Sunday, 20 July 2014

Our Grand Tour of Cilento

Another highlight of my Rome program was heading to Cilento, a region in Italy just south of the Amalfi Coast. Like many parts of Italy, Cilento is a "breadbasket" region with a thriving agricultural tradition.

We began our trip in the city of Salerno. As we drove down along the winding coast, I think we all lost our breath when we saw those expansive azure blue waters of the Mediterranean for the first time. Once we actually arrived in the city, we had some free time to enjoy walking along the coast and explore the winding alleyways of the Old City.

I, of course, found a ceramics shop and a few other boutiques. I love the light blue pottery in this region. It often features a lemon motif because that fruit is one of the region's specialties. I also stumbled across an art gallery that was hosting a free exhibition. The best part was that the Salerno version of the Boy Scouts of America were giving free tours of the gallery and they were so enthusiastic!

After exploring the town, the GustoLab reconvened to meet some of the local food entrepreneurs in the city. We started off at Osteria del Taglio, one of the more famous restaurants in the city. You could immediately tell that it was a family owned and operated business because the husband, wife, and their two kids were all present for our tour. This business, like many celebrated restaurants in Italy, sources its produce, meats, and fish locally and focuses on seasonality. In addition to the family, there were two chefs manning the kitchen. They were kind enough to host a dessert tasting and pasta making demonstration.

After visiting the restaurant, we headed toward the Giardino della Minerva. During the 17th century, a medical doctor founded this garden to grow plants with medicinal properties. The entire structure of the garden is based on the concepts of "balance" and the four humors. Essentially, doctors used to believe that the body was comprised of four humors: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. These humors corresponded to four elements: earth, fire, air, and water. They believed that a human body was healthy when these four humors/elements were in balance. However, if someone was ill, they believed their was a deficiency in one of the humors and that medicinal herbs/plants could help alleviate this imbalance. The garden itself is broken up into four quadrants that correspond to the humors. Additionally, the doctors categorized each plant by how strongly it could influence those humors. On a side note: the garden is watered by a sophisticated irrigation system invented by 15th century Arab engineers that uses gravity to disperse water from the highest to lowest garden tier.

That night, we headed to the town of Eboli -- an inland city in Cilento. We enjoyed climbing to the upper reaches of the city for a nice view before heading back into town for dinner at our hotel (where we got to try some local seafood).

Each night in Eboli, everyone in the town congregates in the town square. You can see old men strolling arm and arm with one another while children run around with freshly pulled toffee in their sticky little hands. They get their candy from a cart near the town's puppet theater. I couldn't believe that they still have a theater like that - with the character voices and the masked puppets and all.

The next morning, we headed to the beach to relax a bit before continuing on with our coursework. The beach was absolutely lovely! We had lunch at a local restaurant called, Ristorante Boccaccio where I enjoyed a seafood risotto with fresh muscles, clams, calamari, and octopus.

After visiting the beach, we stopped by two other institutions related to Italian food cultures: The Museo della dieta Mediterranea (The Museum of the Mediterranean Diet) and the Museo del Mare (The Marine Museum) in Pioppi, Italy. The Museum of the Mediterranean Diet is actually quite interesting. It details the history of an American ethnographer, Ancel Keys, who moved to this city in the mid-20th century. He noticed that the people around him lived much longer than those in the United States and he attributed their good health to their diet, which he deemed the "Mediterranean Diet." This diet consists of foods that you typically associate with Italy: pastas, acidic fruits such as tomatoes and lemons, sardines, olive oil, red wine, and a minimal amount of fresh cheeses and meats. Recently, there has been a lot of controversy around the effectiveness of this diet. For example, nutritionists question the scientific basis of Key's observations. Regardless of the nutritional technicalities, the diet is based primarily on consuming whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and minimal amounts of red meat (all of which are characteristics of modern understandings of healthy eating). The Marine Museum was also really fun - I was completely entranced by this super active octopus who kept swimming and climbing around his cage. Octopi are so interesting. They can fit through the tiniest of places because they don't have a skeleton!

