Friday, November 19, 2004

Day 5 - Part IV - Farewell

The drive from Pineto to Pescara is absolutely dreadful. I grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida, whose official town motto, the hyperbolic "The World's Most Famous Beach," could as easily be "The Ocean Drive Most Likely to Make Your Skin Crawl," so I know a thing or two about tacky. The drive from Pineto to Pescara, however, makes Daytona look like Cannes. It is hard to imagine where all the neon that lights the road into Pescara comes from and there are more slimy, unattractive businesses along this road than I have ever seen in America. I am simply floored that the Italians have been able to out America the Americans. But such is the nature of a seaside resort.

The scenery becomes more subdued and attractive as I near Pescara center and at last I recognize some of the sights that have been my neighborhood for the past five days. I head toward the Esplanade Hotel and arrive a few minutes before the group is to assemble for our final dinner.

Joining the group a few minutes late, we begin our walk to dinner in the "old" part of Pescara, a town that was largely built and rose to regional prominence within the last one hundred years. Somewhere along the twenty minute walk, the weather that closed the Gran Sasso tunnel arrives in Pescara and gale force winds begin to blow and the skies begin to open. We arrive just in time at the Ristorante Old Marine (Corso G. Manthone, 39, Pescara, tel. 085-67512, closed Sundays) and enter another small, cozy space, perfect for our last night together.

Four out of five lab technicians
recommend torrone.
And enjoy the last night we do. Alfredo takes charge, ordering mixed platters of various creatures of the sea with names I can't pronounce and can't remember. What I do remember are the smile around the table, smiles for good food and a warm, cozy table. Smiles and jokes about one another (I get my share of ribbing and innuendo about never getting to Castelli), about the people we have met, about the places we have visited, the sights we have seen. Smiles of friendship among a new group of friends who did not know one another five days ago, but who have shared so much together in a short time. Smiles that we were all returning to our homes but taking with us treasured memories and experiences.

And as a final Abruzzo experience Alfredo has us try a local digestif called centerbe, meaning one hundred herbs. This powerful concoction has no place in local trattoria and should be placed under strict governmental control, like the supply of weapons grade plutonium. Alfredo warns us that one must drink it sitting down, leaning against a sturdy wall or lying on the floor. We soon discover the reason for this is that you will end up in one of those three places quickly after sipping it. The stuff is, to put it simply, awful. The color of green Scope, there is nothing therapeutic about it, unless you need to exfoliate your esophagus. None of us admits this of course, and there is much joking and choking to go around. We somehow finish our glasses (declining offers of seconds) and I leave with the strange thought that perhaps tourism in Abruzzo has been more successful than I had imagined, but that the Abruzzese had killed off all of their potential repeat customers through centerbe.

We begin our walk back to the hotel, our journey coming to an end. I will be up for several more hours packing and organizing for several more days of travel on my own, with plenty of time to reflect upon the magic of Abruzzo, a region I did not know about a week ago but which now has infected my soul and become a part of me. On a day of many misses and near misses I feel in my heart that the thing I will miss the most will be Abruzzo.

Day 5 - Part III - Gran Sasso

Rita takes me back to the Sorelle Nurzia factory, calling the Avis agency along the way and commanding them to deliver the car to her. This is clearly a woman who knows how to get what she wants and I am grateful to her for the ride and for simplifying my journey. The car arrives a few minutes later, contracts are signed, I say my thank yous and, after negotiating the high security fence, I am on my way.

Hoya Saxa!
I am looking forward to the trip to Castelli, which it is explained to me, is about a thirty minute drive from where we are, just south and east of L'Aquila. Between L'Aquila and Castelli, however, is the Gran Sasso mountain range, a towering mountain range that is one of Italy's most popular ski areas. To get to Castelli one must traverse a ten kilometer tunnel that passes under the Corno Grande, the tallest peak of the Gran Sasso.
As I leave L'Aquila I head directly for the Gran Sasso (imaginatively meaning "big rock") and as I approach, it seems utterly immense, its summit completely obscured by a ceiling of clouds. This ceiling surrounds me in grayness, with the huge gray wall of stone rising from my hood to the sky and stretching from side to side as far as the eye can see. None of this had been visible from the south of L'Aquila and I am sad that my fellow travelers have not had the opportunity to experience this awe-inspiring sight.

Up ahead is a tiny black tunnel that will take me from this gloom to the coastal side of the mountains where I can get on with my ceramics hunting.

Or so I think. As I near the tunnel I speed past a lighted sign (while Italian autostrada are subject to a national speed limit of 130 km/h, I have yet to observe any Italian who appears to be aware of this law, so I follow the saying, "when in Abruzzo, do as the Abruzzese do") quicker than my Italian language skills enable me to translate. I have a haunting feeling, however, that it has something to do with a tunnel closure. Sure enough, a few kilometers further I am forced to exit the autostrada, as high winds have caused a tunnel closure today. My thirty minute jaunt to Castelli is about to become a three hour ordeal back to Pescara and I am beginning to long for our pullman and its test pilot.

I have no idea how long this detour is going to last, so I pull out the map and chart my progress along the route which works its way across the south face of the Gran Sasso before heading northeast through a mountain pass. Darkness if falling quickly, as is the outside temperature and the zigzagging road becomes more challenging as snow drifts begin to appear along its sides. In more than a few places, only a single lane has been plowed, making two way traffic a challenge worthy of our busdriver. After an hour in the mountains I have resigned my self to skipping Castelli, if I ever reach the other side of the mountain, and instead heading as quickly as possible to the coast, hopefully arriving in Pescara in time for our long awaited seafood dinner.

