Cultivating Diversity in Abruzzo

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Pasticcio di Farro (recipe below) – farro grains baked with late summer vegetables & scamorza cheese

I felt like a culinary explorer in Abruzzo this past summer.  I was privileged to visit many local artisanal producers who have dedicated their lives to safeguarding the region’s agricultural and gastronomic traditions.  I became particularly fascinated by a project spearheaded by the Parco Nazionale della Majella called “Coltiviamo la diversità” (Let’s Cultivate Diversity) whose goal is the recovery, conservation, and enhancement of native agricultural species in the 74,000+ hectares of national park territory.  The project specifically targets the cultivation of local grains, legumes and fruit and vegetables that are indigenous to the wild, mountainous terrain surrounding the Majella.  To facilitate these conservation efforts, the Parco created a network of “custodian farmers” dedicated to protecting the territory’s agricultural biodiversity.  Some examples of products that are cultivated in the area include:

Photo courtesy of Parco Nazionale della Majella

 

Socere e Nore: An oval bean known for its characteristic black and white hue, the bean’s color contrast is said to represent the complicated relationship between mothers-in-law (socere) and daughters-in law (nore).

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Here, farro is ground into polenta and served with a light tomato sauce

Farro:  This ancient grain suffered a period in which it was threatened with extinction. Many farmers in Abruzzo began to cultivate varieties from other Italian regions such as Umbria and Tuscany.   In recent decades, however, interest in farro has resurfaced and some varieties indigenous to Abruzzo have been singled out and reproduced.  Farro is now sold in grains and as flour, pasta and polenta.

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Fresh “corde” made from Solina flour

Farina di Solina:  Solina is the characteristic wheat found in the mountains of Abruzzo.  It imparts a particular taste and fragrance to homemade bread and pasta and resists well in the cold mountainous climates. An 18th century text describes solina as a wheat from which “…one of the best kinds of bread of the Kingdom (of Naples)” was baked.

A bookend to “Coltiviamo la diversità” is an initiative called “Cuciniamo la diversità” (“Let’s Cook Diversity”) which consists of a network of restaurants and agriturismi within the Parco Nazionale della Majella.  Conceived as meeting points between producers and consumers, these establishments offer traditional dishes from Abruzzo that utilize local products cultivated by the Parco’s custodian farmers.

One of the most memorable and inspiring meals I enjoyed during my stay in Abruzzo was at Agriturismo Tholos in Roccamorice.  Tholos is both a custodian farmer as well as a participating restaurant in the Parco’s network.  Its organic farm stretches over 10 hectares and consists mainly of farro, Solina, chick peas and lentils (actually, the same tiny lentils that come from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a village near the Gran Sasso mountain range; Tholos, in partnership with the Parco, is trying to cultivate the delicate legume in the Majella’s territory) as well as an orchard of local indigenous apples and pears.

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These typical “tholos” stone structures were constructed by farmers of the Majella to protect their animals during the hostile winters. This replica can by found at Agriturismo Tholos in Roccamorice, Abruzzo.

I enjoyed creative dishes made entirely from Tholos’ products including zuppa di lenticchie made with lentils that were picked earlier that day, polenta di farro (a first for me as well as for our Abruzzese friends who joined us for dinner),  fresh pasta called “corde” made from farina di Solina and a homey, comforting pasticcio di farro, which I share below.  The food was positively stellar, but even more satisfying was the knowledge that in some small way, I was sharing in the preservation and celebration of the gastronomic heritage of this territory which I love so very much.

My favorite view of the Majella

My favorite view of the Majella

Pasticcio di Farro

Recipe by Majella Home Cooking © (inspired by Agriturismo Tholos)

Serves 8 as a side dish or 4 as a main course

This baked farro “pasticcio” (literally, a “mess”) is filled with late summer vegetables and gooey scamorza cheese.  Feel free to substitute other seasonal vegetables and cheeses.

Farro

  • 2 cups of farro
  • 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 medium eggplant, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 small zucchini, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 pint of sweet grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • 1/3 cup basil or Italian parsley leaves, chopped
  • 2 cups of scamorza cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse the farro with cold water.  Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add the farro.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.  Add a tablespoon of salt and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the farro is tender but still has a bite. (Adding the salt before this point will make the farro tough.) Drain well, transfer to a large bowl, add a tablespoon of olive oil and fluff with a fork.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a wide sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it starts to shimmer.  Add the eggplant and ½ teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, about 3-5 minutes or until the eggplant starts to color and soften. Next, add the zucchini to the pan along with another ½ teaspoon of salt, and cook for an additional 3-5 minutes, until the zucchini starts to color and soften.  Add the red onion and another small pinch of salt and continue to cook until all of the vegetables have caramelized and softened and the flavors have melded together.  Remove from the heat and fold in the grape tomatoes, allowing the residual heat from the other vegetables to soften them.

Veg collage

Adjust the seasonings and add the vegetables to the cooked farro and stir to incorporate.  Next, fold in the shredded scamorza cheese.  Pour the mixture into an oiled baking or casserole dish and sprinkle the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano across the top.  Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the Parmigiano has formed a golden crust on top. Buon appetito!

Extra Two Cents: 

The farro may be cooked ahead of time and refrigerated overnight, tightly covered.  Remove from the refrigerator at least one hour prior to baking and add proceed with the recipe.

