Culinary Journeys With Gianni: Village of chefs

By Gianni Mariano

Villa Santa Maria in the mountainous Chieti province of Abruzzo, Italy is famous for its cooks and chefs. It hosts an annual Rassegna dei Cuochi or Festival of Chefs and is home to a world-famous, 400-year-old culinary school.

Sheltered by mountains, the local economy and their unique society and culture, the people of Abruzzo have held fast onto their regional customs and traditions for a very long time. Situated on the Adriatic coast to the west of Italy, the region of Abruzzo nestles between sea and mountain. Although relatively unknown to foreign travellers, Italy’s pastoral land is a wonder of natural beauty and tranquillity. It is also home to festivals, banquets and ancient traditions passed down over many generations.

To get to Villa Santa Maria, you travel east along the Autostrada or motorway from Rome, with the gentle hills of the Lazio region yielding to the rugged Apennines that characterise Abruzzo. The Gran Sasso and Maiella mountains tower over green pastures and vast hectares of cultivated land. Abruzzo is a paradox of delicate beauty and harsh mountainous territory, reflected in its motto of forte e gentile or “strong and gentle”.

The port city of Pescara is the region’s main centre, in contrast to the surrounding countryside. An hour’s drive inland from Pescara lies a valley, the Val di Sangro. It is named after the Fiume Sangro or Sangro River that meanders gently into the Lago di Bomba or Bomba Lake. Little villages are scattered in the surrounding hills and mountains, providing gourmands and travellers with a delight around every corner.

In the heart of the Val di Sangro is Villa Santa Maria. A new highway has made access to the village relatively easy, however the old roads are still used for a more leisurely drive. Some of the neighbouring villages are only accessible by these roads.

On the highest peak in the area, a 20-minute drive from Villa Santa Maria along an old and winding road, is a little village called Monteferrante, popular in the region for its pure, high-altitude water which gushes up from underground springs. Legend has it that Monteferrante’s water is so light that it weighs only 900 grams per litre, a charming ifunscientific tale. A free-flowing fountain is the focal point of the piazza or main square in the village and visitors flock to fill bottles with the magical spring water as a memento of their trip.

Just above this piazza with a breath-taking view of the valley below is the local restaurant, aptly named La Fonte or The Spring. There is a menu somewhere but it is unimportant; instead you may be served:

Pallotte cace e ove or cheese and egg balls

Mains: Sagne a pezze or pieces of pasta cut into tacconelle or rhomboid shapes, and Agnello arrosto or roast lamb

Dessert: Gelato and caffè or ice cream and coffee
 And all washed down with a glass or two of
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, an Italian red wine made from grapes grown in the region.

Pasta is what most people associate with Italian cuisine. The Romans ate a mixture of flour and water shaped into long ribbons called laganum or lasagne. Italian literature is full of vivid descriptions of meals that included variations of this basic foodstuff. General consensus suggests that pasta as we know it was first eaten by the Sicilians, spreading through the peninsula from the south. It was particularly useful when the local peasants were in need of a meal and its simplicity made it an ideal staple food. Pasta was considered “poor man’s food” until noble folk – notably Caterina De Medici – introduced it onto their menus.
A dish like sagne e pezze, also known locally as abbotta pezzenti, roughly translates to “peasant satisifiers”. It represents the past, a living history on the plate that is enjoyed as much today as by previous generations. There is only one way to make true sagne e pezze, and that is by hand.

Today pasta alimentare or edible pasta is the main variant produced industrially in Italy. Homemade pasta is usually referred to pasta al uovo, with eggs added to the recipe so that any shortcomings by the flour, extrusion pressure or water are compensated for by the egg content.

The true joy of Italian cuisine is the story behind every dish: its origin, the culture and traditions of the people, and the geography and history that combine on the plate a tavola or at the table.


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