I just got back from a week where I tasted the flavor of life from a hundred years ago.
The pace of life is much slower in Cilento, Italy, a region about two hours south of Naples. The region is officially a national park dotted with ancient, stone villages atop rugged mountains that plunge into lush, multi-hued valleys. Vineyards, olive groves, and farms add color and texture to the bucolic portrait. The rustic landscape seems frozen in time, a far cry from the manicured hillsides of Tuscany that have always seemed a bit too similar to what I see daily in northern California.
I was honored to be a guest for the week for Vegano Italiano 2015, a tour offered by Green Earth Travel and Tierno Tours. A magical week filled with daily feasts (much more on this later!), local excursions, and plenty of time to mingle with our tour mates and some local Italians, I carried my excitement deep into the night as I lay in bed reliving each moment, each bite. I’d been to Italy three times in the past, the first time almost 40 years ago. Then, I spent two months traveling, and was often the object of long gazes by Italians who rarely saw tourists. That was my first taste of Italy, and I never forgot its rich flavor. During the past decade, I returned twice with my family and discovered a watered down cocktail instead. Where were the old men who sat in front of the bars at night passing time playing cards? Where were the black clad old women whose sullen faces lit up with smiles when you engaged them in conversation? In some parts of Italy, I rarely even saw any Italians – only tourists.
But in Cilento, life goes on much the same way it has for hundreds of years. Of course, they no longer take donkeys or walk from village to village, but people still occupy 800-year-old stone buildings and work their land. For hundreds of years, agriculture has been a way of life for Cilentians, and remains so today. In fact, the diet in Cilento has been mostly vegan throughout the centuries, focusing on vegetables, grains, and legumes. Meat and dairy were eaten infrequently, and many people today still consider it a special-occasion treat. So it was not difficult for the locals to prepare our group vast feasts of entirely vegan meals that consisted entirely of traditional dishes, hardly altered. No, you won’t find vegan versions of veal parmigiana here, but you’ll find a million ways to eat vegetables, beans, and even bread.
I know I just published The Homemade Vegan Pantry, the Art of Making Your Own Staples, but these are people that make this a way of life. Alessandro, our friendly innkeeper, taught us the word artigianale on our first morning – homemade, from scratch. It sounds like “artisan” but without the pretension – you make it from scratch because you have to, because that’s just how it’s done. And he was talking about the real basics – your own olive oil, wine, pasta, and of course, bread. (If you go, be sure to check out his B & B in the ancient town of Felitto. It’s called Al Vicolo del Cilento, and his wife, Antonella, bakes beautiful vegan pastries daily.)
The tall and beautiful Renata, who prepared all of our amazing dinners at the villa where most people stayed, exemplified the true Cilentian. She has over 300 olive trees, and makes olive oil once a year. The trees are shaken and the olives collected in nets below. In the past, people had their own presses (and some still do), but most people take their olives to the local frantoio (press) to have it made. It’s important that the olives be picked and pressed the same day to minimize the acidity – Cilentians are proud of their 0% acidity olive oil.
Her charming husband, Massimo, who had to travel a few villages away to find his bride, is the winemaker in the family. Every night, he plied us with jugs of his rustic red to accompany the multi-course meals prepared by Renata. Everyone in Cilento makes their own wine, and if you visit a restaurant – a rule that applies to most of Italy, in fact — your best bet always is to order the vino della casa, which is truly made in-house, unlike the cheap “house wine” in the U.S. The prized grape of the region is Aglianico, although most people use a combination that is supplemented by Sangiovese, Barbera and Merlot. Simple and clean, the wines are easy to drink, and drink we did! With a lower alcohol content, we were able to enjoy a few glasses at most meals without feeling the effects. I think that should be the purpose of wine – to enhance a meal, not to inebriate us from just a few sips. That’s my biggest gripe about the big, bold California wines that seem to increase in alcohol content each year.
I should mention that neither Renata nor her husband have a computer. They’ve never been online. They’ve never seen YouTube. Why should they? They have everything they need with their lush garden, strong traditions, and the beauty that surrounds them.
