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Between Austria and Slovenia lies Friuli, a region with cuisine all its own

ENEMONZO, Italy -- On a dark and damp bad-news kind of day in this valley in the northern mountains, hours after white smoke had risen from the Vatican and the new pope had stepped onto the balcony, Annamaria Rugo leaned toward the end of a long table and served strategy with dinner.

''First, eat the prosciutto with the bread, then the cheese," said Annamaria, the gentle matriarch of a cheese-making clan. ''If not, it all gets mixed up in your stomach."

After dinner, a television at the far end of the room would broadcast a talk show with papal punditry from film director Franco Zeffirelli, former on-again-off-again Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, and Alessandra Borghese, a journalist and modern-day princess from one of Rome's storied families.

First, though, the action was at the table. Before us waited seven cheeses, most from Carnia, one part of a northeastern region called Friuli that is tucked against Slovenia and Austria and about as far from the well-traveled routes of Tuscany, Umbria, and Campania as you can get and still be in Italy.

There was a four-month-old cheese made with the milk of cows raised on the grasses of nearby highland meadows, a softer cheese seasoned with fennel, and another with pecans and walnuts.

And potatoes, so many potatoes. Those were to be paired with the evening's star attraction, ''formaggio salato," a cheese soaked for weeks in a brine in traditional wooden casks in the Rugos' basement.

''You eat a potato, then again some cheese," Annamaria, the aunt of my friend Alessandro Gori, told me. ''Another potato. Again, cheese. Then again, a potato."

Other plates held a Gorgonzola, a parmesan, and a stracchino.

''Those," Alessandro pointed out quickly, ''are not from here."

''From here" is a big deal in Friuli. Through much of its history, the region braced against the comings and goings of Romans and Barbarians, Venetians and Austrians. Politics have since made Friuli part of Italy, but geography keeps it neighbors with Germanic and Slavic lands.

In Friuli, partnered into the administrative region of Friuli Venezia Giulia with a neighboring area that includes the Adriatic port city of Trieste, many natives still speak the Friulian language and load tables with food and wine defined by high mountains and soft green hills.

Alessandro, 34, whose reporting and election-monitoring work have taken him to Moldova and Mozambique, East Timor and the West Bank, returns regularly to his childhood home in the Tagliamento Valley. For five years, he had been encouraging me to join him. He often played his trump card: Friuli boasts some of the best food and wine in Italy.

Before I went, I mentioned the region to another Italian friend, a native of Bologna, the country's reputed culinary capital.

''They have very good food in Friuli, it is true," the friend said. ''But you know, the specialties are not exported very much, even within Italy. They keep their good things to themselves."

The sharing comes quickly, though, when you go to Friuli. During my five-day visit in April, Alessandro conspired with family and friends to shepherd us from table to table as we motored less than 200 miles from north to south.

First, though, as Joseph Ratzinger began his first full day as Pope Benedict XVI, Alessandro and I drove alone up the Tagliamento Valley, and then another, the Lumiei, where a series of switchbacks led to a bridge that, less than a century before, brought the outside world to the village of Sauris.

Many residents of upper and lower Sauris, as the town's two lofty settlements are called, still speak a German dialect, a relic from migrants who settled in the high terrain after moving southward over the mountains from modern-day Austria.

Today, Sauris is home to neatly restored timber-frame houses and the Wolf prosciutto factory, which produces all things pork, from prosciutto and speck, a slightly smoked raw ham, to pancetta and salami. Wolf's prosciutto makers say the mountain climate gives a sweeter flavor to hams imported from central Italy and aged in a series of rooms for as many as 14 months. In summer, cattle graze at the malghe, seasonal farms set in the wide sweep of alpine meadows. Vacationers follow, trekking beneath dramatic ridges and gentle blue skies.

This spring afternoon, however, the climate offered low clouds and cool drizzle, so we opted for a late lunch. At a wooden table in a wooden restaurant, a waitress served tortellini with speck and cream sauce, bread gnocchi dusted with smoked ricotta, fried potatoes, polenta, sauteed sausage, and veal. She returned with a carafe of cabernet franc, among the more common of lowland Friuli's many red grape varieties.

Between bites, conversation turned to the papacy.

''For obvious reasons, if I were from Poland, I would probably be anti-communist, too," Alessandro said, referring to the late John Paul II. ''But being communist in Poland is not the same as being communist in South America."

Alessandro, a frequent visitor to Latin America, did not like John Paul's stance against the so-called liberation theology of priests who worked with leftist groups to help the poor. He also resented Roman Catholic Church policy that prohibits the use of condoms, even in areas hard hit by AIDS.

''In Mozambique, 13 percent of the adult population is HIV positive," Alessandro said. ''I mean, come on."

Would a pope 500 years from now apologize for current actions, as John Paul II had done, in an apology crafted in part by Ratzinger, for sins of church ''sons and daughters" in centuries past, Alessandro wondered.

We did not have time for debate, or dessert. Dinner called. Luciana Simonetti, 57, an art restorer, had invited us to her home in the village of Cedarchis, an hour's drive back down into the Tagliamento Valley, then north a few kilometers toward Austria.

Rain fell with night, and after a hug and hello on a slick sidewalk outside her home, Luci, as her friends call her, led the way through a heavy door into a wide stone kitchen. A cavernous room with an open fireplace anchoring one side, it had been built more than 200 years ago for simple purposes: warmth, conversation, food.

Fra Candoni, Luci's son, set homemade salami on the table and prosecco was passed to all. Banter about friends, football, and the news of the day began, with Mirco Candoni, Luci's stoic, white-bearded husband who has worked on oil rigs around the world, stating calmly of Ratzinger: ''He is the right pope for the right time, a difficult time."

