I don’t know if it ever happens to you: You meet a person, or step in a place, and it feels more like you were reunited rather than introduced. Like when you do your laundry and throw all your clothes in the washing machine, and when you collect them you can’t seem to pair all your socks correctly, or you lose one of a pair. You’ll swear out loud, rummage through your drawers and clothes and, very likely, forget about the missing sock.
Then one day, unexpected, it pops up again.
‘That’s where it was’.
It is a glass half-full of emotions.
When I saw Friuli-Venezia Giulia for the first time – the northeastern most region of Italy, bordering with Veneto and Slovenia – the feeling was just that. It was a lost sock of mine, one sibling of of a pair I didn’t know I owned. That unknown land of mountains I had barely ever seen, of lush vineyards and apple trees, felt like meeting an old friend whose face I had forgotten.
I like to think that this feeling is somehow connected to my Venetian lineage, and that, in a previous life, I must have belonged to the mists of the Northeastern plains.
Friuli, with its many, many unknown wonders, is one of those lands that has somehow remained hidden behind a curtain – a pretty, smart girl sitting in a corner, unnoticed.
And yet, like most silent beings, it is full of surprises: the bluest rivers, mingling into Slovenia, majestic mountains – the Alpi Giulie – and, as you slope down into the valley through fields upon fields of vineyards that produce, in my opinion, the best white wines in Italy along with Trentino, and hills that blend into the last shores of the Adriatic sea. It keeps its own identity, though sometimes bastardized by its neighboring Mitteleuropean lovers, and speaks its own language. Signs on the streets are written in both Italian and Friulan.
My missing sock in particular I found in a small town called Faedis, just north of Udine.
Flavia is tiny but has the temper of a lion. Her blue eyes run through the many bottles of the Friulano and Refosco wines she produces, as she makes room for us to start boiling the potatoes and kneading our dough. Her country home in Faedis is the one next to Ophelia’s, and her tiny cellar produces one of my favorite wines.
Marco, whose past is tied to the mountains in Carnia like a tight hug, is getting ready to prepare a batch of cjalsons for the whole house. In the other room, Flavia’s grandma and grand aunts are making fresh butter, using milk from their cows. They serve us espresso, accompanied by some of said milk, that her cousin just milked from the cows.
Here, in this scenario that I am constantly afraid Italy will lose, Marco explains the lack of pasta in Friuli and the presence of cinnamon in the area, as he kneads the dough for cjalsons.
‘Wheat was scarce in this area. We only had corn and potatoes. Pasta isn’t really a thing here in Friuli…but spices are. The reason why cinnamon was used in such a poor cuisine is that sellers would bring them up to Austria and Germany via a sort of cabinet full of tiny drawers, and they ended up using whatever powder stuck to the bottom in their recipes. People were so, so poor. And yet, this recipe is so comforting…cjalsons are the closest to pasta we ever got, even though I am making the potato dough version.’
And on we folded, as my mind ran through these repeated gestures of ‘pasta’ making that I have always witnessed. To me, a woman born in Emilia Romagna, where other women spent a whole life folding tortellini and sealing ravioli, where smells of rich sauces and eggs and long strings of tagliatelle dance and mingle like sacred Djinns before our senses, this process of pasta making brings with it a consciousness of the heritage each shape and filling brings with it, as each piece is folded almost like a prayer – like saying a rosary – pearl after pearl, ravioli after ravioli, cjalson after cjalson. And, like after a prayer, the feeling that is left is one of renewal, of gratitude, and of knowing that what is to come next can only be good.
Cjalsons are a celebration of making do with what one has as their disposal. Cjalsons are that beautiful girl bashfully sitting in a corner, who added flowers to her tattered dress and turned her colorless self into pastel-like gracefulness. Marco, with his delicate gestures and nimble fingers, is the perfect Prince Charming to take this ignored girl by the hand and dance with her in the center of the stage, and turn her into royalty.
And there you have it. Mismatched socks, finally reunited with their legitimate sibling.
So far, I have eaten cjalsons a total of 5 times in different places, and so far each time was completely different, as if we were talking about totally different recipes. One time, they were made with an eggless pasta dough kneaded with pureed spinach, and stuffed with tons of herbs and a little ricotta, and two raisins for each cjalson. Another time, they were made with gnocchi dough and stuffed with herbs, ricotta, grated apple and raisins and had more cinnamon than in other recipes. Another time, they were smaller and had no raisins, but had Montasio or Latteria cheese in the stuffing. Each recipe was absolutely delicious – way beyond what you could imagine from this strange mix of ingredients.
An then there’s Marco’s version. By far, my favorite, and one of the simplest. He makes them out of gnocchi dough, stuffs them with a mix of foraged young greens such as nettles, poppy leaves and baby chard, and fashions them in a way that is called ‘Priest’s hat’, then drowns them in a wave of browned butter and a snowing of smoked ricotta and cinnamon.
Their flavor evokes smells of fireplace and wooden houses, of crisp air coming down from the Alps and that scent of mixed flowers and herbs that is everywhere in Carnia and Carso.
Make them – please make them. They are my favorite Italian ‘first course’ so far.
- 500g (a little over 1 lb) potatoes
- 150g (5.2 oz) flour (0 type)
- 1 egg + 1 yolk
- 1 scant teaspoon salt
- 150g (5.2 oz) whole cow's milk ricotta
- 150g (5.3 oz) mixed fresh greens (baby chard and spinach, nettles...) cleaned
- 1 egg white
- 25g (2 heaping tablespoons) aged Montasio (sub Grana cheese if unavailable), grated
- Salt and pepper
- 200g (1½ stick) butter
- Smoked ricotta (or another smoked cheese)
- Boil the potatoes until very tender, then mash them through a potato ricer so that the skin remains behind. If using other ways to mash them, peel the skin off first. Let them cool enough to handle them, but work them when still warm.
- Add the egg and flour and knead until you get a soft, elastic dough. If it is too sticky, add a little more flour.
- Chop the greens and steam them until tender. If you have a steamer, you can steam them in the same pot where the potatoes are cooking. When ready, let them cool enough to handle, squeeze off excess water and chop them very finely.
- Combine all the ingredients for the filling in a bowl, add a pinch of salt and pepper and mix to combine.
- You can prepare the dough and filling in advance and store in the fridge for a day.
- Roll the dough down on a floured surface until it is 1 cm thick, then cut off circles using a glass. Flatten each circle slightly, but not too much.
- Add a teaspoon of filling into each, and seal them. See the photos above to get an idea of how to seal them in a triangular shape, but you can also seal them in a half-moon shape. If they seem too much, you can freeze them for later use (in which case, drop them in boiling water without thawing and just cook a minute or two more).
- In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add coarse salt, about 1 teaspoon per liter.
- Dump the cjalsons carefully into the boiling water. They will be ready when they float to the surface, which could take 3 to 5 minutes. Drain them, preferably with a slotted spoon.
- Add the butter to a large pan, and turn on the heat on medium-high. Let the butter melt and sizzle. Keep cooking, swirling often, until the butter stops sizzling and turns a nutty color: the sizzling is caused by the residual water when it evaporates. Be careful not to burn the butter! If it browns too quickly, turn down the heat.
- Add the cjalsons and sauté to coat them with butter.
- Serve 3 or 5 cjalson per person, drizzle with butter from the pan, dust with cinnamon, and add a showering of smoked cheese.
Thanks to Di Gaspero wines. If you have a chance to taste wines from Friuli, please do!