Gatherings & Celebrations: A Picnic in Abruzzo, Italy - #104

The Abruzzo region of Italy is located to the east of Rome.  Most visitors get to the district by driving through the monumental Apennine mountain range. The highway that connects the western part of central Italy to the east, is relatively new, and it takes you through the highest mountain range in the country.  The tallest peak, The Gran Sasso d’Italia, “the Great Rock of Italy,” is almost 10,000 feet above sea level. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   For thousands of years these mountains acted as a natural barrier.  Rome was in the east, Abruzzo was in the west, and the twain hardly ever met.  The mountains also protected the people of Abruzzo from some of the less attractive developments of modern life.  They allowed them to hang on to their ancient traditions.  The mountains also protected the environment.  In the center of the district is The Abruzzo National Park, over one thousand square miles of the most unspoiled terrain in Europe.

As you travel east to Abruzzo, you eventually come to a hundred-mile-wide strip of flat land that runs along the Adriatic Sea.  The long bands of clean beach have made it one of the country’s most popular seaside resorts.   In much the same way that the geography of Abruzzo is divided between the sea and the mountains, so is the food of Abruzzo.  On one side there are the recipes of the sea -- and on the other, the recipes of the mountains.

Italians love their food and they love to eat it outdoors.  In small towns people will simply carry their tables outside and eat along the street.  During the warm-weather months, country people will do much of their eating in their yards or on their patios.  Italians have an age-old tradition of eating outside, and that’s why we came to Abruzzo.  We want to take a close look at the rituals that are part of the gathering we call “a picnic.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   From the very first time I went on a picnic I loved it.  It got me out of the somewhat structured environment of my family home.  It promised Adventure... Freedom.  On a picnic, the rules were suspended.  I could eat lying down on a blanket rather than sitting up in a chair.  I could hold a piece of chicken at the end of my hand rather than the end of a fork.

As I got older, I saw paintings like Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, “lunch on the grass.”   And films by moviemakers where the informal environment of the picnic was used for, shall we say... more relaxed encounters between men and women.  Hot stuff in a cool place.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Artists and writers were saying something about the relationship of “picnics and freedom,” and I was getting the message.  Of course, like most of our gatherings and celebrations, a picnic tries to bring together two opposite parts of our life.    We like the idea of leaving the structure of our homes and being One With Nature.   We like the idea of The Wild.

But the moment we get out into nature, the first thing we do is separate ourselves from it.  We mark off our territory with a picnic cloth.  We even hold down the edges of the cloth with boundary stones.     So much for being One With The Great Outdoors.  Then we take advantage of the gastronomic gifts of the countryside by covering the cloth with foods that we cooked in our home.  We carpet the outside with things we made on the inside.  We like to get up close to the wild side of life... and then we like to tame it.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   What we’re actually doing here is trading the discomforts of our more formal dining rooms at home and in restaurants for the pure joy of sharp stones, prickly grass, biting insects and undependable weather.  For me, picnics have come to prove the truth of the old saying... ”A change of aggravation is like a holiday.”

The idea of a picnic being “free and loose” eventually turned into the idea of a picnic being EASY.  When you’ve had a easy time with something, you might describe it by saying, ”Hey -- it was a picnic.”  On the other hand, a difficult experience can be noted as “no picnic.” And quite frankly, the work that goes into making a great picnic is no picnic!

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Burt, this is Rosito of Abruzzi; this is the local market where everybody in the morning buys their fresh food and vegetables.

BURT WOLF:   Every morning!

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:  Yes, Burt, every morning...

This is Giulia Raggiunti.  She was born in Abruzzo, and has worked with the regional foods and wines for over twenty years.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Green beans -- fagiolini.  These are two... tomatoes, really... soft.

BURT WOLF:   Very soft.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Very soft, because they’re -- it’s mature for the sauce.

BURT WOLF:   Oh.  Okay, so these two go into the sauce...

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Yes -- and this is for salads.

BURT WOLF:   ...for salads.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Two types of eggplants --

BURT WOLF:   You know, when you see it shaped like this you understand why we call it an eggplant.  But when you see these, it has nothing to do with eggs.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   But in Italian it’s not called like that, so that’s --

BURT WOLF:   It’s called melanzana --

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Melanzana,  which --

BURT WOLF:   -- which has nothing to do with eggs.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   -- nothing to do with eggs. ... This is where you find fresh fish every morning.

BURT WOLF:   I heard that one of the interesting things about the fish in this area is that there’s much less salt in the water; that because it’s the Adriatic Sea, and the Alps are melting up there, the water that comes into the northern part of the Adriatic has less salt.  You end up with a more delicate fish.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   That’s true.

