where it comes from

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There was a particular moment as we drove back down the rough road from the stalls to the agriturismo for lunch. Against a backdrop of flint-grey mountain and low mist was a tree covered in buds, under it a fast running steam flanked by green. My camera was in its bag, which was twisted around the mechanism under the seat. Shit. Yanking was not the solution. It was too late anyway, the van had turned to cross a ramp over the steam and pit its Mercedes wheels against a slope covered with mountain coloured gravel.

There were plenty of particular moments last Sunday, some I caught with my camera, others I didn’t: mountains like giants either side of the narrow road, hundreds of sheep bolting around us, goats standing on sheep, the steam rising from a vat of almost ricotta. However it was the snapshot of a mountain, mist, tree, steam and green that stuck in my mind because it seemed to explain so much. It was like meeting a boyfriend’s parents for the first time. You understand the genetics: the gap in the teeth, the good metabolism, the nervous laugh. In that moment through a minivan window I understood something about the cheese I like to eat.

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My dad would have called Sunday a beanday, which is his way of describing a day trip that involves a bloody good lunch. The story goes that when they were first married my dad arranged a surprise trip for my mum to an open day at a historic factory called Beanlands, which had nothing whatsoever to do with beans. On arriving at the factory my mum was less than impressed. However she was slowly drawn into what turned out to be a fascinating if eccentric day of local history. Then there was lunch. From that day on, a day trip arranged by dad for mum was called a beanday. Later, with three kids pre-seatbelt sliding across the backseat of the mustard Rover 3500, there was chanting as we set off on a beanday. As we turned into teenagers, chanting turned into moaning, which may or may not have ended by the time we sat down to lunch. By the time we were old enough to chant again we had left home, which meant my parents were – happily –  back to beansdays for two.

In Rome a group of us have been on three beandays, which haven’t as yet involved beans, but aways involve food and then more food in the form of the good lunch. The first was south to Campania and a town called Grano to meet a man called Franco Pepe who makes pizza.  The second was east across the Apennines then down to the coast and a town called Scerni to meet a man called Luigi Di Lello who makes a salame called ventricina. The third – Sunday – was east into Abruzzo again, up and up into the mountains and a town called Scanno meet a man called Gregorio Rotolo who makes cheese.

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Actually we didn’t meet Gregorio. He was away, as he is every weekend, at a food and wine fair. Gregorio is a shepherd. During the week he works with his family, workers and pack of 40 white Pastori Maremmani sheepdogs tending to 1500 sheep, goats and cows high in the mountains. At the weekend he travels hard to promote and sell his cheese. At fairs he stands or sits (only occasionally dozing) behind a stall of his cheese: some wide and soft, others like big tear drops or stout ridged barrels the colour of sea-washed pebbles. He is a big man, as is his knife, the tip of which is pressed into the wooden board ready to cut slices of cheese with unnerving confidence. It was at fair of sorts in the old slaughterhouse in Testaccio I first encountered the man, his cheese and his knife. I tasted an aged pecorino, deep-yellow, crystalline with a sweet-sharp flavour that burrowed into my tongue. ‘Who is that man near the wine tasting’ I asked Francesca who brings her equally fine Abruzzese cheese to the farmers market each Sunday – a drive all the more impressive now we have done it. ‘Gregorio, mio zio‘ (my uncle)’ she replied. Francesca then went on to explain how they were an extended family of shepherds and cheese makers near Scanno on the edge of the Abruzzo national park. ‘You must visit‘ she said. ‘Then you will understand the cheese‘.

I guessed the girl who greeted us at the agriturismo was Francesca’s sister, so Gregorio’s niece, before she said so: the same brow and slant of a smile. She took us round to the room where her brother was about to finish the day’s cheese making. The white tiled room was small, clean, awash with whey and fuggy with milky steam. He had made Caciocavallo and Crescenza with cow’s milk. Pecorino made from sheep’s milk was sitting in perforated plastic baskets, alongside a cheese called Gregoriano. In metal vats whey from both milks was being re-cotto or re-cooked into ricotta. All the cheeses are made with their certified organic raw milk and rennet according to traditional methods. My camera lens steamed.

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Have you ever been in a vast animal stall? I mean really in? In the middle of hundreds of sheep? They dash and swerve away from you, sheep displacement, and their breath and fleece brushes your arms as they do. The goats look nonplussed, pissed off even that you have displaced the sheep they were standing on. The air is filled with bleats that resonate up to the rafters. I was struck by the wholesomeness of it all. I imagined so many sheep, lambs, goats and kids would stink, but they didn’t. Of course they smelt, but nothing really untoward: hay, beast, wood,  wool, proper manure. It felt thick and earthy. Fleeces were full, faces opinionated and healthy. I imagined this was what was good husbandry looks like. Outside in another vast enclosure were hundreds more sheep against a backdrop of mountains and mist. Once the mist lifts and spring really reaches this height the sheep will be free to roam on rock, to graze on grass and the dozens of wild herbs that grow in this area of national park.