I finally emerge on the other side of the mountain, but traffic through the small villages is choked by the procession of vehicles that had similarly expected a quick journey through the tunnel. Nearly three hours after leaving L'Aquila I finally arrive at the coast, just north of Pineto, about a half hour's drive from Pescara. I decide there is enough time to stop in Pineto and search for a shop by the name of Arte e Sapori d'Abruzzo - the Art and Flavors of Abruzzo - which a friend of ours has recommended as a good place to see Castelli ceramics and a variety of typical food products from Abruzzo. The shop is located on, you guessed it, via Gabrielle d'Annunzio (which translates into English as either George Washington Street or Boulevard Abraham Lincoln), so I have no fears of being able to find it. Via G. d'Annuzio is not the sort of street that Abruzzo town fathers will tuck away on the outskirts. It is definitely going to be the main street.

I find Arte and Sapori and after spending about 15 minutes explaining who I am and what I am looking for (being alone locked in a car for three hours makes me talkative) the owners, a lovely husband and wife, spend about 45 minutes showing me around their store, describing each food item and giving me contact information on Castelli craftsmen. Thus, another miss is magically transformed into a positive experience and I leave Pineto with the sense that I have accomplished at least a little.

continued . . . 

Day 5 - Part II - Misses

We return to the bus for our final destination of the trip, Sorelle Nurzia, the Nurzia Sisters' torrone production facilities, which is just a few kilometers up the road. Our short drive turns into a painful odyssey, however, in one of those surreal episodes where dad refuses to ask for directions. In this case dad is our bus driver who is armed only with the information that the Sorelle Nurzia facility is in the Zona Industriale. For those who have visited Zone Industriale in Italy, you will know that they can be vast complexes housing dozens of non-descript industrial buildings. A sign at the entrance of the zona indicates that Sorelle Nurzia is here. The question is, where?

We begin our systematic exploration of perhaps Italy's most unattractive corner. From the first traffic circle we head left and work our way past a dozen warehouses and run down office buildings. We retrace our steps to the traffic circle and work our way down another radian, surprised that the buildings look exactly like the ones on our first route. We continue down spoke after spoke, the passengers grumbling louder and louder with each u-turn, Alfredo pleading with the driver to call the factory for directions, but to no avail. Finally, in a fit of rage, the driver opens the window and starts demanding directions from terrified passersby and motorists, none of whom seem to know what he is talking about. We finally get some directions, which turn out to be wrong, and head back on the state highway that originally brought us to the industrial park where, lo and behold, we see fortress Sorelle Nurzia. The only minor problem is that it is surrounded by a huge security fence with no gate. So it is back to the traffic circle and down the access roads until we find the entry gate to a building which has no distinguishing or identifying marks to identify it as the Sorelle Nurzia factory, such as a sign saying "Sorelle Nurzia." Where I come from, people put signs in front of their buildings to help you find them. Perhaps the candyman doesn't need to because he mixes it with love and makes the world go round.

In any event, our long nightmare is over and we debus (if it is possible to deplane, it must also be possible to debus). We use the intercom to announce our arrival and are buzzed into the factory, wondering what is so secret that it must be behind two layers of security and in an unmarked building. The answer is torrone.

We are greeted by Rita, a tall, striking woman whom I described in an earlier report as "ever so attractive and stylish" and the type of "self assured woman that Italy seems to produce better than the rest of the world." Rita had drawn a great deal of attention from our group on day one, particularly but not exclusively from the men, and seeing her again we are not disappointed. For the next hour she stylishly sweeps us around the floors of this vast facility, describing to us how torrone is made, packaged and marketed. The group hangs on her every word.

In addition to being delicious, Nurzia torrone is eyecatching, real eye candy, so to speak. The army of workers in the airport hangar-sized factory do not lavish the time and attention on their torrone that was apparent at Castellana (the four to seven and a half hour mixing at Castellana is achieved in the blink of an eye here), but there is a palpable espirit de corps at work, the workforce largely made up of matronly women who have been working at this family owned business for decades. They seem to care about each other and the products they are making.

We finish our tour of the facilities and depart for lunch at the nearby Vecchio Mulino at the Osteria della Posta (via della Palombaia, 1, Poggio Picenze, tel. 0862-80474, closed Tuesdays) and are pleasantly surprised to discover that Rita and her aunt are joining us for lunch. We make a brief detour toward L'Aquila to visit the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, a 13th century church just outside the city walls. Rita and her aunt are very proud of the beautiful structure and show us around, giving us a brief history of L'Aquila in the process.

Best seat in the house.
We return to the bus and shortly arrive at the restaurant, which is part of a larger agriturismo, a kind of country inn, that also houses a "showroom" dedicated to the sale and tasting of typical products from Abruzzo. We are seated at a long table and, much to the delight of the other men in our group who have been ribbing me about certain comments I have made about Rita, I am seated in the place of honor between Rita and her aunt. We proceed to gorge ourselves once again on innocuous sounding dishes that arrive in an unending procession from the kitchen, wave after wave, until we can eat no more. Throughout the meal Rita and her aunt, who is from the neighboring Marche region and not in step with Rita's effort to promote everything Abruzzo, carry on a running battle over the relative merits of the Marche versus Abruzzo, requiring them to lean across me in order to better take on the fight, an invasion of my personal space that brings chuckles from my fellow travelers. For good measure Fernando asks Rita and her aunt to pose for a picture with me, an embrace that has been digitally captured and is, no doubt making its way throughout the internet as we speak.

Lunch ends and the group heads back to bus for the final return to Pescara. I, however, have slightly different plans. Wanting to visit Castelli, an ancient ceramics town on the other side of the mountain from L'Aquila, I have arranged to rent a car and spend the afternoon on my own, visiting ceramics producers and potentially arranging to import new designs for the store. Not wanting to inconvenience the group by making them return toward L'Aquila where I am to pick up my rental car, I hitch a ride with Rita and her aunt and say goodbye to my erstwhile companions for a new set of companions, an upgrade, as it were. In a day full of misses and near misses, these are definitely the best misses of all, and I am sure I will not hear the end of it when I return to Pescara this evening.

continued . . . 

Day 5 - Part I - Miss

I awake early my final full day in Abruzzo despite an extremely late night the previous evening. My plan is to walk to the mercato ittico - the fish market - to observe the morning auction of fish from the fleet which has been trolling the waters off Pescara overnight. Rough weather has confined the fleet to harbor during most of our trip, but calming seas have been braved the last two nights and today holds two promises - a chance to experience the boisterous market this morning and a seafood dinner tonight.

