Ask any student at UNISG what the best part of the university is and the vast majority says study trips.
I now understand why.
I just spent a week melting in a million degrees temperature, but learning more than I ever thought I would about Calabrese products. I sewed a sack of meat, learned to mold mozzarella, saw more farm animals than I have seen in months, ate hard licorice, and realize I am getting better in Italian than I thought! It was an amazing week. I got a great tan and probably gained a few kilos, so all in all, a success.
Calabria is a region located in the south of Italy, basically the ball of the foot in the boot. When we arrived, naturally the plan was straight to lunch. Walking down the road from the airport to a restaurant, I was already dripping in sweat. I think this week should just be called “The Week Molly Melted Away” because, quite literally that’s all I did. My skin may tan like an Italian but my mum is English for Lord’s sake, and the English are not built for heat.
That first two hours, pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip. We sat down and ordered simply antipasti and salads for the whole table. Which progressed into 8-10 different types of antipasti, and by the time the salad came people were sharing the small bowls of lettuce. It was insanity. The restaurant was also pretty much closed except for us (could be because this is how most restaurants were when we all ate together, or that we were pretty sure the owner was a mobster, who can say?). But boy was it good food.
Afterwards, we were all picked up by the bus and made the couple hour drive through the gorgeous countryside of Calabria to Rossano. We stayed four nights based out of a B & B in the historic center. Our days were spent taking the bus around the area (no more than about a 2 hour radius of the city on any one trip) and visiting all sorts of places related to food. From the harbor to learn about sustainable fishing and the current economic situation of fishing in Calabria, then a shop that processed fish into products for sale. On the harbor in a rusty old building was a second generation boat building shop. An amazing craft to see at work.
Lunch was some of the best pizza I have ever had. Absolutely a place I would not have expected to be innovative and as delicious as it was from the outside, but once the pizzas started they didn’t stop. We had probably 8 different kinds. We had the normal margherita, but also artichoke cream with licorice powder, an amazing cheese with bergamot zest, and my favorite Alto Adige, speck and pistachio. Absolutely insanely delicious.
The afternoon was a visit to a winery that’s been around for four generations. A beautiful environment with vineyards as far as the eye could see, we were walked through the process of production before having a tasting of their best wines. After the Senatore Vini it was back on the bus to finally cool off at the beach. Cooling off in the sea was exactly what we needed after a full day spent directly in the almost 100F heat. We had just enough time after to check in at the B&B, before meeting for dinner. Dinner was in a small restaurant near my room. Literally small place, it fit two long tables of maybe 14 each, and the kitchen was probably smaller than my apartment kitchen. The owners were so sweet, making everything from wine to pasta from scratch. Easily one of the best meals (and three hours) of my life.
Tuesday started with a visit to an olive oil producer. Great education in the production of olive oil and the innovation this company is creating. They create their oil by smashing the pits with the fruit to release extra vitamins and nutrients, and create oils directly with the oils of different fruits instead of infusing alone. Then it was off to lunch at a Slow Food trattoria, again a few hours of plates and plates of food made with love and dedication by a small, older Italian woman before a well deserved bus nap.
The afternoon was out to a vineyard to meet a producer of a sweet wine, Pasito. Then we followed them up to the hilltop city of Saracena. An absolutely sweet city over 2000 years old, it was exactly what you imagine it to be. We took a tour around the winding, tiny and quite steep lanes of the historic center with the mayor, after he greeted our group in the town hall. The tour ended at the Slow Food local headquarters for a tasting and aperitivo of Pasito and other local products. As with every town we visited, the entire town came out to watch us as our tour bus entered and exited the city.
Our last day in Rossano started with a visit of the Amarelli licorice factory. The family has been making licorice for years because Calabria is said to have the best plants in the world. A very cost effective and easy product to make, unlike what I expected. We left the factory and took a longer drive up into the mountains on curvy tiny roads to a small salumi maker.
We got all dressed in caps, booties, coats, and masks and were walked through the process. We even got to try a few steps. The second generation producer asked if anyone wanted to try sewing the local specialty, “the sacchetto”, so of course, my hand shot up. His mother, one of the entirely women crew, taught me how to poke the holes and sew the pork skin sack of meat closed for cooking. We ended the visit with tasting of their various salami and of course the cooked sacchetto. It was like a stew of flavors of tender meat and the fat it was cooked in, all in one bite. More delicious than I can even attempt to explain.
After lunch, we were back out of the mountains to the Brunetti Vicenzo Farm owned by the nicest farmer I have ever met. Because the bus couldn’t make it up to the farm on the rough dirt roads, we were picked up by Vincenzo and sat on hay bales behind his tractor, as he and his young son, Riccardo, brought us to the farm. When we arrived, hot and dusty, we were given homemade lemonade, tea, and tart before we were off to see the cattle.
Vincenzo’s farm is entirely self-sustaining with solar panels on every space possible, but more than that it is such an ethical production. All of his cattle are the Podolica Calabrese cattle, and he treats them like they are his children. Milking only when the cows have enough for him to take it, all by hand, and never using growth hormones. Instead of the normal 4-7 year life span, he had some cows that were closer to 18 years old. They roam all over the hills around his farm and definingly have the best lives of any cows I have ever seen.
Thursday morning was an early start, off to Crotone a couple hours away. We met in the morning with a cooperative that works to bring typical fruit marmalades, jams and juices to the market. After that meeting we went to meet with an artisanal brewer, the only in Calabria to make beer from hemp. He was a neat man to meet with, making beer out of an area similar in size to a standard apartment. He had been out of work for a few years (Calabria has an unemployment rate of about 45%, closer to 60% in young people) when he decided to learn and start making beer.
Around lunch, we took the bus to a didactic farm. In an area that reminded me exactly of the Palouse in North Idaho, we were greeted by people molding fresh mozzarella and I even got to try my hand a bit. Although we were melting in the heat, we sat for a delicious lunch before learning about the farm. A didactic farm, it is aimed at creating a circular system within the farm, from creating the grains and grass to feed the various animals. They are also focused on maintaining and educating about the autonomous Calabrese breeds of cattle, swine, and sheep.
Our final event of the day was a visit to an organization that repurposes land seized from the Calabrese criminal organization (mafia), the ‘Ndrangheta. It was an eye opening opportunity to see the way that sustainability and farming can be used for social endeavors. The organization aims to fight the mafia culture, by taking the property seized by the public through arrests and transforming them to public spaces or work opportunities.
Afterwards we went into Crotone and checked into a gorgeous hotel right on the beach for our final night. We had a few hours of free time to swim in the sea, enjoy a gelato, or sip a mojito on the beach. It was wonderful.
The next morning was an early checkout and off to visit a sheep farm and were walked through how they made different forms of pecorino cheese. Of course we got to taste a few, before it was off to the pepper fields. The Calabrese chili or pepperoncino is incredibly popular, and we ate it all week long. I am not a fan of that much heat, but my friends were in heaven to learn how it is made and processed.
Finally it was a few hours drive to the airport on the bus and then time to head home. I learned, ate and sweat for six days straight, but it was an amazing experience. Calabria wasn’t ever somewhere that was on my bucketlist, but I learned, as someone who loves food it should have been. Filled with a wide variety of foods from local products and meals of more food than you can dream up, it was a wonderful week. Now to rest up before a month of seeing friends and family around Europe, then a month of summer holiday from school, before we are off on our Europe study trip to Moravia, Czech Republic!
Stay hungry friends and start planning your trips to Calabria (but go in the fall or winter!)!
-The Very Hungry Traveler