Sunday 11 September 2011

Italy | Friuli's autumn food festival

The Natisone valley in north-east Italy is home to hidden villages in fairytale forests. And in autumn, the local restaurants play host to one of Europe's best food festivals

Cividale del Friuli, Italy
Near the Italy/Slovenia border lies Cividale del Friuli.
Photograph: Alamy

I live in Venice, and I'll make any excuse to escape the invading tourist hordes at the weekend, not to mention the eye-wateringly expensive restaurants. So when friends told me about an autumn food festival, Invito a Pranzo ("Come for lunch") in the Natisone valley in Friuli, on the border with Slovenia, I jumped at the chance to explore one of the wildest, most upspoilt corners of northern Italy and, at the same time, discover a unique regional cuisine at knock-down prices.

Every weekend, in-the-know food lovers flock here from all over Italy, unable to resist the temptation of a lazy three- to four-hour lunch – especially when the fixed price for a 10-course tasting menu is just €23. A dozen rustic trattorie and osterie take part in Invito a Pranzo each year, and although they are open all week, this special menu is only offered every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from October through to December and you must make a reservation.

Many of the restaurants also have rooms, either basic B&Bs or old-fashioned pensione accommodation, so it is easy to plan a long weekend that takes in not just a couple of the restaurants, but also hiking or mountain biking through thick pine forests, or less strenuous pursuits, such as trout fishing and mushroom picking.

Sale e Bepe, Stregna, Italy 

Natisone is an isolated, mountainous land that divides Italy from Slovenia. Getting here is easy, as the autostrada links Udine, the rather noble capital of the region, with Venice, Treviso and Trieste, all of which have low-cost air links with the UK. A short drive from Udine brings you to the ancient Roman town of Cividale del Friuli, where things start to get more complex. Road signs, when they do appear, are in both Italian and Slovene, and addresses of the restaurants taking part in Invito a Pranzo rarely give accurate details of their actual location, in tiny hamlets deep in the forest. It is impossible not to get lost – satnav doesn't work here – and many winding lanes peter out into dead-ends or lead you over the frontier into Slovenia.

I headed first for the Trattoria Alla Posta (+39 0432 725000) in the sleepy village of Clodig, where the road hugs the Cosizza river, passing austere stone farmhouses. Just outside Clodig the river widens, with an islet in the middle marked by a bright white statue of the Virgin Mary. There are probably only 30 to 40 inhabitants in Clodig, but just as many cars are parked outside the Posta. This trattoria is a gastronomic temple to la cucina casalinga (home cooking), with Maria Gilda Primosig creating dishes in the kitchen that are worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant. She makes wonderful use of autumnal products – wild boar and venison, dandelion and chestnuts, porcini mushrooms and radicchio – then produces her own recipes, adding wild herbs she collects in the surrounding forests. Her chestnut and porcini soup is unforgettable, her blecs (buckwheat pasta) are flavoured with nettles, her risotto features myrtle berries, while the first bite of her melt-in-the-mouth strudel shocks – it is filled with pumpkin and pears.

Maria's cuisine is so fresh and surprising it makes me think of the media hype surrounding new cooking methods in Scandinavia, as pioneered by Noma restaurant in Copenhagen; except that here, no one is following trends or food blogs, they are simply using seasonal, carbon-zero products as creatively as possible.

Albergo Ristorante Alla Trota, Pulfero, Italy  

The idyllic Albergo alla Trota (via Specognis 10, Pulfero, +39 0432 726006,, double rooms €60) sits right on the edge of the Natisone river itself, and the speciality of the house is, naturally, delicious river trout, oven-baked with herbs and served with polenta. The owner-chef is Patrizia Maring, who used to be the local school teacher until she bought the Trota, transforming it from the village's general store into a trattoria and albergo, or family-run hotel. Maring has been president of Invito a Pranzo for the past 10 years, and she told me that each autumn the event attracts more and more visitors. Not surprising, when her Invito menu features 10 different assaggi (tasting dishes) for €23. Wine is not included, but then a litre of the surprisingly good vino della casa costs only €9, and at the end of the meal, several glasses of the local digestive, a serious prune brandy, are offered on the house.

Lunch at the Trota is served outside on a shady terrace that has panoramic views over the river and pine-clad mountains, and while most of the tables are packed with visitors, this is also still very much a local bar. One table is left for villagers who spend the afternoon in an animated game of cards, and I found it a bit of a culture shock that none of the locals speaks Italian, as everyone prefers to talk Slovene here.

Driving up into the high mountains that surround Albergo alla Trota, tiny villages seem to pop up in the middle of thick forests – a few houses, a bakery selling the famous local cake, Gubana, and a cosy locale taking part in Invito a Pranzo. Osteria all'Antica in Cras (+39 0432 709052, has a fabulous flower garden and waterside terrace in summer, but in autumn, diners prefer a cosy table inside, sitting around the stufa, a traditional stove, where a pot of polenta is slowly bubbling away, ready to be served with a hearty wild boar stew.

Enoteca ai Trevi and the Friuli region 

Enoteca ai Trevi and the Friuli region.
Photograph: John Brunton for the Guardian

Don't expect too much in the way of gourmet dining at the simple but friendly Trattoria Ai Buoni Amici (via Tarcetta 76, Pulfero, +39 0432 709164), while San Pietro al Natisone's Enoteca ai Trevi (Via Alpe Adria 118, San Pietro al Natisone, +39 0432 727454) only serves local cheeses and salamis, though it does offer an exceptional cantina of local wines.

And for a last stop-off, I couldn't resist lunch at Sale e Pepe in Stregna (Via Capoluogo 19, +39 0432 724118), no longer part of Invito – something to do with local politics – but renowned for the highly original cuisine of chef Teresa Covaceuszach. Stregna is right on the Slovenian frontier, and the place feels like the end of the world, but push open the door of Sale e Pepe and you enter a warm, elegant dining room, where Teresa transforms strange Italian-Slovenian recipes into gourmet dishes. Bizna is a rich minestrone soup of potatoes, beans and brovada (pickled turnips), while wild duck is roasted with chocolate and cinnamon. And forget the traditional Gubana for dessert, as the house speciality is Teresa's take on a crème brûlée, leaving the kitchen clouded in fragrant puffs of smoke.

Driving back to Venice from Sale e Pepe, I got the feeling I was leaving a curious no man's land and coming back into Italy again.

Invito a Pranzo, Friday, Saturday and Sunday lunch from 1 October– 8 December. By reservation only: +39 04321 714559,

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Sale e Bepe, Stregna, Italy.
Photograph: John Brunton for the Guardian

Albergo Ristorante Alla Trota, Pulfero.
Photograph: John Brunton for the Guardian

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