Olive trees growing on the beach.
Only in Italy.
I struggle out of bed and get my belongings in order for our bus trip to L'Aquila and then head out of the Hotel Esplanade for the 15 minute walk to the fish market. It is not quite 7:00 and the sunrise is painting a pastel orange and pink sky as I wander along the lungomare - the seaside road that follows the beach to the mouth of the Pescara river, a small harbor that the local fishing fleet calls home. It is quiet, peaceful and lovely as I arrive at the dilapidated building that houses the fish market and as I near the entrance Monty and Daniel, two of our august group, emerge from the building. They, too wanted to experience the fish auction, but alas, it is not an experience for vacationers. Starting at 5:00 am, the market has been closed for quite some time and all that is left are some empty cardboard boxes and the lingering smell of today's catch. And thus is set in motion a day of misses and near misses.

The three of us wander back to the Esplanade, looking for a silver lining in an early rise that has come up empty. For me it is a peculiar sight along the way, a single olive tree growing from the sand of the Pescara beach. Quite a healthy looking tree for such an inhospitable environment - white sand and salt water are not the ideal growing conditions for olive trees - this sight further reinforces my impression of the fertility of Italy. Quite simply, everything seems to grow here.
Our pullman departs the hotel slightly behind schedule, as has been our wont. It seems every day someone or ones (who shall remain nameless) are unable to find the bus at the appointed hour. After having kept the group waiting for over an hour at Rome's Fiumicino Airport on the day of our arrival, I have finally been supplanted as the tardy one. It is an honorific I am happy to bestow on someone else.

The drive to L'Aquila, the provincial capital of Abruzzo is mostly uneventful as I try to recapture some of the sleep I had mistakenly traded for the opportunity to see the fish market. There is, however, a strange undertone of sniping and a murmur of hushed comments about our bus driver, a demonstrative and, we discover, excitable man who has guided us for five days and who waits alone with the bus while we tour facilities and eat our meals. He is a bit of an enigma, but this morning his erratic driving seems to be engendering some ill will among our usually chipper group.

We turn off the autostrada for the final ascent to L'Aquila along the S.S.17, a straight, two lane state highway that runs along a valley flanked by mountains on either side. There is a great deal of traffic along the highway, including slow-moving lorries and some occasional roadwork, all of which forces our driver to madly accelerate into the oncoming lane in order to get us to our destination a few minutes quicker. Unfortunately his haste is for naught as we pass our first destination, Dolciaria Castellana, not discovering the fact until we are a good ten kilometers down the road. The misses continue.

What ensues is a tricky three point turn on a narrow two lane road with no shoulder, as lines of traffic assault us from both directions. The tension in the bus is palpable as our group seems to have chosen our hapless driver on which to vent its collective fatigue and grumpiness. The driver seems to understand to whom the silence and whispered comments are directed. His tension is now clearly evident and his response seems to be to try to release it through his toes to the accelerator pedal. We fly down the highway like a rocket car on the Bonneville Salt Flats, screaming into the parking area of the Dolciaria, miraculously stopping without aid of a drag chute.

Our group disembarks, not a single passenger giving into his desire to kneel down and kiss the ground, Pope-like, but all are clearly relieved to be on terra firma. We are greeted by Signore Brancadoro, whose family has run the the Dolciaria Castellana for generations. It is here that the week's stories begin to blur into one another - my father/grandfather/greatgrandfather/other began producing parrozzo/pan ducale/pane dell'orso/torrone/confetti/other in 1854/1896/1926/47 BC/other and I am the second/third/eighth/other generation to carry on this trade. I am even toying with the idea of producing a Mad Libs Abruzzo version for sale on our website:

My Favorite Candy
Sulmona, and ancient __________ (adjective) town, has been producing _______________ (noun) since ________ (year). This ___________ (adjective) sweet is very popular at Italian ____________________ (a celebration). The most famous confetti is produced by ________________ (proper noun), which has been making them since _________ (year). Signore/Signora _______________ (proper noun) is the ____________ (ordinal number) generation in her family . . .

You get the point.

But for all the sameness of the stories, each visit reveals its own gem, a hidden secret about the family, about the product, something that confirms once again that these people are not just candy makers, that they are not just in it for the euros, but that this is a labor of love, that they do what they do because they have to and because they want to. (That was entirely too many commas and sentence fragments, but sometimes you have to bend the rules). At Dolciaria Castellan the McGuffin is in the technique of producing torrone, the specialita della casa. Torrone, the incredibly edible nougat and nut candy bar that the Abruzzese surprisingly do not claim to have invented (they only claim to have improved it by making the hard, brittle torrone of the Piemonte into a softer, gentler variety) is a rather simple concoction. Honey is mixed with egg whites and nuts are added. The sticky mass is spread into forms and dried and the hardened candy is sliced into bars. But Signore Brancadoro explains his secret for making torrone: the goo must be mixed for a long time - anywhere from four to seven and a half hours - for it to achieve the optimum consistency. He also eschews metal cookie sheets for forming the mixture into bars, using instead handmade wooden forms that better absorb the moisture from the torrone, resulting in a better bar.

It is these signatures, these trademarks of the craft that are not publicized but are done because they are the right thing to do and because they have been doing them this way for so many generations, that give so many Italian products a soul and personality. You may not always be able to put your finger on what makes it special, but you always know it's there.

continued . . .

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Day 4 - Gino's

Sulmona is a gem. This assessment is likely influenced by the weather, which after a day and a half of cold, wet, grayness, has gradually brightened and warmed until it has reached today's perfection, but it is true nonetheless. We are standing just off the main square, an enormous piazza that is entered by passing under a perfectly restored Roman aqueduct and which is flanked by well kept palazzi. The group is in exceptional spirits, perhaps due to the crisp weather, perhaps due to the beautiful scenery of the piazza and the snow flecked mountains surrounding us on all sides. I think, however, that the mood is attributable to the end of jetlag and by our growing friendships, which are forged by our shared experiences over the past three days (as well as many meals and much wine shared together). Familiarity and spontaneous humor have replaced the sterile recitations of our respective curricula vitae. We have come to appreciate one another and a real pleasure in each others' company is apparent.

