Tuesday, July 27, 2010


On a sunny Wednesday, my friend Fernando picked me up at the apartment bright and early. This time we weren’t headed out on some archaeological or culinary adventure, we were headed for Fernando’s academic base at the University of Salerno. We had two missions. First, Fernando needed to return galley proofs to his friend, Roberto Pellecchia, who has recently published a wonderful new book, Beaches, Coves and Hamlets of the Cilento Coast, absolutely indispensable if you plan to vacation in this area. Roberto is a medical doctor from Salerno whose passion is photography and the history and lore of his beloved adopted region. Our second mission was more pedestrian; Fernando had kindly offered to give me access to the bibliographical resources of his university. It’s rather shocking in this age of PDF files and on-line journals, but there is still a vast if shrinking amount of excellent scholarship published in Italian that is simply not readily available in the U.S., even at world-class research libraries such as we have at UNC and NCSU.

The University of Salerno is a name to conjure with. This was one of the most famous of all the original Medieval and Renaissance universities, with a history that stretches back to antiquity. The city itself derives from the Samnite-Etruscan trade outpost of Ima, which was superseded by the Roman military outpost of Salernum. As its military function faded with the pacification of southern Italy in the second century BCE, Salernum reasserted its importance as a center of trade, connecting Rome with the South along the Via Popilia and Via Annia. In the Late Empire, under the reorganization of Diocletian, it became the administrative hub for the southern states of Lucania and Bruttium. And during the troubled times of the barbarian invasions, Salerno fared relatively well since its strategic importance was so obvious. It was an especially important Lombard outpost under Arechi II, who vastly improved the fortifications and adorned the city with a number of public works.

The University itself was the heir to a much older medical school at the Greek/Roman city of Elia/Velia, about 70 miles further south along the Cilento coast. This was the famous Eleatic school of medicine and philosophy, home of such renowned scholars as Parmenides, where any number of famous Romans such as Cicero, Horace, even the emperor Augustus came to receive medical advice and enjoy the delights of the region.

The Schola Medica Salernitana reached the height of its glory between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, particularly after an African monk named Constantine immigrated to the region and reintroduced many critical medical and philosophic texts which had been lost in the West but had fortunately been translated into Arabic before the early Christians did their bigoted utmost to destroy ancient learning. Some of the Greek works of Galen and Aristotle, for example, are known to us today only because Constantine translated them into Medieval Latin. What a long, strange trip those manuscripts have had!

The University eventually declined, as the Salernitans sided with first one and then another losing political faction. Eventually most of the precious medical library was transferred to Naples and the university there began to eclipse that at Salerno.

Today the University is thriving and again has a medical faculty with a sterling reputation. But like many American universities it struggles to find room to grow; the old facility in the Medieval part of the city is entirely too small for a medical school, much less one of the most important universities in southern Italy, with some 43,000 students. Further, it along with a great deal of the Old City was heavily damaged by bombardment during the British-American invasion of the area in 1943. Today the two main campuses of the University are located in small towns several miles from the city, Fisciano and Baronissi.

It was to Fisciano that we were headed. We met Roberto at a local cafe, exchanged pleasantries and galley proofs and enjoyed a quick espresso, then drove the short distance to the University. Fernando had bagged one of the most prized perks of any academic, a great parking spot, so it was a short stroll to the building which houses his faculty, a beautiful, modern facility built, along with the rest of this campus, in 1988. The ground floor housed a student center with coffee/snack bar serving indifferent food at inflated prices; some things are universal, I suppose. Fernando’s office was on the third floor, a small cubicle which he shares with a colleague. Not even enough room for a bookshelf! Even when I served as the ‘mule’ for the Classics Department at UNC Greensboro, I had more shelf space. But in Europe everything is more crowded, even office space.

On the other hand, Fernando had the one essential for any contemporary academic, a blazing fast computer, and he sat and downloaded site after site where on-line Italian journals and books were accessible. I have enough bibliography at my fingertips now to keep me busy for several months at least! We made our way down a floor to the departmental library to retrieve an obscure book on Roman wine vessels which had probably not been looked at in years, and after humbly submitting our request to a stern departmental secretary, were allowed to take it to make photocopies. Another universal: officious academic clerical staff.

We headed over to the Bibliotheca by way of an exterior stairway with a spectacular view of Vesuvius looming on the northern horizon; all Fernando need do for inspiration, I suppose, is take a quick break on the stairway. We strolled past an avant-garde outdoor sculpture gallery and the equally avant-garde school of architecture, as well as an outdoor amphitheater being set up for a performance. The library itself is as modern in architecture as it is Byzantine in its cataloguing; parts of the classical collection were housed in four different areas on three different floors, and the shelving system seemed almost totally arbitrary to a novice like me. Thank God for the good old Library of Congress system! Then there was the ‘secret’ collection housed in a locked room which we needed to access. I had visions of the racy Raccolta Pornografica at the National Museum of Naples, recently opened to the public without permission from your local priest and now, predictably, the most popular part of this otherwise incredible collection. But, no, it was just more books in the classics collection, so we retrieved our racy tome on winemaking in ancient Egypt and returned the key to the stern librarians at the desk, who eyed us with considerable misgivings. Egyptian viticulture indeed!

Later we made photocopies of a number of articles and books which were not available on-line. Altogether a very productive morning for me.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the morning, however, was just comparing the life of an American and Italian academic, something Fernando and I have done periodically over the course of our friendship. Many things are the same, as you would expect, but others are quite different. For example, Fernando is classified as a ricercatore, a ‘researcher’ on the faculty of the Science of Antiquity, seemingly a plum job to an American academic for whom time away from teaching duties to do research is the be-all and end-all of academic life. But, no, it seems that here the teaching posts mark you as BPOC. So Fernando is actually on the lower echelon of the faculty pecking order.

Which is just weird, since Fernando is an incredibly prolific scholar. Look, I can’t pretend to be objective here, I am so fond of the guy, but by any measurable standard Fernando is a publishing dynamo. He tells me he has published more than anyone else at the University, and his CV certainly suggests that is true. And yet, I have the distinct feeling he is not that much appreciated by the powers that be.

So, why not? Well, first, I suspect, there’s the matter of academic politics. You’ve all heard the old joke, no doubt:
Q: Why are academic politics so vicious?
A: Because there’s so little at stake.

Fernando is probably the least equipped person I know to play the political games that promote you up the system. He is quiet, thoughtful, polite, kind, sensitive...in short he is one of the most genteel persons I’ve ever known, a uomo bravissimo, as his Italian friends describe him.

But then there’s the system itself, which can only be described, again, as Byzantine. In the Italian system, regardless of merit, there are only so many upper-level positions available or ever will be and, as Fernando bluntly says, unless the ones in those positions cooperate and croak, there’s just not much room for advancement.

Then there’s the whole weird system of academic affiliation. I haven’t taught in any part of the UNC system for twelve years now, but when I gave my talk last year on Roman foods, that was still my academic affiliation. I felt almost like a fraud. In contrast, my friend Elisa, who acted as mediator at the talk and who has taught at the University of Milan for some eight years now, asked if she could list them as her affiliation. Answer? Absolutely not! She finally listed the University of Texas Institute of Classical Archaeology, for whom she had been a research assistant several years before, and the head of that institute, highly esteemed in this country, was delighted to have her do so, she is so well regarded. Weird.

