The region's inland is mostly all rugged mountains, snow caps, small villages and valleys, and until not too long ago the primary economic activity was shepherding. It was even more important in the past, when herdsmen would transfer their flocks from winter pastures in the lowlands further south to summer pastures in the Abruzzo mountains–a twice yearly migration of millions of animals over numerous trails as wide as modern day highways.
This drive obviously helped the shepherds keep their flocks fit and alive (some pastures parch in summer). It also served to secure interdependence between the Abruzzo region, which was among the most isolated provinces of the country.
It's no accident then that the Transumanza–as the migration was called–began to decline following the unification of Italy. In 1864 a law was passed that recognized the rights of the farmers whose lands were crossed. Many of these forbade the passage of herds on of their property to prevent destroying the fields, or to charge tolls; and in 1908, Parliament reduced the number of migration routes to a mere four.
With the decline of the Transumanza, Abruzzo became more sequestered than it had been previously, an isolation that has only been broken since WWII, in part through the construction of highways, and in part through the development of tourism.
One very special Transumanza tradition fortunately survived the erased pasture routes, and that's spit-roasted arrosticini, the Abruzzi’s own delightful sheep-meat kebabs.
The ovine meat is carved in small, 1 cm cubes, about 1/2". Nowadays, arrosticini are commercially sold using emasculated sheep meat and prepared ready to be grilled, but with a little patience and skill, they can be easily made at home too.
The traditional arrosticini are cooked on the "rustillire" (or "furnacella"), a special narrow brazier built especially for the small 25-30 cm skewers, which can be easily turned and grilled without spilling onto the wood-burning coals.
If you do not have a grill or barbecue, arrosticini can be cooked on a griddle or in the oven, provided they be well seasoned with oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Here's how:
A minimum of 800 grams (4 cups) lean lamb, diced
Extra virgin olive oil
Rosemary in sprigs
Salt and pepper
The juice of 1/2 lemon
Start your coals or light the heat under your griddle, and keep at a medium temperature, for the cooking.
Skewer the meat cubes neatly on well-oiled metal skewers or tiny disposable wooden kebab sticks (which you’ll have soaked briefly in water, so the heat won’t burn the wood). Marinade your kebabs in olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. Turn them over to ensure all sides soak up the flavors. Dribble over the lemon juice and roast them on the barbecue quickly, 2-3 minutes, turning a couple of times to ensure even cooking, while basting the arrosticini with more olive oil, using your rosemary sprig.
The shepherd's tip:
Cosimo, my new shepherd friend from Calascio, tells me that arrosticini meat should not be too lean, the fat marbling should be about 25% of the total used, this will avoid the preparation to become too dry and toughen on the chew during roasting. Arrosticini should be mild flavored, not "muttony", and if properly cooked, will melt in your mouth. Also maintain the flames (or the heat) low so that the arrosticini won't char. And always keep a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo handy when grilling arrosticini...
Landscape and vintage images courtesy of Regione Abruzzo