The rabbit with potatoes that Mrs. Pina Di Nardo prepares must marinate for at least an hour and a half in the copper pot. It’s not the soft one from the supermarket, but the one raised in the countryside, like it used to be. Harder to bite, perhaps, but tastier as well. Her death? Grilled and “under the coppo” of iron, a traditional utensil with which generations of Abruzzo women have fed the men returning from the countryside. Today it is used less and less. But with this technique, Pina made the Caniloro farmhouse in Lanciano (Ch) famous. Which she carries on together with her husband Berardino Abbonizio. An institution of Frentana cuisine the old-fashioned way.
Mrs. Rita Stinziani, 59, on the other hand, has been getting up every day at dawn for 20 years. She is from Molise from Trivento, but she moved a few kilometers north. In Fraine, in Abruzzo, she transforms the milk of the 40 cows of the family farm, Le Frainelle, into knots, caciotte, scamorza, ricotta or other delicacies. Completely handmade production. She works with a contagious smile, but she became a casara out of necessity. When she was already a mother of two little girls, she had to learn the trade. Because cows and milk alone weren’t enough to get by. Then there is Carla Di Crescenzo, 59, who is from Filetto (Ch) and got married at 16. At that age she started driving tractors because she needed a hand in the fields. Now she kneads pizz and foje with her hands, a specialty that she serves in her agritourism, La Brocca, in San Martino sulla Marrucina. She has the joke ready but while she tells us her story about her, she doesn’t hide her concern for the future. Because her daughter “helps and doesn’t help”.
Frentania is a south-eastern region of Abruzzo which embraces the province of Chieti and takes its name from the proud Oscan people who challenged the power of Rome together with the Samnites about a century before Christ. The history of this area is a story of sacrifices, sweat in the fields and abandoned lands. And above all a story of women. Guardians of unwritten culinary traditions and of the family. Mothers but also peasant women, craftsmen, innkeepers and entrepreneurs. When they had to roll up their sleeves to save their world from the depopulation of the internal areas, they learned new trades, contributing with ideas and sweat to secure the activities. For some time (2021), Slow Food Lanciano and Gal Maiella Verde (a local action group promoted by the European Union to develop plans and programs of interventions dedicated to the socio-economic improvement of rural communities) have been carrying out a project to re-evaluate traditions of these places. It’s called «Cucina popular frentana» and its dual objective is to preserve the ancient flavours, at the same time reinforcing the local economy based on excellence. In this way, young people can be encouraged to stay in their own territory with new ideas without forgetting the past. We started from simple things like organizing events, workshops, involving agriturisimi that offer typical and seasonal menus, and follow the religion, the real one, of the zero kilometre. «With this project we want to give nobility to a type of cuisine far from the spotlight, but authentic and democratic – explained Raffaele Cavallo, president of Slow Food Abruzzo and Molise – which risks disappearing because there is less and less time to cook, even in these areas”. The second step was then a capillary work on individual products – the province of Chieti is the second in the region for the number of Slow Food presidia after that of L’Aquila – to enhance the excellence but also the people who produce them. These two attentions intersect in the project thanks to the 2022 initiative: the creation, that is, of an online video archive in which ancient recipes handed down orally and also the stories of those who keep them are told in just a few minutes.
The protagonists, in many cases, are obviously women. Mrs. Pina, for example, was chosen in the project as guardian of the rabbit cooked under the tile. «When there weren’t electric ovens, the dishes were placed in a pan on the bricks next to the fire lit in the fireplace», she says in the video, who still does it this way on agritourism. In the courtyard, in fact, there is a very long “oven” on which at least three embers can be lit. The sweet peppers of Altino hang around it, and above it we find an old tile celebrated by an epitaph. It reads: «Here rests tile n.21 which in the hands of Aunt Miranda & Compani… has delighted palates».
«The rabbit is first marinated with garlic, onion, rosemary, parsley, oil, wine and potatoes. I cook it in the fireplace, where I cover it with the coppo which is a sort of iron bell on which I place the coal and ashes. After three quarters of an hour I uncover the tile, clean it and turn the rabbit around in the pan – he explains – then put it back in for the same amount of time ». In addition to her, the other women of the family are in the kitchen. The latest generation is Elisabetta who is 27 years old, and as father Berardino says, she «she is starting to get the hang of it, luckily».
«I was born right there, in that room – Mr. Abbonizio points out to us as he tells the story of the business. Transforming the farm into an agritourism was the card that many inland families played so as not to abandon their possessions. Carla knows this well, and while she tells us about the pizz e foje, country herbs cooked in a pan and accompanied by unleavened maize pizza, fried sardines and dried pepper, she is embarrassed. “I’m not photogenic,” she says, but she’s wrong. Because everyone is enraptured by her spontaneity which also shines through the lens of those who want to immortalize the preparation. Next to her, in the kitchen of the La Brocca farmhouse, is Antonella who was a zumba instructor before her covid, now joins Carla who sighs near the stove, as she breaks up the pizza and mixes it with vegetables. “My daughter is married with two children and she can’t always be close to me. I don’t know how I see the future. I hope God gives me the strength to carry on as much as possible.” Mrs. Maria Travaglini, 70, of the Travaglini Farmhouse in Casoli, on the other hand, after a life in which she woke up at dawn cooking for her husband Antonio and her threshers, today she can count on the help of her daughter Claudia. “It’s been a tiring life. But together with my husband we teamed up and with our desire we went ahead. Then I had a good mother-in-law who loved me so much – she admits, debunking the classic taboo. Claudia? She grew up in the kitchen and if she puts in the effort she’s even better than me. Especially with desserts (laughs, ed)».
