Friday, July 2, 2010


One thing that instantly bound us to our hosts when we arrived, something that required no language skills whatsoever and has continued to be a point of connection, is our love of animals.

Actually, that bond began even before we arrived. About three weeks before we left the states Fernando emailed to ask me to try to track down a new drug, nitrosylcobalamin, which has showed dramatic results in one instance in the treatment of inoperable cancers in dogs. The Astones had not one but two elderly dogs who both had inoperable cancers simultaneously, and their local vet had told them that this experimental drug was the only hope.

In the event I discovered that the researcher who had tested the drug on four dogs had patented it immediately after the dramatic results came out, had resigned from his position at a cancer research center, found venture capital, and set up his own research facility. American free enterprise at its best, and worst, I suppose. But the drug was only in the initial stages of testing and completely unavailable. Three days later Fernando let me know that Fabio had called to say the dogs had died and was so overcome with emotion he could hardly talk.

As it happened, we had a particular reason for wanting to help. Our beloved little mutt Sugar had died about two months before, from an inoperable cancer. We knew she was having some difficulties but associated it with the hip displasia that is so common in dogs of her age and size, and dogs are so stoic that they never complain. But one morning she tried to get up, stumbled, and had a sort of seizure. We took her to the vet immediately, where we learned that a cancer of the spleen was so advanced that surgery was desperate at best, and we took the rest of the day to make that torturous decision to give our little friend the ultimate gift, a quiet, peaceful death. We’ve been grieving ever since.

So it has been a delight to be back in the world of critters. And, sister, do we have some critters here! Word has been spread in the local animal community that Filomena is a soft touch, and we now have three dogs (more or less) and three cats (more or less), all volunteers and all living la dolce vita.

No need for television here, the animals provide all the distraction you could ever need. In the canine realm there is Cioppo, a little spitzy looking mutt who is the undisputed capo of the whole menagerie but is instantly submissive to any human willing to scratch his stomach. Cioppo herds the other two all over the estate, and as soon as they come up for some attention, he’s there instantly growling and gnawing harmlessly on their necks to put them in their places. Filomena describes him as “sweet, but stupid.” He’s been known to stare at a phantom cat in a tree for hours.

Then there is Ettore, largest of the three, a beautiful long-haired white mutt with the physical traits of an Irish setter, if not the coloring. Ettore is completely laid back, loves to take lots of naps, and comes sauntering up to you (when Cioppo is not looking) like some lovable oaf, grinning and nodding his head.

Little Laki is a terrier, all spunk and attitude, second in command, at least in his own mind. He’s the canine sentinel, first to sound the alarm when the territory is invaded and pass the word to Cioppo, “Okay, dude, I scared the crap out of them, now you go finish them off!”

The three cats are our local moochers, really still feral domesticates, not at all lap cats, but they’re so shameless in their panhandling that they are always good for a laugh. Almost every morning when we open the door from the kitchen to the terrace they show up, sitting at the threshold, staring into the apartment and mewing plaintively. There is Fanta, easily the most endearingly ugly cat I’ve ever seen, Ambra, “Amber’, a fine looking orange tabby, and Tigre, ‘Tiger’ a gray tabby.

Our critters provide almost daily drama as well. From time to time the dogs and cats will mix it up a bit, but it’s all obviously just for fun. But several days ago Fanta was bitten by one of the local feline bullies and Filomena was beside herself. The next day we heard a huge commotion, rushed out onto the terrace just in time to see the local tough be chased up a tree by the whole pack of dogs acting in concert. The other two quickly left, but Cioppo took up position, intently eyeing the villain and challenging him to come down and face the music, while Fanta sat behind him and seemed perfectly smug. We left before the drama ended, and I’m not sure how that cat managed to scoot away, but I suspect he won’t be back soon.

