Friday, June 23, 2017

Pioneers

A tasting on the terrace of Santomiele


I suppose all Americans think of themselves as somehow heirs to the tradition of pioneering.  You know, we’re adventurous, daring, ever looking for new things, and just a bit suspicious of settled society and ‘the way it’s always been done’.  So it is refreshing to get to know three pioneers here in the Cilento who’ve decided to do their pioneering right where God planted them.  And we have tremendous admiration for the guts it must have taken them to do so.  And to persevere.  And to succeed.

Actually, Cilentans have a history of pioneering in the New World as well.  I won’t depress you with a litany of all the forces, both natural and societal, which have conspired against these people for so many centuries. But a top 10 would surely include wars, piracy, famines, plagues, endemic malaria, grinding poverty, starvation, and rapacious overlords, including, sadly, many in the church.  Small wonder that, beginning in the 1870s, hundreds and then thousands of young men and women who saw no hope of redemption here boarded ships for the New World, especially the US, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia.  At one point the total population of the Cilento, which now stands at roughly 300,000, was down to less than 8,000.  Understand, the Cilento is about the size of Delaware! The unification of Italy in 1861 was presented to the people of the Italian South as a chance to rebalance the scales.  Sadly, the scales were simply rebalanced to the advantage of rapacious Savoyard aristocrats at the expense of rapacious Bourbon ones.  And the floodgates opened.

Some measure of the extent to which the suffering of the locals was a function of their straitened circumstances and not laziness and backwardness, as so many northern Italians thought (and continue to think) is the incredible number of Cilentans who’ve achieved dramatic success in the New World when given the chance to use their initiative and talent.  Francesco Mattarazzo, for example, emigrated from little Castellabate nearby to Brazil in the 1890s, became a hugely successful industrialist, and bequeathed his beloved birthplace piazzas, churches, a chapel, and numerous other benefactions.

The sleek showroom

Displays of the products

Francesco demonstrates white figs


But, if anything, we admire our local pioneers even more, because they have dared to start new worlds right here where all the cards are seemingly stacked against them and there are so many disincentives to innovate.  Yesterday we visited Azienda Santomiele in nearby Prignano, where local boy Antonio Longo has elevated the humble little fig to gourmet status.  Fig trees adore this microclimate, especially a local variety which is especially large and delicious.  But figs have been for millennia a food of the poor.  Fig trees are incredibly hardy, growing almost anywhere they can access direct sunlight, and they bear bumper crops year after year.  Actually, they bear two crops per year.  In mid-June, fig trees produce a modest first crop of especially large beauties which the locals call fiori di fichi, ‘flowers of the figs’.  We are lucky enough to have several fig trees here on the farm and free rein to eat as many as we can.  If there’s a more delicious dish than a fiore di fico sliced in half and draped with a thin slice of local prosciutto, I can’t imagine what it would be.

The late-August-to-mid-September crop is much larger but consists of smaller fruits.  And these are the ones that the locals have been sun-drying and storing for winter for well over 2,000 years.

So imagine the chutzpa it took for young Antonio, trained as a geologist, to establish a business where he processed and packaged lowly little figs as delicacies.  Azienda Santomiele was established in Ogliastro Cilento in 1999.  Antonio had his workers process the figs in one of two ways, either with the outer (green) skin attached, skin which eventually dries to a lovely, rich brown color which any child of the 50s will know from the stuffing in a Fig Newton.  Otherwise, local women laboriously peel off by hand the outer skin to reveal the beautiful tan skin beneath.  The taste is more refined and delicate and the figs dry to a beautiful ivory sheen.  Figs are most often split lengthwise to facilitate drying and stuffed with walnuts, almonds, lemon and orange zests, bay leaves, and other flavorings.

In 2010, Antonio bought a frantoio (olive processing plant) in nearby Prignano, razed it to the basement, and built a stunning new showroom/processing plant on the ridge overlooking the Testene River valley and the Tyrrhenian Sea beyond.  At street level is the gorgeous showroom, with displays of Santomiele products, a grand piano, seating before a bank of plate glass overlooking that gorgeous vista, and a display of the photos of Norman Parkinson, a famous fashion photographer.  On the upper floor are the test kitchen and a huge terrazza with the same vista. The terrazza is used as an open-air work space in the fall.   At the basement level are the main workrooms, one for triage and processing, the other for packaging for shipment all over Italy and the world.  The northern wall of the packaging room was left unfinished to expose the native rock, the flysch which is so common in the western Cilento.  Flysch is a sedimentary formation with alternating bands of clay, limestone and shale.  Flysch is loaded with minerals and degrades to a wonderful soil with perfect tilth for figs and grapes.  More about the latter later.  And of course it also reminds you that Antonio’s love of geology still lives.