This is a group that likes a joke, especially when it comes at the expense of someone else. Themes and running gags are beginning to develop, such as Fernando's observation that lamb is served with every course of every meal. As we wander into the piazza we approach a stand selling ladies' hosiery. Fascinated by the dozens of manikin legs bedecked in differing styles of sock and hose, I take a number of close up photos, artistic shots that earn me much ribbing from the group, a matter that is made worse when the stand's proprietor offers to mail me a copy of his catalog which features semi-clad women as much as it does his offering of socks.

We take a stroll around Sulmona, a slow, meandering walk past ancient buildings that span the recorded history of Italy. I am struck by how spotless, how modern and how large this town is. Italians call such towns paese, the same word they use to connote country. Looking on a map I would hardly give this village a second thought and cannot imagine altering my itinerary to visit it. But a paese it is - I could spend a week here, fully satisfied with the sights, sounds, smells and general good feeling. I really like this town.

Our destination is the Ristorante Gino and we are killing time until the appointed hour. So we continue to stroll. On this corner is a retail shop for Pelino confetti. Next door, with confetti flowers displayed along the door jamb is a William di Carlo shop. Alimentari - Italian specialty food shops - are also selling Pelino, di Carlo and other confetti, as well as Pan Ducale, Parozzo and many of the other confections we have visited or are about to visit. Truly the confection industry plays an important role in Abruzzo.

We wander down a block and it's déjà vu all over again. Here is a Pelino store and two doors down a di Carlo store. We wander a few more blocks and more of the same. Pelino, di Carlo, di Carlo, Pelino. We even see a di Carlo store with a sign from the previous generation of di Carlo, the owner apparently not having received word of the handing down of the family business to the son. What we have here is the Italian version of Starbucks: confetti on every corner.
We wander back past the main piazza on the way to Gino's to see scores of uniformed policemen that have just taken part in some sort of ceremony. Their uniforms indicate that they are prison guards and perhaps it is graduation day at the academy. Regardless, this unusual sight of Italians in uniform with smiles on their faces (Italian police, such as the carabinieri are generally quite severe looking - especially when they carry machine guns) adds to the growing good feeling among our group.

I mention all this, because the lunch that is about take place is one of the most magical experiences in recent memory. Perhaps it was the food. Perhaps the wine, which flowed copiously. There is no doubt that this is among the best meals I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. But more likely it was an inevitability, the confluence of good food, good wine, good weather and good people. Not that we have not had our share of enjoyment thus far. But this is something special.

We enter Ristorante Gino (Piazza Plebiscito, 12, Sulmona, tel. 0864.52289), a simple room with vaulted ceilings and a couple dozen tables. We are seated against a wall at a large table and who is seated one table over but a group of about 20 of those same prison guards, engaged in loud conversation, drinking wine and having a glorious time. On a number of occasions I am overtaken by the urge to shout "Prison Break!" only to be thwarted by my inability to translate it into Italian.

The food at Gino's is magical and, as we have become accustomed to, never ending. We start with a mixed antipasto platter and despite the promise of a platter, is in reality a series of plates served one after another. A plate of local meats. Assorted crostini, including one with a crema di cecini, a paste made from wild chick peas that Alfredo tells us is typical of the cucina rustica movement that is currently in vogue in Italy. A ramekin with opaque green sprouts that look like washed out green beans, smothered in local olive oil and flavored with red pepper flakes. These, we find out, are garlic sprouts, the shoots that grow from your garlic when you leave it in the clay pot too long. Sometimes called scapes, we discover, they taste delicately of garlic and make an extremely pleasant crunchy snack.

The antipasti offerings are served by a tall, striking man in his forties, impeccably dressed and clearly in charge of the room. Another man who appears to be his brother checks on us often. A matronly woman dressed in white apron and a white toque hovers around, making sure we eat everything, likely the mother of the two brothers. In Italy the best trattorias seem to be family enterprises. As we have seen over the past several days, the confection industry seems to follow this pattern as well.

Wanting a light lunch, although already having failed, I have ordered a grilled scamorza, a ball of smoked cheese a little larger than a tennis ball. It is hung to age, tied around its top, a process that slightly elongates it and gives it the shape of a gourd. It has been scalded on a hot grill so that its outer skin hardens even more and leaves delicious grill marks. The hardened skin ruptures in places and soft, molten cheese oozes from the lacerations. It is a simple meal, but the crunchy, smoky skin with the hotter, oozing cheese is perfection itself.

And what of our group? Each is having his own culinary epiphany, including Fernando who is sampling a lamb dish. Smiles are evident all around and the conversation gets more and more animated until it reaches the moment I think we have all been waiting for. In one of the numerous discussions around the table someone has engaged Alfredo in a conversation about regional differences, including regional accents. Finally lowering his reserve to match his American guests, Alfredo begins a dissertation on and performace of various regional accents, including the clipped cadences and inverted syntax of the Sardinians, the unmelodic monotone of the Romani, the reversal of "c" and "h" by the Florentines that results in requests for hoha hola for America's favorite soft drink. A natural showman (apparently President Berlusconi was a lounge singer on a cruise ship in an earlier career), Alfredo captivates and entertains us through dessert, when the prison guards finish up and, we hope, return home rather than going back to work.

We finish up as well, and head back to the pullman, another meal under (and bulging over) our belts.

Day 4 - Confetti in Sulmona

We assemble in front of the hotel at an hour generally agreed to be much too early in order to board our bus ("pullman" in Italian - I do love the way the Italians tend to borrow English words like Pullman, referring to the company that popularized the touring bus, that tends to freeze time in the distant past) for a drive to Sulmona, an ancient trading town in a deep mountain valley to the south of Pescara and the center of the Italian confetti industry. Put simply, Sulmona and confetti are synonymous.