BURT WOLF:   Certainly true in the shrimps.  Ohh, those are wonderful! 

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Pappalina.  Bread ‘em --

BURT WOLF:   Just bread ‘em and deep-fry them. ... I don’t think I can actually go on a picnic without a watermelon.  I’ve always been curious about how to tell what a watermelon was gonna taste like without opening it.  So I once went to a famous watermelon farm in Oregon, and I asked them how you choose it.  Is it the texture on the outside, the color, the softness?  I heard about thumping to listen.  They told me there was only one way:  Cut It.  Eat It.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   (laughing)  That’s the best way!

The word “picnic” was first used to describe a meal where all of the diners brought something to the meal. It could have been food, or drinks, or just money to cover some of the costs of the event. 

BURT WOLF:   We need some olives for the dish we’re gonna do with the chicken...

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Yes, we need some olivinieri...  [saleswoman responds]

Over two thousand years ago the ancient Greeks, who lived just across the water from here, were holding this type of meal.  They were put together by a club and held in a public dining-room.  The public-room aspect was very important.  It took away the idea that someone was the official host. 

BURT WOLF:   And eggs -- we need eggs for the frittata.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:   Yes.  Let me take eggs...

No host meant no need to return the invitation.  You ended up with an obligation free-meal.

BURT WOLF:   All right, what else do we need for our picnic?  Let’s get some breads.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:  Okay; what type do you need, Burt?

BURT WOLF:   I don’t know; let’s get a long one and a round one.

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:  [orders in Italian]  This is the normal bread.

BURT WOLF:   Okay, let’s get a couple of those.  What else?

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:  Okay, for the sweet --

BURT WOLF:   Biscotti?

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:  Biscotti; this is two types, with almonds and chocolate.

BURT WOLF:   Okay, let’s get some with almonds and some with chocolate.


BURT WOLF:   (mouth full)  Mmmm.  Mmmmmmmmm!  What’s in here?

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:  He said it’s from Abruzzo because it’s typical from almonds.

BURT WOLF:   Almonds; what, sugar? 

GIULIA RAGGIUNTI:  And sugar... oh, that’s white egg... [shop chatter in Italian] ... Okay, Burt -- we’re ready for the picnic. 

BURT WOLF:   Not without the streudel, we’re not.

This is the home of the Cerulli-Irelli family.  They are members of the Casal Thaulero winemakers’ cooperative and great lovers of the regional foods of Abruzzo.  The family cook is Giovanna De Luca and she’s making a recipe called pasta alla Chitarra. 

First the pasta dough is made.  A cup of flour is used for each person and mounded onto a wooden work surface.  Wood is the preferred material for working with pasta because it appears to give the finished dough a softer texture that will hold more of the sauce that comes along with the final dish. 

A hole is made in the center of the flour and one egg is added for each cup of flour.  The eggs are mixed together and the flour is slowly incorporated.  About four minutes of kneading and the dough is ready to be rolled out.  A piece about the size of a half cup is cut off and rolled out on the board.  A little flour goes on to keep the dough from sticking.  When the dough is about an eighth of an inch thick, a strip is cut off and placed on top of a piece of equipment called a chitarra.  It’s really just a wooden frame with a series of wires stretched over it like the strings on a guitar.  The pasta is pressed through the wires, which cuts it into thin strips, ready for the boiling water.  I’m always impressed with advanced high-tech gear like this.  Space Age in the kitchen.

The sauce for the pasta starts with a little oil going into a large saucepan, followed by chunks of oxtail... about two cups’ worth.  You can use oxtail or any meat with lots of bones.  A peeled onion and a carrot are added.  A little salt...  pepper... freshly-grated nutmeg.  The heat goes on and everything cooks for about fifteen minutes, at which point four cups of pureed tomato are added.  The cover goes on and the ingredients simmer for fifteen minutes more.  Then a cup’s worth of tiny, pre-cooked meatballs go in.  As soon as the meatballs are warm, the sauce is ready.   The pasta alla chitarra goes into the pot of boiling water and gets stirred around. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  As a general rule, the more water you use to cook pasta, the better it’s gonna be.  Bring the water to a rolling boil, put all this pasta in at once, put the top on, the water will come back to the boil quickly; thirty seconds of cooking and this pasta’s done.

It’s strained from the water and set into a serving bowl.  The tomato sauce and the meatballs are drawn off from the meat bones and ladled on top of the pasta.  A little mixing.  A little grated parmigiano cheese and the pasta is ready.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That’s the pasta alla chitarra, ready to go to the table.  But hopefully you have made enough so there will be leftovers, and you can turn those leftovers into an Italian omelet called a frittata, which is a perfect first course for a picnic.

