Tag Archives: navelli

Zaffè, when impure coffee is purely satisfying.

Saffron Seduction III – Coffee Consciousness VI

I usually like my coffee black, be it a good American brew or Italian espresso. I understand the appeal of massively large thermal cups with some sort of warm concoction with coffee hidden away somewhere, but it’s hard for me to really consider it coffee. For me it’s coffee like coffee cake is coffee. Something related and even enjoyable, but not the same.

I do make exceptions when a spice or some other flavoring that sparked colonial expansion, pirates, or just very long journeys on camels or wooden sailing ships. Chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg and similar concoctions are permitted, because they are part of the same tradition.
There is one spice that still commands the same astronomical prices per gram as it did at the height of the spice rush that sent Christopher Columbus sailing. Saffron. Real saffron, especially that from places like the Navelli high plain just outside L’Aquila, is quoted at over 2500 a kilo this year (about 4000$ a kilo. That’s about 25 euros (40$) per paper clip in weight. Fortunately, you don’t need that much of the little red threads to taste it. And, unlike other costly products from flowers, it’s safe and legal.

San Pio delle Camere is the largest town in the saffron-growing plains around Navelli. It has a real supermarket, a large hardware store, a florist, a bar that serves pizza by the slice and many other amenities that the medieval hill towns surrounding it lack. When the extended family is in town for the holidays, it’s where we go for supplies.

I was on a supply run, when the pangs of espresso abstinence started creeping over me. So, as soon as my daughter and I had finished loading the groceries into the car, we hopped over to the bar.

Zaffè! in San Pio delle Camere, Abruzzo

It was one of those moments when I wanted something more than just an espresso pick me up, but smaller than a cappuccino and different than a veneziano, so I asked for suggestions. “That’s easy, the barista replied, a zaffè”

I didn’t watch the entire process, but it’s basically an espresso with cappuccino foam and, somehow, a noticeably but not overpowering flavor of real saffron. I peaked over the barista’s shoulder as she plucked a red strand of Navelli saffron from a little jar and positioned it on its foamy bed. The look of the zaffè” was inspired by Fontana or Mirò and the flavor was also a bit artsy – fun from time to time, but not the way I want my daily coffee. Perfect for when I want something special.

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Saffron on FoodistaSaffron

Espresso on FoodistaEspresso

Italian Coffee on FoodistaItalian Coffee


Yellow Pasta Geometry.

Saffron Seduction II

The first time I saw real, raw saffron my host and cook was holding up the tiny ruby filaments up in the middle of the kitchen like it was some newly unearthed relic: “Behold, red gold” I’m not sure he really said that, but memories are there to be embellished.

Joshua at Irene's communion

He was actually talking about how hard it was to find in that form; it was over twenty years ago in the midwest. I’m assuming that in 20 years Madison, Wisconsin has come a long way in easy access to an ever wider array of spices, but that does not dethrone the importance of great, and by that I mean real and uncut, saffron.

What's a party in Abruzzo without Montepulciano?

That night saffron and the best Valencian paella ever cooked on a frigid December evening are still with me and I wonder how many dinners are preludes to where our life will be going later. When that paella evening happened I had already lived a year in Bologna, Italy, where I had begun my transition away from my picky eater past by wandering the open air market on via Sant’Apollonia or the traditional, closed market near Piazza Maggiore. I had discovered fresh fennel and rosemary, both sweet blood and sour Sicilian oranges, dozens of varieties of new tomatoes (new to me, at least). It was discovery with an open nose and a closed budget. Real saffron would have to wait – and the Paella on the tour through Spain lived down to it’s price on the menu.

When I walk with friends or family through the mountain town of Navelli, I’m reminded that the arches, carved doorways and stone-paved streets were all built on saffron, as were many of the buildings and churches in L’Aquila and the surrounding towns scarred and broken by the quake almost two years ago.

Saffron Maltagliatti

Saffron is a traditional crop here in Abruzzo, but not a traditional ingredient. Local cooks have however been busily developing new ways to make up for lost time. L’Antica Taverna in Navelli adds it to their version of Maccheroni alla Boscaiola; long egg maccheroni with sausage, and mushrooms. They also do wonderful things with local black truffles
Saffron is a spice that is sometimes at its best when carrying a dish on it’s own – like in Risotto alla Milanese – or dancing with at most one other decisive partner, like at Irene’s first communion dinner.

That day this Autumn Irene and her friends ran around the restaurant looking like maidens in an old pastoral painting, dressed in white with flowers braided into her short dark hair. She presided over the children’s table at La Mora Nera just outside of L’Aquila like Alice having tea with the Doormouse and Mad Hatter. She and her mother chose the menu together, so there was a particular tension towards the simplicity that smaller children often insist on. This can lead towards a few gems.