I have often heard Abruzzo described as Forte e Gentile, strong and gentle. Forte and gentile was what – I imagined – I saw through the minivan window in that moment driving back. Mountain, mist, tree, steam and pasture, that snapshot seemed to sum up a strong, mysterious land. A land that if tended properly (and tenaciously) is generous to people and animals. Animals who then provide good milk that is turned into good cheese.

Lunch could have begun no other way. There was freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta that was almost grassy and wobbled tenderly, a soft, aromatic pecorino called Gregoriano, a cheese made from three milks, a decisive, aged caciocavollo that almost tasted of wine. My favourite was two-year pecorino that was almost gold in colour, sharp, insistent and tasted like bolting sheep. Stunning, This was the one I would take home. After the cheese came pasta: fluted ribbons with lamb ragu, ravioli with fresh ricotta, and potato gnocchi with the sauce made from melted Gregoriano cheese loosened by pasta cooking water (the secret is so often the pasta cooking water.) After the pasta came excellent meat that deserved better cooking, but we ate it none the less. Some of us finished with a digestivo made from a root called Gentiana that made my hairs stand on end.  There were 10 or so people working in the large, functional dining room and kitchen, the family resemblance was striking, as was the good, wholesome hospitality.

As we drove away from the Agriturismo the mist was starting to lift allowing new perspectives. Mountains in the distance capped with the last snow or darkly-cloaked with forest, a road sign warning of bears, a town perched impossibly, a burst of wild poppies giving way to a steep verge. A herd of cows brought the minivan to an almost standstill then sauntered past. I grabbed for my camera. The strap was twisted under the seat.

Bio Agriturismo Valle Scannese and Azienda Agricola Biologica di Gregorio Rotolo & C. Località Le Prata, 60738,  Scanno AQ, Italia.

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In Rome it is traditional to eat the first fresh broad beans (fave) with young pecorino Romano cheese, especially on the first of May. Having brought back a small barrel of Gregorio’s pecorino we had some of our first fave with that. It is a lovely companionable thing to do, podding and chiseling cheese together, and the combination of tender, waxy beans with the sharp cheese is a brilliant one.

Another celebration of spring, and something I seem to write about every year is Vignarola, A spring vegetables stew that can only be made for  a few weeks each year, when the last of the artichokes meet the first fresh peas, broad beans fave and spring onions at the market, It is one of my favorite things to eat, a true celebration of the changing seasons. There are of course as many versions of Vignarola as there are cooks. This is my version. I like vignarola with bread and some soft cheese, piled on garlic rubbed toast- I also like it stirred into pasta with grated pecorino cheese and just enough of the starchy pasta cooking water to bring it all together into slightly creamy whole. As I said, it is often all about the pasta cooking water. For me, this is a quintessential spring pasta dish.

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Tagliatelle with Vignarola and pecorino  serves 4

  • 3 large artichokes
  • a lemon to acidulate a bowl of cold water
  • 1 kg peas in their pods
  • 1 kg fave in their pods
  • 2 large or 6 small spring onions
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt
  • a glass of white wine (or water)
  • 500 g dried tagliatelle
  • freshly grated pecorino

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. Detach the trimmed stems and slice them into four lengthways. Cut the trimmed artichoke globes into eight wedges. Drop the wedges and stems of artichoke into a bowl of cold water acidulated with lemon.

Shell the fave and the peas. If the fave are large and have a tough outer coat remove it by plunging the fave in first hot water, then cold and then squeezing/pinching off the opaque coat. Thinly slice the spring onion.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed saute pan or enamelled cast iron pot. Saute the sliced onion over a medium heat until it is soft and translucent. Add the artichoke wedges and stems, stir well so each piece is glistening with oil. Add the wine and a pinch of salt, stir again and then cover the pan. Cook the onion and artichokes for 15 minutes, stirring and jigging the pan from time to time. Add the peas and fave, stir, re-cover the pan and cook for another few minutes. Taste, season with salt and taste again. The vignarola is ready when the vegetables are tender and the stew had come together into a soft, tumbling whole. Let the vignarola rest. If you have one, Tip the vignarola into a wide, deep frying or sauté pan as it will be easier to mix with the pasta.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a fast boil, salt generously, stir and add pasta. Grate some pecorino (I’d say about 60g). Once the pasta is cooked, use tongs or a spider sieve to lift it into the vignarola (You want it to carry a little starchy pasta cooking water). Scatter over the cheese and toss everything together gently but firmly,. You want the cheese to melt and mix with the pasta cooking water to from a sort of cream which brings everything together – watch the edges of the pasta, you will see it happening. You might need to add a little more pasta cooking water and toss again. Divide between warm bowls and top with more freshly grated pecorino.

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34 Comments

Filed under Abruzzo, cheese, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary

34 responses to “where it comes from

  1. Rachel, what a gorgeous piece of writing (as always, of course). I could have been standing in that barn with you. What lovely adventures too. Sending love K xx

  2. You know how that one picture in your mind explained it all? Well, when you wrote that your camera lense steamed, I saw, smelled and felt the tiled room and the stall and tasted the cheese.

