Lunch is a smashing affair. The hotel kitchen staff seems to be under orders to feed us to death, but we oblige, only turning down offered seconds. I am seated at a table with Signore Di Masso of Pan dell'Orso and Signore Di Carlo of Confetti William di Carlo, as well as Elena, our interpreter. The conversation is lively, warm and friendly and moves quickly from formulaic talk about the products we have just sampled to more personal subjects. Once again I am impressed by how passionate these men are about their products - particularly how they proudly talk of the integral role in the history and culture of Abruzzo that their products have and continue to play. I am also interested to note that they indentify themselves as being Abruzzese as much as being Italian. Abruzzo, it is becoming clear, is a special place for the Abruzzese and they wear their heritage with a proud self-consciousness but also with a realization that much of Italy has passed them by, a realization that is part resignation, part contentment with what they have and, as this conference shows, part determination to catch up with the rest of Italy.
We talk about the U.S. market and about American culture and I tell them of our respect for a culture that seems to stress the slower pace of life and, for me, a culture that values food as a reflection of the society and a catalyst for meaningful human interaction. I am surprised by their admiration for American society, despite our obsession with work and our fast pace. This is the second time in a month that I have heard Italians bemoan life in their country, complaining of a culture that not only does not reward excellence, but penalizes it. While their comments lead me to believe that we tend to romanticize la dolce vita, the Italians, it seems, tend to idolize American meritocracy, freedom and initiative.
For dessert, of course the most important course when you are dining with confectionary producers, we have a parrozzo, the traditional peasant bread covered in chocolate. It is produced by the hotel kitchen and you can feel a palpable distain for their efforts by the assembled producers. One complains that parrozzo is dry and needs to served topped with cream. This is rectified by pouring aurum, a sweet orange liquor bearing the latin word for gold, over the cake. Honeys, which have been produced by one of our lunch companions are passed around the tables and later sliced torrone, compliments of yet another confectioner is produced. Finally we escape the procession of sweets and board our minibus for a tour of two nearby historic towns.
We depart Pescara and drive south along the coast road through Ortona, famous throughout Italy not just because it is the name of the elementary school I attended, but also because it is one of the most important port towns on the Italian Adriatic coast. Along the coast, known as the trabocchi coast are a number of trabocchi, wooden structures built on stilts at the ends of jetties that extend into the sea and that were used by Abruzzese fishermen in past times to hang nets into the sea when rough seas prevented them from launching their boats.
The coastline here, south of Pescara changes from the sandy beaches to the north that stretch nearly to Venice. Here the shores are rocky, but we are struck not by the coastline, but by the sight inland, as the clouds have finally lifted and it is possible to see the majestic Maiella Mountains rising high above. The Maiella range is one of the two principal ranges in Abruzzo, the Grand Sasso, which we will see on Friday, being the other.
Signore Giorgio, now known to us as Alfredo, tells us of the complete destruction of Ortona during World War II, the result of fierce fighting between German and Allied forces seeking to secure this strategic pass through the Appenines. We pass Ortona and continue on to Lanciano, a short drive inland.
Lanciano, an important medieval trading town, proves to be an extremely worthwhile stop, and not just because we don't eat anything here. Although it is extremely important for that reason. We visit the basilica in the Piazza del Plebiscito, which is named the church of the Madonna del Ponte after a statue of the Madonna that adorned a bridge over which the basilica was built. We wander the maze of narrow, ambling, medieval streets, with crumbling buildings, reminiscent of other ancient Italian towns, especially (to me) Perugia. The entire town seems to have grown organically, with buildings built one atop of another, upper floors extending further out than lower through the use of buttresses, and upstairs rooms spanning the streets, creating covered walkways. The effect is somewhat like a sandcastle made from wet, muddy sand: the whole appears fragile, random and slightly run down. Yet like the sand castle, it conveys charm and a certain magic.
After visiting the Santuario del Miracolo Eucaristico, where in the 8th century the miraculous transformation of communion wine and bread into real flesh (a heart muscle, yuck!) and blood is said to have occurred, we depart Lanciano, intoxicated by its understated and unexpected charm and bounty.
We return to Pescara to prepare for our final feeding frenzy of the day, dinner at a local trattoria called the Locanda Manthone (Corso Manthone, 58, Pescara, tel. 39-085-4549034). And let the assagi begin again.