Maltagliatti up close and personal

The prize this time was maltagliatti and saffron. This simple, very essential dish, was a plate of roughly diamond shaped homemade pasta in a balanced Navelli saffron béchamel-like sauce (probably based and cow milk ricotta) with slight traces of guanciale (similar to pancetta, which is similar to bacon). I didn’t get a chance to ask the waiters between as overdressed children ran in and out of the restaurant as the friends we share with Irene and her mom talked about other great meals and rebuilding plans. I’ll just have to go back.

And so will you.

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Other great simple dishes that day

L'Aquila style potato gnocchi with a light meat sauce

Great grilled meats too....

Saffron on FoodistaSaffron

Maccheroni on Foodista

The Great Wild Asparagus Hunt

Or another fun thing to do among the olive trees in early spring.

I am not really fond of asparagus. It’s one of the few foods I recoiled from as a kid that’s still on my yuck list. It wasn’t the flavor that got to me–I did like nibbling off the buds– it was the mix of mush and stringiness of the stalks.

Olive trees in Navelli

Other people seem to go crazy for asparagus. Although, I would never eat it, I used to make a light asparagus and cream pizza as an antipasto for parties. The recipe was simple. I rolled out pre-made pasta sfoglia (Italian filo dough), spread a thin layer of cooking cream over it, added some diced white asparagus, and sprinkled salt and a generous grating of nutmeg on top. I baked it until the dough rose and was a light brown and the cream started to turn the same color as the nutmeg. Then, I cut it into little wedges or squares and served it.

It must have been good, because it was usually the first hor’s d’oeuvre to go.

Asparagus in the wild

Wild asparagus is another story––perhaps, because hunting for them in the underbrush below the olive trees increases the desire to eat them. But, mainly because the flavor is more delicate and, if picked early, they are too small and thin to have that icky stringiness. Just before sundown, on Easter Saturday, we made a last minute decision to go hunting for some.

Our family’s olive trees are on the hillsides overlooking the Tirino river valley. Luigi guided us, reminding Pierluigi, Fania and me of where the asparagus hide out and what they look like in the wild. With an asparagus hunting stick (to lean on, or to clear away prickly plants) I hiked up the slope, zigzagging from tree to tree, seeking out little blueish-green stems, until my jacket pocket was half full and the sun was getting dangerously low.

View from Navelli's Olive Trees and Author

The view from the olive grove was full of flavor and rich color. The slope was steep, something I hadn’t noticed during my climb up the hill, my nose in the tall grass around the base of each ancient tree. Below me, beyond the state road that twisted through the valley, more olive trees appeared as little specks in the distance below. Higher up, I could see Passo Lanciano, the mountain pass to Pescara over Gran Sasso’s lower southern arm. Sunset was imminent, and hills and slopes rolled off into the distance like watercolor waves under purple-grey clouds.

Our goal was to have asparagus on pasta that evening, either sautéed, then mixed in with grated parmesan, or as a vegetarian substitute for the guanciale or bacon in Carbonara. However, dinner was already waiting for us when we returned.

Wild Asparagus: cleaned and diced

So, we had the spoils of our wild asparagus hunt the next night in a frittata (the Italian version of an omelet).

Oh, by the way, if what you hate about commercial asparagus is the texture, one solution is to puree them in a blender after they are well cooked. Mix with a bit of oil and parmesan, and use on pasta as you would sweet basil pesto.

– Joshua Lawrence

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Almost a wild asparagus frittatta

Linda's wild asparagus frittata

Tirino Valley as seen from Navelli's olive trees April 3rd 2010

Asparagus on FoodistaAsparagus

Skewered Liver & Onions

The Revenge of Happiness on a Stick

Montesilvano, the beachfront modern extension of Pescara is mainly know for two things – summer hotels for families and arrosticini. Even though we spent 4 months there following the L’Aquila quake, we never did get around to seeing if the latter was a reputation well deserved.

Emily's blacktruffle pizza

I was not in much of a hurry – Abruzzo itself is famous for the little mutton skewers. Anyone with a place to grill out has one of the characteristic long and thin arrosticini grills, and I’ve become good at them myself -but much of the credit for those goes to the butcher in San Pio delle Camere. If you’re in a place where a flock of sheep can block the road, the mutton is usually pretty good. Here on the Adriatic coast it’s a common follow-up to pizza, at Sofia’s parent-student Christmas pizza party they served arrosticini in terra-cotta vases to keep them warm.

(By the way, if find yourself stranded in a swarm of sheep in Abruzzo, do not get out of the car to take pictures until after you talk to the Shepherd. There are probably a few of the beautiful, massive and overly protective Pastore Abruzzese sheep guard dogs blending in with the flock).

So last night Piero, the father of one of Emily’s friends took us to one of his favorite places, the Locanda di Crocitto. La Locanda, is a noisy neighborhood pizza joint in a modern, inland part of town, is not Montesilvano’s most famous place for arrosticini (I’ll write about them when we go there), but it did have a few pleasant surprises. Emily enjoyed her black truffle pizza, and Silvia’s huge ravioli with ricotta from the ancient buffalo breed were excellent.
Piero, however, had called ahead to make sure they had enough of the liver arrosticini set aside for us.
Arrosticini, as a general rule, are made from some form of mutton. Usually adults, not lamb. Part of the reason they are cut into little cubes and roasted over red glowing coals is to turn tougher meat into tender, greasy addictive tidbits you can pull off the stick with your teeth like a viking. Fun and primordial. And that’s what Emily and her friend did with a dozen of the mutton ones, forgetting half their pizzas.

