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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | ITALY

In Pursuit Of The Perfect Ham In Little-known Friuli

An Encounter With Prosciutto Turns Into A Tour Of Scenic Alpine Villages Worthy Of 'Heidi'

March 19, 2000|RUSS PARSONS | Russ Parsons is the editor of The Times Food section

So here we are in Friuli, tucked away in a remote corner of the Alpine foothills in northeastern Italy, at the little restaurant La di Petros. We're on the back patio in the scorching August heat with Giulio Colomba and his wife, Luisa. A high school science teacher, he's the head of the local chapter of Slow Food, the Italian-based organization of artisanal food and wine lovers. We're eating river crayfish, a summer specialty in these parts, and drinking widely and deeply of an assortment of the area's crisp white wines. We are speaking mostly in English--his English is better than my Italian--though as the evening progresses, we do wander a bit.

Suddenly, there's a hand on my shoulder and a booming Texas accent in my ear: "I've owned a house here for 15 years and you're the first Americans I've ever seen!" Actually, we had come to Friuli almost by accident ourselves. I wanted Italy; my wife, Kathy, wanted mountains. We agreed that we wanted to go someplace we hadn't been before, which cut out Piedmont. And we didn't want a place likely to be overrun by tourists, which left out places like Val d'Aosta in northwestern Italy. I was stumped. So I posted a note to Slow Food's Internet message group. I got a couple of long-winded suggestions for places that didn't sound right. And then one brief message: "Why not Friuli?"

I have to admit that when I travel, history is not the first thing on my mind. Food and wine are. And that's what sold me on Friuli. It is famous as a source of some of Italy's best white wines. There are six officially recognized wine-producing areas in the region, many of them using grapes such as Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtztraminer and Riesling, which, though popular in the rest of Europe, are scarcely found elsewhere in Italy. Some of the best Pinot Grigios--seemingly the only white wine choice in many Italian restaurants in the United States these days--come from Friuli. So we went primarily in search of wines, unaware that we soon would make a culinary detour.

Occupying the extreme northeast corner of Italy, Friuli's scenery ranges from rugged coastline along the Slovenian border to placid plains in the west and the majestic Alps in the north, where Italy butts up against Austria. Directly to the south is Venice, just a little more than an hour and a half away. In fact, in homage to the city's traditional hegemony over the region, its full name is Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Though off the beaten tourist track, Friuli is hard in the path of history. Standing at one of the major crossroads between Western Europe and the East, it was conquered by just about everyone who passed by. Since being settled by the Celts, Friuli has been contested in rough order by the Romans, the Huns, the Franks, the Lombards, the Venetians, the Austrians, the Yugoslavians and the Germans.

As a result, things look different here. Rather than the familiar cultural overlay of most of Italy, the central European influence is readily apparent in Friuli. The architecture tends more toward Austrian grandeur than Tuscan simplicity. Here you'll find gray stone castles rather than sun-drenched villas. The people look different, too, taller and blonder than southern Italians, and with plenty of German and Central European surnames.

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Most of the best vineyards in Friuli lie along the hilly eastern border with Slovenia, north of Gorizia, in the areas known as Collio and--to a slightly lesser extent--Colli Orientali (literally, hills and eastern hills). This is where you'll find such well-known producers as Fiegl, Schiopetto, Russiz Superiore, Livio Felluga, Marco Felluga and Villa Russiz. The best of these wines are aromatic, elegant and relatively light in body, with a tart acidity that allows them to go well with the local cuisine, which tends much more to potatoes and pork fat than pasta and olive oil.

On Colomba's recommendation, we stayed at the Hotel Franz in the town of Gradisca d'Isonzo. While it was farther than other hotels from most of the vineyards (though the famous Jermann winery is relatively close), it offered other pleasures--friendly hosts who were plugged into the local wine and food scene and, maybe most important in the scorching summer, effective air-conditioning.

That first evening, before heading to dinner, Kathy and I took a stroll through town to Mulin Vecio (old mill), a kind of Italian beer garden where they were slicing the biggest mortadella I have ever seen. True mortadella has been approved for importation by the United States only recently, and most Americans know it as bologna, just as we know French foie gras as canned pate. The translated version is only the palest shadow of the original. This sausage had to be a foot and a half in diameter, a pale, unctuous pinkish-gray, and liberally studded with half-inch chunks of creamy white pork fat. Oh, man.

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