Saturday, July 24, 2010


Shortly after we arrived in Agropoli our hosts, the Astones, took us to a fine local restaurant for a taste of traditional Cilentane foods. It proved to be a memorable meal.

The restaurant was the Ristorante Casareccia, located between Capaccio Scalo and Capaccio Vechio, Capaccio-on-the-Road and Old Capaccio. Another paired community, one up on the flanks of the mountains and the other down in the lowlands. This is almost the rule in the Cilento, not the exception. The reasons are both practical and strategic.

One practical consideration is simply that transport is so much easier by water in a pre-industrial context, and the Cilento is richly blessed with natural harbors and bays, so it was perfectly natural for little coastal communities to develop all along the Tyrrhenian coast, as far back as the Neolithic and perhaps even earlier in some cases. There was a thriving commercial system here as early as the Early Bronze Age, and that trade only intensified with the coming of classical Greek colonies such as Poseidonia, modern Paestum, and Elia, today’s Velia.

But, as mentioned earlier, the soils of the alluvial plains such as those of the Calore and Sele river regions in this area were simply too dense for early farmers to plow, equipped as they were with the simple ard plow. So arable farming was restricted to the lower foothills of the mountains where soils were light and easily turned but retained enough moisture to carry crops through the dry Mediterranean summers.

And there may have been another reason as well, one which goes back to the very beginnings of the Neolithic Revolution. Archaeological research conducted in central Italy in the last 20 years suggests that there was an early phase of proto-agriculture when ‘crops’ were not so much planted as nurtured in their natural environments, and these incidental ‘gardens’ were supplemented with the herding of cattle such as sheep and goats. Add to that a rich supply of meat garnered from hunting, just as had been done in the Paleolithic, especially of the various indigenous deer in this area. But deer, like their domesticated cousins the sheep and goat, are migratory in central Italy, following the summer fodder into the uplands where moisture is more plentiful. In the realm of domesticated cattle it’s called transhumance, the practice of transferring cattle from winter lowland pasturage to summer uplands. Think of Heidi, following the cows into the upper Alps and returning in the fall with wagons laden with beautiful Swiss cheeses. Again and again, even from late Paleolithic, we see summer hunting/herding communities along drove roads leading down to winter coastal communities.

The strategic reason for the upland communities is simply for protection against marauders. It is difficult for an American to understand how the tragic history of the Mezzogiorno may have molded in subtle but profound ways the psyche of the modern southern Italian. But once your native land has been invaded, there is a psychic scar that lasts for generations. Now imagine being invaded repeatedly, with all the attendant murder, rape, pillage, and destruction. If my calculations are correct, Agropoli has seen some 23 changes of regime, so to speak, most of them instigated by violence. Some of the Medieval villages in this area are almost unbelievably inaccessible, so much so that many are being abandoned as people look for easier access to jobs, good highways, entertainment, you name it. Fernando has a friend who has bought a whole Medieval village on the slopes of Mt. Soprano and is turning it into a tourist destination!

Capaccio Scalo has a much more prosaic history; it simply developed as a node along the new highway built back in the early twentieth century and is therefore essentially a modern town.

At the restaurant we were warmly greeted by Antonio, the proprietor, so warmly, in fact, that I thought our hosts must be hard-core restaurant patrons. Later we discovered that Antonio, Antonello or Nello as he is called by family, is the son of Filomena’s cousin. And a cousin in southern Italy is every bit as welcome as in the American South.

We began our repast with plates of antipasti consisting of the famous cheeses of the area, namely, little bocconcini of mozzarella, and the aged caciocavallo. They were accompanied by the most impossibly red and sweet little tomatoes I have ever seen. Then there was aqua sale, literally ‘salted water’, which was a revelation. These were little chunks of the local bread baked in a wood-fired oven, but in this case then sliced into slabs about 2” in thickness, placed on a sheet pan on their sides and baked again, a true biscotto. Our hosts explained that these were quickly dipped in water (the time depends on how old and dry the bread is, so it’s an empirical process, as I discovered when I tried my hand), broken into chunks, salted generously, then sprinkled with herbs, perfectly ripe halved grape tomatoes and doused with the best olive oil. Absolutely simple, and absolutely delicious.

