Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Day 3 - Atri

Today we visit several of the producers that we met at yesterday's workshop. All of them have something special to show us and all of them have something special to say, even if they are not aware that they are saying it.

We visit Luigi d'Amico, producer of parrozzo, Abruzzo's best known and most beloved confection. Parrozzo received its name compliments of Gabriele d'Annunzio, the region's larger-than-life literary giant who is practically a patron saint in Abruzzo. He suggested the name, a derivative of pane (bread) and rozzo (rough), for this peasant bread that has been gussied up for the modern market. Signore Pierluigi Francini, the fifth generation in his family to run Luigi d'Amico leads us on a tour of the facilities, but of greater interest is his storytelling of the genesis of parrozzo and of his forebear's relationship with d'Annunzio. (Parrozzo, which is made with whole wheat flour and no yeast, represented the only ingredients available to ancient peasants after they sold the good stuff - farina, or white flour - to the rich landlords. As they followed their grazing herds southward for the winter, they would take this rough bread with them to remind them of home and to sustain them until their return.)

The anteroom of the d'Amico bakery is a veritable museum, the walls covered with black and white photographs of famous Italians from bygone eras, together with their correspondence to Signore Francini's relatives singing the praises of parrozzo. One would think it on par with Fleming's discovery of penicillin, but such is the allure of Abruzzo, where a humble peasant cake can play such a meaningful role in the life of its people. Why there are even letters from King Victor Emanuelle and Benito Mussolini!

Not satisfied simply to create an indoor shrine to parrozzo, the province of Pescara, in collaboration with Luigi d'Amico, published a beautiful book entitled "Una Fetta della Cultura d'Abruzzo" (A slice of Abruzzo Culture), featuring the photographs and recollections of these famous Italians about d'Amico confections, primarily parrozzo. There is even a handwritten score for a song about parrozzo, written by a well-known local composer, with lyrics by an equally famous writer ("ma la piu grande allegrezza, ma la piu grande dolcezza di Pescara e il Parrozzo. Chi lo mangia ci fa nozze," which translates, to the extent of my Italian, "but the greatest joy, the greatest sweet in Pescara is Parrozzo. He who eats it will get married here." Even if it is not an accurate translation, I think you get my point.)

We leave this shrine to sweetness and head to the mountain town of Atri to visit a licorice producer and the producer of Pan Ducale, another local cake vying for primacy in hearts and minds of Abruzzese. We are joined for lunch by Danilo d'Amario, the youthful Managing Director of Pan Ducale and son of the matriarch who does the baking for this family run business. We eat an excellent lunch at Locanda Duca d'Atri (via S. Domenico, 54, Atri, tel. 085-8797586, closed Tuesdays) in record time, as we have two afternoon appointments. Our lunch group raves about our two different vini rossi, both Montepulciano d'Abruzzo D.O.C. wines. The Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is one of three D.O.C. wines from Abruzzo and is often confused with the better known Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. We have learned that the local wine, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is named after the Montepulciano grape from which it is made whereas Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is named for the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany where it is made from sangiovese grapes. I still chuckle when recalling that when ordering a bottle of Montepulciano the previous evening at dinner, our waiter replied to the modifier "d'Abruzzo" in typical Abruzzese style simply with "there is another?"

We briefly tour Altri, a mountain town north of Pescara that is older than Rome and once again a thoroughly serene and wonderful experience. Then it is off to Liquirizia Menozzi & De Rosa, one of a handful of licorice producers in the world. They demonstrate the entire production process, from the extraction of licorice essence from the roots of the licorice plants, to the extruding, cutting and polishing of hard, pure licorice lozenges, and the mixing, extruding, cutting and packaging of better known soft licorice. Stefano Menozzi and his brother show us the impressive product line, which includes charming pasta-shaped licorice, sold in boxes that look like boxes of pasta.

We then return to Pan Ducale, where Danilo regales us with stories about the origins of the Pan Ducale (it was given to the newly installed Duke by the citizens of Atri who feared his retribution. He apparently like it and spared the population a horrible death. Indeed, according to Danilo, the Pan Ducale was later used as a present by the Duke to a rival King and was so well received that war was averted. Lesson: make cakes, not war). He shares some historical teachings with us, including the little known right of dukes to jus prime noctis and then begins assailing us with cakes and pastries brought up from the bakery by his perpetually-smiling mother every 15 minutes or so. The whole family enterprise is so friendly and smiling that we dub it "the happiest place on earth (other than Disney World)."

After refusing yet another proffered sweet we bid our adieus but are unexpectedly joined on the bus by Danilo, who accompanies us to his grandfather's local olive oil pressing facility. The machinery is run by Danilo's grandfather for local olive growers who cannot afford their own processing equipment, and Danilo wants to show us how olive oil is made. Unfortunately, bad weather has stifled any recent harvesting, so there is no activity tonight, except for Danilo's activity, the level of which has been high and continuous all day long. He shows us how the machinery operates and then insists that we sample some of the olio novello. In an instant wine glasses are passed around and recently produced local wine is poured for all. Danilo, it seems, simply can't stand to part with us.

And then come the stories, or rather the story. Danilo, who is clearly very proud of his octogenarian grandfather asks him to show us a picture of a special German woman that his grandfather first met as a prisoner of war in Germany. He produces a small newspaper article from his wallet, the reverse side showing the eye of (presumably) a woman. In cutting out the article about her, he apparently defaced the picture on the opposite side.

According to Danilo - and I am sure I am getting some of the facts wrong - his father met this woman somehow while a POW in Germany. He overheard her talking about him and thought she was demeaning him in German, only later to discover that she was hitting on him. The war ended and he never saw her again. Apparently, however, he has never stopped talking about this woman and recently Danilo had business in Switerland that would take him close to the town where the encounter occurred. He talked his grandfather into accompanying him and after much effort, they narrowed their search to a small area. One night at dinner Danilo engaged some locals in conversation about their search, and as the two sides translated their questions and answers back and forth, the grandfather and one of the dinner patrons realized that they were talking about each other. According to Danilo's grandfather, the woman leapt up and kissed him. "She really ate me up."

Sometimes, it seems, love at first sight does end well. But after my third day here I am happy with Abruzzo, my slow and steady new love.

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