Living the Artigianale Life

Renata and Gretchen with Fusilli Artigianale

Renata and Gretchen with Fusilli Artigianale

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.

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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.

Our nightly dining room, al fresco, of course!

Our nightly dining room, al fresco, of course!

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.

A rustic bottle of vino della casa.

A rustic bottle of vino della casa.

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.

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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.

Aqua e Sale

Aqua e Sale — “Water and Salt”

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.

Renata cutting pizza

Renata cuts pizza.

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.

A woman on the street of Felitto washing tomatoes

A woman on the street of Felitto washing tomatoes

Bitter Greens with Croutons

Bitter Greens with Croutons

Zucchini blossoms from Renata's garden stuffed with my almond ricotta

Zucchini blossoms from Renata’s garden stuffed with my almond ricotta

Renata, me, andMassimo

Renata, me, andMassimo

Breakfast at the B & B always included vegan cakes and tarts!

Breakfast at the B & B always included vegan cakes and tarts!

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Wow! This trip looks truly amazing. I hope to make a trip like this someday when I have more money. It seems to me like Italians really understand what food should be. Everything being made from scratch is really impressive, especially to me as an American where everything is so processed.

  2. Hi Miyoko,

    Thanks so much for this post! There is a movement, at least in Europe, call “Slow Food” and this region could be the capital of it. Growing and eating local is a central theme. For them, of course, it isn’t a movement. Eating that way is their way of life. By the way, did they have a more positive outlook on life due to their diet and lifestyle?

    I hope you bring your experiences back with you to the Bay Area and it shows up in your next book!

    Best regards,
    Scott

    • Hi,Scott! Yes, this is really the epicenter of the slow food movement. My new book, The Homemade Vegan Pantry, the Art of Making Your Own Staples, attempts to capture that spirit, but this is in in reality, everyday. Of course, the young are fleeing the area by droves, as there is little work. Yes, that is the life I want to lead in reality everyday! Working towards it!

  3. Holy yummoly! What a magical time you had, indeed! Thank you for sharing the highlights, Miyoko!

  4. Hi Miyoko,

    This sounds absolutely amazing, thank you so much for sharing!

    I’d like to try making the pistachio pesto – can you tell me whether the nuts were toasted or raw?

    Thanks again –

    LKL

  5. Thank you for sharing this eloquent and visually delicious recount of your time in Italy, Miyoko! I can’t wait to go some day, and knowing that it’s not only possible, but easy to get lusciously simple vegan food makes it all the more enticing! YUM!

  6. Absolutely gorgeous post – I wish this received more traction just to show people: THIS IS WHAT VEGAN LOOKS, TASTES AND FEELS LIKE. Delicious high-quality food, beautiful wine and travel. Thank you for spreading our (nutritious!) cruelty-free lifestyle with the world…I hope it inspires those who are seeking a more compassionate path. Cheers!

  7. OMG, why couldn’t I have come across this information before? I had no idea about you being a guest here in Italy or I would’ve made the trip to come see you, I’m a Canadian living in Bologna, Italy for 10 years. I’ve purchased Artisan Vegan Cheese and most recently the Homemade Vegan Pantry which is very insightful. You’re a gift to this world in my opinion, and am greatful for having learnt about you and everything you share. You are a playing a big role in making this world a better place that’s for sure. Thanks Miyoko!

    P.S. Have you ever tried cooking with Lupini beans?

  8. Lynda Pickhardt says:

    Miyoko,

    I have been obsessed with your recipes for a couple of weeks now.

    Your cream cheese recipe is out of this world delicious.

    I just made my visiting son 2 grilled cheese sandwiches on bread made from your baguette recipe.

    And I slathered cream cheese on one piece of bread, meltey cheddar on the other piece, joined them together and buttered both sides with your heavenly butter,

    I didn’t tell him it wasn’t real cheese before he finished eating.

    But after the first bite he yelled out, “Awesome!”

    He had me make a few more sandwiches for a midnight picnic with his girlfriend.

    I have to say the soy yogurt has the wonderful consistency of Greek yogurt and the flavor and mouth feel is better than any yogurt I ever had.

    I made the blueberry almond ricotta pancakes yesterday morning. Yum and double yum.

    Made the meltey mozzerella for English Muffin pizzas for my hubby and he loved the cheese.

    Oh, and your pancake mix is good, too.

    I am so happy to have these cookbooks, winter won’t seem half as long with the rest of the recipes to try.

    One thing more, I do wish you would post those simple but fabulous sounding/looking Vegan Italian recipes that you

    were served. Or maybe You could write another little book with the recipes?

    Thank you, Miyoko, for giving a giant boost to my life in the kitchen!!!

    Lynda Pickhardt

    • Thanks for your sweet and detailed email! Yes, I have been very busy and not posting any recipes at all! Life at Miyoko’s Kitchen takes up most of my time now, and blogging has taken a back seat. I plan to marry this site with miyokoskitchen.com soon, and hope to do a better job when it is all under one roof. I would love to put together a book of Italian recipes. I’m leading another tour there next year in Puglia in September, so maybe after that. I do have a video of Cacio e Pepe I made while there — perhaps I’ll upload to YouTube.

  9. so beautiful! This is how my grandparents pretty much grew up in Greece too 🙂