Confetti are best described to Americans as high class Jordan Almonds. They couldn't be simpler - a roasted almond covered with a thick sheath of sugar coating - but they hold an exalted place in Italian society. These crunchy little sugar bombs are an indispensable fixture at weddings, baptisms, christenings, graduations - just about any important religious or civic occasion in Italy. Alfredo explains that some of the numerous colors they come in - white, pink, red, blue, green (some are even coated in edible silver or gold leaf) - are traditionally reserved for particular events; white for weddings, pink for christenings, etc.. He jokes that in an effort to expand the market for confetti, deep red confetti have been reserved for divorces.

The drive to Sulmona takes us inland and toward the Maiella mountains, an enormous range that makes up part of the Appenines that bisect the boot of Italy vertically, like an overgrown shinbone. Sulmona itself is tucked in a low valley surrounded by towering mountains, capped with snow, on three sides. A few popular ski resorts are found nearby, but the industry here is confetti, confetti, confetti.

We visit two confetti producers, William di Carlo (with whom I had the pleasure of sharing lunch during the introductory workshop on Tuesday) and Pelino, the oldest producer of confetti in Sulmona. But there are dozens of other confetti producers in Sulmona, who toil away at their coating machinery to produce confetti for tradition-honoring Italians.

We enter William di Carlo's facilities, which house not only the production of di Carlo's confetti and other confections (he also makes torrone and other sweets) but also a vast showroom of confetti and wedding-related gifts. Here we see for the first time that confetti is not simply a Jordan Almond on steroids, in the hands of skilled Sulmona craftsmen it is a work of art. As we step through the front door bouquets of colorful floral arrangements are everywhere, in whites, reds, purples, greens and pinks. But these are not real flowers; instead inside every petal is a confetto, a single coated almond, painstakingly handcrafted into a flower, with the addition of petals, each flower arranged into a bunch and displayed in a vase. These arrangements are set on banquet tables at wedding receptions or other occasions to give a festive air.

Elsewhere confetti are being put in sachetti or sachets, always in an odd number, to be handed out to guests at the important celebration.

We wander through room after room filled with these confetti-based treasures that are supplemented with other wedding gifts. These rooms are truly a bride's dream come true.
We are shown the production process which is really quite simple. Almonds from Avola in Sicily (it is confirmed by everyone we meet that Avola produces the best almonds in the world) are placed in a machine that resembles a cement mixer (the stationary kind, not the enormous ones that are built into trucks), and a coating medium, either sugar or chocolate is poured over the nuts as they are rotated. The process is carefully controlled both in terms of time, temperature and moisture, with hot and cool air being jetted into the container at given times. I don't confess to understand how it all works, but after several hours this sticky goo becomes . . . drum roll, please . . . confetti.

We thank Signore di Carlo for the tour, reboard the pullman and head across town to one of di Carlo's nemeses, Confetti Pelino. Housed in a small building on a commercial street, Pelino is part factory, part retail store and part museum. We pass through the retail portion which, like di Carlo, displays beautiful confetti floral arrangements and a variety of wedding trinkets, walk up the staircase in the rear, briefly viewing the production machinery through a window and enter the Pelino shrine to confetti.

Pelino is a family run business, having been owned and managed by six generations of Pelino since 1783. The names of the forbears, each one male until this generation, when ownership was passed to five Pelini of both genders, are listed on a plaque at the beginning of the exhibit. The rooms that follow contain exhibits of confetti and other Pelino products from yesteryear, correspondence and testimonials from famous Italians proclaiming their love and devotion for Pelino confetti (a particularly macabre exhibit is a box of decaying Pelino confetti from over one hundred years ago, found stuffed in every pocket of a uniquely gluttonous, but famous Italian composer upon his death) and machinery from ancient to modern times that has been used for making confetti.

According to our hosts, confetti has been traced back to the time hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and Sulmona became the epicenter of the confetti industry due to its strategic placement on trade routes that had to be traversed by Adriatic merchants wishing to do business throughout the Italian peninsula. Simply put, Sulmona was the place where almonds met sugar and for that, the Pelino family is obviously very happy (and wealthy).

The exhibit goes on to lionize Mario Pelino, inventor and confetti cognoscenti par excellence, who invented and patented the confetti cement mixer, a feat that is chronicled in great detail.
We exit the exhibit and are summoned upstairs to meet one of the senior Pelino family members, a tall thin man dressed in an expensive tailored suit and those impossibly fashionable Italian eyeglasses. Exuding an air of if not royalty, at least vast wealth and privilege, he gives an uninspired presentation, talking about their efforts to expand into the U.S. market. He appears singularly unimpressed with our group, a ragtag bunch of Americans, not one of which sports those impossibly fashionable Italian eyeglasses or an expensive tailored suit and none of whom exude royalty or wealth. He perks up, however, when one of our group asks him about the availability of individually wrapped confetti for use as a bedtime mint to be placed on pillows throughout his international hotel chain. Interest is further piqued when another of our group speaks of carrying confetti in his national grocery chain.

We depart Pelino after a half hour, having convinced Count Confetti that we were worthy of an audience. I leave with the thought that perhaps, unlike confetti where the beauty is apparent on the surface, we Americans may not always dazzle with our outer shell, but that sometimes you have to look hard to find the almond within.

Day 4 - Scanno

On the map, Scanno, our destination this afternoon, is approximately 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) from Sulmona. The drive, however, takes about 45 minutes, as we wind back and forth along a mountain road to this beautiful, but isolated paese, home of di Masso Dolciaria, maker of Pan dell'Orso, another version of the famed peasant cake of the Abruzzo.

We have been told that lago di Scanno (lake Scanno) is one of the most beautiful lakes in Italy, but it is lago San Domenico, less a lake than a slight widening of the Sagittario River, that brings oohs and ahs from the crowd. A milky green color, the lake follows the road for about a mile, giving way to a clear blue color at its source, where we pass through an ancient gateway, marking the final portion of the road to Scanno.