Claudia, who has been listening to the conversation, laughs too and breaks into the conversation. “My mother has a range of 30 meters that goes from the bedroom to the kitchen.” And while she jokes, mamma Maria continues to fry the pallotte cac ‘e ove (meatballs mixed with Frentana caciotta and eggs, fried and then dipped in tomato). The future looks like it’s in good hands.
To ensure this for their families, some women have had to learn traditionally male trades and also sacrifice their bodies and vanity. The casara Rita, already a mother, had to do an internship in the Pallotta company in Molise, to produce the company’s cheeses and dairy products on her own. Next to the vats she has a wooden spatula to work the dough which has thinned over time. «I’ve been using it since I started – she smiles shyly – by now objects are slipping out of my hand because the skin has been consumed by keeping it in boiling water». Her daughters also lend a hand. They are divided between the sales point and the dairy, while the men raise the cows with which they also do vertical transhumance, in the old-fashioned way. A life of hard work, redeemed by incredible dairy products made with raw milk.
In Carunchio, a small town of 628 inhabitants not far away, the ventricina del vastese is produced, a cured meat made with pork legs, loin and shoulders and the sweet Altino pepper which gives it its typical reddish colour. «This is one of the first Slow Food presidia in Italy – explains Cavallo – and today it represents the emblem of this territory of which it has become a brand. Its producers? They are all craftsmen.”.
The Caracciolo family, which owns the La Genuina salami factory, was one of the first realities to believe in the potential of a product that was traditionally consumed on special occasions: grape harvest, harvest, and even weddings. It is sliced or added to tomato sauce. Luciano Caracciolo, 58 years old, butcher and master of this sausage delicacy, knows the whole story. He too was there when the ventricina was brought to the Salone del Gusto about 20 years ago. Unfortunately he has no heirs who can continue the business, at least the manual one. His wife Domenica Ranni, 54 years old, helps where she is needed, but the two daughters live outside, and for now they can only stay on the farm occasionally. Elena, 28, is pursuing her third degree in Philosophy in Rome but her dream is to be a journalist, while Donatella, 22, is studying Engineering and one day would like to manage the family business. Who will then join Luciano in bagging the ventricine with the same care? The designated heir is Giuseppe, 24 years old and Donatella’s boyfriend, who works 10 pigs a week for 5 months together with his father-in-law.
Heavy work of the butcher. Many do not consider it suitable for a woman. But don’t tell Concetta Troilo, 44, a butcher by profession. She is married to Tiziano Teti, owner of the Fattoria La Guardata in Torricella Peligna together with her brother Giuseppe, producer of another local excellence, the Frentano sausage. It is she who processes the meat of the company – which processes sheep, calves and pigs – together with her sister Isabella who instead married Giuseppe. In the 1980s, the Teti brothers recovered the lands abandoned by their families after the war, tracking down the owners, one by one. And bringing the 10 hectares that his father Vincenzo owned to the current 200. While they took care of the breeding, the women of the family took care of the business in the village: «My in-laws were in the butcher’s shop, founded in 1964. After the death of my mother-in-law Domenica, already a butcher, it was up to us to continue the family business. We had to decide whether to go on like this or continue with breeding only. In the end my sister and I took her place – says Concetta while Isabella works the lamb – it’s a tiring job for a woman, especially physically, in fact my son, Paolo, helps us move the meat. Actually I wanted to be a nurse, but I’m fine here.’ Among cleavers, blood and cold rooms, then, there is also room for “the feminine touch”. «Without taking anything away from the boys, we women have an extra edge in the preparations at the counter and in its set-up. The beautiful part of my job? When I make a nice bench, I’m really very satisfied. My milk thighs are unbeatable, they want to copy us but they can’t: they are boned thighs, softened in milk and breaded».
In the company there is also the daughter Giorgia, 24 years old, who may not like the cleaver, but still wants to lend a hand in the company. Indeed she is already giving it. «I will never forget the stories that dad told me about grandmother: she worked while she was pregnant and used her belly to support the meat. Today my mom is the true strength of the family. I study Economics in Pescara and I want to close the circle – she says – here I give a hand where it is needed. We are completing a structure near the farms where you can taste our products on site and welcome customers, have aperitifs and organize events with the suggestive view of the Majella (local mountain, ed)». In the spring the works will be completed and new ideas will also be born, in the new family chalet, as Giorgia calls it. «I will manage it together with dad, and I will also set up the e-commerce to sell our products outside the region». And the butcher shop? «I prefer to take care of the hospitality part, but if they needed me I would never give up, for the family. I already know how to prepare the counter, but not the stripping of the meat. Only mom can do it.”