'The food keeps you coming back for more'

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Photo: Sam Dunham
14:31 CEST+02:00
Sam Dunham chose Abruzzo to escape a frenetic London lifestyle. A decade on, the founder of the Life in Abruzzo guide tells The Local what she loves most about the central Italian region and reveals its best-kept secret…

So what brought you to Abruzzo in the first place?

Being freelance 'web people' my partner and I didn’t have a pension in place. We wanted to invest in something that could benefit us in the here-and-now as a retreat from the speedy life of London, as well as a future nest egg.

My studies in Florence as a teenager had instilled in me a love for Italy, so we decided to buy a small village house a decade ago. We are mountain and sea lovers so I popped this phrase into Google which came back with Abruzzo – a region that neither of us had even heard of at the time but fell in love with on our first visit.

How does the region compare to other regions of Italy?

Topographically Abruzzo is amazing, from snowy mountain peaks to spans of hidden beaches on the edges of atmospheric national parks. The amount of glorious personal space you have to explore and revel in is epic – a density of just 123.5/km2 (319.7/square miles), plus property and land are still relatively affordable.

Like all of Italy, living here as an expat can be a love-hate/basta-pasta thing. Abruzzo infrastructure is underdeveloped, which is a central part of its slow charm but that can also make it utterly frustrating.

Perhaps other regions are slightly savvier and have people from different businesses and provinces working together, but Abruzzo is sometimes infuriating for a lack of collective will and co-operation to work for a common good, or for neglecting opportunities to represent itself appropriately to those from outside Italy, such as appointing people who travel aboard and represent regional interests.

Click here to view a gallery of Dunham's favourite places in Abruzzo

What is the region known for?

Wine, its biggest and most glorious export. Its Apennine mountains and national parks. Its regional cuisine is numbered amongst Italy’s top three. The superb dry pasta that is made by companies like De Cecco in the small mountain town of Faro San Martino and shipped worldwide. Its bagpiping shepherds (Zampognari) that feature in nativity sets are from the region and are still invited to play to the pope at Christmas. Its sugared almonds called confetti from Sulmona and maiolica ceramics from Castelli.  

Where would you take a visitor for a day for a real Abruzzese experience?

An early morning walk around Decontra for incredible views of the Majella National Park and visits to its most famous nearby hermitages, popping in to buy a cheese picnic lunch at La Porta dei Parchi to eat in Castrovalva, the favourite village of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Alternatively, driving up to Lago Campotosto in the Gran Sasso range, hopefully seeing some of the wild ponies along the way and visiting La Mascionara to buy some of their incredible cheese and salami, then driving down to Cesacastina to walk its 100 waterfall ramble.

If it is too cold to have a picnic, I'd take them to an agriturismo for lunch, 99 percent of which are wonderful and have an incredible array and meze-style antipasti.

I’d close the day with a visit to Campo Imperatore, dubbed ‘Little Tibet’ and its lunar landscape – it’s unmissable. I’d stay here, watch the stars come out for some amazing light and shadow play on the peaks and then perhaps eat dinner the wonderful refuge in Rocca Calascio or Locanda delle Streghe in Castel del Monte.

What’s the food like?

Greece had its sirens, Abruzzo has its food to lure you and keep you coming back for more. Goodness knows how many kilos I’ve put on since being here.

Expect amazing dishes crafted from superb ingredients which are the best storytellers to the region’s history; wonderful lamb dishes and incredible sweet and nutty pecorino cheeses served with honey and eclectic use of heirloom pulses and grains oiled with the very finest olive oils and perfumed with herbs or mushrooms.

The unexpected influence of saffron (this is its Italian home and where it is grown) and its use of chilli peppers rubbed with orange into the very finest salami or served at the table snipped into olive oil after sun-drying.

I love eating fish at Motel Boston in Silvi Marina. It’s the most amazing white-linen truck stop in the world that serves great fish affordably: expect two courses and free mussels with wine for two people for €35.

Sunday lunch in Frattoli is another small gem that plays on the Alpine heritage in décor and is high in the Gran Sasso mountains. On Sundays, everyone gets served together, the smell from steaming vats of truffle soup and pastas as they are walked around the room are so memorable as are the views from here across to the Corno Piccolo afterwards.

You also blog a lot about wine in Abruzzo – which are your favourites?

My favourite white is Pecorino, it’s an Abruzzese/La Marche heritage grape that is finally even making it into the supermarkets in the UK like M&S. I love the fruitier Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, this has even been served chilled at a local agriturismo and its clean fruits really work even in the depths of winter.

What are the people like?

Hospitality was learnt trading/bartering, going up and down mountains which often meant you stayed overnight, the people are not just good hosts they are great hosts.

If you’re planning on moving to a rural farm village don’t expect a great variety of conversational gambits beyond food and wine. Life in the mountains used to be really hard, and it’s still a challenge hence there being so many Abruzzese living in other countries and sentimentality doesn’t sit well with self-sufficiency.

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With our limited Italian, having a two-way conversation can be hard enough at times, but the strong dialects here can create conversational spaghetti junctions sometimes making it almost impossible!

You’ve also listed some beaches on your website. Which are your all-time favourites?

I love Teramo’s sand banked blue and green flag beaches, Pineto and Roseto, that let you walk out some 50 m (perfect if you have a toddler like us). As they’re low rise they provide great views of the mountains on a clear day.

And now that the winter is approaching, what about skiing?

I like my local ski-resort at Prati di Tivo, Italy’s second oldest ski club. It’s a little more laidback than Abruzzo’s biggest resort Roccaraso that has 65 pistes.

Ovindoli and Campo Felice are separated by just a 15 minute bus journey so if you chose to ski there you have a choice where you’ll ski, their joint ski-pass also includes Campo Imperatore.

And finally, what is Abruzzo’s best kept secret?

With Pecorino wine now becoming more well-known, I would suggest the wolves and endemic Marsican bears. Just imagine you could drive just over an hour out of Rome and you could be in bear country.

Sam Dunham is the founder of Life in Abruzzo, a holiday and lifestyle guide to the region.

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