Then night before last there was a terrible rumble outside about three in the mooring that seemed to go on for thirty minutes. The next day Filomena revealed that sweet-natured Ettore had been bitten on the leg. When Laki came over to investigate, Ettore nipped at him, then limped off to nurse his wounds in private. As the hours went by Filomena became more and more worried, and once every hour or so we would hear her walking the grounds and calling for “Ettore!” It was heartbreaking.

But this soap opera has a happy, if surprising ending. About six last night Sandy and I were on the terrace and there was Ettore at the bottom of the driveway, wagging his tail, limping just a bit as he sauntered up to us, but obviously fine. Sandy raced upstairs to announce the good news to Filomena, who was, of course, ecstatic. But behind Ettore appeared a small black mutt, something on the order of a mid-sized Doberman, and Filomena quickly shooed this one away and announced, “Questa non è maschio, è una donna!” It seems that Ettore wanted to nurse his wounds with some, shall we say, female ministrations. And I’m not sure but that Filomena wasn’t just a bit jealous.


There are three degrees of over the top in southern Italy and they are the festa della promessa, the festa della sponsalia, and the festa delle nozze. Having survived the first, I can’t even conceive of the other two.

In this traditional part of Italy when young people decide to wed, they first publish their intent to become engaged, the promessa. And, this being Italy, that requires a party. Only about a month later do they actually become formally engaged, the sponsalia....and that requires a party. Then, of course, there are the actual nuptials and that requires...well, you see where this is going.

The daughter of one of Filomena’s cousins was becoming ‘promised’, and the family were kind enough to invite us to the festivities. We first met at the beautiful home of the girl’s family in the country outside Paestum. We arrived about 6:30 pm to find the exterior of the house beautifully decorated and the huge terrazza set up with buffet tables and lawn chairs. Obviously lilac was the color scheme for the day, and all the members of the wedding party were gorgeously dressed with various lilac accents.

The young woman, Felicia, is a classic southern Italian beauty: tall, thin, with long, jet-black hair that cascaded down her back in natural ringlets, bronzed skin and a dazzling smile. The lucky promesso was Antonello, a handsome fellow in a flashy blue silk suit with a lilac tie. Antonello’s mother, also a beauty, operates a local restaurant where we had enjoyed a memorable Sunday dinner, courtesy of our wonderful host family. More about that later. Felicia’s father sells the fruit of this area all over Europe.

On the buffet line were all sorts of dolci, the little sweets that southern Italians love so much. I sampled a traditional trarallo (I think that’s right; it’s dialect), a sort of Cilentane cruller with a subtle anise flavor, and several babè, little rum-soaked babas. Another part of the table was devoted to cocktails, soft drinks, and sparkling wine.

We sat for about two hours, enjoying meeting various members of the families, watching assorted cats and kids run around and wreak havoc (kids are the same, wherever you go), and just enjoying the spectacle of these folks obviously having a good time together.

About 8:30 we all piled into the machine and headed for a restaurant in Paestum at the Delfa Hotel. But this was a real sfilata (parade), complete with ribbons on the cars and lots of honking and laughter. Part of the road had even been decorated with the same type archways we had seen at the Saints’ festa in Agropoli the night before! The Astones explained that there were lots of private feste all the time in this region, and sure enough, as we drove along they pointed out at least five other houses in the few miles of country lane that took us to the highway. Fabio insisted that this was just a small festa by Italian standards. We were already wide-eyed with wonder.

At the hotel a huge buffet had been set up on the terrace surrounding the swimming pool and there we waited for the couple to arrive. It seems they had been taken by the photographer to the archaeological zone of Paestum to be photographed before the dramatically lit Doric temples there. Not too shabby! And this just for the promessa! What for the nozze, the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome?

The couple arrived about 30 minutes later and the guests tucked into the buffet with gusto. Fabio ran interference for us—it was pretty intense on that line—and retrieved little plates of local favorites. My favorite was tiny little fish, lightly battered, flash fried in their entirety and served in a cornetta like french fries. They should have been served piping hot and were not (I don’t know why more wedding photographers aren’t assassinated by chefs) but they were still delicious.