Cilento is famous for fusilli, which, I learned, can mean a different shape in another part of Italy. But here, it is hand rolled around square iron rods that range from skewer-thin to a quarter-inch in thickness, depending on how thick you want your pasta. I got to visit a small fusilli operation where two ladies sat rolling strands of fusilli, and we got to taste plates of Renata’s hand-rolled pasta our first night there, served with a homemade cherry tomato sauce. We also got a chance to try our hand at rolling it, too, and found how hard it was to slip it off of the rods. The fusilli was chewy and perfectly al dente, the cherry tomatoes sweet, and I could have eaten plate after plate of it. On another day, we had a different fusilli at a restaurant near Pompeii that looked like it had been formed by wrapping linguine around a fat metal rod. This was enrobed in a rich, creamy pistachio pesto made simply of pistachios, olive oil, and salt, and a little went a long way. Another evening, Renata served little ridged pasta that looked like gnocchi and were tossed with broccoli rabe, one of my favorite vegetables. In fact, although we had a different type of pasta every day, or even twice a day, I never grew tired of it.
I learned something about bread, too. Everyone bakes their own bread, of course, an activity that takes place about every ten days, the length of time a loaf of bread stays fresh. In Cilento, people always make twice-baked bread, which means they leave a loaf in the oven (often wood-burning, stone ovens) overnight to dry it out completely. That dry bread will last up to six months, and is used to make a variety of dishes, including acqua e sale, or water and salt, a favorite that I enjoyed every morning at the inn. The dry bread is lightly soaked in a little water, olive oil, and salt, and tossed with tomatoes as a salad or light meal. Historically, people could carry a dry loaf with them as they traveled from village to village or worked in the fields. All that’s needed to revive it is a bit of water and maybe some olive oil, a few freshly picked tomatoes, and a jug of wine to wash it all down.
Cilento cuisine is often considered a poor-man’s cuisine, as it lacked animal products. What that meant was that they have had centuries to concoct all sorts of vegetable dishes, and we never tired of the simply prepared but delicious array that graced every meal. Grilled and pickled veggies with the usual suspects — eggplant, zucchini, radicchio, and peppers– were served almost daily, but sometimes featured pumpkin and bitter greens. Some of my favorites were ciambotto, an Italian version of ratatouille with potatoes, greens cooked in olive oil with dry bread and capers, and Romano beans in tomato sauce. Beans, mostly chick peas or cannellini, were usually a separate course, prepared very simply but always delicious. We had pizza night as well, and savored at least ten different varieties. Of course, I made some of my “buffalo mozzarella” for a Margherita pizza, but Renata had others stellar combinations for both regular and stuffed pizzas, including one with thinly sliced porcini and potatoes, caramelized onions and apples, and another with chard, olives, and capers. And of course, they were all baked in the wood-burning stove in the villa’s gorgeous outdoor kitchen.
No matter what we ate, the preparation for all was simple, pure, clean. The ingredients were allowed to speak for themselves, revealing their essence, not masked by an overload of seasonings and flavorings. To me, this is the key to great cooking – to take away superfluous ingredients, and allow the star vegetable or bean or pasta to reveal its true glory. To create a dish that is simple, pure, and perfectly executed — that is the hardest thing to do and is the mark of a great cuisine.
In Cilento, you grow food, you cook food, you eat food. You eat as your parents and their parents and their parents ate – whole, unadulterated, natural foods, mostly of plant origin. You don’t analyze your every meal as to its nutrient content, or seek out the latest superfood, or worry about a little salt, oil, or sugar. You don’t spend your time watching The Cooking Channel or reading cookbooks to see what exotic new ideas might expand your repertoire of dishes – you just don’t obsess about food. But that doesn’t mean you don’t care about food. In fact, good food, delicious food, great food is the central theme of this slower, simpler way of life. In America, people are divided up into junk food eaters and sophisticated foodies. But Cilentians (and other Italians) are the true foodies,the true gourmands, the buon gustaio. They understand the real role that food is supposed to play in life. They understand how a tomato should taste.