  3. emmalaw

    Bellissimo! A lovely leisurely read just before lunch.

  4. What a lovely descriptive post! I so enjoyed reading it, I love Italy and Italian food and it has made me want to visit this part of Italy. I have only been lucky enough to visit Rome and Venice so far but hopefully will get to visit more in the not too distant future! If I ever won the lottery I would drive the length and breadth of Italy eating lol🙂

  5. Beautiful writing…love the story about the Beandays and the photos are a perfect reflection of your memories.

  6. Beandays tutta la vita. Beautiful post as always xo

  7. I read this about 6:30 in the morning while a thunder storm passed by and a steady rain continued on. What a great description of your adventure. I pictured myself there and when I finished the article I went on google maps and viewed those areas you mentioned from above. Heavenly!

  8. Gorgeous writing. I felt like I was with you (and the sheep, goats, etc. etc.)

  9. This is lovely Rachel. I’m so glad to see Abruzzo finally getting its due. You’ll have to go back sometime when Gregorio is there. He is a force for sure (even with that beanie on his head). We (my family) went there for the first time in 2009 on the recommendation of Cicitto and Laura from Plistia (they serve Gregorio’s cheeses). Gregorio gave us a tour and let us taste some fresh (as in still warm) ricotta. We stayed for lunch where, among the many wonderful dishes, we enjoyed a giant raviolo (raviolone) stuffed with that ricotta. When I say giant I really do mean as big as a plate. Four of us had to split it. (I included the recipe in my pasta book.) Thanks for bringing back such delicious memories. Your vignarola looks molto appetitoso!

  10. Oh, and I meant to add that the phrase “Abruzzo forte e gentile” is attributed to Primo Levi ~ not the novelist and Auschwitz survivor, but a 19th century journalist of the same name (don’t know if they’re related).

  11. Beautiful, evocative piece (as usual), but really, a standout among all of your work. Brava! And yes to bean days, too!

  12. I can’t decide whether it’s your writing or your photos (twisted strap notwithstanding) that I like the best. Both so VERY evocative. Thank you.

  13. Here is the third gorgeous this lovely piece of writing gets – simply sumptuous. You just brought a little bit of spring into my warmth-deprived life. It actually snowed – every so slightly – yesterday, upsetting me and the robins, who have turned out not to be this year’s harbinger of a change in season. All those lovely green vegetables make me sigh with longing.

    I did a close-up of the last photo to see exactly which Microplane grater you were using. The picture is so perfect that magnified it is even more beautiful!

  14. Linda

    love your stories & your recipes–all wonderful! How about some light in your photos,stuck on dark🙂

  15. Maria

    Fantastic writing Rachel, so evocative! Made me want to go home and pick the first broad beans (fabas in Spanish) with my grandfather. Really enjoyed reading this.

  16. I am absolutely gaga over your posts. You have the gift of making entire images come to life in my head. Simply beautiful. I have shared a link to you site with many🙂

  17. “…a lovely companionable thing to do…” What a nice snapshot. Thank you.

  18. laura

    A beanday of a post. Thank you.

  19. Christine

    Beautiful post. All that gorgeous produce! Glad the sheep behaved for you. If they think you have food they can be relentless.

  20. let’s do as many beandays as possible. I’ve loved every single one of them till now. And it is always double nice when afterwards I can read your account of it.

  21. A wondrous Abruzzian (?) beanday–I was there with you, amongst the goats and sheep! also a happy reminder of the luscious Vignarola I had at Cesare, a perfect ode to Roman spring sort of dish. xN

  22. Eha

    Thank you so much for ‘taking us along’ again . . . . wonderful! Actually am thinking of Luca as am about to write some vignettes for a very favourite virtual friend’s book re my little two daughters ‘making their mark’ on Rome the very first time they [quite irreverently] hit the ‘highlights’ !!!

  23. Wow — I felt like I was there. Thank you for that.

  24. Every photo in this story is beautiful and very inspiring. What a lovely cache of edibles that you turned into a lovely meal. Happy Spring.

  25. Looks delicious! Love your photos!!

  26. FJ

    Hi Rachel,
    Check out the ‘Jane Grigson Trust. They have an award for a first time food writer, who has a book commissioned but not yet published. Immediately thought of your writing, as very much in the spirit of Jane. Go for it!

  27. verticaljump101

    Loved this story. In fact, I think I just love stories about food. This one made me really hungry!

  28. Lovely prose and the photos are gorgeous too. Thanks for the recipe ideas.

  29. wonderful post and terrific pictures! looks great! =]

    It would be a pleasure if you could check out my food review blog at: https://eatandtell1.wordpress.com/

    i am a True Foodie and have detailed reviews from artisan breads to burgers to cakes and cupcakes and the list is never-ending!
    like, share and follow on Facebook! =]

  30. I am so thankful that Katie Parla posted about your upcoming cookbook or I would never have found you. You now have a faithful new fan. Thanks for the beautiful read and great inspiration.

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