And then there is the whole system of exams, which I don’t even pretend to understand. Fernando tells me he recently was called upon to administer an exam for a young man who had never taken a single course in the department but wanted to teach at the high school level in the area of ancient history. Part of the exam was an oral component and the young man was allowed to choose a topic on which he could expound for a few minutes. “I think I’ll speak on the Crusades!” Needless to say he was asked to come back later, after he could at least define what constitutes ‘ancient’.

Unquestionably the most bizarre example of the Byzantine nature of Italian exams also involves my friend Elisa and became something of an international cause celebré in academic circles. It seems that doctoral exams are given only every eight years or so in Italy, and, as luck would have it, the exam for which Elisa was eligible was to be given on the day she was due to deliver her first child. Naturally she asked if she could have a slight variation in the schedule, perhaps a day in advance of, or after the scheduled date, if she went into labor on the due date. Once again, absolutely not! And, predictably, Elisa went into labor on the night before the exam. And so, at 10 am the next day, she dragged herself from her hospital bed, still sedated, schlepped over to the university, and, predictably, flunked her exam. So now she gets to wait another eight years before she will be given the grand privilege of being formally associated with the university for which she has worked creditably for 16 years and by whom she has been treated like dirt.

The American academic system is far from perfect, but compared to that, it’s absolute heaven.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


As if we needed any such lesson, the travel gods recently let us know just how fickle they are and how they love to entertain themselves at our expense. The Romans said it best: “The gods use us as footballs.” But a seasoned traveler must learn to put a brave face on it and wait patiently for better times. If you do, from time to time the travel gods will reward you in ways you never expected.

We were scheduled to leave Agropoli for home on Tuesday, but the schedule was tight. We were due to fly out of Naples airport at 8:50 am to make a connecting flight in Venice for the States. Understand, the last transatlantic flight of the day from Venice leaves at 11:35 am, and that’s the one we were booked on. So at 5:15 am, our wonderful friend Fabio roused himself with the roosters and took us to the Agropoli train station. We arrived by train in Naples a bit early, quickly found a taxi, begged the driver to get us to the airport as quickly as he could safely do so (Naples cab drivers are notorious for taking, let us say, the scenic route), and our friendly, efficient driver had us there in good order. That’s when the troubles began.

The plane, as so often, had originated elsewhere. It seems there was a missing passenger from the flight which had preceded ours but his luggage was accounted for. In this age of terrorist threats, that’s enough to raise a red flag, and airport security, out of an abundance of caution, delayed the flight until they could account for the missing traveler and make sure there was no threat. No argument from us, but as the minutes rolled by and we heard absolutely nothing from Alitalia, we were panicky. Finally we decided to book another route at our own expense, one which had us make a very tight connection in Rome before heading to Venice. It’s been a month since we’ve seen our daughter, and we were anxious to be home.

We landed in Rome ten minutes late, literally sprinted through boarding to make the connector, enjoyed a quick whiz in the plane’s W.C., took our seats...and waited...and waited...and waited. It seems something was wrong with the baggage routing system for the whole airport, and we were waiting for the luggage to board the plane! As the clock made its way inexorably toward 10:15 am with agonizing speed, our chances of making it home on schedule faded into the mists of the Mediterranean. Oy!

OK, it’s not the worst possible fate, we’ll stay in Venice for the night and have a more relaxed commute the next morning. The people at US Air were as nice as they could be, but after 20 minutes of bad Muzak, we learned there was no way to fly US Air the next day and the other option, an Alitalia flight, would set us back $1,600 and there was no guarantee of a connector in Philadelphia to RDU. But if we agreed to wait until Thursday they could make the switch gratis and guarantee a flight from Philly. We sadly deferred our homecoming with Amy and took the only logical option.

Meanwhile, the flight to Venice was uneventful after we finally took off, but in Venice we had no hotel room at the height of the season in one of the top tourist destinations in the world. And there was no wi-fi in the airport, so little hope of booking a room ourselves. Fortunately I found a very nice young man who worked for Turkish Airlines and, when I inquired about possible help in the airport with booking a room, he volunteered to help himself and fired up his laptop. “Hmm, nothing available here...or here...or here! How much did you say you’d be willing to spend? No, they have one for 480 euros per night, but nothing close to your budget. Let’s try away from Venice, maybe Chioggia, it’s only 30 km away.” My panic rose as I considered the distinct possibility of spending two days sleeping in the Venice airport or renting a car and driving back to Agropoli just to find a place to sleep.

Luckily Sandy was also on the job, and the travel gods decided to smile on us. At the other end of the airport was an office for just such knuckleheads as we, arriving in Venice without hotel reservations. When we finally made it to the head of the line, a very polite, soft spoken gentleman asked what our price range was, if the Lido, the barrier island that faces Venice proper, would be acceptable...and if we’d like a view of the lagoon! Not even five minutes later we had a room for $180 per night, guaranteed by our 20% down payment right there at his office, and were out the door to the water bus terminal. The whole thing happened so fast after two hours of agonized wait for my kind young friend to dither, completely over his head but still trying to help a stranded American, that I almost had whiplash.

What is it about Venice that’s so unique? In a word, everything. Venice is like no other world city I know, with the possible exception of Amsterdam, because transport within the city is exclusively by foot or water. No cars! Nada! It’s hard for an American, addicted as we are to the things, to adjust to such a radically different system. But enormously fun to try. Example: twice when we’ve taken tour groups to the city, we’ve had a bit of free time to wander around and explore without the students, and I’ve always wanted to see Santa Maria della Salute, that crazy-looking rotunda church katty-cornered across the grand canal from St. Marks. It’s just so totally over the top with its curlicue pedimental decorations and saints sprouting from the domed roof like God’s own turnip patch. And twice I’ve tried to get there by foot and run out of time. The streets of Venice are tortuous to say the least. Meanwhile, right there in my wallet was a water bus pass which would have gotten me there in five minutes, for free, and I never even thought of the possibility, I’m such a lubber!

The reason for Venice’s unique watery location, as so often in Italy, has its roots in human misery. It is a moot point whether there was ever a mainland Venetia, capitol city of the Veneti, the ethnic group of this region of Italy, today the Veneto. Perhaps it lies under the important Roman town of Altinum, 10 km north, which was gradually abandoned, subsumed by the lagoon and only recently revealed in large part through the magic of near-infrared aerial photography. What we know for sure is that, as Germanic tribes, Huns and eventually the fearsome Lombards invaded northern Italy in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries CE, wreaking destruction in their wake, many of the Veneti retreated to a number of small islands in the lagoon here and began systematically building up the marshy land by driving one wooden piling after another into the ooze and piling mud on top, thereby creating larger, higher islands and deeper, navigable canals between them. Because Venice lies close to the mouth of the Adige River which originates in the Alps, these timbers could be sent downstream from Alpine forests in their thousands. I once read an estimate of the number of pilings now incorporated into the 117 small islands that collectively make up Venice, and though I regret I have lost the figure, it was in the hundreds of thousands. Because the mud and salt of the lagoon provide an anaerobic environment for the pilings, the little critters that eat wood cannot do their thing and the pilings will last essentially forever.