The bomba

Fig syrup


Specialty products

In addition to the standard products, the plant creates a ‘bomba’, a hollow, hemispherical chocolate shell about 8” in diameter which is then carefully covered with thin slices of figs.  The process can only be done by hand and can take as long as 3 days.  Other specialties are fig syrup, with the deep intensity of a fine balsamico, figs dipped in chocolate, and little chocolate candies stuffed with fig jam mixed with limoncello.  Figs take about 2 months to fully desiccate and all these little delicacies are thus ready just in time for the Christmas season.
On the terrace 

Our degustazione

The processing room

The packaging room with its wall of flysch

The retail area

Temptations....


My favorite creation, however, are little ranks of white figs stuffed into lengths of our local canna, a cane related to sugarcane and sorghum.  These are split so that the figs can be extracted, but in ancient Rome the figs were trodden in a trough to create a dense jam and then stuffed into lengths of cane and sealed with beeswax.  During the dead of winter, the canes would be split open and this precious source of sugars eagerly devoured.  We’re told that such dried fig jam was the ultimate famine food and that many poor Roman peasants would typically have starved in winter were it not for the humble little fig.

So what would Antonio’s Roman ancestors think about his attempts to gussy up such peasant fare?  I think they would love it!  Like all true gourmands, the Romans recognized that often the simplest foods when perfect and lovingly prepared were the ultimate luxuries.  I’m thinking of Ovid’s famous description of ‘country’ fare that includes our exquisite local cherries preserved in red wine and honey.  If that doesn't make you salivate, better stick to McNuggets. Certainly, Ovid’s modern counterparts seem to approve of Antonio's efforts.  Santomiele has been written up in Gambero Rosso, the Italian version of the Michelin guide, as well as the nation’s leading journal, Corriere della Sera, and many other publications.  And the humble little white fig of the Cilento received D.O.C. status from the EU in 2013.


Bravo, Antonio!

http://www.santomiele.it/


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Hangin' with the Wine and Cheese Crowd Again

Ciccio and Salvatore


We’ve beeen hanging with the wine and cheese crowd again.  And loving it.

It started last week when we went with Fernando, Katiuscia and Fabio to Santa Maria di Castellabate, the seaside village below our favorite hill town, for the Festa del Pescato, a festival celebrating the local fishing industry.  Basically a good excuse to gorge on some of the freshest seafood you can imagine for not very much money.

Pasta with mussels

Fritto misto di mare

Locally made liqueuers


From a central ticket booth, we bought tickets in increments of 1€ for a series of booths that served flash-fried seafood (7€), pasta with seafood (6€), wine (2€ for a tall cup), sweets, etc., but there were also small kiosks where you could pay cash for local artisinal products.  As Fabio wandered the perimeter, he came across a stand selling locally made cacioricotta, our local goat-milk cheese, struck up a conversation with the proprietor, told him how obsessed Fernando and I are with these little cheeses, and before we knew it we were in an intense cheesy conversation which was capped by free cheese samples and an invitation to the creamery.  Mozzarella di bufala from this area is world famous, and should be, but I believe these little cheeses should be equally famous, so it was an invitation we couldn’t refuse.

Francesco's booth at the Festa

Fernando samples Francesco's fresh cacioricotta with arugula, which Fernando made as a child


So last night, we drove with Fernando to nearby Rutino, a beautiful little hill town about which I recently blogged.  On the way I thought I heard Fernando say something about meeting for pizza and assumed perhaps that was the plan after our visit.  But we stopped in the town’s centro, inquired about our host and soon were met by…Mr. Pizza!  Signore Francesco Pizza, to be exact, as warm and friendly a guy as you could hope to meet.  After a quick stop at a local bar for the obligatory caffè, Francesco led us to a high ridge just outside Rutino where he has his farm.  Now, the views from Rutino are spectacular, but I swear they’re even more eye-popping from the creamery, looking out over the Alento River valley to the north, to Monte Sorpano and the Alburnii massif in the distance, looking up to the imposing castello of Rocca Cilento and the peak of beautiful Monte Stella to the west, looking southward toward mighty Monte Gelbison and the mountains of the Cilentan interior.  I suppose I could come to work every day without wasting a good 20 minutes just gawking at that view, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.
The view from the azienda