Next came plates of the local salumi, or cured pork products, for which this region has been famous for at least two thousand years: prosciutto crudo, what we would call a country ham, but not one of the fake ones you see today but a real hard-cured ham that requires no refrigeration. This one was cured in a facility behind the restaurant! It was thinly sliced and accompanied by slices of a delicious, spicy soprasatta.

Next we had our contorni, or vegetable course, a reminder that Italians love veggies so much that they either make them the whole focus of a meal or at least give them the stage to themselves so they can be appreciated as something more than second fiddle to a hunk of meat. We had a ragu of carrots, artichokes, celery and sweet peppers, cooked as simply as possible and slightly bathed in good olive oil. Along with these we had a melange of zucchini and eggplants, gently sautéed to the tender-crunchy stage and again dressed very simply. Probably my favorite part of the meal.

For the pasta course we were offered three local favorites, a ravioli made from handmade sheet pasta and stuffed with the local goat-milk ‘ricotta’, which is actually a full-fat farmer’s cheese. These were sauced with a simple marinara. Along with these we had fusilli con ragu. The fusilli in this case are long, hollow noodles hand-shapped by rolling strips of sheet pasta around a tiny dowel and then zipping them off. It’s apparently a real art; our friend Katiuscia says her mom can whip them out in no time, but hers are total disasters. These were sauced with a slow-simmered ragu, and thanks to Fabio I have some inside dope on this. When we went to Castelcivita to the Grotto there, Fabio had the clerk at the office of the tourist attraction make up two batches of fusilli and presented one to me. He explained that the secret of the ragu was choosing the best ingredients and then simmering low and slow, preferably for at least three hours. The absolute best ingredients are a bit of onion from the Astones’ garden, sweated in olive oil from the Astones’ orchards, to which a fairly coarse dice of a cut of beef has been added, but one with lots of connective tissue which slowly releases its unctuous gelatins. Into these should be stirred a bottle of Mama Filomena’s canned tomatoes, seasoned with herbs, salt and pepper. Turn the gas as low as it will go, add a cup of water and be patient. Your patience will be richly rewarded.

The third pasta was cavatelli, but not the sort we think of here, the extruded semolina pasta, but rather little gnocchi of soft wheat flour, hand crafted and sauced with a luscious cheese sauce and medallions of eggplant. It’s darned hard to make potato gnocchi that don’t have the texture of silly putty, but I can’t imagine how gentle one must be to create these soft little pillows of goodness.

For the meat course the restaurant pulled out all the stops and served fresh pork sausages, poultry and beef all three, à la Romans. It was delicious, all roasted over open coals and having that grilled flavor, but we were all a bit jaded by now and I think Filomena’s beloved dogs probably enjoyed the most benefit. These were served with a fresh salad and French fries.

The only one who opted for dessert with her caffé was a certain anonymous little porker, and this was a simple frozen cup. Italians don’t like desserts after a meal, preferring sweets as a mid-morning or late-afternoon spuntina (snack) to accompany the powerful espresso coffee that carries them through to the next meal.

With our meal we enjoyed three wines, a white Falanghina from northern Campania, an Aglianico of no particular distinction but still quite good, and, I presume in honor of Cousin Rolando who loves the Piemontese grapes, a Ciloso. The Aglianico had a delicious flavor but almost no discernible aroma, the Ciloso just the opposite, with lots of berry in the nose but a rough astringency on the palate. But the really delicious thing about Italian restaurant wines is that they are affordable. What a luxury to be able to enjoy with your loved ones a whole bottle of wine, without stinting! In my opinion, American restaurateurs who habitually insist on a 700% to 1000% markup on wines are being incredibly shortsighted.

The meal had been accompanied by sports news from a large-screen television mounted on the wall, something I usually despise, but really very entertaining in this case. We started our meal about an hour before the beginning of Italy’s World Cup match with Poland, and the whole restaurant was fixated on the panel of sportscasters, garrulously bloviating away just like their American cousins. Think Carolina-Duke basketball extrapolated to a national level. It was fun to watch all the earnest discussion, none of which we understood, but which clearly engaged the passions of the locals. By the time the match started the restaurant was practically deserted; everybody had skeedaddled home so they could scream blissfully at the screen in private. But Nello provided plenty of animation and local color for us as the Italian team did its usual stint at underachieving.