The Venice we know and love today is largely a product of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when its location at the head of the Adriatic made it a great sea power, controlling the fabulously lucrative trade with the Byzantine Empire, thence back to Venice and thence either overland or by sea to all parts of central Europe. The only other sea power that seriously threatened ‘La Serenissima’ was Genoa, on the Ligurian coast, with whom Venice was almost continuously at war. The sea trade even survived the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The real decline came only with the discovery of the New World and control of Atlantic trade by Spain and Portugal. Needless to say, these were two other sea powers.

So the first thing you need to do on your trip to Venice is resolve to use the water as much as possible. That starts at the airport, where you wheel your luggage down to a staging area where you can opt for a vaporetto, the cigarette-boat water taxis which can get you to all points in the lagoon within about 30 minutes, but are rather expensive, or for a water bus, a much larger version of the vaporetti, operated by Alilaguna, slower because they are larger and make local stops, but very cheap. If you opt for the latter as we did, buy the round-trip tickets for $25 and you’re set for the trip back to the airport as well.

Where to stay? For my money, there’s no debate: Lido. You can stay on the islands of Venice proper and pay three to five times as much for a tiny room, or go out to this beach resort community, 10 minutes from San Marco by water bus, and enjoy a nice room in a quiet place for a reasonable price. And dabble your feet in the Adriatic after a hard day of touring; the Adriatic beaches are a five-minute walk away.

And by pure, blind luck, you may get a room like ours. We were booked into the Hotel Villa Laguna, right on the lagoon, with a stunning view of Venice. The hotel itself is described as a Hapsburg villa, but it reminds me of nothing so much as a large Cape Cod, complete with gables instead of the typical Venetian hip roofs, and with the Venetian lagoon where the Cape should be. The gracious concierge, Fabio, explained that the hotel had been completely renovated, inside and out, some three years ago, with ambitions to make this three-star a four-star. I have no doubt they will succeed; this was quite simply one of the two best hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The decor is exquisite, classic Venetian style, the dining facilities are gorgeous, the rooms are all set up as suites, with a nice sitting area, a large closet for luggage, a small kitchenette, a nicely appointed bath, and a bedroom, all decorated to the hilt. And our suite was one of the two in the hotel with small balconies, so that we could sit and watch the passing parade of boats and ships and gawk at that incredible city on the horizon. Hey, at this point I would have been content with a bug-infested mattress and a commode, functionality optional, so you can imagine what a happy camper I was.

But be warned, the suites are beautiful, but not necessarily quiet. The hotel is located on one of the main channels through the lagoon, and is right next to the main docking facility for the public transport company, ACTV, that is, Act V, pronounced Ahkt Voo, and the passing parade is noisy. A small price to pay, as far as I’m concerned. Fortunately most of the action dies down around 12 at night, and if all else fails you can shut all the windows and use the very efficient air-conditioning system. But then you’ll miss the fun!

Tuesday night we used to lick our wounds and recoup from the stress of the day. We ate at a local Lido restaurant, enjoying two pasta dishes that incorporated the local seafood for which Venetian cuisine is famous, and a mezzo of local white wine. And slept like the dead afterwards. Wednesday morning we were lazy, enjoying good Italian coffee in the room, a late breakfast in the breakfast room, also overlooking the lagoon, and one of the world’s true luxuries, morning naps. In the afternoon, off to the city for some desultory touring. ACTV makes it easy for you; you can buy tickets for unlimited travel on all water buses, plus the land buses that operate on Lido, for 6 hours, 12 hours, one day, three days, and so on. Best bargain anywhere. After disembarking at San Marco, we hopped on a local water bus, found comfortable seats facing the left side, and cruised all the way up the Grand Canal and then back again, seeing the incredible palazzi on first one side of the canal and then the other and cruising under some of the most beautiful bridges, such as the Rialto. Hey, if you just must do that gondola thing, go for it...once. Then take the water bus so you can really see the city. On the way back we hopped off at the Academia stop, across the canal from San Marco, and made our way through the labyrinthine streets to Salute.

Wandering the streets of Venice is another education in itself; almost surely you will nowhere else experience anything so much like the ancient city of Rome as here. Oh, sure, the Romans bequeathed the grid system of streets to the West, but guess which city did NOT have a grid system? Yep, Mater Roma herself. Add to that the chance of fires, building collapses, and garbage and human waste being emptied from the chamber pots of upper apartments (Roman apartment blocks were up to five stories tall), and a trip along a narrow Roman street must have been an adventure. I was reminded of that several years ago when a group of us were wandering through a narrow Venetian lane when suddenly a nonna on the third floor tossed the contents of her mop bucket out the window. They landed with a satisfying ‘Sploosh!’ right on the head of a Brit about five yards ahead of us, who proceeded to initiate a long string of blistering epithets of a caliber to make any self-respecting sailor envious. Meanwhile, Nonna paid not the slightest attention. Perfect! You can’t even BUY stuff like this! And only in Venice.

I’m happy to say we made it to Salute sans slop-bucket contents and found the inside as beautiful in its austerity as the outside is hideously ugly in its excess. For me, that’s just so...Venetian: another surprise around every twisting turn of the footpath or canal.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Shortly after we arrived in Agropoli our hosts, the Astones, took us to a fine local restaurant for a taste of traditional Cilentane foods. It proved to be a memorable meal.

The restaurant was the Ristorante Casareccia, located between Capaccio Scalo and Capaccio Vechio, Capaccio-on-the-Road and Old Capaccio. Another paired community, one up on the flanks of the mountains and the other down in the lowlands. This is almost the rule in the Cilento, not the exception. The reasons are both practical and strategic.

One practical consideration is simply that transport is so much easier by water in a pre-industrial context, and the Cilento is richly blessed with natural harbors and bays, so it was perfectly natural for little coastal communities to develop all along the Tyrrhenian coast, as far back as the Neolithic and perhaps even earlier in some cases. There was a thriving commercial system here as early as the Early Bronze Age, and that trade only intensified with the coming of classical Greek colonies such as Poseidonia, modern Paestum, and Elia, today’s Velia.

But, as mentioned earlier, the soils of the alluvial plains such as those of the Calore and Sele river regions in this area were simply too dense for early farmers to plow, equipped as they were with the simple ard plow. So arable farming was restricted to the lower foothills of the mountains where soils were light and easily turned but retained enough moisture to carry crops through the dry Mediterranean summers.

And there may have been another reason as well, one which goes back to the very beginnings of the Neolithic Revolution. Archaeological research conducted in central Italy in the last 20 years suggests that there was an early phase of proto-agriculture when ‘crops’ were not so much planted as nurtured in their natural environments, and these incidental ‘gardens’ were supplemented with the herding of cattle such as sheep and goats. Add to that a rich supply of meat garnered from hunting, just as had been done in the Paleolithic, especially of the various indigenous deer in this area. But deer, like their domesticated cousins the sheep and goat, are migratory in central Italy, following the summer fodder into the uplands where moisture is more plentiful. In the realm of domesticated cattle it’s called transhumance, the practice of transferring cattle from winter lowland pasturage to summer uplands. Think of Heidi, following the cows into the upper Alps and returning in the fall with wagons laden with beautiful Swiss cheeses. Again and again, even from late Paleolithic, we see summer hunting/herding communities along drove roads leading down to winter coastal communities.

