Monday, July 13, 2015

Italian Yuppies

Ogliastro Cilento

The Monastery of San Leonardo

The Basilica of the monastery

The cloisters

Founded 1601

The view from Teresa's terazza
Villa in Copersito

Palazzo Gallone

Olive mill in the frantoio

Mario Siniscalchi

Teresa's kitchen

First Course

Second course


With Fernando, Teresa and Nunzio

Yesterday we had a feast, compliments of Ancel Keys and another of his devoted followers, this one born to the legacy.
Last week Fernando had invited us to go out for pizza along with two of his young friends, Teresa Sanna and her husband Nunzio Mastrolia.  It’s a tribute to the gentleman Fernado is that he’s always looking to connect us with bright, creative Italians who speak English, even though he knows he’s likely to be left out of much of the conversation.  As it happened, Nunzio’s English was flawless and Teresa’s quite good, although she is almost as reluctant to use it as we are to expose our own ignorance of Italian.  Nunzio is an academic who specializes in geoeconomics, especially the emerging market economy in China, and Teresa is a gastronome who studies and writes about the Mediterranean diet, not in the sense that most Americans think of it, but in the narrower sense first espoused in the West by Ancel Keys; that is, a cuisine traditional in this part of Italy, rich in olive oil, fruits and vegetables, with moderate consumption of wine and very little animal fat.  But diet comes from a Greek word that denotes ‘regimen’ or ‘mode of living’, not just food, and Keys knew that regular exercise was an integral part of the whole regimen.  See a former blog for more details.  Better yet, buy and study one of Keys’ popular books; it could well save your life.

We had a wonderful time with this delightful couple, talking about the world economy, the crisis in Greece, how market economies can or cannot survive various political systems, but, as usual, the conversation made its way eventually to food, and specifically where and how to procure the best seafood in Agropoli.  When she discovered that we were foodies as well, Teresa generously offered to treat us all to dinner on Friday.

Friday evening at 6:30 Fernando came by the villa and picked us up to take us to our feast in Ogliastro, a small town about 6 miles away on the next ridge over.  As it happened, we had made a recent unplanned trip to Ogliastro and had been seduced completely by that little charmer, so we were even more excited by our return.  Hans had developed some brake problems last week, which Nicola, his owner, had quickly and cheerfully corrected, but the new brake shoes, as they are wont to do, made a horrible grinding noise when I first applied them, and we were so concerned that this might be a major problem that we opted out of our planned trip to a mountain town some 30 miles from here and headed up a provincial road to Ogliastro in order to take the back roads back to Agropoli.  

We came into Ogliastro from the southwest and decided to stop for coffee at a bar-cafe with a panoramic overlook to let the Japanesa do her thing and let my nerves settle a bit.  We had a dramatic view of the upper reaches of the town and noticed at the very top what appeared to be a huge castle.  We downed our coffee, asked the kind young server for directions to the Centro, and headed up into the heart of Ogliastro.  Fortunately, we missed the turn—unusually, Ogliastro’s center is down on a lower slope of the ridge, a fact that puzzled Nunzio as well, I discovered—so we simply made our way to the top of the town on the theory that that is where the Centro should be.  No Centro, but there was that huge building, and it was accessible!  We’re always looking for tourist attractions that some Italian bureaucrat can’t prevent us from seeing.  It turned out our castle was no such thing, at least not in a later manifestation.  It was a monastery, devoted to San Leonardo, attached to a huge basilica which dates from 1601.  The nave of the basilica showed some desultory efforts to preserve and perhaps even restore it, and we wandered through a beautiful cloisters, overgrown suggestively with trumpet vine and bougainvillea, as well as several of the service rooms.  Much of the building still had its gorgeous cross-vaulted ceilings, the flat bricks the Romans preferred substituted here by worked slabs of the local limestone.

We wandered on down to the Centro eventually and found the mother church (closed) and the palazzo of the Stefano family (closed), but we were delighted with our unexpected panoramas and that fantastic monastery.