Altogether a fun and delicious afternoon and a wonderful chance to meet and get to know our host family in the best and most intimate way of all, namely, by sharing with them the sacred pleasure of food.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Today I visited two winemaking operations, worlds apart in their size and scope but both sharing a passion for natural wine.

This morning Fernando and I made our way to the Azienda Marino, nestled in the hills south of Agropoli, where we met Rafaele Marino, the proprietor and winemaker of this mid-sized operation. Rafaele was out in the vineyards on the tractor, so we strolled around the grounds of the villa as we waited for him to return. The Mariinos (this is another family operation) operate an agriturismo on the property, a beautiful villa with a huge veranda in front and rooms facing the vineyards with an oblique vista of Agropoli and the sea in the distance. At the back of the villa is a walled cortile or courtyard around which are clustered work areas such as the winery and tasting room. All immaculate and pretty. It’s easy to see that this family shares the same esthetic sensibilities, combined with a powerful work ethic, that we have seen so often before in Italy.

About ten minutes later we were greeted by Rafaele himself, a man who appears to be in his late forties/early fifties with movie star good looks: blue eyes, bronzed skin, carefully styled black hair graying at the temples, perfect white teeth, and looking, in his navy shorts and white polo, like he just returned from Monaco instead of the tractor. I was glad Sandy had opted for shopping this time around; she’s been dropping strong hints that she’s going to dump me and move to Italy and Rafaele could have tipped the scales. I, on the other hand, was most impressed by the fact that he looked so cool and collected. It’s been hot here in the South of late, and our faithful intermittent brezze (sea breezes) and venticelli (mountain breezes) have deserted us as well. With our northern-European ancestry, we’ve been sweating like race horses. I’m reminded of an old girlfriend who insisted that girls don’t sweat, they glisten. Rafaele glistened. I sweated.

Rafaele took us first to part of the vineyard where he showed us vines of Aglianico and explained that he specializes in the ‘historic’ vines of the region such as Aglianico, Fiano, Greco di Tufo and Piedirosso. I’ve commented elsewhere about the chances of these being the ‘original’ vines of Italy, so I won’t be a curmudgeon, but what I can say with absolute confidence is that several of these grapes have enormous potential, given the right amount of respect. Take this for what it’s worth, since I have a mediocre palate, sad to say, but the Fiano grape (white wine) and the Aglianico grape (red) in my opinion are undiscovered jewels. And they’re still reasonably priced! There’s even an Aglianico that is my favorite everyday quaff which is sold for about $5 by Trader Joe’s. Spring for a couple more bucks and I’d almost guarantee you’ll never go back to Two Buck Chuck again.

As we made our way to the winery Rafaele explained his philosophy of winemaking: leave the grapes and young wines alone and let them show you what they can do, unless they obviously need some help. Case in point, the use of copper sulfate. Coastal Cilento has the same problem for viticulture as we have in North Carolina: too much humidity at key points in the summer. And molds and mildews such as oidium and gray mold just love a warm, humid place to eat grape leaves. So Rafaele sprays, but only when it’s obviously necessary, not on a preset, biweekly schedule as so often in the US, even in industrial wineries in arid California. And he lets the grapes leaven themselves until he sees they’re in trouble, in which case he’ll use a cultured yeast. None of this foolishness of blasting the must with sulfites and starting from a ‘dead’ must. As a teacher and a parent , I’ve always thought that kids thrive on a bit of benign neglect; let ‘em show you what they’re capable of doing, even if you fear they’re overreaching. But be there for backup when they get in trouble. That seems like a good way to raise wines as well, so Rafaele was preaching to the choir.

Next we toured the winery, a spacious facility where we saw the staging area for the entry of the grapes, the crusher/de-stemmer, the ‘press’, in this case one of the bladder presses so popular in modern winemaking. If it sounds a bit distasteful, don’t be alarmed; it’s just a large cylindrical metal canister with an inflatable rubber ‘balloon’ inside which squeezes the crushed gapes against the interior sides of the cylinder to extract the must. Not quite a gentle as the naked human foot, still the absolute best way to crush grapes, but a world gentler than the hydraulic presses which are cheaper and faster.

