- gathered mountain herbs (various thymes, sage, some bitter leaves, and some variety of mint); 40 or so carrots; a similar number of onions; a dozen or so garlic bulbs; a few celery heads with leaves; a liter of oil and more than a liter of white wine. You’ll also need potatoes (same volume as the lamb when boned). Boil the beast for two hours in water. Get rid of large quantities of fat. Boil for another five hours. Remove big bones.
And here’s the clever bit. Take the table, herbs, and vegetables outside and engage some passers-by in conversation about your struggle to revive Abruzzo theatre. Then, without comment, hand each a knife, all the while telling the story of the freezing night in the mountains when you staged an open-air performance of an obscure play. The actress wore a dress so translucent that the fur-wrapped audience remained to shiver in their seats out of solidarity or lust.
Subtly, without talking, demonstrate how you want the rosemary stripped, the sage and parsley stalks removed, the carrots peeled. Keep your story going through digressions, personal histories, and tales of meals enjoyed or prepared for well-known writers and artists. It lasts for the three hours it takes your helpers to reduce all the vegetable matter to several kilos of finely chopped herb flavoring.
Do not be distracted by the fact that they are roasting in the sun and now have green hands and watering eyes. In a giant pan, arrange boned sheep and an equal volume of potatoes in layers with herbs, dousings of oil, and sprinklings of salt. Pour over a liter or so of white wine. Simmer for two hours.
Enough locals made the journey up to the village to fill the dining room. There was a festive mood. But up at the castle, things were not going well for the good guys. The Manxmen had gained control. Below, in the valley, the embers of the fire were glowing, looking unnervingly like a camp of Saracen invaders. — © New Statesman