The strategic reason for the upland communities is simply for protection against marauders. It is difficult for an American to understand how the tragic history of the Mezzogiorno may have molded in subtle but profound ways the psyche of the modern southern Italian. But once your native land has been invaded, there is a psychic scar that lasts for generations. Now imagine being invaded repeatedly, with all the attendant murder, rape, pillage, and destruction. If my calculations are correct, Agropoli has seen some 23 changes of regime, so to speak, most of them instigated by violence. Some of the Medieval villages in this area are almost unbelievably inaccessible, so much so that many are being abandoned as people look for easier access to jobs, good highways, entertainment, you name it. Fernando has a friend who has bought a whole Medieval village on the slopes of Mt. Soprano and is turning it into a tourist destination!

Capaccio Scalo has a much more prosaic history; it simply developed as a node along the new highway built back in the early twentieth century and is therefore essentially a modern town.

At the restaurant we were warmly greeted by Antonio, the proprietor, so warmly, in fact, that I thought our hosts must be hard-core restaurant patrons. Later we discovered that Antonio, Antonello or Nello as he is called by family, is the son of Filomena’s cousin. And a cousin in southern Italy is every bit as welcome as in the American South.

We began our repast with plates of antipasti consisting of the famous cheeses of the area, namely, little bocconcini of mozzarella, and the aged caciocavallo. They were accompanied by the most impossibly red and sweet little tomatoes I have ever seen. Then there was aqua sale, literally ‘salted water’, which was a revelation. These were little chunks of the local bread baked in a wood-fired oven, but in this case then sliced into slabs about 2” in thickness, placed on a sheet pan on their sides and baked again, a true biscotto. Our hosts explained that these were quickly dipped in water (the time depends on how old and dry the bread is, so it’s an empirical process, as I discovered when I tried my hand), broken into chunks, salted generously, then sprinkled with herbs, perfectly ripe halved grape tomatoes and doused with the best olive oil. Absolutely simple, and absolutely delicious.

Next came plates of the local salumi, or cured pork products, for which this region has been famous for at least two thousand years: prosciutto crudo, what we would call a country ham, but not one of the fake ones you see today but a real hard-cured ham that requires no refrigeration. This one was cured in a facility behind the restaurant! It was thinly sliced and accompanied by slices of a delicious, spicy soprasatta.

Next we had our contorni, or vegetable course, a reminder that Italians love veggies so much that they either make them the whole focus of a meal or at least give them the stage to themselves so they can be appreciated as something more than second fiddle to a hunk of meat. We had a ragu of carrots, artichokes, celery and sweet peppers, cooked as simply as possible and slightly bathed in good olive oil. Along with these we had a melange of zucchini and eggplants, gently sautéed to the tender-crunchy stage and again dressed very simply. Probably my favorite part of the meal.

For the pasta course we were offered three local favorites, a ravioli made from handmade sheet pasta and stuffed with the local goat-milk ‘ricotta’, which is actually a full-fat farmer’s cheese. These were sauced with a simple marinara. Along with these we had fusilli con ragu. The fusilli in this case are long, hollow noodles hand-shapped by rolling strips of sheet pasta around a tiny dowel and then zipping them off. It’s apparently a real art; our friend Katiuscia says her mom can whip them out in no time, but hers are total disasters. These were sauced with a slow-simmered ragu, and thanks to Fabio I have some inside dope on this. When we went to Castelcivita to the Grotto there, Fabio had the clerk at the office of the tourist attraction make up two batches of fusilli and presented one to me. He explained that the secret of the ragu was choosing the best ingredients and then simmering low and slow, preferably for at least three hours. The absolute best ingredients are a bit of onion from the Astones’ garden, sweated in olive oil from the Astones’ orchards, to which a fairly coarse dice of a cut of beef has been added, but one with lots of connective tissue which slowly releases its unctuous gelatins. Into these should be stirred a bottle of Mama Filomena’s canned tomatoes, seasoned with herbs, salt and pepper. Turn the gas as low as it will go, add a cup of water and be patient. Your patience will be richly rewarded.

The third pasta was cavatelli, but not the sort we think of here, the extruded semolina pasta, but rather little gnocchi of soft wheat flour, hand crafted and sauced with a luscious cheese sauce and medallions of eggplant. It’s darned hard to make potato gnocchi that don’t have the texture of silly putty, but I can’t imagine how gentle one must be to create these soft little pillows of goodness.

For the meat course the restaurant pulled out all the stops and served fresh pork sausages, poultry and beef all three, à la Romans. It was delicious, all roasted over open coals and having that grilled flavor, but we were all a bit jaded by now and I think Filomena’s beloved dogs probably enjoyed the most benefit. These were served with a fresh salad and French fries.

The only one who opted for dessert with her caffé was a certain anonymous little porker, and this was a simple frozen cup. Italians don’t like desserts after a meal, preferring sweets as a mid-morning or late-afternoon spuntina (snack) to accompany the powerful espresso coffee that carries them through to the next meal.

With our meal we enjoyed three wines, a white Falanghina from northern Campania, an Aglianico of no particular distinction but still quite good, and, I presume in honor of Cousin Rolando who loves the Piemontese grapes, a Ciloso. The Aglianico had a delicious flavor but almost no discernible aroma, the Ciloso just the opposite, with lots of berry in the nose but a rough astringency on the palate. But the really delicious thing about Italian restaurant wines is that they are affordable. What a luxury to be able to enjoy with your loved ones a whole bottle of wine, without stinting! In my opinion, American restaurateurs who habitually insist on a 700% to 1000% markup on wines are being incredibly shortsighted.

The meal had been accompanied by sports news from a large-screen television mounted on the wall, something I usually despise, but really very entertaining in this case. We started our meal about an hour before the beginning of Italy’s World Cup match with Poland, and the whole restaurant was fixated on the panel of sportscasters, garrulously bloviating away just like their American cousins. Think Carolina-Duke basketball extrapolated to a national level. It was fun to watch all the earnest discussion, none of which we understood, but which clearly engaged the passions of the locals. By the time the match started the restaurant was practically deserted; everybody had skeedaddled home so they could scream blissfully at the screen in private. But Nello provided plenty of animation and local color for us as the Italian team did its usual stint at underachieving.

Altogether a fun and delicious afternoon and a wonderful chance to meet and get to know our host family in the best and most intimate way of all, namely, by sharing with them the sacred pleasure of food.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Today I visited two winemaking operations, worlds apart in their size and scope but both sharing a passion for natural wine.

This morning Fernando and I made our way to the Azienda Marino, nestled in the hills south of Agropoli, where we met Rafaele Marino, the proprietor and winemaker of this mid-sized operation. Rafaele was out in the vineyards on the tractor, so we strolled around the grounds of the villa as we waited for him to return. The Mariinos (this is another family operation) operate an agriturismo on the property, a beautiful villa with a huge veranda in front and rooms facing the vineyards with an oblique vista of Agropoli and the sea in the distance. At the back of the villa is a walled cortile or courtyard around which are clustered work areas such as the winery and tasting room. All immaculate and pretty. It’s easy to see that this family shares the same esthetic sensibilities, combined with a powerful work ethic, that we have seen so often before in Italy.

