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Friuli Venezia Giulia, or simply Friuli (free-oólee) is the northeastern most region of Italy. It is bordered by Austria on the north, Slovenia (previously Yugoslavia) on the east, the Adriatic Sea on the south, and Italy’s Veneto region to the west. The terrain becomes hilly and then outright mountainous in the north. The southern topography is dominated by a coastal plain. Trieste, originally incorporated into the Roman Empire by Julius Caesar in 177 BC, is the capital city.
Austrian, Hungarian, Slovenian and Croatian influences are evident in Friuli’s culture, history, and even politics, (the border with Slovenia has shifted a number of times over the ages). Naturally, these influences can be found in the food as well. Viennese sausages, Goulash, and strudel are just some of the traditionally non-Italian fare found in the area.
But Friuli has its own culinary heritage to be proud of independent of the swayings of neighboring cultures. Northern Friuli receives significant rain. This has nourished the growth of verdant meadows which in turn support livestock. Ham and dairy products are mainstays. In the Tagliamento River valley, corn and other cereal grains are grown. Friuli’s southern border with the Adriatic affords a variety of seafood, particularly the beloved eel.
Americans are more familiar with prosciutto di Parma but Friuli’s prosciutto di San Daniele is just as noteworthy. Prosciutto is a seasoned and salt cured ham that must be produced according to specific, quality conscious standards. In other words, prosciutto di San Daniele is not just a ham made in the Friuli region. The designation “di San Daniele” assures the consumer that the ham has met government mandated regulations for its production.
But prosciutto is only the beginning. Pork products of all kinds are relished in Friuli. The town of Carnia is especially famous for its pork. It is not uncommon for families to raise their own pigs. Pigs are slaughtered in ritual ceremonies and no part of the animal is wasted. Friuli is noted for many kinds of sausages, salami, and pancetta. Musetto is a boiled sausage made of ground pork and flavored by wine, the pig’s snout and a variety of seasonings. It may be served with brovada, which is turnips bottled in marc. Marc is what’s left of the grapes after the juice has been pressed from them. It plays a pivotal role in grappa, a renowned brandy which we’ll discuss shortly.
Friuli is the home to Montasio cheese, a cow’s milk cheese that can be fresh, aged 5-10 months or aged over 10 months. The longer it is aged, the sharper the flavor. The oldest Montasio can be grated and used like Parmesan. Fricos, a Friuli favorite, are wafers made of cooked Montasio cheese.
Corn, although originating in the Americas is inherently part of Fiulian cuisine. Originally imported by Venetian merchants in the 16th century, by the 17th century it was widely popular. Indeed, corn prevented the starvation of many a mountain peasant. Polenta, a mush made from corn, is a staple of Friuli, in some places superceding bread.
Beans are popular throughout Friuli and jota, (pronounced yota) is a bean soup hailing from Trieste. Jota, whose origins may go back to the Celts, was traditionally made with beans and sauerkraut. Other variations employ barley, brovada, potatoes, cornmeal, and as in my recipe below, pork. Once thought of as peasant food, it is now considered a culinary specialty of the area.
No discussion of Friuli would be complete without mention of its high quality wines. Friuli relies on a wide range of grape varieties, both indigenous and imported. White and red wines are made throughout Friuli although whites tend to dominate. There are a number of noteworthy wine growing areas. Collio is best known for its whites, many of which utilize the Ribolla grape. The Ribolla is native to Friuli and has been cultivated there since the 12th century. Colli Orientali is an area dominated by varietal wines. Varietals are wines made solely or predominantly from one grape such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, (known as Pinot Nero in these parts). The famous sweet wine Ramandolo comes from within this region as well. Finally, Grave del Friuli, one of the larger areas, leads Friuli’s wine producing districts in terms of quantity.
Last but certainly not least is grappa. Grappa, as stated, is a brandy made from marc, the stems and seeds of the grapes leftover after the juice has been extracted for wine. The marc is distilled and then processed into grappa. Grappas can vary greatly in quality and numerous bad apples have spoiled the reputation of the bunch. It is worth the time and money to seek out the top performers. High quality grappa is smooth, refined, and a far cry from the bountiful yet harsh elixirs that have disheartened the palates of many.
• 12 oz. pork shoulder cut into stew size cubes
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1 lb. pork neck bones
• Olive oil, as needed
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 4 garlic cloves, chopped
• 2 oz. sherry
• 2 oz. quality grappa or cognac
• 1 cup beef stock
• 6 cups water
• Thyme, chopped to taste (divided)
• Rosemary, chopped to taste
• 3 bay leaves
• 8 oz. pancetta, chopped
• 8 oz. sauerkraut
• 1 cup water
• 1 15.5-oz. can pink beans
Season the pork shoulder cubes with salt and pepper and brown them and the bones in a large pot in very hot oil. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and sauté one more minute. Deglaze the pan with the sherry and grappa. Add the beef stock, water, thyme, rosemary, two of the bay leaves, and more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and then immediately reduce to a simmer and cook for an hour and a half. Skim the surface to remove any fat and scum as need be. While the soup is simmering sauté the pancetta until the fat is rendered. Add the sauerkraut, water, the last bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered for 30 minutes. After the soup has simmered for an hour and a half, add the pancetta/sauerkraut mixture and the beans, and simmer for 30 minutes more.
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