Arrosticini di fegato, stage front, ravioli backstage

Piero and I had a few of those, per devozione, to “keep the faith”, as they say in Italy. But we made room for scores of the liver ones. Choice chunks of liver alternating with laurel leaves, diced pancetta and quarters of baby onions. You don’t actually eat the laurel, but I did discover they joy of nibbling at the toasted corners.
It aint just chopped liver.

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Happiness on a Stick – Arrosticini

September is ending and the hustle of work and school has once again taken over our lives. In the mountains of Abruzzo weekends can go from warm and sunny on Saturday morning to rainy and chilly on Saturday evening (enough to get a fire blazing in the fireplace) to short-sleeve sunny again on Sunday. Perfect days to sneak in the last few grill-outs of the season.

Which brings me once again to arrosticini.

Arrosticini are to Italian picnic and sagre (small town fairs) like hot-dogs are to the the Fourth of July picnics and county fairs back in the United States. They are tiny shish-kebabs, little chunks of mutton on tiny wooden skewers. The are gilled over coal and are so common in Abruzzo that many families have two outdoor grills, one for most other meets, cheeses and vegetables, another for arrosticini. These grills are long and skinny so that they little sticks rest on the sides and the cook can turn them over with his bare fingers. The fine cut of the mutton and the heat of the coals make otherwise chewy meat tender and and almost primitively delicious.
Arrosticini at the Sagra di Santo Stefano - just a 45 minute wait
You have to eat them right off the gril, before they cool and lose their tenderness and flavor. Usually whole plates are places in the middle of the table and people reach and grab a few sticks.

I usually avoid them at sagre, because the lines are too long and chaotic (but this only confirms how popular they are). In our garden in Navelli they are much more fun too cook, shooting the breeze with friends, drinking a bottle of Peroni beer or a glass of local wine. Kids first, then the rest of us. In Abruzzo, as in most of Italy, when it’s dinner with family and friends, there is always more than enough to drink.

Arrosticini - instructions for use


Green Figs and Ham

Before moving to Italy I didn’t even know you could eat fresh figs. Not that I had given it much thought. When I was growing up, figs in Wisconsin were mainly an ingredient in Fig Newton cookies. At Christmas dried figs would show up and were avoided with the dried prunes and dates. But I had never seen them fresh.

Prosciuto e fichi (summer 2010)My first contact with fresh figs was when I was going through my master’s degree in business communications at the Università di Venezia. I was one of the tallest in my class and few of my classmates asked me to pick them a few out of reach figs from the tree giving shade to the entrance to our classroom. I looked above me and plucked a few of the little green, soft bulbs above my head. They were so ripe that some were showing purple shading similar to overripe chives. After picking a few for those around me I tore one open for myself and bit in. The seeds and the syrupy sweet fruit inside was a shock, but not enough to stop me from picking them.
When I moved to Italy almost twenty years ago prosciutto e melone, slices of cold fresh cantaloupe and dried Parma ham, was becoming well known among people who loved Italy and Italian food in the US. The other variation on the theme is prosciutto e fichi, , fresh figs laying over a bed of prosciutto.

The only problem is finding fresh figs. Silvia’s cousin Biancamaria arrived last night with a wooden case of them the lush hills around Chieti. I’m looking forward to biting into them again this evening.

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Figs on FoodistaFigs

Prosciutto on FoodistaProsciutto

Prosciutto-Wrapped Figs on Foodista

Almond Joys

One of the evergreen treats I have had the joy of sneaking into my mouth or serving to guests are my mother-in-law’s caramelized almonds.
Mandorle caramelate are basically sugared almonds, but don’t let the simplicity of the idea – or the recipe – fool you. They are one of the real tests of who has Italian cooking in their veins the rest of us, including me.
Or, as my cousin would say every time he would accidently sink an impossible put in miniature golf on the Jersey shore, “It’s all in the wrist”.
Mandorle caramelate are are a close cousin to croccante and torrone but the main difference is that they do not form sheets of caramelized sugar and nuts that are then cut into bars before they cool too much. Sugar is melted until it becomes a dark, sweet-smelling liquid. Slightly roasted almonds are then added. The skins are kept to help give them their slightly auburn coloring of the finished treat.
Le mandorle caramelate di Linda
They are left to simmer until the sugar begins to crystalized, then, when she senses it’s the right moment she starts stirring them and, when she knows it’s time, pours them over a cool, usually marble, surface so that they spread out and don’t stick together as they cool.
They are served them to guests at Christmas as well as Ferragosto, or anytime that it good to host friends, relatives or anyone who gets invited over.