About ten minutes later we were greeted by Rafaele himself, a man who appears to be in his late forties/early fifties with movie star good looks: blue eyes, bronzed skin, carefully styled black hair graying at the temples, perfect white teeth, and looking, in his navy shorts and white polo, like he just returned from Monaco instead of the tractor. I was glad Sandy had opted for shopping this time around; she’s been dropping strong hints that she’s going to dump me and move to Italy and Rafaele could have tipped the scales. I, on the other hand, was most impressed by the fact that he looked so cool and collected. It’s been hot here in the South of late, and our faithful intermittent brezze (sea breezes) and venticelli (mountain breezes) have deserted us as well. With our northern-European ancestry, we’ve been sweating like race horses. I’m reminded of an old girlfriend who insisted that girls don’t sweat, they glisten. Rafaele glistened. I sweated.

Rafaele took us first to part of the vineyard where he showed us vines of Aglianico and explained that he specializes in the ‘historic’ vines of the region such as Aglianico, Fiano, Greco di Tufo and Piedirosso. I’ve commented elsewhere about the chances of these being the ‘original’ vines of Italy, so I won’t be a curmudgeon, but what I can say with absolute confidence is that several of these grapes have enormous potential, given the right amount of respect. Take this for what it’s worth, since I have a mediocre palate, sad to say, but the Fiano grape (white wine) and the Aglianico grape (red) in my opinion are undiscovered jewels. And they’re still reasonably priced! There’s even an Aglianico that is my favorite everyday quaff which is sold for about $5 by Trader Joe’s. Spring for a couple more bucks and I’d almost guarantee you’ll never go back to Two Buck Chuck again.

As we made our way to the winery Rafaele explained his philosophy of winemaking: leave the grapes and young wines alone and let them show you what they can do, unless they obviously need some help. Case in point, the use of copper sulfate. Coastal Cilento has the same problem for viticulture as we have in North Carolina: too much humidity at key points in the summer. And molds and mildews such as oidium and gray mold just love a warm, humid place to eat grape leaves. So Rafaele sprays, but only when it’s obviously necessary, not on a preset, biweekly schedule as so often in the US, even in industrial wineries in arid California. And he lets the grapes leaven themselves until he sees they’re in trouble, in which case he’ll use a cultured yeast. None of this foolishness of blasting the must with sulfites and starting from a ‘dead’ must. As a teacher and a parent , I’ve always thought that kids thrive on a bit of benign neglect; let ‘em show you what they’re capable of doing, even if you fear they’re overreaching. But be there for backup when they get in trouble. That seems like a good way to raise wines as well, so Rafaele was preaching to the choir.

Next we toured the winery, a spacious facility where we saw the staging area for the entry of the grapes, the crusher/de-stemmer, the ‘press’, in this case one of the bladder presses so popular in modern winemaking. If it sounds a bit distasteful, don’t be alarmed; it’s just a large cylindrical metal canister with an inflatable rubber ‘balloon’ inside which squeezes the crushed gapes against the interior sides of the cylinder to extract the must. Not quite a gentle as the naked human foot, still the absolute best way to crush grapes, but a world gentler than the hydraulic presses which are cheaper and faster.

We made our way to the fermentation room with its large, stainless steel vats which can be temperature controlled, so very critical for producing good wines in this hot environment. Then to the bottling room where the Marinos have a complete bottling line. Finally to the tasting room where Rafaele told us more of his philosophy and met his lovely wife and handsome son. With his parents, this kid had no chance of turning out ugly. Rafaele explained that he has difficulty selling his wines in the commercial venues in the Cilento, so he sells in Canada and through the family’s restaurant in Agropoli. Sad to say, this didn’t surprise me at this point. Only the day before I had gone to a local wine shop to buy an excellent Fiano Sandy and I had enjoyed at a local restaurant. The clerk practically sneered, “This wine you will find at the supermarket!” Geez, lady, I thought, I didn’t ask for sterco on a crocciante, it’s a great little wine! So I asked for any other local Fianos. “At the supermarket, signore!”

Well, I’m not going to be cowed into buying something I don’t want, so off I went to the supermarket, where I found... not one single Cilentane wine! Not one! There was a Fiano from northern Campania which I’ve had before; it’s crap. Sadly, it appears that wine snobbery is as rampant in southern Italy as in America.

This afternoon I experienced Rolando’s vino della casa, and I’ll warn you in advance there is no way I can be an objective observer here, I have so much admiration and affection for him. Rolando is our host. He showed me his vineyard, consisting of some 8 rows of grapes. These too were the traditional grapes, not of the Cilento but of Piemonte! Rolando and Filomena lived in Torino for many years and when they retired to Agropoli he brought slips of the famous Piedmontese grapes Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Arnese. Rolando’s grapes, like Rolando himself had earlier done, are thriving in their adopted home. I was struck by the tiny little berries of these pretty clusters, a reminder that most of the flavor and aroma in wine derives from the skins, so the really noble wine grapes all have small berries: more skin per ounce of juice.

Rolando’s grapes are completely organic, not even any copper sulfate. I suppose in a bad year for molds he simply makes the best wine he can and hopes for a better season next year.

His ‘winery’ is a workroom on the ground level of the villa, katty-cornered from our apartment, which is naturally cooled by the earth itself. Rolando uses a hand-cranked crusher-destemmer, then throws the must into two large plastic containers, perhaps five feet tall and about the same in diameter at the top. They undergo the primary stage of fermentation here, when fermentation is so vigorous there is no need for a closed container. Then they go into stainless-steel cylinders, the elfin cousins of the huge ones at Marino, and in this case not mechanically cooled. The vintage takes place in October, and by February the wine is ready to be racked off the lees into glass carboys which line a shelf along one wall, where they slowly finish their aging. Rolando bottles by hand, of course, and uses simple plastic ‘corks’, cheaper and more hygienic.

We tasted one of Rolando wines, a Barbera. Rolando explained that he uses about 80% Barbera grapes and 20% white Arnese. For balance and aroma? No, the Arnese have some residual sugar and they are what gives the wine its fizz. Rolando uses a specially designed plastic stopper which accepts a wire ‘cage’ just like the cork ones do on commercial sparklers. The wine is not really fizzy, spumante as the Italians say, but more a frizzante, just a pleasant bit of sparkle. There is also a bit of residual sweetness. Not my favorite style of wine, but still delicious; the aroma and fruitiness of the Barbera grapes were all there, the wine was perfectly balanced and ‘healthy’. Plus, the companionship was a great vintage.

Rolando explained that he likes to drink his wines young, often after only six months or so, like Beaujolais Nouveaux. Why not aged wines? Because, unless they are truly great vintages of truly great grapes, the winemaker is practically compelled to sulfur his wines to keep them stable, and that is no longer a natural product. It’s the same for his olive oil, which Rolando claims is good medicine as well as fine food. Hard to argue with that. The best pasta sauce I’ve ever tasted is a tablespoon of Rolando’s olive oil.

It was interesting that both Rafaele and Rolando emphasized with considerable zeal that natural wine will make you strong and keep you strong. Hard to argue with that either; Rolando is a robust 73 who works around the villa every day. And once again I was struck by the recurrent theme: technology can make products more rapidly and more cheaply, but it does not necessarily make them better.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Yesterday we returned for a second visit to Pompeii. It seems that vines are growing there again after 2,000 years.