We should have known not to stuff ourselves, but we acted like the complete rookies that we were. In our defense, it was now after 9 pm and we were hungry. About 45 minutes later, an elaborate fireworks display announced the beginning of the serious eating, and the crowd made its way into the banquet hall of the hotel for the main attraction. We estimated there were close to 200 guests for the sit-down. On the tables beside the centerpieces were ice buckets with aqua minerale, a vino rosso, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and a white, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. The promessi, of course, were seated at the front of the hall at a table they shared, not with their parents, but with the witnesses, a formality that goes right back to Roman times.

Then at a signal the doors from the kitchen burst open and out paraded the waiters in their white and black dinner jackets, to a burst of applause. If you’ve never seen the way an Italian waiter carries himself, you’ve missed real drama. These guys know they are professionals and they flaunt it.

The antipasti were artfully arranged on plates and included prosciutto di Parma, another cured pork product called copicollo, little local bocconcini, and grilled vegetables. Meanwhile, a male keyboardist/vocalist/emcee and a female vocalist provided the bouncy Italian pop music we love so much.

There was a lull in the eating, mercifully, while guests took the time to meet and greet and listen to the music, and about 10:15, out came little cupolette (‘domes’), molded timbales lined with ‘planks’ of eggplant and stuffed with a type of homemade macaroni and cheese and ragù. Another minor truce in the war on our digestive systems and then out came the pasta course, in this case penette with a decadent creamy sauce and mushrooms.

By the time we reached the secondi it was after 11 pm and a number of the bambini had made their way to the sofas in the lobby and succumbed to blessed sleep. On the pretext of going to the gabinetto, I tried as well, but one of the little brats chased me out of my spot. The main course, if that term makes any sense in this context, was brought out to more fanfare, and consisted of veal cutlets served with potate ambrate, potatoes ‘ambered’, seemingly by being dipped in a brine to create a coating on the outside and then slow roasted to create an unctuous texture and a golden, crunchy exterior. With these was served a ‘polychrome salad’ created with the vibrant colors of the local greens and vegetables.

Another pause in the action, and Rolando shocked us both. Rolando is by no means shy, he is just quiet and reserved, tranquillo as Fabio describes his papa. But when the musicians struck up some traditional dance numbers, out came Rolando with another of Filomena’s cousins (Filomena is really hampered by the cast on her broken wrist) and danced his way through a tango and a polka, and darned well, too. As soon as he took the first step his face began to beam and he was still grinning with obvious pleasure when he came back to the table. Quiet Rolando loves to dance!

Next on the culinary expedition was ‘The Surprise of the Chef’, in this case what appeared to be spaghetti aglio olio, spaghetti dressed simply with a bit of garlic and olive oil. Apparently the guests were neither surprised nor especially amused by a second pasta course at this late hour (approaching 12:15) and I saw few takers for the waiters’ offers.

Another pause while the promessi were given a special dance and members of the wedding party surrounded them with linked hands and treated them to some good-natured teasing, ending with a demand for a bacio (kiss), a demand which the promessi were reluctant (seemingly) to oblige.

Then little cups of vanilla gelato served over a sponge cake and topped with whipped cream (bufala-milk?) and a variety of fresh berries. Then the obligatory slide shows behind the bandstand, but in this case not of the couple but of mama and papa, and a second one of the troop of cousins who were all obviously close. Perhaps significantly, two of the thirty-odd cousins had emigrated to the U.S.

Finally, a Delizia di limone, little domed sponge cakes with a lemon mousse in the center and iced with the same mousse, all brought out on a rolling serving cart with dramatic flair to be ‘offered’ to the couple under the watchful eye of the photographer and then rolled back to the kitchen to be apportioned and served. This was grand theater, and since the little desserts had obviously been designed to replicate the female breast, complete with a tiny berry nipple, I have no doubt there was some sort of fertility symbolism going on there. It’s funny how reserved the Italians can be about some elements of sexuality and how out-front about those that relate to the breeding and nurture of the next generation of la famiglia.