Francesco’s cheesemaking operation is as sophisticated as you could want while still making real artisinal cheese, with a large stainless fermentation vat with a hot-water jacket to control temperature, a large stainless table for draining curd and placing it in the little plastic forms which have replaced wicker almost everywhere here, but still leave the imprint of a ‘basket’.  Behind the lavoratorio was the temperature- and humidity-controlled curing room, where rows of wooden shelves housed some 120 cheeses of various shapes, sizes, and ages of curing from fresh to several weeks.  To one side of the room is a large walk-in where another 100+ aged cheeses wait for distribution.
Temperature-controlled fermentation vat

Cheeses aging in the curing room

Cacioricotte from fresh (r) to slightly aged (l)

Posters for the Frecagnola

A beautiful, fresh cheese

On the wall were posters going back many years for the Festa di Frecagnola at Cannalonga, held every year at the beginning of September.  We had actually tried to visit the festival this past fall, but it was raining buckets and most of the purveyors had given up and gone home (it was the last of the four days of the festival).  Francesco explained that the age-old practice of transhumance, the herding of dairy animals to the high mountain pastures in spring and back to the lowlands in autumn (think of Heidi going with Grandpa to the high Alpine meadows), was a standard practice with local goatherds, and the local herds typically came down the old drove roads through Cannalonga about the first week of September.  In the little town, goatherds would meet and gossip, buy and sell livestock, and dispense with some of the extraneous bucks, (of which there would be many after the spring kidding season) by slaughtering and butchering them and boiling up the meat in a stew called frecagnola in the local dialect.  The meat was a treat for poor goatherds who rarely tasted it, but Francesco says that the broth is now the real delicacy.

Francesco took us to one of his three barns where he keeps his bucks, two handsome fellows from a famous Swiss breed which he purchased in Holland for an exorbitant sum, and a little fellow who had bronchitis and looked pretty puny.  Goats are notoriously susceptible to chills.

Francesco explains how Ciccio was purchased in Holland


Sadly, we weren’t allowed to see the ladies; Fernando explained that ruminants such as goats need a nice, quiet riposo to digest the day’s grazing, and any excitement like a an introduction to a couple of rogue Americani could ruin a whole day’s milkings.  But Francesco showed us the pasture where the prima donnas graze beneath those same incredible views.  Francesco explained that he likes to allow the gals to free-range as much as possible because it improves the quality of the milk.

Many of us have the false notion that goats, like their ovine cousins, will eat just about anything.  In fact, I was indirectly indoctrinated in that nonsense as a kid (sorry about that pun) when my piano teacher, the saintly Mrs. Counce, tried to flog a little ditty into my talentless hands.  The treble hand played a phrase and the bass hand reiterated it with a series of chords.  Think of a barbershop quartet where the tenor sings the phrase and the lower voices respond in three-part harmony.  But the fun part was that the music book included the words, which I found so hilarious that I almost became proficient at this one song.  And so I give you the immortal “Bill Grogan’s Goat”:


Bill Grogan’s goat (Bill Grogan’s goat) was feeling fine (was feeling fine),
Ate three red shirts (ate three red shirts) from off the line (from off the line).
Bill took a stick (you get the picture), gave him three whacks,
And tied him to the railroad tracks.

The whistle blew; the train drew nigh.
Bill Grogan’s goat was bound to die!
He gave three groans of awful pain,
Coughed up the shirts, flagged down the train!

Music available upon request.  You’ll definitely want this magnum opus in your repertoire.  

But, in fact, goats are very picky eaters.  They receive their omnivorous reputation because they will gum almost anything, to release the esters so that their incredibly sensitive noses can make a judgment as to its desirability.  But most of their ‘tastings’ are actually rejected.  But goats absolutely adore herbs such as sage and thyme and the various mints, flavor notes that are transmitted to their milk.  And those herbs are rampant here in the Cilento.
The ladies' pasture

Transmitted along with their therapeutic powers, I might add.  Fernando assures me that goats are one of the few animals that never develop cancer, and medical science ascribes that in part to their feeding regimen.  And I can tell you from my own research that herbs and spices have powerful antibiotic and antioxidant qualities, powers which are synergistically increased in combinations.  And there is some evidence that all those therapeutic powers are present in our little cacioricotta cheeses.