I mentioned earlier the work of American academic Wilhemina Jashemski, who perfected the technique of making plaster casts of root cavities and thereby dramatically altered our understanding of the landscape of Pompeii. We now know that market gardens were planted in many places in Pompeii, right there in the middle of this bustling little commercial center. Market gardens and vineyards. Lots of vineyards.

So in 1996 the Superintendency of Pompeii, the agency which oversees the site, gave the word to Mastroberardino, a large and well respected winery with headquarters near Salerno, to bring wine back to Pompeii. The natural way.

So detailed were Jashemski’s castings that we can see not only the pattern of plantings of vines but also the little corridors between blocks of vines, just as the Roman writers Columella and Pliny the Elder recommend, and the vine stakes used to trellis the vines. Not to speak of the fruit trees which were interplanted in the vineyard, again, just as the ancient agronomists recommend. We even have a pretty good idea of the types of wood used as vinestakes (mostly chestnut) and the canes used to bring the cordons across from one stake to another. Larger post holes indicate where taller pergolas were created as, for example, they often were over the lanes to take advantage of this space (the lanes were needed to move farm equipment about) but also, I believe, just to create a pleasant, green, shady place to stroll. For all their practicality the Romans had a soft spot for nature and they loved to create beautiful landscapes where they could enjoy a pleasant walk or dinner. So do their modern descendants. One of my favorite meals in Italy was in the little town of Chiusi in Umbria at a small trattoria where we were seated under just such a pergola out back. The food was good, but it tasted even better as we listened to the buzzing of bees and chattering of birds, felt the cool breeze and watched mamma birds tending their chicks in the nests they had nestled into the vines.

But the experts at Mastroberardino were in a bit of a quandry: what to plant? We know that the wild grapevine, Vitis vinifera silvestris, has grown all over Italy for millennia, but cultivated forms of Vitis vinifera vinifera were probably introduced accidentally (humans create a lot of garbage, including grape pips and vines used as dunnage, packing material for ships) by Mycenaean Greeks as well as Phoenicians, Etruscans (maybe), and archaic Greeks. And scholars for years have debated which ones of the 10,000 plus varieties of the cultured plant are original. That’s not an easy thing, since the vine is so adaptable and since propagation of cultured vines is by cloning, that is, by rooted cuttings.

The linguists have had their say, as usual, trying to recreate history from tthe dialectal forms of vine names. For example, Greco is supposed by them to be the Aminea Gemina so famous in antiquity, responsible for Falernian, the Chateau d’Yquem of its day; Fiano is supposedly the ancient Appiano, recommended for the raisin wine that Italians still love, and the name Aglianico is just a deformed version of Hellenico, 'Greekish', underlining its Greek roots.

The problem is that it’s darned hard to recreate ancient history from historical records, scanty as they are, and trying to do so from linguistic records, in my opinion, is a fool’s errand. Perhaps it is significant that the vaunted Aglianico, which I was really pulling for because I love that little grape, has been shown by new DNA testing to be about as far from modern Greek varietals as is possible.

In the event the winery decided to go with Piedirosso and Sciascinoso, two workhorse grapes here in the south which are dependable if uninspiring producers. The first harvest was in 1999 and the first bottling appeared in 2001 and was named “Villa dei Misteri” after the famous villa right outside the Herculaneum gate of the city. Quantities were so small that they were reserved exclusively for the bigwigs, but production has increased since then, so someday I might bag a bottle. They still hover around $85 per bottle, way out of my price range.

In the meantime, I needed to see the main sites in the city where vineyards are attested. The biggest was the so-called Forum Boarium, once thought to be a cattle market, which we now know was nothing of the sort; given the right context, we can clearly see the little pressroom facilities where the wine was made on site and the two outdoor pergolas, complete with triclinia or dining couches, which could be rented by those going to or leaving the nearby amphitheatre for private dining (How about a nice Fiano with that slaughter, gentlemen?).

Unfortunately, when I arrived I confronted another of the unwritten rules of Italian bureacracy. Let’s review, kids:

1. It’s always open...but just not today!

2. It’s all open...except the part that you really want to see.

Number two is the reason I had to return in the first place; some of the sites I most needed to see were off limits on our first visit. No problem, I was told I just needed to procure some kind of documentation to establish my bona fides as a legitimate researcher and present it to the Director of the site. That’s reasonable, we’re loving some of these ancient sites to death with our tramplimg, pawing, even our hot humid breath, and conservation is a huge issue in Italy. Plus, these were working vineyards and there’s no end to the unwitting mischief tourists can do there. So my friends at the University of Salerno were nice enough to provide me with the proper documents, and Sandy and I were off bright and early to try to beat the brutal heat of midday. That’s when I confronted Unwritten Rule Number 3: The Director/Superintendant/Custodian (you fill in the bureaucrat) is always delighted to see you...but not now! The Director, it seems, didn’t bother to show up for work until noon. Which in Neapolitan terms means 1-1:30.

Fortunately, I remembered trusty Rule Number 4, given to me courtesy of a dear friend who shall remain anonymous: “It is strictly forbidden! But that's just a formality.” I’m not admitting anything, I’m just sayin’.

Two of the sites were cauponae, ancient Holiday Inns where you could get a room, a hot meal, some wine, and some nighttime companionship. One of my favorite tombstones from Pompeii depicts a dialogue between an innkeeper and a very cheap guest who spends the equivalent of $8.00 for a prostitute (bet she was a looker, don’t you?) but begrudges fifty cents for hay for his poor old mule. These inns actually had small working vineyards on premises to produce some of the wine they sold. Stamps on the wine jugs found on site show they also had to bring in more wine from local negociants, but it still must have helped the bottom line to cut out the middleman for some of the wares.

To me the most affecting of all the sites is the Garden of the Fugitives, a beautiful atrium house with a nice peristyle and a large garden out back that included a sizeable vineyard with a nice central pergola which Mastroberardino has recreated. The vineyard is enclosed by a wall, as are all the others, so the Roman urban vineyards are what the French would call clos, walled plots. And there at the very back of the garden, huddled up against the wall where they could run no further, are the plaster casts of the thirteen poor souls who tried their best to escape the searing gases of a pyroclastic surge and could not. From their position at the southern end of the clos, it is perfectly obvious that they had seen that black wall of death rushing down the mountain at 65 miles per hour, pregnant with the deadly gases that would tear at their lungs and snuff out their lives. Men, women, small children, all huddled together, the agony of their demises clearly evident in their tortured poses and even some facial expressions. What terror must those poor little ones have been undergoing in those awful moments?

Not fifteen feet away are the glorious vines basking in the warm sun of the Mezzogiorno. Vines and humans perished together on that horrible day in 79 CE. But because of the same kinds of plaster casts, we can now, in a sense, resurrect the vines and, sadly, we cannot the people who planted and tended and enjoyed them. I think of those vines as a beautiful monument to the anonymous lives and deaths of those Pompeiian citizens. And this is holy ground.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I have met the reincarnation of Ancel Keys, the now-sainted guru of the Mediterranean Diet. Even better, we had dinner at his restaurant.

His name is Roberto Paullilo. Roberto is a compact, intense fellow in his fifties with blue eyes, steely gray hair, and a smiling demeanor that belies the intensity of his passion for food. It’s entirely appropriate that Roberto has taken the mantle from Keys; when General Mark Clark disembarked with the Fifth Army on the beaches of Gaudo, near Paestum, back in 1944, the first man to meet him and shake his hand was Roberto’s grandfather.