From the way many of the guests wolfed down the dessert and quickly made their way to the promessi to say their goodbyes and receive a party favor, it was obvious that many were as weary as we—it was now after 1 am—and mindful of the early morning awaiting them. For that matter, many of the guests seemed almost as jaded as we were about halfway through the meal.

So why this lavish excess? Part of it is tradition, of course, but I suppose part is also the sheer luxury of throwing caution to the wind. Unlike the prosperous families of our couple, many Italian families in this area struggle so much financially that the chance to let go and live, however momentarily, the lifestyle of the rich and famous, must be powerful. Accustomed as we Americans are to relative financial comfort, it is hard for us to appreciate that desire. Don’t misunderstand me, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, even now when my poor stomach is making trenchant comments about my mama and the idiot she bred, but I was also a bit discomfited by the whole thing. Part of that is doubtless the fact that I am the father of a nubile daughter and the thought of such financial excess gives me the heebie jeebies. Fabio assures me that the actual wedding feast will make this one pale in comparison, and that fathers in the area start saving for these feasts as soon as a daughter is born. All I can say in the last analysis is, God bless the Italian father who finds himself ‘blessed’ with a house full of daughters!

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Yesterday was the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the patron saints of our little town, and the Agropolitani were doing it up right.

To an American Protestant, almost everything about Italian Catholicism is on the exponential part of the learning curve. The first time we were here little Amy was five, and we had quite a time explaining all the relics, the rituals, and the graphic imagery. For example, we were visiting the lower basilica of St. Francis’ church in Assisi. Amy had asked previously about the confessional booths that she had seen and we had tried to explain in five-year-old terms that when people had done something wrong they came to the confessional and told the priest what they had done and the priest would assign them a sort of punishment to do and then tell them that God still loved them even though they made mistakes.

I don’t know if you’ve encountered the Franciscan brothers before, but they are intense, and very serious about maintaining a reverent attitude in this sacred spot which contains the tomb of Francis, but has become, like so many of Catholicism’s most venerated places, a tourist attraction for thousands of people, including non-Catholics and nonbelievers. A Franciscan monk will gladly get right in your face and scream, “Silenzio!”

So of course we had warned Amy that she absolutely must be quiet in the church. And she was as good as we could have hoped, even when we moved past a confession booth where a dour-looking brother stood glaring out and challenging any of the heathen to cross him. Amy kept her eyes glued to him as we exited the church, even craning her neck to look behind her at this menacing presence. Finally on the steps of the basilica she could contain herself no longer. She tugged at my hand and announced, “Daddy, that man back there must have done something really wrong! Look, they put him in Time Out!” Oh well, she got the main idea.

Hard, too, for a Protestant to understand is the Italian attachment to their saints. Every day, of course, has two or three saints attached to it, and every little village has a patron saint, so there’s a feast of Saint So-and-so going on somewhere every day. And practically every child in Italy is named after some saint or other, so children here celebrate their birthdays, but they may also celebrate their Saint Day as well.

Then, of course, there are the close historical ties to early Christianity; the history of paleo-Christianity and early Imperial Rome are inextricably bound together. Think of having the head or foot or some other body part of a saint—perhaps even the whole corpse—right there in your church and as often as not prominently displayed. I recall Mark Twain’s reaction in Innocents Abroad when he says that after he saw the third skull of Saint John in Italy he began to be a bit skeptical.

I’m neither skeptical nor gullible, so I offer this to you for whatever you think it’s worth. Local legend has it that on one of his missionary trips, St. Paul stopped in Agropoli and preached to the unwashed. What I can say with absolute faith is that the basilica of Saints Peter and Paul up in the Centro of Agropoli is so achingly pretty and serene that it makes me want to believe. I don’t know why it is that the little jewels of churches in the small towns of Italy move me so much more deeply than the pompous grandiosity of a St. Peter’s.

