Mike Durham, journalist, writer and teacher, who lives in London, is a frequent visitor to the Aventino Valley, Chieti Province.
What’s your association with Abruzzo?
i.e. where do you live and why, for how long? Where did your family come from and when/ where did they emigrate to?
My family owns a beautiful house in the Aventino Valley in the south of Abruzzo, near the Majella Mountains national park. We bought it four years ago, when I was recovering from a serious illness and wanted somewhere beautiful and tranquil to help myself get better. I’m English. I was visiting a (Canadian-born) cousin in Rome who’s an artist and paints in Abruzzo, and he said ‘Go take a tour in the mountains – you’ll feel better right away.’ It worked. We call it Casa della Meridiana (Sundial House) because it’s sunny with a stupendous view south towards a forest wilderness, and it’s a place where you can forget time. I’m back at work now, as a journalist, but we love to visit several times a year and rent the house the rest of the time.
What’s the best thing about Abruzzo?
Three concepts sum up Abruzzo for me: tranquility, closeness to nature, and warmth. And I’m not talking about the sun – I mean the warmth of the people. The friendliness and welcoming nature of the local people is the best thing about Abruzzo for me.
What’s the worst thing about Abruzzo?
Is there one? Possibly the four o’clock wake-up call to catch the 6.30am Ryanair flight back to Blighty.
What’s the most underrated thing about Abruzzo?
I think many people don’t even know it’s there, but even among those with a keen awareness of geography, the local food and wine seem to be consistently under-appreciated.
Where would be your favourite place to live in Abruzzo?
My wife thinks it would be fun to live in Pacentro, near Sulmona – lots of towers and street cafes. But I suspect there might be rather too many English incomers. I like it just where I am, thanks!
Where would you not live in Abruzzo?
I think I’d struggle in downtown Pescara, Chieti Scalo or Francavilla. Who wouldn’t? But even there, the coffee, mid-morning snacks and early evening aperitivi would be good.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in Abruzzo?
In winter, actually. Fall out of the plane, arrive, raid the local supermarket and get the log fire going. Sleep soundly l because of the fresh mountain air and silence – until cock-crow. Wrap up warm and get in a short hike up the valley or in the hills. Visit neighbours for the gossip. Prune the olive trees (we have 15). Catch up on the village news over a drink during the passegiata, then go to Pepe’s restaurant for supper. Chill out all day Sunday. Uh-oh, it’s Sunday evening – time to head back to the rat race.
What’s your favourite Abruzzo vineyard and why?
Our local wines come from Ortona, near the coast with a hint of sea salt about them. I haven’t got round to exploring all the vineyards, but I’ve been drinking rather a lot of Pecorino (local white wine grape variety) recently.
Where’s the best place to eat? What would you do for a special occasion?
There are too many good places to eat locally to single out one on particular– and they can change. We live close to one of Italy’s main pasta towns, Fara San Martino, with pasta plants owned by Del Verde, De Cecco and Da Cocco- they use local spring water because it’s so pure. So we often eat in a small trattoria in the town, La Valletta. For a night out we go to Agriturismo l’Uliveto near Palombaro, and for a really special occasion the Santa Chiara at Guardiagrele. For fish delights you can’t beat the largely undiscovered coastal restaurants where the fish are caught from traditional trabocci –wooden fishing stations- and appear on your plate almost immediately.
What’s your favourite view in Abruzzo?
The vista from my own terrazza of course – you can see about ten miles in each direction up and down the valley, with the sun rising across the valley over a mysterious chalk outcrop called La Morgia (it’s supposed to have been a kind of Stonehenge for our ancestors, thousands of years ago.) It’s a divine view to wake up to on a summer morning.
What would be your favourite Abruzzo dish?
I like the cheese balls covered in tomato ragu…..nobody’s ever properly explained what they’re called [sic Cacio e Uovo]. My favourite dish would be a large one liberally covered with Abruzzo salamis, sausages and cheese, and those cheese balls. We’ve had a stonking zuppa di pesce down by the sea, too.
Do you have a favourite sagra?
My favourite festa will forever be the first I went to, the summer street party in the nearby village of Fonterossi – huge, well-attended and it went on for three days. It didn’t happen last year for some reason and I missed it. I hope it comes back – the arrosticini kitchen alone is a sight to behold.