Long-winded way of saying we were very happy to be returning to Ogliastro and to our new friends especially.  Nunzio met us at the entrance to a large, four-story house which turned out to be his childhood home, where his parents live and his father still practices medicine, and where his brother still lives and practices law.  Nunzio and Teresa live on the second level, and their house is a stunner: gorgeous tile floors, striking contemporary furnishings, a kitchen to die for, and a study with book shelves to the ceiling along one wall which is easily 20’ long.  Dave was drooling.  But French doors from the dining room and the study open onto the real star of the show, terazze with spectacular vistas across the Colle San Marco where our little place is and to the sea beyond.  To the north we could see part of the Paestan Plain, to the south the stunning little hill towns of Prignano, Torchiara, and in the distant southwest Monte Stella and my favorite town in the world, Castelabbate, clinging to the side of a cliff so it won’t tumble into the sea.

Now, it was not much past 7:30 pm, and no self-respecting Italian is going to eat dinner at that ridiculous hour, so we trundled into Fernando’s trusty car and off we went to Copersito, a little frazione (suburb is as close as I can get) of Torchiara.  We parked and wandered down a cobbled street past villas with their own fabulous views of the sea, past one, two, three palazzi!  Definitely not the low-rent district.  Nunzio made a quick phone call, explained that this was the one chance the Americani would have to see an attraction in one of the palaces, and soon a door opened and we were greeted by Mario Siniscalchi, direct descendant of the noble Gallone family which had built the core of the palace.  But what our friends wanted us to see was the nineteenth-century frantoio, the olive oil processing plant, which was housed on the ground floor.  Mario conducted us to the press room where he explained how the giant olive mill ground the harvested olives to a pulp.  The pulp was then put in flat woven baskets with holes at top and bottom, which were stacked on a spindle on a large hydraulic press and then squeezed to release their oil and vegetal water.  The liquids drained directly into a sump in the middle of the floor where the oil floated to the top (oil and water have different densities) and then was skimmed off and put in the huge amphorae we saw along the wall.  Mario next showed us the cella olearia, the olive storage room, cool and dark, and the cella vinarea where the wine was stored.  

We thanked Mario for his kindness and then wandered, led by a cute little black mutt, down a side street toward the center of this little community—again, down, not up.  Strange!— and then headed back to Ogliastro for some dinner.

As Teresa busied herself in the cucina, Nunzio showed us a professional video of the monastery.  Excellent production values, almost no information.  Sadly, even the consortium which is trying to raise money to restore the basilica has apparently not done any research on the history of their star attraction.  Meanwhile Teresa was busy in that killer kitchen, bringing out one gorgeous dish after another. and old Dave was becoming more and more excited.  

Finally we were called to dinner, where Nunzio served us a chilled Vermentino, a white Sardinian wine with just a slight sparkle to it, a perfect accompaniment to a summer meal, and a sentimental favorite of Teresa, who is a native of that fair island.  And Teresa brought out platter after platter of beautiful vegetables, all cooked simply but perfectly and dressed only with the best olive oil.  There was aqua sale, one of our favorite dishes in the world, basically very stale bread over which you pour the flesh and juices of dead-ripe cherry tomatoes, chopped roughly and seasoned with salt and a little oregano.  How can such a simple dish be so perfect?  But in this case served on what appeared to be large bagel halves.  I tried to eat mine like a bagel, and after a near culinary disaster, Teresa kindly explained that you broke up the bread with your fork and ate the pieces.  There were thin slices of grilled zucchini and eggplant, a medley of red peppers and black olives—a sort of caponata.

With this course we had little slices of a deliciously funky salsiccia, very similar to the Lucanian that Fernado and Fabio introduced me to six years ago.  In other words, a sausage recipe that goes back easily 2700 years.  There were delicious, squishy little boconcini, the small mozzarella di bufala cheeses for which this area is famous, as well as a burrata, an impossibly rich mozzarella with pure butter in its core.  To complete the course there were wedges of good, rustic whole-wheat bread.