The dramatic climax of the feast was a procession up the main corso of the town, through the medieval gates, and back to the mother church, with some of the pious escorting the images of the saints for all to behold and believe. But this is an Italian festa, so you may sure it included plenty of food and fun as well: a sort of combination carnival/flea market had been set up in the piazza and the adjoining piazzetta, beautiful arches of multicolored lights lined the corso, fireworks were set off at intervals all day long, from a stage on the corso Italian rock-and-roll blared over the crowd, which surely included every living soul in Agropoli plus many from the neighboring communities.

The highlight for the fat boy, of course, was seeing the huge variety of Italian carnival foods. Many were the same as you will find at the State Fair in Raleigh: candy, nuts, french fries, and every conceivable other kind of fried food. Why is it that celebration and fried food always seem to love each other? It was fun to see the stand selling Italian sausages just like back home but to realize these were, well...Italian sausages! And there was barbecue, North Carolinians, oh yes, good old slow-roasted barbecue at the Porchetta, the irresistable aroma of pork wafting over the crowds.

The piece de résistance, introduced to us courtesy of Fernando, was a product called “O Muss”, and don’t even ask me to translate that, there are so many layers of dialect involved. What it is, though, is good old fashioned head cheese, the jowl of a pig cured and gelatinized, which the vendor sliced thin, chopped into bite-size portions, placed in a plastic container, speared with tiny plastic forks for the three of us, salted generously...and proceeded to douse with lemon juice squeezed straight from one of the huge local lemons. Was it a culinary revelation? No, it was interesting, but it was, after all, head cheese, a food of the poor in Italy as in the American South. An acquired taste, generously seasoned with nostalgia for a past that is quickly disappearing from the southern portions of both our countries. But I have to say the lemon juice was an inspiration. Maybe it could make even scrapple more palatable.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Saturday was another of those perfect combinations of tourism and research, although the distinction becomes more and more nebulous in my own mind.

We were both pretty exhausted from two intense days in the Vesuviana. Friday, on our feet for hours in Pompeii, not to speak of the stressful commute, pretty much did in the old geezers. So we were just hanging out on the terrace and catching our breath when Fabio appeared from upstairs and offered to take us for caffè. We jump at the chance to be with Fabio, especially when he is so busy, and good coffee with good company on a Saturday morning is hard to beat.

As we descended the ridge to pick up the Via Fuonti, Fabio revealed that this excursion would be a bit more ambitious than he had disclosed. We were headed for Paestum and the Caseificio Il Granato to have coffee and gelato. Buffalo-milk gelato!

The caseificio is located along the SS18 just outside the archaeological zone and is housed in a pretty new building well off the road, with an impressive view of the mountains to the east. Here they make the traditional bufala-milk mozzarella in the standard shapes, from the little bocconcini (‘mouthfuls’) to larger orbs the size of a small grapefruit. Not to speak of the braided forms and the aged stagionati. And now yoghurt.

Then there is the gelateria. I don’t know what it is about gelato that makes it so delicious; the only scholarly evidence I can offer is that when we were here years ago, the first Italian word five-year-old Amy learned (and learned perfectly and practiced with enthusiasm) was “Gelato!” Not even a trace of the lisp her daddy found so charming. The textbooks say that real gelato has significantly less butterfat than American ice cream and yet it has such a rich, velvety feel in the mouth that it’s hard not to imagine that it is far more decadent. Actually, the creamy texture apparently comes from the fact that the mixture of cream, sugar, egg yolk, and flavorings is churned in such a way that it incorporates more air. It’s what the food scientists call ‘overage’. The result is a product that is incredibly luscious on the tongue but is actually a healthier product.

So why haven’t American corporations cottoned onto the idea? Simply because gelato must be consumed quickly or it sets up hard as a brick and is awful. If you don’t believe me try some of those frozen products from the supermarket that purport to be gelato. Gelato needs to be made in a gelateria, and made in small batches that will be consumed within hours. Gelato, like Sandy’s aqua sale, is what ‘fast food’ should be all about.

