First, find your sheep

Barbara Gunnell escapes the sweltering heat of Rome to enjoy a high-altitude feast in the Abruzzo mo

We left Rome for the mountains when the temperature reached 38°C - more than 100°F - with 40°C expected. Romans in the Cinecittà suburb of 1950s apartment blocks have ways to deal with such heat. Life spills noisily outside at night when it's cool enough to eat; families shout above shrieking quiz shows into the small hours. Fellini's films celebrated the exuberance of this working-class part of Rome, but I needed sleep.

But, an hour north-east on the motorway towards Abruzzo and the mountains, we were already wondering about the decision. The car's dashboard showed the outside temperature remained stubbornly at 38°C. Soon we noticed spirals of smoke rising out of yellowed hills.

Central Italy, like much of Europe, has been suffering a spate of forest fires, in Greece with tragic consequences, but when we reached Rocca Calascio - at 1,460 metres the highest medieval castle in the Apennines - the smoke was below us. From the castle we could see black smoke wafting down the valley. Far below us, a dinky-toy bowser hurried along a dirt track to take water to a field of wheat on the edge of smouldering brush. Later, planes ditched water and finished off the job, but not before a black scar had been carved into the roll ing lower slopes of the Gran Sasso massif.

It seemed completely appropriate that, in this 15th-century setting, the first half-dozen "locals" we met should be wearing medieval costume and carrying swords and shields. Ignoring the full force of a heatwave's breezeless afternoon, one young soldier sweated in a padded velveteen suit. Another, layered in wool, told me, in fair English, what he and his friends were doing. It was a battle reconstruction in which two groups were fighting for possession of the castle. He faltered as he used the descriptions Christians and Saracens - maybe out of political correctness or maybe uncertain how to translate saraceni - and decided instead that the bad guys were, oddly, from the Isle of Man. The good guys were Italian, of course. The mock battles were not for tourists, but private events, fought over weekends throughout the year in hill villages such as this.

Rocca Calascio, perched on a peak, with its spectacular view across the valley to Gran Sasso, was a particularly authentic setting for their enactment (it was used as the setting for the film Ladyhawke). But there are hundreds of castles in the Abruzzo hills; the ancient Romans opened up so many roads through the Apennines that villagers were sitting ducks for invaders. They and their sheep regularly needed refuge.

In the first half of the 15th century, there were more than three million sheep in Abruzzo. Today, there are about 450,000. In summer, they graze in the mountain pastures; in winter they move to the grassy lowlands of Puglia. This seasonal movement of flocks up and down the mountains (called the transumanza) defined the landscape of Abruzzo. Spring and autumn, the sheep would graze their way along a network of broad tracks (a hundred metres wide in places) covering hundreds of kilometres, the shepherds paying for use of the paths along the way, and thus supporting local economies. But gradually, over the first decades of the 20th century, it became more economical to move the sheep by truck and train, and for local people to use the paths for crops. The sheep economy started to founder; the hill villages were abandoned.

Until a few years ago, the collection of houses at the foot of Rocca Calascio had been unin habited for many decades. But an enterprising couple reclaimed two for a bar and restaurant, hoping to entice trade up the hill. It worked. They expanded, reclaiming more houses to provide accommodation for walkers and cross-country skiers, some basic and cheap, some more luxurious. Now a few families have returned and there's a small shop, but the village remains unmanicured and authentic. Since it lies within a regional park, it may even stay that way.

Rolando, trim and tanned, with iron-grey hair, has a mission to foster Abruzzo culture. He looks like an arts impresario, but his day job is cooking and for the restaurant's Saturday dinner he was doing an Abruzzo special: pecora (sheep, not lamb) with mountain herbs and potatoes. It's a secret recipe, he said, but I'm going to reveal it.

This is what you need: a 35-kilo sheep; two crates of flat-leaved parsley; a crate of rosemary branches; a few armfuls of just-gathered mountain herbs (various thymes, sage, some bitter leaves and some variety of mint); 40 or so carrots; a similar number of onions; a dozen or so garlic bulbs; a few celery heads with leaves; a litre of oil and more than a litre of white wine. You'll also need potatoes (same volume as the lamb when boned). Boil the beast for two hours in water. Get rid of large quantities of fat. Boil for another five hours. Remove big bones.

And here's the clever bit. Take the table, herbs and vegetables outside and engage some passers-by in conversation about your struggle to revive Abruzzo theatre. Without comment, hand each a knife, all the while telling the story of the freezing night in the mountains when you staged an open-air performance of an obscure play and the actress wore a dress so diaphanous that the fur-wrapped audience remained shivering in their seats out of solidarity or lust. Subtly, without comment, demonstrate how you want the rosemary stripped, the sage and parsley stalks removed, the carrots peeled.

Keep your story going, by means of digressions, personal histories and tales of meals enjoyed or prepared for well-known writers and artists, for the three hours it takes your helpers to reduce all the vegetable matter to several kilos of finely chopped herb flavouring. Do not be distracted by the fact that they are roasting in the sun and now have green hands and watering eyes. In a giant pan, arrange boned sheep and equal volume of potatoes in layers with herbs, dousings of oil and sprinklings of salt. Pour over a litre or so of white wine. Simmer for a further two hours.

Enough locals made the journey up to the village to fill the dining room. There was a festive mood. But up at the castle things were not going well for the good guys. The Manxmen had gained control. And below, in the valley, the embers of the fire were glowing, looking unnervingly like a camp of Saracen invaders.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?