Rocca Calascio

Rocca Calsascio
Rocca Calsascio – Photo ©

In the first half of the 15th century, there were more than three million sheep in Abruzzo. Today, there are about 450000. In summer, they graze in the mountain pastures; in winter they move to the grassy lowlands of Puglia. This seasonal movement of flocks up and down the mountains (called the transumanza) defined the landscape of Abruzzo. Spring and autumn, the sheep would graze their way along a network of broad tracks (a hundred meters wide in places) covering hundreds of kilometers, the shepherds paying for use of the paths along the way, and thus supporting local economies.

But gradually, over the first decades of the 20th century, it became more economical to move the sheep by truck and train, and for local people to use the paths for crops. The sheep economy started to flounder; the hill villages were abandoned.

Until a few years ago, the collection of houses at the foot of Rocca Calascio had been uninhabited for many decades. But an enterprising couple reclaimed two for a bar and restaurant, hoping to entice trade up the hill. It worked. They expanded, reclaiming more houses to provide accommodation for walkers and cross-country skiers, some basic and cheap, some more luxurious. Now a few families have returned and there’s a small shop, but the village remains un-manicured and authentic.

From the name of the Rose
From the name of the Rose – Filmed @ Rocca Calascio

Since it lies within a regional park, it may even stay that way.

Rolando, trim and tanned, with iron-grey hair, has a mission to foster Abruzzo culture. He looks like an arts impresario, but his day job is cooking and for the restaurant’s Saturday dinner he was doing an Abruzzo special: pecora (sheep, not lamb) with mountain herbs and potatoes. It’s a secret recipe, he said, but I’m going to reveal it.

This is what you need: a 35-kilo sheep; two crates of flat-leaved parsley; a crate of rosemary branches; a few armfuls of just- gathered mountain herbs (various thymes, sage, some bitter leaves and some variety of mint); 40 or so carrots; a similar number of onions; a dozen or so garlic bulbs; a few celery heads with leaves; a litre of oil and more than a litre of white wine. You’ll also need potatoes (same volume as the lamb when boned). Boil the beast for two hours in water. Get rid of large quantities of fat. Boil for another five hours. Remove big bones.

And here’s the clever bit. Take the table, herbs and vegetables outside and engage some passers-by in conversation about your struggle to revive Abruzzo theatre. Without comment, hand each a knife, all the while telling the story of the freezing night in the mountains when you staged an open-air performance of an obscure play and the actress wore a dress so diaphanous that the fur-wrapped audience remained shivering in their seats out of solidarity or lust.

Rocca Calascio in winter
Rocca Calascio in winter – Photo © Federico Colaiacomo

Subtly, without talking, demonstrate how you want the rosemary stripped, the sage and parsley stalks removed, the carrots peeled. Keep your story going, by means of digressions, personal histories and tales of meals enjoyed or prepared for well-known writers and artists, for the three hours it takes your helpers to reduce all the vegetable matter to several kilos of finely chopped herb flavoring.

Do not be distracted by the fact that they are roasting in the sun and now have green hands and watering eyes. In a giant pan, arrange boned sheep and an equal volume of potatoes in layers with herbs, dousing of oil and sprinklings of salt. Pour over a liter or so of white wine. Simmer for two hours.

Where to stay in Calascio

Hotels, guesthouses, country houses and B&Bs in Calascio: search and reserve here.