In the gelateria of Il Granato we saw beautiful, creamy delights laid out in stainless steel canisters and artistically displayed. Wonderful flavors: hazelnut, pistachio, chocolate, coffee, ‘English soup’, lemon, cantaloupe, strawberry. All served in a waffle cone (made on the spot, of course. Fast food, remember?) or a cup, with the option of buffalo-milk whipped cream on top. We all agreed that this was the ultimate gelato.

But Fabio brought up an interesting point that makes me appreciate buffalo-milk products even more. Water buffalo were introduced into this part of Italy only in the 9th century CE and ever since the Campanians have made a virtue of necessity. It was at this time, you see, that the Sele River and its tributaries silted up, whether through bradyseism (the coasts of Italy have risen and fallen constantly over the millennia) or by virtue of deforestation and poor farming practices, or perhaps a combination of both. But the upshot was that the whole Plain of Paestum became swampy and malarial.

The Romans knew perfectly well that swampy places bred malaria. The very name malaria comes from the Latin mala aria, ‘bad air’. And though I have a sentimental predilection for swamps—I grew up in the Mississippi alluvial swamps of West Tennessee—it must be admitted that swamps smell pretty funky. That's why the wealthy Romans lived on the tops of those famous Seven Hills. Of course it was not until Walter Reed discovered that it was the anopheles mosquito that bred in the swamps which was the real disease vector that malaria’s real etiology was determined.

So the populace of the Paestum Plain retreated to the flanks of the mountains to survive. But what to do with all that swampy land? The traditional Mediterranean triad of olives, grapes and wheat was impossible, and standard livestock such as cows, sheep, pigs and goats quickly sickened and died. And so the water buffalo was introduced from India and the rest is history. Today, with channelization and even irrigation, the Paestum Plain is an oasis of beautiful row crops, but it is most famous for its buffaloes and the products derived from their delicious milk. And buffalo will only thrive in this one region of Italy, so genuine mozzarella di bufala can only be made (and sold, since it is highly perishable) in this one area.

Saturday afternoon Fernando escorted the Thurmonds to the Museum of Farm Life in the little village of Ortodonico some 20 miles south of here. We took the coast road, which guaranteed that Sandy was ecstatically making pictures at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, guys, the Amalfi Coast and Capri are spectacular and if you’re inclined to vacation there I say go for it; you will see scenery so gorgeous you will wonder whether your eyes are really seeing it. But if you want to see scenery equally gorgeous in an area where prices are one-third to one-half, where there are not the bumptious crowds of tourists (except on weekends at the beaches) and where you will encounter friendly, helpful local people instead of the harried, frustrated herders of tourists, then I say emphatically, “Come to the Cilento!”

And I must tell you in all honesty, these people need some of your money a lot more than they do in Positano. The little museum in Ortodonico, like so many other attractions in the region, has been forced to close because it can’t sustain itself financially and the governments in the region can’t or won’t make up the shortfall. Fernando had called ahead and arranged with the Direttore, Signore Maffia, to unlock the doors and show the Americans this little gem. The museum is housed in an old frantoio, or olive oil factory, right next to a Medieval tower. The factory contains not one but two massive oil presses, both in near perfect condition and cleverly housed so that every drop of oil could be wrung from those olives. I should explain that unprocessed olives and olive juice are completely inedible because they contain an intensely bitter watery element that not only makes the olive pulp so astringent you won’t be able to talk for several minutes if you sample it (ever eaten an unripe persimmon?), but will quickly spoil the flavor of the oils if not separated. Fortunately, oil and water don’t mix, as anyone who’s mixed his vinaigrette too early has discovered, so allowing the juices to sit and collect for a short time makes it easy to separate the two. Under the floor of the mill were several channels which conducted the different liquid components to their respective receptacles and even out into the courtyard of the facility, now a small piazza of the village. On the volcanic-stone press bed for one of the mills were two small, round, shallow declivities exactly the size of the canisters used to scoop the precious oil from off the bitter water, and to one side of these was a small channel which led back to the separation vat. Sr. Maffia explained that, since oil adhered to the outside of the collecting canisters, they were placed in these hollows and the oil on the outside ran off, through the channel and back into the vat to be collected. When I say every last drop, I mean it literally.