A little oil goes into a non-stick sauté pan and gets heated.  Two cups of leftover pasta and its sauce are cut into one-inch pieces.  Four eggs are beaten into the pasta.  Giovanna is using whole eggs but when I make this dish at home I use eight egg whites instead of the four whole eggs, and the recipe works fine.  The pasta is mixed with the eggs and poured into the pan.  The top goes on for four minutes of cooking over a low to medium heat.  Then the pan is turned over onto a flat surface.  In this case the flat surface is the underside of the cover, but you could also use a large plate.  The omelet is then slid back into the pan and the second side is cooked.  A little more cooking.  Another flip.  And the omelet is finished.

The main course is chicken with olives.  The chicken is cut up into pieces which go into the pan in one layer.  A little salt.  A little pepper.  A clove of garlic, peeled and sliced in half.  A few sprigs of rosemary.   Then a half cup of white wine... followed by a half cup of water.  A quarter of a cup of olive oil goes in, and a cup of black olives.  The pot goes onto the heat and cooks over thin twigs or, back in the kitchen, over a low to medium range heat.  The weather today is so nice that Giovanna is doing as much of the cooking outside as she can.  But I think I’m going to need a heat chart here.  Lemme see... five twigs is low heat. Ten twigs is a medium heat and fifteen twigs is hot stuff.  Hey... this is the way people measured for thousands of years!

And now the dessert: chocolate-covered almonds.  The almonds are toasted.  Water and sugar go into a sauce pan and get heated.  Cocoa is added.  The sugar and cocoa mixture is poured onto the almonds.  Everything is mixed together.  The almonds pick up the coating and are spread out on a lightly-oiled plate to cool.  They are called Sassi d’ Abruzzo, which means the “stones of Abruzzo.” Good stuff.

The foods for the picnic are ready.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   “Picnic” has meant different things at different times and in different places.  The word became popular in London in the early 1800s.  There were clubs, dining clubs, that offered a specific kind of meal called a “subscription” meal.  A member would decide on a menu and post it on the club bulletin board.  Other members would come along and sign their names next to a particular dish.  That meant that the member was coming to the meal, but it also meant that he would be bringing that  dish.  The most famous of these “subscription” meal clubs was called The Picnic Club and it reached the height of its fame in 1802.  Actually, “fame” is a bad choice of words; it was infamous!  The word around London is that The Picnic Club had good meals but bad morals.  All the talk about The Picnic Club, however, brought the word picnic into common use.  Our modern picnic got popular a few years later.  And the reason it did is that it was a break with tradition.   It was different; it was relaxed; it was informal.  But of  course, to break with tradition you have to have the tradition in the first place.  A dining-room at home is essential to your enjoyment of the picnic in the field.

Now a little bit of wild is okay -- but not too much.  People do not enjoy eating in a place where there is any real danger.  We all like to have control of the wild during meal times.  A touch of risk in getting to the picnic spot is acceptable, but the place itself must be secure.  Your idea of the proper place for a picnic, however, has a lot to do with your cultural heritage.

During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the highest levels of British society polished off their education by taking a Grand Tour of Europe.  When they got to Italy they learned how to eat in the fresh air... al fresco.  But the English took a special approach to dining outside.  They always tried to have their picnic while facing a famous or splendid view.  The late 1700’s and early 1800’s were the years known as the Romantic Period, and a central idea of the Romantic movement was the love of nature.  Wild was wonderful.   But so were old ruins, the ancient remnants of earlier civilizations slowly decaying back to their original wild state.  A truly Romantic idea, if you like that sort of thing.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In reality, the English wanted their wildness in the distance.  Up close they wanted a big box with everything you could possibly desire for a great picnic.  And they wanted it at top quality.  They wanted their glasses to be crystal, their plates to be porcelain, their flatware to be silver.  They wanted nutmeg graters and pepper grinders and linen napkins.  And nothing was disposable.  When you finished, your servants took them to a nearby river and washed them.

Just down the road from where we’re having this picnic are some of the world’s most important olive groves, producing some of the world’s most famous olive oil.  Olive oil is a very important part of the Italian diet and it has an interesting and symbolic history.