The next course was composed of a timbale of fresh anchovy fillets over an herbed stuffing, over which was served a pepper relish.  And if you’ve only ever tasted the tinned anchovies, pledge to put aside all your preconceptions about that noble little fish. The dish was stellar. There were fagiolini, green beans, in this case the huge, flat variety we used to call leather-britches and that remind us both so much of Sandy’s grandmother, and cooked in the same way, slowly simmered for an hour or more, and in this case dressed with tomatoes.  There was a dynamite little dish of escarole, scarola, slow cooked as well to bring out all the latent sweetness of that naturally bitter green, and dressed with sultanas, pine nuts, and oil, alla Siciliana.

Desert was little sformati of tiramisu, a perfect light desert for heavy stomachs.

As we dined, we enjoyed more wonderful conversation.  It is easy to see that Nunzio, who is classically trained in addition to his grounding in economics, is something of a philosopher and theoretician.  Meanwhile, in her halting English and my bad Italian, I learned from Teresa that she is intensively researching the Mediterranean diet in its broad sense as well as the core cuisine, and that every dish we had been served was in accordance with the diet and composed only of local foods.  Needless to say, she was preaching to the choir.

So, these young people have it made, wouldn’t you say?  A beautiful house in a gorgeous little town, wonderful food and wine, fulfilling careers.  But sadly, that is not entirely correct.  Nunzio has taught at a university in Rome for the last six years as adjunct faculty, a role I know only too well.  Crappy pay, no benefits.  But this year, for reasons unexplained, the university refused to renew even the temporary contract of this brilliant young man who has published extensively and would easily be a star in any American university.  And, though I am not completely sure, I am willing to wager a year’s salary that it has something to do with making room for some political flack with absolutely no talent but who is better connected.

There is a paradox here.  Individually, familially, Italians adore their young, dote on them, spoil them beyond belief, in fact.  An Italian parent would no more boot a child out of the household at the age of 24, 30, 35, than they would chop off their own right hand.  But corporately, institutionally, Italy has for many years cannibalized her young.  Case in point: all around the Bay of Naples, on any given early morning there are fires burning, burning, burning.  It seems that Camorra, the local mafia, ships in toxic waste from the industrial north and pays local farmers a pittance to burn it in the middle of the night when no Italian bureaucrat would dare inspect.  I read an article last summer that suggests the consequent incidence of cancer among the very young, those under the age of 12, is some 10 times that of any remotely normal population.  The good people in northern Campania are killing their own children, at the behest of the most pustulent element of Italian society.

But for the not-so-young, perhaps, the cannibalism is even more cruel, a stultifying, dream-killing hierarchy which absolutely defies competency or merit and condemns a huge percentage of Italy’s younger population to lives of desperate mediocrity. even if they are lucky enough to find a job when some hack finally consents to die or retire.  Oh, I have no doubt that Teresa and Nunzio will be fine.  These are incredibly bright and creative young people, and they will create their own opportunities, whatever the obstacles thrown in their paths.  They are already talking of starting their own publishing company, but in this case either on-demand desktop publishing or e-books, with a target audience of China!  It seems the Chinese are fascinated by Italian cuisine, and our friends envision brief histories of paradigmatic Italian foods.  Imagine, in a country with a population of billions, if you sell an e-book for a dollar to 250 million, you have made a small fortune, especially when the cost of publication is minimal.

The one route of escape for talented young professionals like Teresa and Nunzio, short of giving up and leaving Italy as so many continue to do, is to escape on the ether.  The world wide web is the great equalizer of opportunity in the newly emerging information economy.  But, sadly, even here Italy is fighting a rearguard action against her young.  The only possible way that she can absolutely ensure a third-world economy within the next ten years is to refuse to move to fiber-optic cable-enabled internet access.  And internet service in Italy is abysmal.  Another article I read last summer suggests that little over 10% of Italian internet traffic travels over fiber, the lowest rate of any major European economy.  When I asked why this was so, a very thoughtful friend pointed out that there is one man in Italy who controls some 85% of the content that travels through the airwaves via radio and television, and therefore has the most to lose if Italians have the freedom to receive content through their computers.  His name is Silvio Berlusconi.