Driving back from the Museum and thinking about the events of the day I was reminded of something I have encountered repeatedly in my research. In case after case, modern technological innovations have allowed us to produce food products more cheaply and more rapidly, and I do not mean to belittle the importance of those considerations in a world where hunger is a constant menace for so many. But, in case after case, a superior product can, and often can only, be made with the simplest technologies. These plus that indefinable element of human culture, pride in what we are producing.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Yesterday I was up early and off with Fernando to visit the famous Certosa of Padula. As we used to say down home, you can’t get there from here.

Padula is only about 35 miles due west of Agropoli, but it’s 35 miles across some of the highest mountains in the Cilento. So it was a two-hour trip. First we headed due north, then northeast to Eboli where we picked up the A-3 Autostrada (interstate) and headed south down the stunning valley of the the Tanagro River, the ancient Tanagrum. On our right were the jagged peaks of the Monti Alburni, with their desolate but beautiful tablelands at the summits, and on our left were the equally dramatic spires of the Monti Picentini. Fernando reminded me that we were traveling along the Roman Via Annia, so often misidentified in the books as the Via Papiria.

In Polla we stopped momentarily to pick up Umberto, one of Fernando’s graduate students, who is as erudite as he is friendly and accessible. Umberto is from nearby Pertosa and served as our local guide. The last stretch of interstate took us along the eastern side of what Fernando tells me is a Cretaceous inland lake bed, flat as a fritter and heavily farmed with row crops, with little towns hugging the flanks of the mountains on both sides.

The Certosa itself is spectacular. Protestant American that I am, I had to Wiki certosa to discover it is Italian for a Carthusian monastery. The Carthusians are an order founded by St. Bruno in Medieval times in Chartreuse, France. The Brits derive their word charterhouse from Chartreuse as well. This order practices a combination of contemplation and self-imposed solitude. But it is the building itself which is an eye-popper.

Loosely arranged around an outer courtyard and a huge inner cloister, the plan is said to reflect the griddle on which San Lorenzo, to whom it is dedicated, was martyred in early Christianity. St. Lawrence, my namesake (my middle name is Lawrence), had the singular distinction of being martyred by being barbecued on the steps of the Temple of Hadrian and Faustina right in the middle of the Roman Forum. Halfway through the gruesome process he is said to have calmly told his torturers, “Time to flip me, boys, I’m done on this side!” Thus, in my warped mind at least, he is the patron saint of barbecue, a saint that any North Carolinian could love.

And speaking of culinary miracles, prominently displayed in the outer courtyard of the monastery is a frying pan some 13 feet in diameter in which was cooked the world’s largest frittata requiring 1000 eggs, the legendary ‘Frittata dalle Mille Uova” cooked in 1535 to honor the visiting Charles the Fifth. The pan is so large that a mechanism was required to empty it.

There are 31 separate cloisters in the Certosa, but the grandaddy of all cloisters is the one that really defines this monastery and has given it World Cultural Heritage status. The cloister covers almost three acres and has over 300 cells around it for the monks. At the far end of the cloister is an incredible double staircase with panoramic views of the grounds and the sleepy town of Padula at the top of the mountain to the east.

Elsewhere we saw the huge kitchen which serviced the refectory of the monastery, and another famous staircase, a spiral beauty in this case, which led us to the Certosa’s library. The shelves are empty now but the elaborate woodwork is still as impressive as ever, and the floor is paved with a huge mosaic, the tesserae of which are Vietri majolica tiles which are easily a foot square. The famous tilewoks of Vietri are just north of our Cilentane coast. On the ceiling is a ‘fresco’, but in this case painted on linen ‘wallpaper’, the first time I’ve ever seen this technique.