Roberto is a true Renaissance man: architect by training, hotelier and restaurateur by birth, landscape artist by inclination, and food guru by all of the above. Roberto doesn’t just create food, he sculpts it, as a work of art.

His partner and muse, Rafaela, a pretty woman, quiet and warm, did the actual cooking from both traditional dishes to which the two have added their own flair, and from completely original recipes using the best local ingredients. Rafaela didn’t talk that much, even when she was not in the kitchen, but if anything, she spoke even more than the effusive Roberto; Rafaela let her cooking do the talking, and, let me tell you, the lady can flat out throw down in the cucina.

Roberto and Rafaela are the proprietors of the Calypso Hotel Ristorante Lido on the shores of the Tyrrhenian at Paestum. The hotel had been founded by Roberto’s grandfather and he grew up in the business. The hotel and Roberto’s landscape architecture pay the bills, but “slow food” is his passion. The Slow Food movement was started by Carlo Petrini in Torino back in 1986 and now has chapters in countries all over the world. If you care about good food and/or sustainable agriculture and are not a member, betake thyself to the website and join; it’s cheap and we need all the help we can get.

Roberto spoke in his near-flawless English of a philosophy of food that included elements of Taoism, of homeopathy, of the virtues of organic foods and of the sacredness of local food traditions. His restaurant bespeaks that philosophy: part art gallery, part food library, part lecture hall, part demonstration kitchen. Roberto showed us a demonstration he had set up for local school kids where they can mill their own grain in a simple mill with real millstones and spoke of the possibility of doing the same sort of thing with a miniature frantoio. It seems that thousands of cultivated olive trees are being abandoned in Italy as more and more Italians settle for the crap that the huge conglomerates sell for less in the supermarkets. But what if tour groups could be brought to the Calypso in the fall, taught a bit about traditional foods, and then sent out to the olive groves to hand harvest their own olives, bring them back and produce their own oil, which they could take back home with them?

Fernando tells me of an incident which pretty well summarizes what Roberto and Rafaela are all about. Several years ago the regional director of NAS, the Italian equivalent of the FDA, came to inspect the Calypso. He was puzzled about the absence of a walk-in cooler at the restaurant. Roberto explained that his food went straight from the farm or sea to the table so there was no need for much refrigeration. The inspector, at first incredulous, stuck around for a few hours and saw for himself. He then went home and promptly booked the restaurant for his daughter’s wedding reception.

The meal itself was a revelation, perfectly balanced and filling without being excessively so as so many Italian restaurant meals can be. The antipasto was one of our favorites, a simple bruschetta all’ pomodoro, of the sort that so many American restaurants manage to murder. It was composed of the best bread (in this case made from grain the Paollilos mill themselves every morning and naturally leavened to create a sourdough bread), perfectly ripe little grape tomatoes which are in season right now in the Cilento, a bit of basil and garlic, salt and pepper, and fruity olive oil. Not even any Parmeggiano. And, forgive my rant, but too many Americans slaughter the name along with the dish; in standard Italian it is pronounced broo SKET tuh, not broo SHET tuh, with the hard k sound. Some of my friends of Italian extraction insist they pronounced it with the soft s sound as kids. Fair enough, that could be dialect, but I’ll insist in that case that you have your brooshettuh with spajetti; the only purpose of that h in Italian is to make the c and g hard. The dish itself was everything we love about good Italian cuisine: the absolute best local ingredients, simply prepared and allowed to speak for themselves.

Along with the antipasto and our primi we enjoyed a local sparkler, Caprarizzo Greco, a ‘garage wine’ (that’s a good thing) made near Capaccio on the flank of the mountain overlooking Paestum. The name of the winery derives from the converted goat stable which now serves as the press room. This is a tiny estate, about six acres (another very good thing), which produces only about 12,00 bottles per year, the sparkling frizzantino that we enjoyed as well as a still wine, both using the Greco grape which is really starting to strut its stuff in this region.

We enjoyed two primi, or pasta courses, one an invention of the Paullilos and the other from a family recipe. First up was a sort of roulade made with homemade sheet pasta from a traditional grain whose name I never could understand, wrapped around the classic pasta verde, pasta hand-made with bits of spinach to give it color and flavor, wrapped around a suffrito of veggies, all topped with a homemade marinara and a sprinkling of goat cheese. The second, traditional pasta was cavatelle, little hand-made gnocchi, not of potatoes but of hard wheat, with a smoked swordfish. Both delicious.

Next we were offered two entrees and a contorno, or vegetable dish. The first was a torta d’allici, a sort casserole made with fresh anchovies gratineed and served with a pepper ragu, also gratineed. The second was thinly sliced cutlets of pork loin topped with peppers. I should explain that these were Italian bell peppers allowed to reach their full, glorious ripeness so that they are so sweet you can eat them like apples. These had been gently sauteed and bathed in good olive oil. With the entree we had a wine we had enjoyed before, Kratos Fiano, made by the winery of Luigi and Rafaela Maffini at Castellabate, on the flanks of the mountain about 20 miles south of Paestum. Not a garage wine, but definitely artisinal; the Maffinis have about 47 acres and produce about 45,000 bottles per year.

Forgive a brief digression about the wines of the Mezzogiorno. Some of the most exciting wines I have tasted in recent years are coming out of this southern region and they are still largely unheralded and therefore reasonably priced, both here and in the States when you can find them. They are a far cry from those produced en masse fifty years ago, when about the best you could say about them was that they were potable. What gives? In a word, controlled fermentation temperatures. It’s damned hot down here in August and September when the grape harvest occurs, and a hot fermentation is inevitably a bad one, one which absolutely strips the wine of flavor and aroma. Enter Robert Mondavi and the idea of fermentation in stainless steel tanks with cooling jackets, and viola! the fermentation climate of Bordeaux! Many of the wineries here have taken the next logical step and now also harvest at night under halogen lights. Does that really make a difference? Absolutely! As far back as Roman times vinegrowers knew that a cool harvest was essential, and so they recommended harvesting only in the early morning.

For dolci, or dessert, we had cannoli, the classic dessert of Sicily, but there was nothing classic about these except the taste. The pasta rolls were crisply fried but small and delicate, unlike the huge honkers you often get in pasticcerie here. That meant more crunch per bite. Further, Rafaela used local ‘ricotta’, the full-fat version popular around here, instead of the sheeps’ milk ricotta of the classic. This was flavored with lemon zest and a touch of brown sugar. These we had with more of the Caprarizzo sparkling wine, and sparkling wines and Italian desserts, in my opinion, are a match made in heaven.

As I read back through this entry it suggests that we stuffed ourselves, but nothing could be further from the truth. The portions were small and perfectly balanced and we left the Calypso sated but not logy. Somewhere in a better world, Ancel Keys is smiling on you, Roberto and Rafaela!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Yesterday was incredibly hard work and we were so exhausted when we returned we cooked a simple store-bought pasta and fell into bed. But before you expend much sympathy on us, it was also incredibly fun. We were toiling in the vineyards of archaeology.

