Last week’s study trip in Calabria kept taking unexpected turns. There was a lot of anxiety-and-nausea-inducing mountain driving in a school bus designed for small children. There was the postprandial “twenty minute stroll” that turned out to be an hour-long full-on trek through forest brush and marsh, complete with two crawls under chain link fences and an improvised bridge over a creek. There was the accordion, guitar, and tambourine music that broke out during our meeting with the mayor of Serrastretta in the town hall, dragging us all into a dizzying round of the tarantella.
I was lucky enough to be traveling around the toe of Italy’s boot with a group of nine girls who share my love for the absurd, so these bizarre curves in our planned study trip schedule didn’t bump up against our expectations. We jumped in and danced the Horah to the traditional Calabrese music in Serrastretta’s town square, with our Japanese classmate Yukako keeping rhythm on tambourine. We sang made-up songs on our borrowed yellow scuola bus as we squeezed into the seats after yet another three hour long lunch. Thanks in large part to these ladies and the series of strange-and-hilarious events that spotted our week, our Calabria stage has been by far my favorite to date.
Of course it wasn’t just the silliness that boosted this stage’s ranking to the top of my list. Calabria is staggeringly gorgeous. Located in Italy’s mezzogiorno (aka Southernmost reaches), its landscape unfolds with sea and mountains and sun and lush fields, all in an area of about a tenth of the size of my home state of New York. On a clear day, if you position yourself just right (in a bus on one of those nerve-wracking roads), you can see the coasts of the two seas—the Tyrrhenian on the west and the Ionian on the east— that bound the region, as well as Mt. Etna in the distance.
It also didn’t hurt that all the Calabrese farmers, beekeepers, butchers, Slow Food representatives, chefs, and politicians we met welcomed us with pride in their region and genuine warmth. They wanted us to feel Calabrese by seeing and tasting everything their towns had to offer.
And when it came to tasting, there seemed to be an endless menu of local specialties to sample, from staples like ricotta made from a blend of sheep’s milk and goat’s milk and the smoky-spicy, spreadable ‘nduja sausage, to handmade pastas slicked with pestos made with wild herbs.
Of course life in Calabria is not just the utopia of seaside strolls and convivial dinners that we got to sample last week. The region suffers under the reign of the ‘Ndragheta (the Calabrese mob, which is more powerful nowadays than Sicily’s more famous Cosa Nostra), and many of the towns we visited have gone through several waves of depopulation, with exoduses to both North America and Northern Italy. The opportunity to delve into Calabria’s cultural paradox—between so much beauty and so much ugliness—made this study trip indispensable. Here are some highlights:
We left Bra at the ungodly hour of 2:30AM on Monday to catch an early flight to Lamezia Terme, so by the time lunch rolled around we were all running on fumes. A two-hour-long feast of fried fish, sauteed eggplant, and shrimp-studded risotto at Ristorante GO’ in Pizzo was just what we needed. This Slow Food-recognized locale serves up typical Calabrian ingredients, like sweet tropea onions, in a feels-like-home setting, thanks to the fact that a mother-daughter team helms the kitchen.
After (sort of) catching up on shut-eye, we kicked off Tuesday morning with a 7:30AM visit to Azienda Agricola Rotiroti to catch the tail-end of their cheese making process. Rotiroti is a family-owned farm located in Gagliato, a small village in the Serre mountainside of Catanzaro province. Run by a father-and-sons team, the farm produces both semi-hard pecorino from a sheep (70%) and goat (30%) milk blend and that ever-present ricotta with the whey left over from making the cheese. That’s right: ricotta isn’t technically a cheese. Ricotta literally means “recooked” in Italian, and it is made by fermenting whey and boiling it, allowing the remaining protein to form fine curds. Nicola, the Rotiroti patriarch, has been making cheese and ricotta daily for 60 years. While hygiene regulations have changed a lot about cheese making over the years (mandating the switch from artisan-woven jute pecorino and ricotta molds to plastic baskets, for one), one thing has not changed: at Rotiroti, ricotta is cooked over a wood fire and stirred with large wooden dowel. After meeting some of the newest kid, lamb, bunny, and puppy additions to the farm’s 300 animals(!), we sat down to ‘mpanata, the traditional shepherd’s breakfast of cubes of stale bread soaked in warm whey, topped with fresh ricotta.
After our farm-life morning, we took a winding drive to the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Serre for a visit with Nazareno Circosta, an expert beekeeper and honey producer. Nazareno’s nickname is “the boy the bees talk to” (which of course reminded me of George Hearst on Deadwood), and he curates the production of excellent honeydew honey. Honeydew is a super sugar-rich liquid secreted by insects after they gorge on plant sap. It is harvested by honeybees, which then make a dark, thick honey. We sampled the honey atop ricotta as the cap to a picnic meal we shared with Nazareno and some of his friends from Calabria Felix, an association that promotes back-to-roots Calabrian products like Nazareno’s honey and pesto made from wild fennel and walnuts. (It was after this picnic that we took our infamous “twenty minute stroll”).
On Wednesday we left the environs of Torre di Ruggiero, our original base, for (first a stop at the beach in Soverato and then) Cosenza, where we toured the Migliarese farm. In its third generation of ownership, this farm is a seed-to-jar production, meaning that they grow loads of fresh produce like strawberries, tomatoes, and eggplant, and turn some of them into jams, sauces, and oil-preserved antipasti. Spanning 50 hectares, the farm is managed by the young Mario Migliarese, who studied agronomy and is dead-set on promoting its line of organic olive oils and preserves to a wide audience. We lunched on juicy strawberries, fresh peas, and some of the most flavorful tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. For dessert, we were treated to a traditional brittle known as “cupeta montepaone,” made with honey, sesame seeds, almonds, and orange zest by master cupeta-maker Bruno Platì. It was a fresh welcome after several days of three-primi and two-secondi meals.
After a night of dancing with the mayor of Serrastretta, we had cleared some space in our stomachs for another too-many course meal at Il Vecchio Castagno, a family restaurant headed up by Terra Madre chef Delfino Maruca. But first, we had to sing for our supper, so to speak—that is, lend a hand in making it. Since Maruca is an avid forager (he describes himself as a “cook with his hands in the earth”), the potato gnocchi we helped roll featured wild herbs—the purple-flowered borage, in particular. Served with sage brown butter and crisp bits of pancetta, it was easily my favorite of the countless primi we sampled in Calabria.