Later that night, we returned to Eboli and visited a fantastic pizzeria called Vico Rua. Our visit started off with a pizza making workshop where we were able to shape our pizza dough and then bake them in their beautiful brick oven. We actually began the workshop in their garden, which was lined with the most fragrant blooming jasmine. From there, we made our way to the kitchens.


In addition to the pizza workshop, we also had dinner. This was probably one of the most memorable meals I had while in Italy. The food was so different from the typical dishes we had in Rome. First off, there were numerous casserole dishes: potatoes with deep-fried red peppers (this was probably one of my favorite foods ever), potatoes with pan-fried zucchini, sauteed fennel and green beans etc. We also had several pizzas, which were mouth wateringly good. There was something about that crust that was different from your typical Roman pizza. I think the owner of the restaurant said that they use a different kind of flour than other region's in Italy. Whatever it was, it was amazing.

After dinner, we waddled home. Honestly, we all ate way too much food. But, we couldn't help ourselves because it was so delicious. As you can expect, we slept really well that night as our food comas drove us into incredibly deep sleep.

The next morning, we set off to meet some more influential food entrepreneurs in Cilento. We began our day at a coffee distribution center called Montecarmelo Coffee Roasters. They primarily supply small-scale coffee roasters in Italy with raw beans from countries along the equator. We began our visit by tasting a coffee that the staff roasts for their personal consumption. It was highly acidic (almost like biting into a tomato) with a really smooth texture.

Afterward, we headed into the distribution center where they keep all of the beans. Here, we learned about the difference between Arabic and Robusta coffee beans. We also asked about this company's relationship with small coffee bean growers and the fare trade practices. Interestingly, the spokesperson didn't really understand what we were asking when we talked about "fare trade" -- I assume that was a lost-in-translation moment.

After visiting the coffee distribution center, we headed to one of the most renowned water buffalo farms in Italy. This farm is interesting in that it makes most of its money off of the food tourism trade. This trade is so strong that they do not actually distribute any of their products outside of the farm (e.g. you have to come to the farm to buy the mozzarella, yogurt, gelato etc). The facilitates are absolutely stunning and they have a well-developed infrastructure to guide tourists through the farm and buffalo mozzarella production facilities. For example, we were able to see into the workshop where men were pulling the mozzarella. We also were able to tour the area where they keep the buffalo penned up for milking. What I found most interesting was the narrative that the tour guide told us as we walked through the farm. He obviously romanticized the conditions of these animals. For example, he told us how well cared for the buffalo are because they have "shower facilities," "massage facilities," and "state of the art robot-operated milking areas." In a way, what he told us was true. The buffalo did have an area where they were misted, a massage wheel where they could have their backs rubbed by a robotic arm, and a cage where they were milked by a state of the art computer. What he failed to mention was the fact that these animals were kept in an concrete barn for 9 months after they had been separated from their new born calves. Granted, the facilities at this farm are way better than most others, but I still believe there is a long way to go in improving the living conditions of these animals.

I have to admit, though, that I had the best buffalo mozzarella while at this farm. It was so creamy and flavorful (nice and salty). I was also able to try buffalo mazzarella gelato, which was equally stunning.

After touring that water buffalo farm, we headed to Improsta Farm - a farm that specializing in species preservation. Although a historic farm, the current owner and operator has collaborated with neighboring universities to turn this facility into a space of academic learning and horticultural study. For example, they are growing hundreds of types of olive trees, grape vines, and fruit bearing trees.

After touring the grounds, we had lunch near the old farm house. It was such a "quintessential" Italian meal in that the women in the family cooked our meal and carried out the dishes to the pavilion from the farm house. They served freshly cooked pastas and also a water buffallo roast that was just melting off the bone. We paired these dishes with local wines made from the grapes grown on the farm. Can you get anymore local than that? To say the least, it was a lovely way to end our trip to Cilento.

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