Anversa degli Abruzzi sits on a ridge overlooking the Sagittario River gorges in the National Park of Abruzzo. The medieval village is home to about 430 inhabitants and the ruins of a Norman castle that dates back to the 12th Century.
It is also where some of Abruzzo’s best cheeses are made.
Anversa was the first stop on my recent trip to Italy. I had been wanting to visit Anversa for three years, ever since I first tasted the award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses made by my friend Bob Marcelli’s family. The Marcellis own an organic farm right at the edge of town called La Porta dei Parchi ~ the door to the parks ~ so named because of its proximity to two of Abruzzo’s beautiful national parks (more than one-third of Abruzzo is protected national parkland). They raise Sopravvissana sheep, a local breed, and cows and produce an array of fresh and aged cheeses. Among the cheeses they are known for are Pecorino del Parco, a rich, crumbly aged sheep’s milk cheese; and Ricotta Ginepro, a slightly aged ricotta that is cold-smoked with juniper wood. Here’s a peek into the aging room at the farm:
Aged sheep’s milk (pecorino) cheeses at La Porta dei Parchi
Neatly tied bundles of scamorza ~ slightly aged mozzarella that is perfect for melting
The farm was started in the late 1970s by Nunzio Marcelli and Manuela Cozzi. Their mission was to return to ~ and promote ~ a traditional way of farming and living that was being lost to modern industrial practices. They had another goal, too ~ to revive the pastoral way of life on which the region had thrived for centuries and to stem the tide of people who were leaving the region’s mountain towns to work in cities. Since those early years, Manuela, Nunzio, and Nunzio’s companion, Elettra Rinaldi, have worked to build the farm into a model bio-agriturismo, with accommodations for visitors and a family-run restaurant. They’ve formed a cooperative with other organic producers to promote the area’s culinary specialties—cheese, pasta, honey, and olive oil among them.
In 2000, Manuela launched the farm’s Adopt-a-Sheep program to raise money for the operation and, as Manuela told me, “to build client loyalty and to pass the word about our sheep.” In return for “adopting” a sheep you receive a selection of cheeses, salumi, and other products, plus a pair of knitted wool socks.
Bob Marcelli, who lives on this side of the Atlantic, began importing his family’s cheeses in 2008, supplying restaurants from Babbo and Per Se, in New York, to Fiola, in D.C. It was Bob’s enthusiasm and pride in his family’s work that convinced me that I should visit.
Anversa itself is lovely, a picturesque town of narrow streets and steep stone stairways that take you from the castle ruins to the main piazza, where you’ll find the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, two cafes, and a fountain from which flows fresh, ice-cold mountain water.
Bob Marcelli’s cousin Bianca runs the local restaurant, La Fiaccola, named after a play by poet Gabriele d’Annunzio that is set in Anversa. You can taste many of La Porta dei Parchi’s cheeses at the restaurant, and Bianca’s potato gnocchi, light as a cloud and dressed with a creamy pecorino sauce, are not to be missed.
On the day that my family and I visited the farm, the sheep were nowhere to be found ~ they were high on the hillside grazing on the local grass and flora. But cheese maker Fiorello was there and he kindly let us watch as he transformed the rich sheep’s milk…
These particular baskets were destined for the aging room, but La Porta dei Parchi also makes fresh cheeses ~ rich, sweet sheep’s milk ricotta and creamy mozzarella. You can’t get those fresh cheeses over here in the U.S., but you can find a selection of the aged cheeses, including the juniper-smoked ricotta, at Eataly in NYC and on the Marcelli Formaggi web site. And check out La Porta dei Parchi’s web site* for information on the agriturismo operation and the Adopt-a-Sheep program.
(*NOTE: The last few times I’ve tried to open La Porta dei Parchi’s web site I haven’t been successful; if you aren’t able to open it immediately, keep trying ~ there’s lots of good information on the site.)
Next up: A trip to the Gran Sasso d’Italia and eating arrosticini.