Luci ushered us downstairs, where a small statue of San Rocco carved in 1530 sat on a table supported by two sawhorses. Luci had begun work in art restoration shortly after two massive earthquakes in 1976 killed almost 1,000 people in Friuli and shook much of the region's centuries-old art and architecture to the core.

Beneath the table, a box held wood-carving tools. Across the room, the image of the Virgin Mary adorned three faded panels, and another, measuring 5 feet by 2 feet, showed a restored painting of San Lorenzo meeting his killer.

In a few minutes, we would return upstairs to the kitchen, where Luci would serve homemade ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and parmesan, a firm cheese from Cedarchis flavored with chile pepper flakes, an omelet with local herbs, savory pheasant, shot by her husband, and sausage. Mirco would pour cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio crafted at a friend's vineyard.

First, though, Luci picked up the statue, which had sat for centuries above an altar in a church in the mountain village of Prato Carnico. Luci had put a mixture of chalk and glue in holes the size of pinheads to stop pests from eating the wood. Green, red, and gold paint would be carefully applied to cloak restoration from the untrained eye, while allowing specialists to see the modern changes.

''Since it is in a church, the faithful do not need to know it was restored," Luci said. ''But the critic needs to know the difference."

The next morning brought, thankfully, neither rain nor food. Instead, by 11:30, we were standing between a paved highway and the medieval stone walls of the town of Venzone with Alfredo and Luciana Barbieri, retired schoolteachers with a still-strong penchant for enlightening.

Luciana handed over a home-made, color-coded historical fact sheet. Alfredo began explaining how geography defined Venzone's importance: The town sits at a gate in the mountains, where ice moving south thousands of years ago began to carve the flatter terrain and isolated hills of lowland Friuli. More recently, Venzone served as a way station along the Roman road north from Aquileia to central Europe, and as a pit stop during Barbarian attacks on the Romans from the north. Venetians came in 1420, but Venzone's significance declined after the region became part of the recently unified Italy in 1866. Today, trains carrying passengers from Venice to Vienna streak past the medieval walls.

Alfredo, 67, had been born and raised in Venzone and recalled how the 1976 earthquakes, the second of which leveled much of central Venzone, served as a rallying point for Friuli residents, fiercely proud of their culture even during normal times. Experts labored stone by stone to resurrect Venzone's fallen cathedral. Volunteers worked Sundays to rebuild a half-dozen churches in the surrounding countryside.

''At that point, Friulians were able to understand what they had, and they wanted to appreciate what they had," Alfredo said.

We were in the mood for the same, so after gathering Andrea Pilia, another friend, and visiting over a lunch of prosciutto in the city of San Daniele del Friuli, another capital of the ubiquitous dried ham, the three of us said arrivederci to Alfredo and Luciana and headed into the plains and rolling hills of southern Friuli.

Near the town of Rauscedo, where immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe bundle vine roots that are shipped to vineyards around the world, we shared a dinner of tripe sauteed in tomato sauce, fried polenta, and salami marinated in balsamic vinegar. In Udine, the region's capital, after a lunch of bean soup, cow tendons, and fried potatoes with polenta, we wandered over stone pedestrian streets past newspaper stands heralding Benedict XVI's first days.

Our ultimate destination, on a mild Saturday afternoon, was the vineyards of Colli Orientali and Collio, the low hills that form the bobbing border with Slovenia. There, at La Subida, a country inn and restaurant, we sampled local prosciutto, thick and salty, ravioli stuffed with potato and pancetta, gnocchi with a poppy fennel sauce, and leg of veal roasted to within seconds of dropping off the bone. There was, of course, cheese.

The next day, we visited the vineyards owned by Fulvio Bressan, an acquaintance of Andrea's who makes highly coveted wines from traditional local grapes, such as tocai Friulano, schioppettino, and pignolo.

''The story of wine is this: two, three plants per vine. Not more," Bressan told me minutes after we had met. ''And hand pick it."

We turned from one low plot, set in the flats a few miles from Slovenia, and drove to a second five minutes away. Fulvio talked of the characteristics of the soil in the two plots: The calcium in one helps white grapes, the iron in the other helps red. He fingered the buds of a plant growing from one thick vine, and noted how they had grown less than those in the first vineyard.

''In three kilometers, everything is changing," he said. ''Not 3,000 kilometers, three. This is the testament."

We drove the winding roads north to a villa owned by Teresa Perusini, also an art restorer and friend of Alessandro. She guided us to a hilltop vineyard that sits above the Iudrio River, the beginning of the eastward sprawl of Slovenia. As a child, Resi, as she is called, knew little of that land only a few kilometers to the east that was then part of Yugoslavia. Familiar wine country terrain still disguises differences of language and life on the other side of the river.

Resi had to return to Udine that evening, but not before preparing a homemade risotto with asparagus, the vegetable of the season.

The next morning, the new pope would preside over his inaugural Mass at the Vatican, and I would take Alessandro and Andrea to a nearby station for their trains home, then catch my flight back to Boston.

So after dessert, I stepped outside to smell again the cool sweetness of fertile earth beneath a starry sky. When I stepped back into the villa foyer, I found a snail on my sleeve, an inadvertent hitchhiker, most likely, as I brushed past a bush.

I set the snail on Andrea's hand.

''Where did you find the escargot?" Andrea said. ''Maybe we should cook it. We'll need a little butter, and some parsley."

Contact Tom Haines at thaines@globe.com.

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