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15 thoughts on “Cultivating Diversity in Abruzzo

  1. Helen Free September 17, 2013 at 9:30 pm Reply

    I like this approach, Michelle . It IS culinary and agricultural history. I am so tired of the designation ” cucina povera” to refer to centuries old food traditions.

    • Majella Home Cooking September 17, 2013 at 10:59 pm Reply

      I agree, Helen. Nowadays nearly every dish that has roots in the past is lumped into the “cucina povera” category. The irony here is that these products that are indigenous to the Majella territory are most certainly specialty food products that would sell for quite a pretty penny if they were imported.

  2. ciaochowlinda September 17, 2013 at 10:40 pm Reply

    Michelle – how wonderful that these growers are working to preserve and perpetuate these foods that were eaten centuries ago. Thank you for introducing me to a few products I was unfamiliar with. Are they part of the booty you brought home?

    • Majella Home Cooking September 17, 2013 at 10:51 pm Reply

      Indeed, Linda. I have a stash of farro and Solina products in my pantry. I’m waiting for a chilly day to try out the polenta di farro. By the way, Locanda del Barone near Caramanico, is a “Cuciniamo la diversita'” locale. I believe you and Helen had dinner there.

  3. Adri September 18, 2013 at 1:33 am Reply

    Hi Michelle,

    I think I fell out before I finished my first message. Here goes again – how wonderful that you were able to meet these wonderfully committed people. Somehow Americans think that they have a lock on reviving the old ways when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. There are so many wonderful farmers and growers across Europe who are laboring diligently to return to the old ways, to revive farming practices that span the millennia, and to preserve the foods that sustained their forbears. Across Italy they toil. In Abruzzo, in particular, the descendants of the oldest of Latin peoples work to preserve the old ways. What a privilege to have been able to meet them. Your photographs beautifully convey the majesty of the land. What a summer it must have been! What a wonderful article!

    • Majella Home Cooking September 19, 2013 at 7:04 pm Reply

      Thanks, Adri. One of the things I love most about the Abruzzesi is their profound respect for their land. So many people own pieces of farmland passed down by generations before them and many choosing to revive former farming practices as an homage to the past as well as a nod to the future.

  4. Louisa @ My Family & Abruzzo September 18, 2013 at 6:57 am Reply

    That looks delicious and warming! Great way to use up veg.

    • Majella Home Cooking September 19, 2013 at 7:05 pm Reply

      It’s really a wonderful dish, Louisa. I can envision adding shallots, butternut squash, sage and pancetta during the fall months. It would be a terrific Thanksgiving side dish!

  5. Kokopelli Camping (@JaqsD) September 19, 2013 at 3:37 am Reply

    What a great read Michelle, fascinating. The Majella is doing admirable work, in conjunction with Pan Parks, to protect the bio-diversity of this wilderness, but I had no idea it extended as far as protecting the grains and pulses of the land too. We shall definitely pay a visit to Agriturismo Tholos – it’s not too far from us at all – and I love farro, so will certainly have a go at your recipe. Thank you!

    • Majella Home Cooking September 19, 2013 at 7:07 pm Reply

      Jaqui, you really must pay Tholos a visit. The cuisine is classic yet inventive and entirely sourced from the Parco. I can’t wait until my next visit!

  6. Julia September 19, 2013 at 9:42 am Reply

    Discovered your blog via the Italo-Americano Newspaper on Facebook–love it! My father is from Abbateggio; we visited my grandparents frequently in San Valentino. I, too, love the Maiella, the most beautiful mountain in the world. Looking forward to reading more about your food adventures!

    • Majella Home Cooking September 19, 2013 at 7:10 pm Reply

      Ciao Julia e benevenuta! I agree – the Gran Sasso has nothing on the Maiella Madre! My father’s village is Salle – only 15 min from San Valentino and Abbateggio. Stay tuned for some more farro recipes from there. We went to the Sagra del Farro in Abbateggio and I enjoyed one of the best soups I’ve ever had. I can still taste it. And if you’re ever in San Valentino again during the summertime, I’ll gladly meet you for a gelato. La Gelateria di San Valentino may be the best in Abruzzo if not all of Italy!

  7. Bringing Abruzzo Home | MLT at Large September 20, 2013 at 10:43 pm Reply

    […] Other bloggers have sung the praises of Abruzzo producers who are passionate about retaining their long history of gastronomy and I want to add my voice to the chorus that salutes their efforts. I urge you to read my new friend and fellow blogger Michelle’s recent post on this topic at Majella Home Cooking. […]

  8. Frank Fariello September 28, 2013 at 9:24 am Reply

    I really like farro, but for whatever reasons I don’t cook it all that often. Just not in the ‘habit’ I guess, but lately I’ve been in an experimental mood—and this recipe shows, farro isn’t just for hearty winter soups!

    • Majella Home Cooking October 1, 2013 at 1:00 pm Reply

      Thanks, Frank. I’m not much of a whole grain person – don’t really care for whole wheat pasta (would rather eat less often) or brown rice. However, I do love farro and as a result, it’s become my go-to grain. I’ve always enjoyed using it in soups, as you suggest, and salads, but discovered some other creative ways to prepare it in Abruzzo this summer.

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