One of the culinary highlights of the trip was dinner with Luisa. There have been many visits to Italy from my family members, and they almost always include a stop in Maniago and dinner with Luisa, Franco and Max. The dinners are discussed in detail with tones of awe. Upon returning from Italy usually the first question after “how was your trip?” is “what did Luisa cook for you?”. Her meals are the truest representation of the Friulano cuisine in our family’s heritage.
Luisa’s mother, Gemma, and my Grandmother are sisters. As tradition would have it, family meals were prepared together and cherished recipes passed down through the generations. While my grandmother immigrated to the United States, Gemma remained in Italy and over the years we have been fortunate to stay in touch.
Luisa, her husband Franco and son Max cherish the culture and cuisine of Friuli and endeavor to stay true to its roots and preserve its authenticity. A meal with Luisa is bona fide Friuli – exactly the same as my grandmother’s except for her access to the local, more authentic ingredients that my grandmother could never find in the USA.
As we pull up to the house, I know she has been cooking all day. The anticipation is almost unbearable. What did she make; ucels scampis(veal skewers), roasted rabbit, stuffed peppers???? One thing is certain, she will prepare polenta. While the rest of Italy eats and is famous for pasta, in Friuli they make polenta. Growing up we had polenta regularly. It was like our family secret, since no one we knew had any idea what is was, let alone ever eaten it. Of course, now it is considered very gourmet and is on the menu at many high end restaurants, often prepared richly with cheese, butter, herbs and much more. My family always ate it in the peasant style – made with just cornmeal water and salt, and then turned out as a large loaf on a wooden cutting board. It is a labor of love requiring 40-60 minutes constant stirring over a low flame. It is mainly served with a slow cooked or braised meat with a rich sauce.
For this meal Luisa prepared Brasato al Barolo or in this case Brasato al vino nero – prepared with a Fruiliano red wine instead of Barolo. Brasato is a classic Italian dish of beef marinated and braised in Barolo wine. I have never had it because I could never bring myself to use a $50 bottle of wine as a marinade. This is going to be a real treat. Polenta is the perfect side dish for this exquisite entrée, and to our delight Luisa had made two. A yellow polenta was already prepared and a second white polenta was on the stove – mixing itself!! Luisa had solved the problem of the constant stirring required, with a stove top polenta mixer. The proper pot for mixing polenta is a paiolo – a copper pot for even heat distribution. The polenta mixer is a modern, labor-saving, addition.
Traditionally, the proper way to prepare polenta was over an open hearth stirring for hours. When the polenta is ready, dinner is served – the polenta will not wait. Our dinner started with an appetizer of prosciutto di Sauris, olives and Prosecco (sparkling white wine). Prosciutto di Sauris is lightly smoked, cured ham and is produced in Sauris, which is far north in Friuli in the Carnic Alps in the highly German-Austrian influenced region of Friuli. It has a lighter, sweeter taste than its more famous cousin, Proscuitto di parma and pairs perfectly with the Prosecco.
The main course was served with the white polenta and pistiche – sautéed greens. When I inquired about the greens they used, they took me out to their yard and showed me their lawn. The greens were picked from what we here in the US might call a weedy lawn – everything is used, nothing wasted. For our second polenta plate, we had the sliced and pan fried yellow polenta – served with Formaggio Salato (salted cheese or Formai Salut in Friulano). The cheese was fresh and savory with the consistency of a smooth ricotta cheese. Incredibly good over polenta. I have made polenta many times, but I never seem to be able to achieve the creamy consistency of Luisa’s polenta. I inquired as to what her secret was – the constant stirring or possible the fresh milled corn meal perhaps? Whether it was the language barrier or her closely guarded secret – I will have to find out on my own. After dessert of strawberries, grappa and hours of conversation, we called it a night. Tomorrow we venture out of Fanna and further into Friuli – San Daniele and Udine.