What outdoor activities or sports would you recommend in Abruzzo and why?
Walking, of course. Why else did they put the Majella Mountains there? And the unspoilt, unfrequented skiing areas around Roccaraso, that are one of Abruzzo’s best kept secrets.
What’s your favourite Abruzzo village and why?
I’m fond of a little village called Colledimacine, mainly because it has a lovely little piazza, a pleasantly unimposing civic tower, and it’s a long way from anywhere. At the other end of the village is a bar with two hammocks under the trees. It’s a rather sad place too because almost everybody has left, but there are always a few old men hanging around outside the piazza café and they enjoy a chat. There’s a fountain that’s supposed to run with wine once every ten years – sadly that’s turned out to be a myth. But there are so many villages like this.
Up the San Martino gorge from Fara towards the high peaks of the Majella and the top of Monte Amaro. It’s a bit of a slog but cool in the evenings, and you always see a few buzzards and eagles. It’s completely silent and spooky. I’ve never got beyond the third spring, but one day I’ll go to the top. If you want a view, go trek in the high mountains near Passo Lanciano.
What piece of advice you would give to someone new to Abruzzo?
Get connected – and I don’t mean the internet or a phone line. The local people have so many connections and their own networks of friends, relatives, jobs and social strata going back generations, and they can find anything out or get anything done. Get a local fixer. Cultivate friends. Learn some Italian.
Which ‘must see’ event or activity best sums up Abruzzo?
I’m told the snake festival at Cocullo is a must-see, but I’ve yet to go. Procession, pagan rites, a gilding of religious devotion, wild animals, eating and drinking – what’s not to like? It sounds like it has it all.
Which book would you recommend people to read to understand Abruzzo?
I’ve started The Abruzzo Trilogy by Ignazio Silone, but it’s going to be a long time before I reach the last page. It’s a great read – peasant life and the struggle between fascism and communism in the Abruzzo mountains. I don’t know of any other accessible book that tackles Abruzzo, so I’d stick to the Rough Guide to Italy instead for now.
What attitude best sums up the Abruzzesi?
Like a mountain goat. Proud, adaptable, patient, hard-working, tolerant and even-tempered. Actually mountain goats aren’t a bit like that – but I still think of the Abruzzesi people as something like hardy mountain goats all the same.
Can you name any celebrities either from or Abruzzo or of Abruzzo descent?
Perry Como was from Palena, and Madonna’s family came from the Sulmona area. There is an American writer called John Fante who was born in Torricella Peligna. Almost everywhere in Chieti province has some connection with the Italian writer Gabrielle d’Annunzio. I’ve noticed that almost every village has a monument to its own ‘celebrities’ – village writers, poets and artists.
If you lived outside Abruzzo what would you take to remind you of Abruzzo?
A stone from the Majella mountains that I keep on my desk, and a bottle of olive oil from my garden.
Mike’s Olive Oil Abruzzo to Stroud Green is available to buy!
The light green bottle is Casa della Meridiana garden crop, November 2011, from last year’s harvest. Even though it’s a few months old, this extra virgin oil seems to have improved with age, with a distinct fresh herby aroma and a delicate, grassy, mildly peppery taste. Perhaps because of the cold winter, the oil has been slow to clear, but that only seems to add to its personality. This is a favourite with friends, relations and customers. Perfect for dressings, dipping and bruschetta.
The dark green bottles are this year’s harvest, but because of the poor crop (50 per cent of normal) and scarcity of oil, and absolutely terrible November weather, this oil is our neighbour’s 2012 harvest and not direct from the Casa della Meridiana garden. (Our own oil is still stored at the frantoio, and we still haven’t tasted it.) We are calling this ‘Oil from the Aventino Valley’ – it’s from the same soil, trees and climate, harvested the same way, and extracted at a more modern mill. This oil is an intense green, with fresh, slightly bitter aroma, and a robust no-nonsense flavour, neither too peppery nor too mild, distinctive and not over-delicate. Best for baking, on meat or for mixing into mash.
250 ml bottle £5.50 2012 harvest, £4.95 2011 harvest
Shipping – 1 bottle – UK £3.45, EU £6.20, Rest of World £9.95 or collect on a Sunday from Stroud Green Market