I felt like a culinary explorer in Abruzzo this past summer. I was privileged to visit many local artisanal producers who have dedicated their lives to safeguarding the region’s agricultural and gastronomic traditions. I became particularly fascinated by a project spearheaded by the Parco Nazionale della Majella called “Coltiviamo la diversità” (Let’s Cultivate Diversity) whose goal is the recovery, conservation, and enhancement of native agricultural species in the 74,000+ hectares of national park territory. The project specifically targets the cultivation of local grains, legumes and fruit and vegetables that are indigenous to the wild, mountainous terrain surrounding the Majella. To facilitate these conservation efforts, the Parco created a network of “custodian farmers” dedicated to protecting the territory’s agricultural biodiversity. Some examples of products that are cultivated in the area include:
Socere e Nore: An oval bean known for its characteristic black and white hue, the bean’s color contrast is said to represent the complicated relationship between mothers-in-law (socere) and daughters-in law (nore).
Farro: This ancient grain suffered a period in which it was threatened with extinction. Many farmers in Abruzzo began to cultivate varieties from other Italian regions such as Umbria and Tuscany. In recent decades, however, interest in farro has resurfaced and some varieties indigenous to Abruzzo have been singled out and reproduced. Farro is now sold in grains and as flour, pasta and polenta.
Farina di Solina: Solina is the characteristic wheat found in the mountains of Abruzzo. It imparts a particular taste and fragrance to homemade bread and pasta and resists well in the cold mountainous climates. An 18th century text describes solina as a wheat from which “…one of the best kinds of bread of the Kingdom (of Naples)” was baked.
A bookend to “Coltiviamo la diversità” is an initiative called “Cuciniamo la diversità” (“Let’s Cook Diversity”) which consists of a network of restaurants and agriturismi within the Parco Nazionale della Majella. Conceived as meeting points between producers and consumers, these establishments offer traditional dishes from Abruzzo that utilize local products cultivated by the Parco’s custodian farmers.
One of the most memorable and inspiring meals I enjoyed during my stay in Abruzzo was at Agriturismo Tholos in Roccamorice. Tholos is both a custodian farmer as well as a participating restaurant in the Parco’s network. Its organic farm stretches over 10 hectares and consists mainly of farro, Solina, chick peas and lentils (actually, the same tiny lentils that come from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a village near the Gran Sasso mountain range; Tholos, in partnership with the Parco, is trying to cultivate the delicate legume in the Majella’s territory) as well as an orchard of local indigenous apples and pears.
I enjoyed creative dishes made entirely from Tholos’ products including zuppa di lenticchie made with lentils that were picked earlier that day, polenta di farro (a first for me as well as for our Abruzzese friends who joined us for dinner), fresh pasta called “corde” made from farina di Solina and a homey, comforting pasticcio di farro, which I share below. The food was positively stellar, but even more satisfying was the knowledge that in some small way, I was sharing in the preservation and celebration of the gastronomic heritage of this territory which I love so very much.
Pasticcio di Farro
Recipe by Majella Home Cooking © (inspired by Agriturismo Tholos)
Serves 8 as a side dish or 4 as a main course
This baked farro “pasticcio” (literally, a “mess”) is filled with late summer vegetables and gooey scamorza cheese. Feel free to substitute other seasonal vegetables and cheeses.
- 2 cups of farro
- 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 1 medium eggplant, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
- 2 small zucchini, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 pint of sweet grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
- 1/3 cup basil or Italian parsley leaves, chopped
- 2 cups of scamorza cheese, shredded
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse the farro with cold water. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add the farro. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Add a tablespoon of salt and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the farro is tender but still has a bite. (Adding the salt before this point will make the farro tough.) Drain well, transfer to a large bowl, add a tablespoon of olive oil and fluff with a fork. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a wide sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the eggplant and ½ teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, about 3-5 minutes or until the eggplant starts to color and soften. Next, add the zucchini to the pan along with another ½ teaspoon of salt, and cook for an additional 3-5 minutes, until the zucchini starts to color and soften. Add the red onion and another small pinch of salt and continue to cook until all of the vegetables have caramelized and softened and the flavors have melded together. Remove from the heat and fold in the grape tomatoes, allowing the residual heat from the other vegetables to soften them.
Adjust the seasonings and add the vegetables to the cooked farro and stir to incorporate. Next, fold in the shredded scamorza cheese. Pour the mixture into an oiled baking or casserole dish and sprinkle the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano across the top. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the Parmigiano has formed a golden crust on top. Buon appetito!
Extra Two Cents:
The farro may be cooked ahead of time and refrigerated overnight, tightly covered. Remove from the refrigerator at least one hour prior to baking and add proceed with the recipe.