We arrive in the small town at dark, the temperature having dropped precipitously from the afternoon warmth. We make our way to di Masso, where Signore Gino di Masso, owner of the dolciaria welcomes us. Signore di Masso tells his unusual story of reverse immigration, where his father, who had emigrated from Italy to the United States returned to Abruzzo after the war. Although born in Italy, Signore di Masso has an affinity for the United States and is determined to bring Abruzzo (and, of course, Pan dell'Orso) to the attention of America.

We tour the facilities, once again impressed by the how these family businesses are able to meld machinery with the human touch. It seems as though there is a specially designed machine to do every task - mixing the dough, making crepes, covering cakes in chocolate, packaging and sealing finished products - but each process is monitored and nudged by human intervention. Dough is tested, crepes are crunched, chocolate is monitored to ensure it is at the correct temperature for coating and finished packages are boxed by hand. While automated, these are artisinal products that reflect the craftsmanship and care of the humans that make them.

We sample products and then retire to the café run by di Masso to talk about his products. The conversation turns to Abruzzo, however, as Signore di Massso is fiercely proud of his region and Scanno in particular. He asks us how he and his fellow Abruzzese can bring Abruzzo to America and Americans to Abruzzo. A thoughtful conversation follows. Selling Abruzzo to American will not be easy, we agree. It is practically unknown to Americans and lacks the sex appeal of Tuscany or the major cities of Rome, Florence or Venice. It seems to me that Abruzzo will have to grow into the American consciousness over time, slowly building and audience that can spread the word and build a following. It seems to me, too, that it is a goal that is extremely worthwhile, for Abruzzo has so much to offer.

We take leave of Signore di Masso and return to our pullman. Dinner has been planned this evening in Scanno, but the group, swollen from lunch at Gino's, samples of confections throughout the day, and the cumulative gorging of the past several days, decides that we have had enough. We take a stroll around the lovely town of Scanno, retire to the pullman (where Daniel and Monty have been kind enough to supply us with prosecco for the return drive) and head back to Pescara for an evening on our own. Many take the opportunity to fast for an evening as we prepare for our final day tomorrow, which will take us to the capital of Abruzzo - l'Aquila - where we will visit to two torrone producers. Who would have thought that not eating dinner in Italy would be such a welcome pleasure?

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.

Day 3 - My New Love

Humans are capable of experiencing two types of love, which are neither mutually exclusive nor mutually compatible. The first is the stuff of literature and movies, the wild, sensual love that is impulsive, all-consuming and, often, fleeting or self-destructive. The second is a steady love that is neither flashy nor outwardly focused nor selfish. It is "the love of a good woman" type of love, that is balanced, proper and lasting. Love can come at first sight, but such love is revered and romanticized because it is the exception, rather than the rule. More often the love that lasts is a love that is built on a solid foundation, a love that grows and changes over time, a love in which both partners give to and take from the relationship without keeping score or tally.

Today I woke up realizing that in a few short days I have grown to love Abruzzo. Not the impulsive love at first sight kind of love, but the hold hands and slowly stroll down the street type of love. Other parts of Italy, like Tuscany, offer the flash and sexiness that have also won my heart, but here the process has been slower, so slow that I didn't realize that I was falling in love. Perhaps I was set up - the Italian Trade Commission who organized this trip may have known that if we were kept in Abruzzo for more than a few days we would all fall in love with it. God knows, I doubt I would have planned to stay here for five days or even visit at all without their encouragement. But it has come to pass. I am in love and I don't want to change.

And on what foundation is this love built? For one, the people. For several days we have been in the company of Abruzzese artisans - men and women proud of their work, their families, their traditions and their histories. These people admittedly occupy a special place and may not accurately reflect the majority of Abruzzo, but when you are in love, you don't care about such things. It is enough to be with them, to be in their presence and to share their stories, their feelings and their aspirations for themselves, their families and their region.

The place they live in is truly remarkable. The tourist literature hypes that Abruzzo uniquely features mountains, valleys and the sea. It is a remarkable place just for that reason, the mountains, valleys and the sea. Pescara, a typical beach town, has served as our base of operations. It is not particularly attractive (especially at this time of year when the beach is deserted and many of the beachfront enterprises are shut down for the season), but it is hard not to like a place that has miles of sand, gentle breezes and palm trees. It is renowned, too, for its seafood, which he have not yet been able to sample as the rough seas have kept the fleet in port, but that will only add to its pleasantness.

In a matter of minutes, one can be exploring the coast, such as we did yesterday along the trabucchi coast, finding hidden treasures and then head inland and find oneself in towering mountains that look out on other mountains or back over the coast.

This is an area with an unrivaled past. It is full of ancient towns that predate Rome and civilizations that vied with it. The mountain towns are jewels - hodgepodges of historical eras and architectural styles piled one atop another, melding and blending together to create a mystical feeling. Streets are laid out along ancient footpaths, meandering and ambling from here to there, and you feel your mind and spirit transformed and transported to a different place by the simple act of walking. (Beware, this is a tangent: Social scientists have theorized that western peoples, who typically inhabit carpentered spaces, with walls and ceilings joining at least roughly at right angles, process certain visual information differently from peoples who inhabit non-uniform structures, such as mud huts. Those with a "carpentered world view" interpret a two dimensional representation of three lines joining in the shape of a "Y" as a three dimensional corner of three intersecting planes. Those with a non-carpentered world view see the shape as a Y. I believe that the meandering street plans (if you can call them plans) of ancient cities can detach modern man, with his Manhattan-esque gridwork street plan world view, from his orderly, structured way of thinking and feeling, even if only marginally and only temporarily. This is, I believe, why I feel such a wonderful sense of repose and freedom whilst wandering medieval alleys. End of tangent.)

These are but a few of the reasons I awoke this morning to find myself in love with Abruzzo. I am sure there are more, but the reasons are not important when you feel this way.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Day 2 - Lanciano

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.

