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The secrets of Molise's cuisine

Pecorino, scamorza, burrini and meat among its signature products

The secrets of Molise's cuisine

Claudia Astarita

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Vast green pastures alternated with the hills and mountains of Matese and Majella: this is the landscape that characterizes Molise, a region in the centre-south of Italy which still preserves many traditions of the country life of the past. Sheep farming and agriculture are at the basis of typical Molise cookery, which is simple and strongly flavored, based on jealously guarded recipes which are passed down from one generation to the next.

Molise is one of the most secret, seduced and least known areas in Italy. It has a romantic and magical atmosphere, and recalls parts of the northern Europe, such as Scotland or Ireland. The gastronomic tradition of Molise is closely related to that of Abruzzo on one side and of Apulia on the other. What unites these three worlds is the culture of the tratturi, the routes along which the flocks were once led from the mountains of the Apennines to the plains of Apulia. For thousands of years, these "grass roads" allowed flocks and herds to periodically move and take advantage of pastures in different seasons at different altitudes. In autumn, they left the mountains, which had become inhospitable with the arrival of the cold, to head for the plains, where winter was milder, to then return to the mountains in spring, when in turn the plains had become clammy and inhospitable.

This phenomenon is called "transhumance". Today, the tracks are used by horse riders and mountain bikers, and form a spider's web of routes which are an ideal way to discover the region's history, and a gastronomic tradition which has remained almost intact. The heart of Molise cookery is thus to be found in its sheep farming past, and traditional food is now on offer in a vast number of town and country restaurants. The tasty meats of kid and lamb are the most popular. The preferred method of cooking is obviously spit-roasting, which gives a unique taste to meat. Excellent lamb dishes include escalopes with olives and barbecued intestines. Sheep farming and livestock breeding do not just provide excellent meet, but also dairy products appreciated throughout Italy: Molise is famous for its pecorino, scamorza and burrini or "butirri", small cheeses stuffed with butter. They can be eaten fresh after only one week's maturing; after a month their taste becomes much stronger.

There is widespread production of salami and hams: ranging from smoked hams (those from Rionero Sannitico are excellent), to various salami, such as capicollo, ventricina and soppressata, made using lean and fatty pork, spices, salt, pepper and red wine. There is also pampanella, bacon flavored with chilli and baked in the oven, and the typical salsiccia ferrazzanese, a sausage flavored with chilli and fennel seeds. Ferrazzano, in the bay of Tappino, has become famous for its sausages, which make use of pork from pigs fed on acorns.

As in Abruzzo, homemade paste in Molise is of great importance, and also here we find maccheroni alla chitarra. The many types of stuffed pasta include calcioni, filled with ricotta, ham and scamorza cheese. Molise's historical and artistic beauties include many castles, and while they were being built in the 15th century, the shepherds and farmers together created what is still considered one of the region's most characteristic recipes: zuppa di ortiche (nettle soup). After being boiled in water, the nettle stems are cut into sections and fried  with tomatoes. The flavor is incredibly delicate.

Despite the fact that most of Molise is inland, it is not dedicated only to farming: there is also a beautiful coastline, which is now discovering seaside tourism with interesting resorts such as Termoli and Campomarino. It is here that you can enjoy delicacies such as mullet, cuttlefish and sea bass. There is also abundant seafood. Another delicacy is calamaretti all'olio, which are freshly fished small squid, eaten raw and served with oil, vinegar, salt and chilli.

Follow @castaritaHK / Courtesy of the Italian State Tourist Board

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