I was forced to wait to see my own piece de resistance, the cantina. A conference was being held in one on the spacious chapels and for reasons I never did quite understand we needed to wait until it was finished to proceed to the cellars. But, not to worry, the papers had been delivered and all that remained was for the organizing priest to make a few closing remarks. After 15 minutes all the local politicians bailed and came scurrying out in their perfect Armani suits to give interviews to the local media. Obviously they had been through this drill before. After thirty minutes a few restless members of the audience left. And then we waited...and waited...and waited. After an hour I sat on a curbstone and began to read. Then, suddenly, one of the certosa’s guards whisked us away, through a back stairway, back down another, and down into the huge cantina, a barrel-vaulted behemoth at the far end of which was the largest lever press I have ever seen and likely ever will see. I know how hopeless a description is, but I’ll press on (forgive the bad pun): the main lever of the press was massive beam made from a whole oak tree, some 35 feet long, a yard high and almost a yard across, counterweighted at the back and bound to a massive wooden screw at the front. The screw was easily 15’ tall and a foot in diameter. To counteract the tremendous force created by the lever, the arbores, the posts which act as fulcrum, were fitted to massive stone counterweights in a chamber below the floor. Along the wall of the cantina were the massive chestnut botti (butts) in which the wine was fermented.

But most of this wine was destined for another transformation; the Carthusian brothers had discovered the magic of distillation, and, unlike the mother certosa which produces an eponymous green liqueur, the product here was the fiery brandy which is still so popular in Italy, grappa. The Certosa of Padula is the House that Hooch Built!

As we were leaving an hour later we saw Padre Verboso had finally allowed his victims to escape. Later we visited a rustic little baptistry from the fourth century, built over an ice-cold mountain spring near Pertosa. Doubtless the converts were touched by the spiritus sanctus when that frigid water hit them. Fernando pointed out the irony of the signage for the site: one of the real gems of paleo-Christianity in this area, and what does the sign at the crossroad say? “Trote vive,” “Live Trout!” The waters of the spring feed an adjacent trout farm. I must say in fairness, though, that some of those trote vive were darned impressive; I saw a couple of giants which appeared to be almost four feet long.

Then we were off to the home of Umberto’s family, the Soldovieri clan, for a feast. Here were gathered in the home of his nonni , in addition to the grandparents, his parents, his maternal uncle and aunt, his beautiful sister and female cousin, and his handsome male cousin. Dinner began with two kinds of pasta accompanied with the standard aqua minerale and the far-above standard vino rosso of Signore Soldovieri. Next came what I assumed was the main course, a wonderful selection of traditional Cilentane fare including stuffed artichokes, hard sausage, and little braccioli of sausage nuggets wrapped in lardo, the cured pork fat that is a great rustic favorite in Italy, and of cutlets. All accompanied by braised broccoli rabe so good and reminiscent of the greens my own mama used to make it almost brought tears to my eyes.

Then the dinner took an alarming turn; it seems we had only finished the antipasti, and poor Dave was already as ripieno as those artichokes had been. Out came platters of roasted chicken with potatoes boiled and then browned in the pan juices of the chicken, together with a salad. At that point I should have waved the white flag and disappeared under the table, but here came the cheese course, local bocconcini and caciocavallo along with a soprasata sliced paper thin. And then the fruit course: apples, plums, apricots, all from the family’s orchard, of course. And then the dessert course! Tiramisu and a type of cookie made only in the bakeries of the Cilento. Then a quick nip of an Amaro, a bitter liqueur which I suspect was made from chinotto, the bitter orange of Italy. The Italian palate is so refined that they actually cultivate a taste for bitter foods like radicchio and swear they aid digestion, and at this point mine needed all the help it could get. Finally, delicious Italian coffee, black as the Devil's soul and sweet as Mama’s love.

Umberto had in mind to take us next to a local grotto, but at this point even Fernando had to admit defeat and we headed back down the mountain and up the flank of a ridge to the Autostrada and homeward, two properly stuffed and roasted maiali. All that was lacking was an apple in each mouth.