Life Travel

Hidden gems and buried treasures 0

ROBIN ROBINSON, QMI Agency
Local cheeses for sale in the main market in Pescara, Italy. ROBIN ROBINSON/QMI Agency

Local cheeses for sale in the main market in Pescara, Italy. ROBIN ROBINSON/QMI Agency

In The American, when George Clooney’s hit-man character runs into trouble and needs a place to hide out, his handler sends him to a town in Italy’s Abruzzo region.

To Luciana Masci of Absolutely Abruzzo Tours, the region is a logical choice for someone wanting to lie low. Despite its proximity to Rome (80 km), and its wild beauty - rugged mountains, fortified medieval hill villages, deep valleys - Abruzzo remains largely off the beaten tourist, or hit-man, path.

“In Abruzzo, the best things are hidden,” remarks Masci, who leads small group and personalized tours of the region with her partner Michael Howard.

From castles to cathedrals to cuisine, Abruzzo is packed with hidden gems and - sometimes - buried treasures that few outside the region are aware of, she adds.

A Gourmet Getaway with Masci and Howard introduces me to a few of Abruzzo’s unique pleasures.

Objects of desire

Foodies and chefs are mad for truffles - rare pungent fungi that grow beneath the soil around certain types of trees. Difficult to cultivate, many truffles are harvested in the wild by truffle-hunters who use pigs and dogs trained to sniff out these edible objects of desire, which can sell for $400 to $4,000 per kilo depending on quality, size and type.

An estimated 80% of Italy’s truffles are grown in Abruzzo, including most of those associated with other regions of Italy, Masci says as we traverse winding back roads to a meeting with truffle dealer Serafini Ugo.

We meet up with Ugo at S. Z. Tartufi - the business he runs with partner Zaccardi Pasquale - to sample some of the company’s gourmet products before heading to a nearby farm for a truffle-hunting demonstration.

The shelves of the modern Atessa-based shop are laden with fresh and bottled truffles, truffle-infused olive oils, truffle salts, truffle pasta, truffle-flavoured pecorino cheese, truffle sauces, truffle pastes and truffle spreads - even one made with cocoa, meant to be served with meat, and a rich egg-cream that goes great with bread.

Staffer Daniela Caporale shows us some enormous, just-harvested white truffles, which will be weighed, photographed and offered for sale to buyers around the world.

“Truffles are fantastic to eat,” but the “best thing” is to “go out and find them,” Caporale says enthusiastically. “It’s more rewarding finding them than eating them - working with the dog, the adrenaline of finding them.” Harvested in the fall, white truffles are the most difficult to discover, Caporale says, because they grow in the deepest soil.

“Finding one is like finding a diamond,” she says.

We experience a frisson of that excitement at the farm, where Ugo introduces us to Diana, his best truffle-sniffing dog. After being released from her pen, a spirited Diana immediately catches the scent of truffles and eagerly digs into the soil in pursuit of the precious prize.

Pleased, Ugo rewards her with a tasty treat as he gently digs out the truffle before Diana can damage, or devour, it. Then he fills the hole to protect the truffle spores in the hope more will grow in the same spot next year.

Aside from professionals like Ugo, truffle-hunters can be a somewhat mysterious lot who guard the location of their hunting grounds jealously lest others move in on their territory, Masci says.

It’s a big business with an estimated 10,000 people scouring the countryside for truffles. Licenced hunters are even allowed to forage in national parks and on private land - if there are no signs to the contrary - as long as they clean up afterward, Masci says.

Kitchen confidential

Later, we check into Le Magnolie, a designated “agriturismo” on a working olive farm near Loreto Aprutino.

Owners Gabriella De Minco and Mario Tortella make award-winning extra virgin olive oils and offer olive-oil tastings and accommodation in a beautifully restored 17th-century farmhouse on the property. Each of its eight spacious guest rooms has a private bath, and some also have a full kitchen. A homey common living room is warmed by a wood-burning fireplace.

Masci has arranged for us to take a hands-on cooking class led by Olga De Minco, Gabriella’s mother and an expert cook.

I never imagined myself making pasta from scratch but during an afternoon of shared laughter - and more than a few sips of the local dry red Montepulciano wine - everyone in our group successfully perfects Abruzzo’s signature pasta - spaghetti alla chitarra (spaghetti on the guitar).

Under Olga’s watchful eye, we prepare the pasta dough, then roll it into thin sheets and place it on a square wooden frame strung with wire, like a guitar. Using a rolling pin, we press the pasta through the wires, which neatly cut the dough into square-edged strands of spaghetti.

A flurry of dishes follows - pumpkin roasted with borlotti beans, tomatoes gratin, veal roll-ups stuffed with ham and pecorino cheese, two jam-filled crostatas for dessert. Extra virgin olive oil from the farm figures prominently in every dish.

Through it all we are entertained by Michael, an operatic tenor whose last recording was nominated for a Grammy. Michael performs Neapolitan standards such as Funiculì, Funicula and O Solo Mio. His strong melodic voice fills the room with positive vibes.

By the end of the class, the wannabe cooks are drained. Some voice their desire for a pre-dinner nap, others wander outside to bask in the late afternoon sun and take in the panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

While we recharge our batteries, a still-energetic Olga goes off to the kitchen to oversee operations there. And after a small break, we feast on the fruits of our group labour and enjoy more selections from Michael’s operatic repertoire.

By the sea

In addition to its ancient hill villages, Abruzzo has a long stretch of coastline along the Adriatic. Seaside Pescara - a major port and the region’s most populated metropolitan area - attracts a sophisticated crowd of mainly Italian tourists who come to recline on its wide sandy beaches.

This is vacation - Italian style - with some women bringing a new bikini for each day of the holiday. On really hot days, these chic beach-goers may even wade knee-deep in the water before returning to their beach chairs.

The city also has many fine seafood restaurants, and visitors will find the central market an excellent place to buy local food products and produce.

The market vendors are friendly, and if you tell them you are from Toronto, a warm welcome is guaranteed. It seems almost everyone has a family member somewhere in Ontario.

With those kind of connections and its wealth of attractions, it’s surprising Abruzzo has remained off Canadians’ tourist radar for so long.

IF YOU GO TO ABRUZZO

TOURING

Absolutely Abruzzo’s first tour of 2012 is a four-day, three-night Gourmet Getaway departing May 22 followed by an eight-day, seven-night Along the Shepherds Tracks itinerary May 27, and a four-day Taste of Abruzzo Cookery Experience starting June 9. Gourmet Getaways and eight-day Medieval Magic tours are scheduled throughout the summer. Tours, including accommodations and most meals, are priced in Australian dollars with four-day tours $1,980 (about $2,025 Cdn.) per person, twin sharing, and eight day tours $4,700 (about $4,775). Canadian travellers who book and pay for a Gourmet Getaway or Taste of Abruzzo tour by April 30, 2012, will receive a hamper of delectable goodies. For details, see absolutelyabruzzo.com.


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