Yesterday morning about 8:30 Fernando showed up and we rounded up Fabio, who loaded us into Rolando’s Jeep, a Russian-made Lada Niva 4 X 4, and we headed out to the Bay of Trentova, down the coast from Agropoli. We left the coast road after several miles and it immediately became clear why we needed the Lada; this was a road in only the most generic sense of the word. Thankfully it has been dry here for at least two weeks (the proverbial Mediterranean climate), so there was no serious danger of being stuck, just of bouncing off the ceiling. But then, suddenly, there we were on a beautiful little Roman road, pavers perfectly fitted, well-wrought curbstones, the camber in the middle to shed water just like I tell my students, and straight as an arrow. Most impressive of all, it was in near perfect condition after some 2,000 years. And we in America are lucky to get 40 out of ours.

The Roman road quickly disappeared and we endured more carnival ride, but soon enough arrived at the site of a Roman villa maritima, one of those luxury villas the Romans built all up and down the southern Italian coast to get away from the stress of life in the big city, to enjoy the pleasant year-round weather, and to luxuriate in the spectacular views for which this area is so rightly famous.

Unfortunately, the Roman villa was superseded by a Medieval villa which still stands, though in a state of perilous ruin and now used as a cow barn. The Roman villa is some 4 meters down, and only a small test dig has been conducted, four meters square, to establish the existence of the villa. What remains visible is still impressive. The villa was surrounded by a huge stone wall, apparently some 16’ tall and several meters wide. This site is thought to go back several centuries BCE, and the assumption is that the wall was built during the Punic Wars when the fearsome Carthaginian fleet caused such fear along these coasts.

Elsewhere Fernando showed me a huge stone into which had been cut two parallel cavities, about 2’ wide and 5’ long, which the original discoverer had suggested were tombs. Not very likely; no other such tombs exist and cuttings on one end seem to be for the wooden stanchions to support a superstructure, and another scholar has suggested a press bed for olive oil instead. Then we saw a spring which issued from the hillside behind the villa, for which the Romans had wrought a well crafted reservoir complete with a painted wall in front; the Romans adored the aqua minerale of this region as much as their descendants now do. We followed the continuation of the Roman road as it made its way down to a small bay, a port for the facility, and Fernando pointed out places on the hillside where the local stone had been quarried to be shipped from this harbor.

Unquestionably the most impressive thing about the site was the sheer volume of items, Roman as well as Greek, which were clearly visible on the ground. It’s what the archaeologists call surface scatter. Fabio has an incredibly sharp eye for such things and he pointed out fragments of Greek drinking cups, of Roman plates and bowls, of marble fragments beautifully cut to create an intarsio floor, probably for part of the bath complex that Romans included in their villas, of fragments of Roman glass, clear and of the brilliant cobalt that the Romans first made famous. All this in an area the size of our house lot back home. This is an extremely rich site, just screaming to be excavated. So why not? Lack of funds, of course. There are just so many sites in Italy and so little money to support such research. But Fabio and Fernando call this “another Paestum, just waiting to be discovered.”

After a brief excursion to the top of the hill for a panoramic view of the area and of Paestan Plain, we headed home for some lunch and a brief riposo. Then we were off to chase more archaeology. Fabio had to work, but we were joined by Sandy’s new best friend, Katuscia. We love being with this young woman. She is beautiful, bright, funny and warmhearted. And she seems to be quite smitten with Fabio. The problem is that Fabio has a mistress, one he has adored, according to Uncle Luigi, at least since he was eight. Her name is Archeologia, and she is stiff competition indeed.

We were headed for the mountain town of Perdifumo, but we stopped in Vatolla along the way to see another cantina, this one in the basement of a medieval palazzo that belonged to the Spanish family of Vargas. Fernando had made arrangements to meet the custodian of the palace—it has become an inside joke with us that Italian cultural attractions are siempre aperto...ma non oggi!, ‘always open...just not today’!—but in the event he was nowhere to be found. Two hours later Fernando was able to track him down (he’s a volunteer for the Italian Red Cross as well) and we made a brief tour of the carefully refurbished palazzo, which is now a center to commemorate a local boy who made good, the famous philosopher and educational reformer Giambattista Vico. But no cantina, the very thing we came to see! It seems a different custodian had the key to the cantina, and he, too, was nowhere to be found. Oy!

So down the road we went to Perdifumo, where we parked the car and strolled through the little town, asking periodically where was the famous palmento. It’s one of those ironies of Italy that in the midst of such cultural wealth very few people really know or care what they are living amidst. Finally some gentlemen playing penuchle in the piazza who sent us off to the suburbs, followed by more confusion and several more puzzled locals, before a little nono came walking down the road and pointed to an olive orchard right beside us... and there was the palmento, largely obscured by olive nets and vine stakes, not 50 meters away. Without his help we would never have found it. The owner of the orchard kindly offered permission to explore, and we finally bagged the big one.

At least big to a couple of classical geeks. Palmenti are large treading vats cut into native stone, with one, two, sometimes three separate but connected vats. This was a single vat, but the more typical form has two, an upper and a lower one, connected by a small hole in the adjoining wall. The best guess is that grape clusters were harvested and dumped into the upper vat where they were trodden by naked feet, still the absolute best method for gently extracting grape juice, called must, without extracting too much tannin from the skins and seeds. The grape solids would settle to the bottom of the upper tank and when the tank was full the aperture between the vats, probably plugged with wet clay, would be opened and the pure must allowed to drain into the lower vat, to be racked into fermentation vessels. Remaining juice might be left on the marc, the solid parts of the clusters, to obtain color, flavor and a bit of tannin, all of which derive almost exclusively from the skins of the grapes. After perhaps 24 to 48 hours the juice would be racked off the marc and the marc put under a press of some sort to extract more of the precious liquid.

So what’s the big deal? It has to do with the history of wine. There is a debate in scholarly circles as to when exactly wine was first systematically produced in the Old World. To explain, wine is a food product that will essentially make itself, since colonies of yeasts are lurking on the grape skins just waiting for that barrier to be broken so they can have a regular sugar-eating orgy, in the process of which they will fart out CO2 and pee out ethyl alcohol. You’ve all seen those little colonies—they appear as grayish coloration on dark grapes—and perhaps didn’t even know what you were looking at. The point is that making wine, at least bad wine, is a fairly simple technology. The problem is that wine very quickly and inevitably turns to vinegar unless oxygen is excluded from the product. So the development of pottery in the late Neolithic was a very big deal.

But what about Middle Neolithic or even Paleolithic? We simply don’t know, but it’s fun to speculate. Are the palmenti that cluster along the Apennine regions of Italy, from Aemilia-Romagna all the way down to Calabria, neolithic vats? Probably not, although it is difficult to say. How do you date a native stone? The most knowledgeable scholar in this area, the Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Brun, thinks they go no further back than the Roman period. The point is that theoretically they could have provided winemaking in the Neolithic, at least in the so-called ceramic period after there were jugs to store the wine in. And we are in the process of developing the analytical tools such as chromatography and mass spectrometry to determine many things about such vessels, so someday we may have a more definitive answer to the question. In the meantime Dave just had to hop in this palmento and do a bit of imaginary grape treading. Katuscia was a good sport and helped me out. And later that night at home I raised a toast to our ancestors, whoever they were, who developed the wonderful technology of wine. And half the night I dreamed, not of sexy Italian girls, but of sexy Italian palmenti!