We made our way to the fermentation room with its large, stainless steel vats which can be temperature controlled, so very critical for producing good wines in this hot environment. Then to the bottling room where the Marinos have a complete bottling line. Finally to the tasting room where Rafaele told us more of his philosophy and met his lovely wife and handsome son. With his parents, this kid had no chance of turning out ugly. Rafaele explained that he has difficulty selling his wines in the commercial venues in the Cilento, so he sells in Canada and through the family’s restaurant in Agropoli. Sad to say, this didn’t surprise me at this point. Only the day before I had gone to a local wine shop to buy an excellent Fiano Sandy and I had enjoyed at a local restaurant. The clerk practically sneered, “This wine you will find at the supermarket!” Geez, lady, I thought, I didn’t ask for sterco on a crocciante, it’s a great little wine! So I asked for any other local Fianos. “At the supermarket, signore!”

Well, I’m not going to be cowed into buying something I don’t want, so off I went to the supermarket, where I found... not one single Cilentane wine! Not one! There was a Fiano from northern Campania which I’ve had before; it’s crap. Sadly, it appears that wine snobbery is as rampant in southern Italy as in America.

This afternoon I experienced Rolando’s vino della casa, and I’ll warn you in advance there is no way I can be an objective observer here, I have so much admiration and affection for him. Rolando is our host. He showed me his vineyard, consisting of some 8 rows of grapes. These too were the traditional grapes, not of the Cilento but of Piemonte! Rolando and Filomena lived in Torino for many years and when they retired to Agropoli he brought slips of the famous Piedmontese grapes Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Arnese. Rolando’s grapes, like Rolando himself had earlier done, are thriving in their adopted home. I was struck by the tiny little berries of these pretty clusters, a reminder that most of the flavor and aroma in wine derives from the skins, so the really noble wine grapes all have small berries: more skin per ounce of juice.

Rolando’s grapes are completely organic, not even any copper sulfate. I suppose in a bad year for molds he simply makes the best wine he can and hopes for a better season next year.

His ‘winery’ is a workroom on the ground level of the villa, katty-cornered from our apartment, which is naturally cooled by the earth itself. Rolando uses a hand-cranked crusher-destemmer, then throws the must into two large plastic containers, perhaps five feet tall and about the same in diameter at the top. They undergo the primary stage of fermentation here, when fermentation is so vigorous there is no need for a closed container. Then they go into stainless-steel cylinders, the elfin cousins of the huge ones at Marino, and in this case not mechanically cooled. The vintage takes place in October, and by February the wine is ready to be racked off the lees into glass carboys which line a shelf along one wall, where they slowly finish their aging. Rolando bottles by hand, of course, and uses simple plastic ‘corks’, cheaper and more hygienic.

We tasted one of Rolando wines, a Barbera. Rolando explained that he uses about 80% Barbera grapes and 20% white Arnese. For balance and aroma? No, the Arnese have some residual sugar and they are what gives the wine its fizz. Rolando uses a specially designed plastic stopper which accepts a wire ‘cage’ just like the cork ones do on commercial sparklers. The wine is not really fizzy, spumante as the Italians say, but more a frizzante, just a pleasant bit of sparkle. There is also a bit of residual sweetness. Not my favorite style of wine, but still delicious; the aroma and fruitiness of the Barbera grapes were all there, the wine was perfectly balanced and ‘healthy’. Plus, the companionship was a great vintage.

Rolando explained that he likes to drink his wines young, often after only six months or so, like Beaujolais Nouveaux. Why not aged wines? Because, unless they are truly great vintages of truly great grapes, the winemaker is practically compelled to sulfur his wines to keep them stable, and that is no longer a natural product. It’s the same for his olive oil, which Rolando claims is good medicine as well as fine food. Hard to argue with that. The best pasta sauce I’ve ever tasted is a tablespoon of Rolando’s olive oil.

It was interesting that both Rafaele and Rolando emphasized with considerable zeal that natural wine will make you strong and keep you strong. Hard to argue with that either; Rolando is a robust 73 who works around the villa every day. And once again I was struck by the recurrent theme: technology can make products more rapidly and more cheaply, but it does not necessarily make them better.