Culinary Tour 2015. Day 5. (part 1)

After all of the eating we did on Day 4, I think everyone slept like a rock. Day 5 dawned bright and beautiful, and we had some breakfast and readied ourselves for a hike. Today we were going to Rocca Calascio, and the weather was perfect.

Rocca Calascio is the fairly intact ruins of what is still the highest fortress in the Apennine mountain range. The original fort was built in the 10th century, and was added to and modified here and there over the years until an earthquake in 1703 put it out of commission entirely. The fortress is a fairly easy 15 minute hike from the nearest parking site. Actually driving a car up the winding mountain roads to said parking site is, in my opinion, far more nerve wracking than the hike itself. It’s all worth it, though, once you’ve attained the summit, crossed the drawbridge, and peering out through the corners of the fort, you are rewarded with views of the surrounding mountains and Navelli plain that are some of the most inspiring in Abruzzo. It is hard to translate even in a photograph, but here you go:

 

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After our mountain ramble, we were ready for lunch. A short drive away is the small scenic town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, home of Presidio Slow Foods certified lentils, which in plain English simply means some of the best darn lentils in Italy. The particular breed of lentils with this certification are only grown in this area of Italy. It also doesn’t hurt that Santo Stefano is on the list as one of Italy’s prettiest towns. The terra cotta roofed houses and cobblestone streets are picturesque, and the whole town has the delightful feel of being suspended in time.

We sat down at one of the two restaurants in town, and were promptly served a huge spread of locally made cured meat and cheeses. No matter what you are eating, if the ingredients came from within a five mile radius, I find it always tastes better. The local earth, the smell of the air, the grass and flowers, comes through in the cheese and meat of the region. And eating the food of a region, in the region, with the local wines, is truly an enviable experience.

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After the salumi plates, we were provided with a hearty soup, made from the aforementioned famous lentils. I have never had a lentil dish that I enjoyed more. This soup, as humble as it appeared, had an elevation to its whole that was greater than its parts. The flavor was intense, without the mealy or heavy feeling that one can get with lentils. It was rich, but the finish was clean, and left you wanting another bite. We swore there was pork of some kind involved in the wonderful flavor, but apparently it was an honest vegetarian dish. I don’t know how they packed all that flavor in the soup, but I can say that now I totally understand why these lentils deserve their own slow foods certification.

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The saffron flavored sausage ragu with local wild mushrooms on the pasta held the quintessential flavors of Abruzzo. Just enough ragu to evenly infiltrate the fresh handmade pasta, without being too saucy or too filling. A perfect lunch.

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Although we stopped a few times on the way back to the hotel for scenic views and photo ops, we fortunately had some time to relax and recharge in the afternoon. And post a few photos on social media. And probably have a glass of wine.

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