Rocca Calascio: 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. The sheep would graze their way along with a network of broad tracks (a hundred meters wide in places) in spring and autumn. Covering hundreds of kilometers, the shepherds paid for the 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; people abandoned the hill villages.
Rocca Calascio: The rebirth
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, recovering 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.
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 art 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.
Rocca Calascio: cooking the old sheep
This is what you need: a 35-kilo sheep; two crates of flat-leaved parsley; a container 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 liter of oil and more than a liter 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. Hand each a knife without comment. Do it while telling the story of the freezing night in the mountains when you staged an open-air performance of an obscure play. While the actress wore a diaphanous dress, and the fur-wrapped audience remained to shiver in their seats out of solidarity or lust.
Subtly, without talking, demonstrate how you want the rosemary stripped, the sage and parsley stalks removed, the carrots peeled. Keep your story going, through 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.
Other destinations in Abruzzo