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I spent most of the first three months of the novel coronavirus lockdown astonished to find myself glad to have an excuse not to go anywhere. With trips to Sicily and Japan canceled, I felt relief more than disappointment. I wondered if the travel bug that had relentlessly buzzed in my head in recent years was finally dormant. It seemed so—until I read Friuli Food and Wine: Frasca Cooking from Northern Italy’s Mountains, Vineyards, and Seaside (Ten Speed Press).
Friuli is a cookbook, out this month, by chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and sommelier Bobby Stuckey, the Boulder-based duo behind Frasca Food and Wine, Colorado’s most celebrated restaurant. Friuli Venezia Giulia, meanwhile, for which the book is named, is the obscure alpine region of northeastern Italy upon whose cuisine and wines Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey staked their restaurant’s future when they opened it in 2004. Both had recently exited jobs at what was then America’s leading temple of haute cuisine, the French Laundry in Napa Valley; Boulder was, at the time, an unlikely location for a restaurant celebrating the cuisine of an unlikely location.
Fine restaurants in the mold of the French Laundry (of which Frasca, in its own modest way, is one) often yield cookbooks that are closer to art volumes or culinary monographs than anything a home cook would sanely consider cooking from before hiring a staff of 35. Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey avoid this fate by devoting Friuli entirely to the rustic region they evangelize. This is a hybrid book—part cultural exploration, part winery guide, part recipe collection—whose success has more than a little to do with co-author Meredith Erickson, who also helped pen the brilliant Montreal restaurant cookbook-guide-memoir mashup The Art of Living According to Joe Beef back in 2011.
Friuli also wins the reader over through the quirks and passions of the Frasca partners. One moment, they’re admiring the San Daniele workshop that produces the finest prosciutto slicers in the world. The next, we’re reminded that in their off-time, the Frasca boys enjoy serious cycling. The headnote to one egg dish reads: “After a long ride over a mountain, we love to have this frittata as a recovery snack.” That’s both ridiculous and winning.
What an offbeat, appealing region Friuli seems to be. It sits among the Carnic and Julian Alps, with plains to the south ending at the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia is to the east, while Austria forms its northern border. A small coastal leg extends southeast to polyglot Trieste, about two dozen miles from Croatia. Stuckey notes that Italians regard the province as more Austrian and Slavic than Italian. This multicultural aspect of Friulian cuisine is manifested in the unfamiliar names of some dishes—buckwheat noodles called “blecs” or a hand-rolled pasta with sea urchin sauce known as “pljukanci con ricci di mare”—and the pleasingly off-piste ingredients involved, such as poppy seeds and heavy cream, sauerkrautlike pickled turnips, and spaetzle made with spelt flour.
The book, a $50 hardcover with ample, if occasionally scattershot, pictures of scenery, people, and food, begins with almost 60 pages about wine. To understand the region and the Boulder restaurant, don’t skip these (for instance, we learn that “frasca” refers to a bough hung outside Friulian wineries to indicate new product for sale). The writing is never dry, with touches of spritzy style; Stuckey is a Master Sommelier, a sort of super-Ph.D. distinction, but seems not to have a pompous bone in his body.
He tells us that Friulano, a white variety that anchors the list at Frasca, is a wine with an “incredible bell curve” of flavor profiles. Malvasia Istriana will appeal to lovers of Rhône whites because it has the “same aromatics but trades in a little bit of that Liberace flash for a dash of salinity and minerality that the very famous white Rhônes lack.” The book’s winemaker profiles are born of affectionate respect gained over many glasses shared.
Stuckey convinces us that the huge collection of both familiar and obscure grapes in Friuli—who knew about Vitovska, Ribolla Gialla, or Schioppettino?—combined with a catholic winemaking approach yields a region with remarkable diversity. On a single day there, you might sample excellent white wines fermented in steel tanks, small oak barrels, clay amphorae, cement tanks, or big wooden barrels. You begin to get drunk on Stuckey’s excitement, until Friuli sounds like a viniferous Shangri-La.
Mackinnon-Patterson’s 70-some recipes are divided into three sections—Land, Sea, and Mountains—and focus largely on meat or pasta. Vegetables, fruit, and, frequently, mushrooms play supporting roles. There are a few showoff recipes (woven lasagna resting on a spinach sauce) and a few for splurging (thin, eggy noodles with an ounce of white truffle), but mostly the book contains hearty, often simple country cooking closer, I suspect, to what you’d find in Friulian homes or country restaurants than the refined presentations you’ll see at Frasca. Most required ingredients are reasonably easy to procure, though you will want to track down a local supplier of Friuli’s star cheese, Montasio.
The best of the recipes I tested were a real pleasure. Simplest and most delicious was the frico caldo, a sort of giant potato-Montasio croquette cooked in a cast-iron pan, fluffy inside with a light, crisp crust and finished with an herb vinaigrette. The dough for the buckwheat blecs produced lovely noodles with earthy flavor and chew. The accompanying sauce of braised chicken and rosemary was so spare—only eight ingredients, including salt and pepper—that I worried it would taste bland, but it was an ideal match.
Similarly easy was a soup of pork shoulder and white beans called Jota Triestina, elevated with zing from the aforementioned pickled turnips. And don’t skip the recipe for pasta with prosciutto chunks, cream, and poppy seeds, which is draped in thin slices of prosciutto; it’s a dazzler, with a rich, salty funk that goes well with a big, acidic, and blessedly unoaked bottle of Friulian producer Edi Keber’s Collio Bianco.
Not every recipe made the tricky transition from restaurant execution to home kitchen reality. The batter of a polenta cake made with hazelnut meal, lemon peel, and rosemary struck me as too scant for the called-for pan and indeed produced a much thinner result than in the photo. I tried the cake again in a smaller, square pan: Bingo. A beef ragu made with three quarts of stock and one-and-a-half cups of red wine wouldn’t reduce to a syrupy state in two hours on low as indicated, and in any case, the dish called for two tablespoons of salt for six eaters—more salt than I need unless I have sweated on my Seven bike over half of the Julian Alps. Friuli is one of those books that an experienced home cook will read with his or her note-to-self editing function turned on.
Those were bumps on the journey, though, rather than wipeouts, in a book that widens horizons. I will happily continue to cook from Friuli, rather than shelve it in the Admired and Unused section. Then, once the plague is suppressed, I will book a flight to the source of all this inspiration. Friuli Food and Wine does what the best of such cookbooks do: It revives your travel bug even as you get out your pots and pans.