I Like Italy
I like Italy. I have liked Italy from the first moment I stepped foot on Italian soil, which was in the winter of 1987 when, for the first time in my life, I was greeted by a taxi driver with the word, "Pronto." There is only one other country in Europe that can match the history, cuisine, and beauty of Italy--I think you know which one I am talking about--but Italy has one thing that country does not have: friendly people.
To visit Italy is to be constantly reminded of its "Italian-ness." For me it started with the taxi. The ferry from Igoumenitsa unloaded in the port town of Bari--not the prettiest town in Italy, incidentally, but if it were on an American coast, the real estate would be white hot. I was toting my luggage toward the ferry terminal when a taxi swooped over. I got in and the driver pulled away cruised past the line of other taxis, the drivers all standing around smoking and talking. My driver opened his window and issued a taunt over the fact that he nabbed the first fare. They responded with hand gestures and Doppler-tinged streaks of profanity. He turned around and made a second pass.
Two hours later, I was driving a rented Ford Fiesta--a diesel I am happy to report--and made a stop at a gas station on the Autostrade. I didn't need gas so much as a breather. The Autostrade is the Italian equivalent of an Interstate, but it doesn't travel in a straight line more than a quarter of a mile. The rest is all bends. You might think this is due to the up-and-down topography of the Italian peninsula, but I-80 went through lots of up and down stretches, and it did its very best not to bend. Italians just prefer it this way. Inside the gas station, there was an espresso machine and, next to it, a panini press. Around the corner, a hot table with a tray of baked pasta, a swirl of mashed potatoes, chicken braised in a delicious-looking sauce, and spinach sauteed in garlic. I ate a panini and ordered a cappuccino for the road. They also sold gas, incidentally.
I like Italy.
Given that the theme of this trip is slow travel, my next day was to be a slow day. I would not cover vast distances at slow speed, I would not use my GPS, and I would experience very little in the way of stress because I was going to spend an entire day doing something slow: eating. Naturally, I chose Italy, the home of slow food, but not slow drivers.
My destination was a little town south of Salerno called Ascea, where there is an Agriturismo called Iscairia. Simply put, Agriturismos are artisan food operations with a small hotel or bed and breakfast attached. It's a novel concept for North Americans, who aren't in the habit of spending the weekend on a farm watching cows get milked, or at a honey factory or oil press or cheese factory so they can watch the creation of the food they will later taste. This kind of thing is a big deal in Italy. Foreigners swarm the places in the summer and swoon after witnessing high-drama acts like the adding of rennet to goat milk. Italians visit, too, continuing their never-ending quest to get closer to the food they love.
I was at the front gate of Iscairia by 2 p.m. where Clautilde Vecchio was waiting. Clautilde--Tilde for short--is both an archeologist and a cook. In Italian food magazines, she has been referred to as an archeologist of flavor. She learned to cook from her mother and grandmother and she has trouble explaining what she's doing in the kitchen, she says, because it's like trying to explain how to talk. I didn't mind so much about the explaining part. I just wanted to spend the day standing next to her in the kitchen, wiping away drool with a hanky.
Before we could do anything, though, there was lunch. Tilde doesn't normally serve her guests lunch, but she made an exception in my case because most of her guests didn't get off a boat from Greece that morning. She told me to meet her in the gazebo for "a little bread." I took a shower--I was still wearing my Vikos Gorge getup, now on its second day, and was as well aged as a piece of sweaty parmigiano--then headed to the gazebo. The bread was homemade. So was everything else. Practically everything on the table grew out of the earth at Iscaria. The marinated eggplants from Iscairia; the peppers stuffed with capers and anchovies from Iscairia; the olive oil from Iscairia; the sundried tomatoes from Iscaria. The wine was from somewhere else: her father's vineyard, which is four kilometers down the road. And though she ground and stuffed the cappicollo herself, the pig came from up in the mountains. Mountain pigs, she said, taste better than factory pigs, especially in the winter after they've gotten fat on chestnuts and acorns.
The cappicollo didn't last long, and this got Tilde excited. She disappeared inside the house and returned with a soprassata--her own soprassata, made from the same mountain pig. It was rectangular and dark, with a diamond of fat in the center. The soprassata was possibly better than the cappicollo, though a direct comparison wasn't possible because I had eaten it all before the soprassata arrived. My slow day wasn't due to start until tomorrow, but I wouldn't be moving very quickly that afternoon.