We left the farm, but Francesco had another delightful surprise in store for us.  He led us through town, down a local road towards the Alento valley to a gorgeous agriturismo called ‘I Tre Tigli Casa di Campagna’.  Housed in a lovingly refurbished villa with manicured grounds, the villa has five guest rooms to let and the Paciello family provides meals to their guests.  Most of the products come from the farm itself, all organic produce, or from local (as in Rutino) producers.  Signore Paciello brought out a soprasatta, his own handiwork, Francesco sliced up a fresh cheese, and we uncorked a bottle of Il Barone Fiano, made up at the top of the hill.  I’ve raved about the fiano grape before, but I will reiterate, the wines from the Avellino appellation are good, but to my palate they pale by comparison with our Cilento versions.  And this one was stellar. 
The Villa 'I Tre Tigli' in Rutino

Signore Paciello with his soprasatta

Fiano, an undiscovered jewel


Maybe it was the ambience, maybe it was the delicious food and wine, perhaps the luscious weather or the aroma of the three linden trees which have lent their name to the villa, but by the time the bottle was empty, we knew we had met two more talented but unpretentious and thoroughly gracious Italians whom we are thankful to call new friends.

http://www.itretigli.it/




Fernando, Francesco, Sandy and Signore Paciello

Monday, May 29, 2017

Trekking



      Disclaimer:  probably the least authoritative voice in the world on hard-core trekking in Italy is a sixty-seven-year-old chubbers.  But perhaps there’s some value even in that.  To most of the world, a trek is a long, difficult voyage, and it can certainly connote that in Italy as well.  But here it can also mean a nice amble out in nature.  And as I hope you have gleaned from Sandy’s photos, if not my little blogs, there is a wealth of spectacular nature to amble amid, here in the Cilento.

Here, and I suspect in all parts of Italy, there are hundreds of sentieri (trails) of only moderate difficulty that can be accessed by anyone in reasonably good health.  And there are trekking clubs for almost all of them, many with excellent web sites and offering guided hikes at regular intervals.  Probably the most popular is trekking.it.  The one problem we have found with Italian trekking is that trail markers, especially at trail heads, are poor or non-existent.

Right here in Agropoli, from the Bay of Trentova, there are several sentieri which traverse various parts of Monte Tresino, the local hill which forms the southern terminus of the Bay of Salerno.  





The Bay of Trentova from the coastal trail
The city wall of abandoned San Giovanni

The church and monastery in the little village

A view from Monte Tresino

Monte Tresino is only a bit over a thousand feet high, so even the trek to the top is not just for the hard-core.  We’ve enjoyed hikes here several times, most notably one along the coast past Il Vallone, an old Roman port from which spectacular Roman archaeology was extracted, primarily by our scuba-diving buddy, Franco Castelnuovo:  lead anchors from Roman ships, dozens of amphorae, gobs of ceramics.  All now in the Agropoli and Paestum museums.  Also on the mountain is the evocative little abandoned village of San Giovanni di Tresino, established in 957 around a church and monastery but abandoned in 1962.  We’ve also hiked out to the Torre dei Saraceni, the 'Tower of the Pirates', at one point designed to spot and warn the locals of the approach of Moorish pirates, but also perhaps used by those same pirates, who captured Agropoli in 882 and used it as a citadel for their local raids until they were forced out in 915.


Monte Soprano above, Monte Sottano below, and the Canyon of the Three Mountains

More recently we hiked part of the Sentiero di Tremonti, the Trail of the Three Mountains, a trail which leads through a strange and spectacular feature of three local mountains near the beautiful little towns of Giungano and Trentinara.  A look at the map shows two parallel mountains, the northerly Monte Soprano, aptly named ‘Mount Higher', and below it Monte Sottano.  You guessed it, ‘Mount Lower’.  The Romans would be proud of such literalness.  Both are gorgeous in their own right, but the feature that is really intriguing is that cleft that you see right through the middle of Monte Sottano.  My friend and font of information on all things seismic and geological, Andrea Tesoniero, tells me this was caused when the European tectonic plate, overthrusting the Adriatic plate to form the central Apennines, got in such a hurry that it ripped a tear in its britches.  Andrea has a Ph.D. and is doing a post-doc at Yale, so his explanation was a bit more technical, but you get the picture.  That small cleft, a fairly common feature in such peripheral zones, provided a channel for a mountain stream, which eventually carved its way down the limestone and dolomites of the mountain to create the canyon.
The parcheggio with the canyon in the background

Trailhead markers can be a bit iffy.  This one is in the middle of a quarry.

