Fiona Maclean discovers the little known charms of this Italian region
You can be forgiven for never having heard of Abruzzo, a region of Italy on the Adriatic Coast. Despite direct flights to Pescara, the largest City in the region, from Stansted. Despite three National Parks and a heritage coastline at Trabocchi. Despite the highest peaks in the Apennines, with medieval villages, churches and castles and forested mountains that are a home for bears, wolves and chamois deer. Despite over one hundred kilometres of sandy beaches facing out onto the Adriatic. Abruzzo is something of a secret, and it seems to be a secret the Italians prefer not to share.
We are high up in the mountains in one of those timeless buildings that combines modern styling with a traditional setting. Casadonna Villa Reale, restored from a 6th Century Monastery is home to a small hotel with 6 guest rooms, Niko Romito’s two Michelin star restaurant, a training academy for chefs and a showcase for his food. While we wait to be seated for our eight course lunch waiters weave in between the tables, each set with a perfect single yellow gerbera. We sip on an aperitif of natural Pecorino wine and eat minute, delicious canapés of baccala and beef. And look out; through a glass panelled wall carved out of the old stone Monastery, at an unspoilt view of the hills of the Val di Sangro, over the vast, tranquil landscape.
Notwithstanding the remote location in the heart of the Apennines, we eat dishes that wouldn’t be out of place in any capital city in Europe. Dishes that take local ingredients – saffron, truffles, olives, almonds and pork and create a modern gastronomy that nods politely to its past. Chefs in the kitchen are often part of the academy. Fifteen students join each course, all searching for culinary excellence. The result, throughout the region you’ll find examples of Niko Romito’s influence. In restaurants like the seaside Al Metro the young chef proprietor and ex -student Nicola Fossaceca trained with Niko before setting up his own place, focussing on the local fresh fish to produce a contemporary Italian menu with dishes including a mouth-wateringly fragrant fish soup, San Salvo style, lighter than its cousin from Livorno an excellent showcase for local produce.
Like all of Italy, Abruzzo has its own distinctive culinary heritage. We discover more of the traditional food of the region at one Michelin star Villa Maiella, an elegant restaurant with the perfect mountain terrace. Dine looking out to sea, or facing the mountains, the choice is yours. Food includes local specialities including a mouth-wateringly tender ravioli of burratta with local saffron, their own farm black pig hams and salamis and Pallotte Caio e Ove, traditional ‘dumplings’ of cheese and egg are delicious examples of local specialities. You can stay at Villa Maiella too; you might even get a chance to see the farm where the restaurant produces much of its own produce.
The area is a significant wine producing area and local wines include DOC and DOCG Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano and Pecorino. Although parts of Abruzzo have a strong heritage of viticulture, the area as a whole is better known for mass produced table wines. But, it’s an area in transition and wine makers are developing their skills so that among the co-ops and local farmer there are now some excellent examples of both value for money drinking wines and fine wines, like those of Valentini, most of whose wines go directly to Italy’s top restaurants. And of course, the restaurants of the region are the perfect showcase for its wines.
Whether your interest is wine or history, the cellars of Pierantonj are worth visiting. One of the oldest wine makers in the region the current buildings have existed since 1830, though wine has been made there for much longer. There’s a wine museum, ancient walnut and oak casks dating back to the 19th century and two massive storage vats built in the nineteenth century, 14 metres underground and lined with Venetian glass. If like me, you get the chance to crawl inside, you can marvel at the acoustic and the immaculate workmanship that has withstood both time and nature.
Large parts of Aquila, in the same area of Abruzzo as the Pierantonj cellars, were destroyed in a major earthquake in 2009. The medieval city is slowly being restored, you can still visit the National Museum as well as the landmark Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, though the interior is still being reconstructed. And, just outside the town is the Fontana delle novantanove cannelle, a fountain with ninety-nine jets distributed along three walls which was constructed in 1272.
In the summer, Pescara itself is a thriving seaside resort, popular with Italians for its sandy beaches. Known as the birthplace of Italian writer and soldier Gabriele D’Annunzio, much of the city was rebuilt after the Second World War and there is little to see architecturally other than a few traditional streets and squares. Further along, the heritage coastline of Trabocchi is beautiful, rugged, wild and unspoilt. Pine fishing huts built out into the sea on stilts were originally used for a unique way of fishing. A large net would be suspended out into the sea from the hut on fixed beams. A system of ropes and pulleys allowed the fishermen to raise and lower the net into the sea, while a second net formed a kind of scoop to harvest the fish. Today, instead of fishing, in the summer you can enjoy a seafood feast in the huts, looking out of the idyllic Adriatic.
Unspoilt and for the most part off the Tourist path, Abruzzo is somewhere to discover and explore. For me, the focus was the food, but, whatever your interest – wildlife or wine, gastronomy or architecture – or if you simply want to find somewhere to ski or enjoy a beach holiday, you’ll find something for you in Abruzzo.
I was invited to visit Abruzzo by http://www.consorzio-viniabruzzo.it/ The Consortium of the wines of Abruzzo