Day 2 - Assagi

A motion picture is nothing more than a series of still frames, viewed rapidly one after another, to give the appearance of motion. Life, too, may be seen as a series of discreet episodes, occurring one after another in time, but when viewed from a the distance of memory, appear to be a seamless and purposeful progression. Today was a series of such minute moments. But when viewed together, afterwards, they give the impression of a seamless whole.

I wake a few minutes before the beginning of the big "confectionary workshop," the trade show organized by the Italian Trade Commission to introduce U.S. buyers to local Abruzzo producers of confectionary products. Much effort has been spent to produce an introductory video that will be used not just with this small group of buyers, but also to a more general audience over time. Today we will view this introduction and meet 11 local confectionary producers, taste their products, have an opportunity to ask them questions about those products and their ability to supply the U.S. market and exchange contact information with them.

But I am not thinking of this as I struggle to the sala di colazione for breakfast. It has been nearly 10 hours since I have eaten and yesterday's bacchanalia has begun to wear off. Breakfast is a must. Like a shark (or a flaming Michael Jackson) that must keep moving forward in order to survive, I feel that I must continue to eat or possibly perish. It is a recurring theme for the day, and perhaps, a hallmark of my Italian travel experience (you need only look at previous trip reports for evidence of this).

I arrive for breakfast as all of my compatriots are departing, apparently slightly behind schedule. No worry, for the typical Italian hotel breakfast is self serve. While breakfast in Italy is always nutritious and ultimately satisfying, it is a bedraggled spectacle, generally devoid of joy and lifeless, like a voluptuous victim of a vampire - the curves and sensuous flesh are evident, but there is a pallor and emptiness that belies the world of the living. It is hard to understand why a culture where food plays such a central role fails to show up for the first meal of the day.

I chow down on a couple slices of prosciutto and bread, a little cheese and some terrific coffee (the Italians may be soulless when it comes to breakfast, but their morning meal atheism does not permit them to play the caffeine agnostic). I finish up in less time than it takes me to eat breakfast at home, run up to the room and then head back to the "garden terrace," the rooftop restaurant (where breakfast was served), which will be our home for the next several hours.
In a nondescript conference room a dozen tables are arranged along the perimeter, one for each of the exhibitors to display his array of Abruzzo confections. It is around these tables that serious commerce will take place - the first impressions of product and purchaser will be made, relationships will develop and, hopefully, new products that will enhance the well being and happiness of the American consumer (and the bank balances of artisinal Abruzzese) will be sent on their way to the new world.

And so we talk. And so we learn. And so we impress and strut and preen. But above all, we taste. I am certainly not complaining, but we taste. Small bites of parrozzo, a rustic bread covered in chocolate that is a traditional confection of the Abruzzo. And parrozzo inverso, which is a rustic bread that is covered with sugar, with the traditional chocolate covering inside. And mini-parrozzo, which is a traditional Abruzzo confection of rustic bread covered in chocolate in tiny bite sized portions. And parrozzo with mandorle (almonds). And parrozzo with walnuts. And pocket sized parrozzo. You get the point.

When we finish with the parrozzo, we move to the next table, where a beautifully dressed Italian man tells us stories of a traditional rustic bread called pane dell'orso, named after the local bear (orso) that inhabits the many national parks in the region. The pane is renowned throughout the region as a traditional dessert. We try the one in the round blue box. We try the smaller version in the square red box. We try the one covered with chocolate that is sold in rectangular boxes. We are curious how this bear cake is different from the parrozzo, the very popular name given to the other traditional cake because it was invented by the popular local poet, Gabrielle D'Annunzio. No difference. It is just named after a bear instead.

The Italians (I think) use the word "assagi" from the verb assagiare, meaning "to taste" to denote a taste or a sample. But assagio - a taste - to me connotes more a try, as in "try, try again." The problem with today's assagi, is that while I fully agree that one should try, try again if one does not first succeed, it is another matter altogether to try, try, try when the very first attempts have been successful. I liked the parrozzo. I lived the parrozzo inverso. I liked the pane dell'orso in the red box, and the one in in the green box. Yet I find myself trying each variation, each different packaging. Something is wrong here; the center cannot hold. I began tasting (assagiare) at about 10:30 and it is now after 11:00. I have eaten about a dozen desserts that, like the the Grinchly Christmas presents of the Whos are wrapped in " " . And I have visited only two of nearly a dozen vendors. I am in danger of a real life death by chocolate.

The onslaught continues. More rustic breads and then on to confetti - candy covered almonds that are the specialty of Sulmona, a small mountain town in the Abruzzo. They come, of course, in literally hundreds of varieties, but what catches my eye is the floral presentations that incorporate one or a few pieces in a decorative flower. These are arranged in large flower arrangements that are placed in centerpieces on tables at Italian weddings, christenings and other important occasions.

Torrone, the chocolate covered nougat treat that I though had originated in the Piemonte is, we find out, an Abruzzo specialty. At least according to the Abruzzese, that is. They actually claim that they took the traditional torrone and made a version "morbido," or soft. What is beyond question is the softer variety is delightful and so I taste offerings from a number of producers including the Sorelle Nurzia (the Nurzia Sisters), an establishment dating back to the 1800s. Their pitchman is a pitchwoman, one of those ever so attractive and stylish, self assured women that Italy seems to produce better than the rest of the world. I could eat chocolate and listen to her for the rest of the day.

But there are more tables to visit, more confections to try, including the liquorice offering from the Liquoirizia Menozzi de Rosa. They offer a liquorice root, which one chews and sucks on to extract the liquorice extract. It is a wholly unsatisfying experience, like chewing on a pencil. But their liquirice, which comes in two forms - hard pellets of concentrated liquorice and soft, chewy strands, more akin to American twizzlers - is memorable, even for someone such as myself that generally detests liquorice. The pellets, in particular, while shockingly strong (curiously strong?) leave a pleasant and long lasting taste impression.