Acess to the trail through an old quarry.

We were introduced to the canyon by our friends Fernando and Fabio during our first summer here back in 2010.  The guys, very much tongue-in-cheek, referred to it as ‘The Grand Canyon of the Cilento’.  A bit of an exaggeration, but it’s still beautiful.  There’s a local myth, unsubstantiated by any historical evidence, that Spartacus and his followers holed up here during the Third Servile War of 71 BCE.  It’s a wild and woolly place, so if they didn’t, they missed a good chance.

What is undoubtedly true is that the trail is absolutely gorgeous.  The little parking lot is right off the main highway to Giungano.  From there you hike up a local road and access the trail from the grounds of a former quarry.  You wander along the western flank of the torrente (seasonal stream) that carved the canyon, a stream that forms the headwaters of the Solofrone River which empties into the Tyrrhenian Sea near Agropoli.  
The view southward from the trail.

Looking north toward Monte Soprano.

Walking through the beautiful macchia.

To the left are the towering cliffs of Monte Cantenna, the western extension of Monte Sottano, to the right the valley of the torrente, and behind you to the south, sweeping panoramas over the agricultural plain and the hills and mountains of the Cilento.  You climb up through myrtle, broom, lentisk and other elements of our Cilentan macchia, ‘scrub’, most in flower and adding their ravishing scents to the oregano, thyme, rosemary, catmint and a half dozen other herbs that grow wild here in such profusion.  Our cute little local green lizards, which have the strange compulsion to run across a path or road any time they sense movement coming,  are the standard fauna.  The trail trends steadily upwards and is fairly steep in places, a challenge for the old geezers, but a good one. Soon, ahead of you appear the towering cliffs of Monte Sottano, karstic formations carved into the soft limestone of the mountain, some towering up to 1300’ and more.
Karstic cliffs of Monte Sottano

A bridge leading to the eastern side of the torrente.

There are several picnic areas along the trail.

Eventually the trail turns eastward and you cross a beautiful wooden bridge over the torrente, already dry after the winter rainy season but still beautiful in the verdant setting created by those same winter rains.  The trail traces the eastern flank of the stream for a stretch until you reach La Cascata, the cascade created by the steep northern slope of the canyon. No cascade this time of the year, but the huge boulders tumbled down by heavy floods gave some idea of the potential power of winter spates. 

The Cascata in March 2014.  Photo courtesy of Amatori Running Sele.

      We stopped and enjoyed some refreshment and a breather at a tranquil little picnic area, then made our way about a quarter mile up the eastern slope of the canyon before old knees began protesting.  For younger legs, the trail reaches the shoulder of of the mountain, immediately beneath some of those sheer cliffs, then ambles along eastward till it reaches a local highway.

The return hike was a bit difficult for the first bit; the soil and gravel of the trail is loose and the slope steep, making footing treacherous.  But soon the descent became a gentle downward slope and we enjoyed vista after vista down to the south and eastward to the towering cliff upon which lies the little town of Trentinara.
On the right, the plateau on which lies Trentinara.

And here's the view looking down from Trentinara's 'Terrazza del Cilento'.

Speaking of which, we have now examined the Vallone di Tremonti up and down.  Literally.  That first year we were here, Fabio and Fernando took us to the little town of Trentinara and introduced us to the Terrazza del Cilento, a huge, spectacular terrace at the western end of the town.  Since then we have been back repeatedly to gawk at the views. The name is apt:  from the terrace you can see all our three mountains, as well as a huge swath of the Paestum Plain, the ruins of Paestum, the cerulean sea beyond, and down toward the south our beloved Agropoli, Monte Tresino, and the mountains of the Cilentan highlands.  A good reminder that some things, no matter how right they may seem from one perspective, can be just as riveting from the opposite one as well.