For thousands of years the olive tree has been a part of the most significant celebrations and gatherings that take place in the western world.  The technological skill that is necessary to cultivate an olive tree, make the olive edible and eventually produce olive oil is so complex that the ancient Greeks used “olive knowledge” as the criteria for judging a society.  If a community knew how to produce olives and olive oil they were a developed society.  If they didn’t, they were still in a primitive state.   For many centuries olive harvesting and processing was done by sailors.  Olive harvests take place during the winter, when the weather kept the sailors on shore.  Olive production became their winter work.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Olive trees can live for hundreds of years.  Very often, the roots go down so deep that even if the tree is cut off, the roots will send up new life.  When people began to realize that olive trees could regenerate themselves,  the olive tree became a symbol of dependability, immortality, and peace.  It began to play a role in ritual.  When there was a lamp that was meant to burn for a long time, it was filled with olive oil.  Whenever a king or queen of Europe had a coronation, they were annointed with olive oil.  Olive oil began to play a role in feeding the soul as well as the body.

Just south of where we are having our picnic is the town of Campobasso, where Colavita olive oil is pressed, and it’s interesting to see the process.  Enrico Colavita’s family has been making olive oil for many generations, and they use a classic method that has been employed by master craftsmen for thousands of years.  The olives come in from the fields and are separated from any plant stems and leaves.  Then they are washed and transported to the press.  The actual pressing is done by three stones that have been shaped into wheels.   Each stone weighs a little over 2,000 pounds.  They roll around, one behind the other, crushing the olives.  They crush both the meat of the olive and the pits into a thick paste.  The paste gets spread out onto discs of hemp.  About three discs are coated, one after the other.  Then they are transferred onto a spindle.  When they have a pile of discs that is about five feet high, they are moved over to a contraption that slowly applies an enormous amount of pressure.  The olive oil and the dark juices of the olive are pressed out.  That mixture goes into a piece of equipment that uses centrifugal force to separate the dark juice from the extra virgin olive oil.  The filtered oil is poured into bottles... and the cork goes in.   Finally, the Colavita emblem is pressed into a wax seal.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   No doubt about it, the olive has a very significant place in the kitchen.  But I am constantly reminded of its place in our culture.  The story that comes to mind most often is the story of Noah and the flood.  When Noah sent the dove out, it came back  with an olive branch.  That was a very significant signal. It told Noah that the most important tree had survived, and that his society would be reborn. When it comes to foods that are essential to gatherings and celebrations, the olive is right up there with bread and wine.

Which reminds me, there’s an interesting historical relationship between wine and the word “picnic.”  The first time we come across the word “picnic” in print, it’s in a French text dated 1692.  A meal in a restaurant was being described as “picnic style,” and what that meant was that the diners were bringing their own wine to the restaurant.  The wines for our picnic come from right here in Abruzzo.  They were made by Casal Thaulero and brought here by Philip di Belardino. Philip is an authority on the wines of Italy and a great lover of good food, and food history.

PHILIP DiBELARDINO:  In the 1960s, a group of Abruzzo landowners got together to eat some good food, and of course, to drink some good wine, and to talk about life.  Talking about life is the central ingredient in any Italian meal.  Well, eventually the discussion came around to the subject of business.  As you know, being a farmer is difficult, but especially here in Abruzzo.

BURT WOLF:   In other words, it’s no picnic.

PHILIP DiBELARDINO:  Absolutely no picnic.  Well, they realized, Burt, that they had to get their act together in marketing.  They had to join the rest of the wine world... technologically, and also to look at their vineyards in a whole new way and replant everything.  So what they did was they formed a consortium of agricultural producers.  And in this area there’s a castle called Casal Thaulero, which gave the name to the wine.

BURT WOLF:   “Casal Thaulero...”

PHILIP DiBELARDINO:  Thaulero.  It’s not easy to pronounce; that’s why --

BURT WOLF:   It’s easy to drink!

PHILIP DiBELARDINO:  Oh, very easy to drink, but to pronounce, a little more difficult.  That’s why they chose the symbol of the regional park here in Abruzzo, the national park, which is the bear.  So the bear identifies it on every label, so many people say, “Well, give me the wine with the bear on it.”  The bear has a secondary meaning also, is the love and dedication to nature, which they also practice in their vineyard, where they have organic farming.  In fact, we like to say that these are wines at a price you can bear.

BURT WOLF:  That’s worse than “no picnic.”  [laughter]

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Casal Thaulero is particularly interested in preserving the habitat of the wild bear.  As a matter of fact, they have donated funds to a number of the parks in California so they can set up exhibitions on bear safety.  And they’ve taught me three very important things about bears and picnics.  First of all, you should always do your cooking at least a hundred yards away from where your campsite is.  Second, bears love fatty foods, especially hamburgers and bacon. A bacon cheese- burger would be the worst.  Third, they strongly suggest that you never sleep in the clothes that you did your in.  They will attract bears and repel lovers.  Amazing.  I learn something new every day.  And if you would like to learn whatever it is that I learn next, please join me next time as we travel around the world looking at Gatherings and Celebrations, Rituals and Recipes.  I’m Burt Wolf.