And so I finally retire from the tasting room, having sampled many of the wonders of the Abruzzo confectionary universe, suffering an acute case of Dunlops syndrome. It is approaching 1:00 and there is much more to do today. But first we must spend another hour with our producer hosts over, you guessed it, lunch.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Adventures in Abruzzo - Day 1

As I land in Rome early in the morning it seems like just a couple of weeks ago we were in Italy. That's because just a couple of weeks ago we were in Italy, eating our way from the Piemonte to Emilia Romagna and finally to Tuscany. Today I arrive in Rome, bound for a very different destination, the Abruzzo, on a very different kind of itinerary and with very different traveling companions.

As we were leaving Washington, DC for Torino in late October, we were also finalizing arrangements to participate in delegation organized by the Italian Trade Commission to visit the Abruzzo - a lesser known region stretching from the east of Rome to the Adriatic coast. The trip is being sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission, an Italian government agency charged with promoting Italian trade, from food fashion and ceramics to automobiles and industrial machinery. The purpose of this trip is to introduce American buyers to some of the unique, but little known traditional confections of the Abruzzo. The trip has been organized by John Battista of the Italian Trade Commission office in New York. An ICE (the Italian acronym for the Trade Commission) representative by the name of Signore Giorgio is our host and organizer in Pescara, the economic capital of the Abruzzo, and he is responsible for organizing the daily itineraries and arranging the meetings with local producers.

I arrive in Rome an hour and a half behind schedule, the result of a passenger who decided he did not want to fly to Rome after the plane had departed the gate. This late withdrawal requires a lengthy search for his checked luggage, which must be removed from the plane. Little things like this, in the post 9/11 world, have a way of rattling passengers even more than the delay they cause. When I finally arrive in Rome, the group, which includes John Battista and the buyers for five other American food retailers, is assembled, and surprisingly they do not appear to be angry at me for delaying our departure.

We depart Fiumicino airport for Pescara, a drive of little over two hours. We avoid Rome and encounter little traffic and soon we are heading into the Appenine mountains west of Rome. As we reach the frontier between Lazio (the province that includes Rome) and Abruzzo the mountain peaks are covered with snow and the autostrada, which follows the valley between the mountains becomes more and more dwarfed by the ever rising peaks. We pass some of the highest points in the Appenines, but the drive is generally flat, as we alternate from high bridges to long mountain tunnels. The highway skirts some beautiful ancient hill towns, their severe brown stone buildings rising one above another, following the steep contours of the countryside. From a distance these towns appear to have been forgotten by time and untouched by modern progress. There is a feel of poverty about them, and we will need to visit some of them to get a more accurate picture.

One thing is certain. In the broad valleys between the mountains the Abruzzese have made the most of this somewhat inhospitable land. Olive trees stretch as far as the eye can see, blanketing the valleys. We pass isolated herds of sheep in the mountains, which are used for their milk to produce pecorino cheese and for the meat, as well.

Finally, we emerge from one last mountain tunnel and reach the coast, where we make our way to Pescara, a large fishing town that is also the commercial center of the Abruzzo. It would be an exaggeration to describe Pescara as picturesque, charming or even beautiful, especially in the cold, gray drizzle that has accompanied us since landing in Rome. But as we arrive at our hotel, the Hotel Esplanade (Piazza 1 Maggio, 46, 65122 Pescara, tel. 39-085-292141, we see a sandy beach that (in good weather, we imagine) stretches for ten miles. Indeed, the coast of the Abruzzo is apparently a non-stop beach resort that actually starts at Venice in the Veneto and stretches for hundreds of miles to Pescara.

We check in to our rooms and I am teased by a shower that makes hissing noises but emits no water, so it's back to the lobby, unwashed and still slightly reeling from the flight, to meet our local host, Signore Giorgio. After some brief introductions, Signore Giorgia escorts us a few blocks to the Locanda da Pia, a smallish family run restaurant that features local Abruzzese fare. Signore Giorgia, wanting to expose us to some of the local dishes confers with us and orders maccheroni alla chitarra pasta with ragu, the local variety of sauce being made from a combination of lamb, veal and beef. The pasta is a local specialty that is rolled into sheets and then placed over a device that consists of rows of parallel metal wires that resembles guitar (chitarra) strings. The pasta is then cut into strips by being pressed down through the strings by a rolling pin. The resulting pasta is like spaghetti, but rather than cylindrical, it is a long square configuration. No matter how you slice it, though, it is a delicious primi.

We follow the pasta alla chittara with a mixed grill of local sausages and grilled meats. The sausages in particular are outstanding - spicy and smoky from the grill. We enjoy a "salad" of wild greens that are delicately sautéed, like spinach greens or rabe, but with a slightly bitter taste conjuring images of dandelion. Throughout our two hosts, Signore Giorgio and John Battista talk to us about the history of Abruzzo, its principal towns and its traditional products. There is much talk about the bounty of Abruzzo - how it is unique among Italian provinces in producing foods indigenous to the mountains, the plains and the sea. There is talk of seafood meals to come - but will have to wait another day - as the rough weather has confined the fishing fleet to shore and no Abruzzese in good conscience would sell seafood that has not been fished from the waters the previous day. There is talk about tomorrow's itinerary when we will be introduced to Abruzzo confections and will meet nearly a dozen of its principal producers.

We finish our meal with a selection of desserts - half moon shaped cookies called celli pieni that resemble ravioli, stuffed with unsweetened chocolate and fruit preserve and covered with powdered sugar; cantucci, traditional biscotti familiar in Tuscany but which we are assured in no uncertain terms are native to Abruzzo; a chocolate tort cut into narrow wedges; and parrozzo, the most popular dessert in Abruzzo, which we will be sampling later in the trip. We wash down our meal with the excellent local D.O.C. wine Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and have a digestif called ratafia, a distillation of the montepulciano grapes and wild cherries that ends a terrific meal.
After wandering the city streets for a while it is back to the hotel to catch up on sleep and prepare for tomorrow's workshop. It is lonely being here without Suzy and the experience is different - a less full experience as I do not have her inquiry to complement my own. Nonetheless I am thankful to the Italian Trade Commission for inviting us along and am eagerly looking forward to what the next days have in store.

Ciao a presto!