Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Saturday was another of those perfect combinations of tourism and research, although the distinction becomes more and more nebulous in my own mind.

We were both pretty exhausted from two intense days in the Vesuviana. Friday, on our feet for hours in Pompeii, not to speak of the stressful commute, pretty much did in the old geezers. So we were just hanging out on the terrace and catching our breath when Fabio appeared from upstairs and offered to take us for caffè. We jump at the chance to be with Fabio, especially when he is so busy, and good coffee with good company on a Saturday morning is hard to beat.

As we descended the ridge to pick up the Via Fuonti, Fabio revealed that this excursion would be a bit more ambitious than he had disclosed. We were headed for Paestum and the Caseificio Il Granato to have coffee and gelato. Buffalo-milk gelato!

The caseificio is located along the SS18 just outside the archaeological zone and is housed in a pretty new building well off the road, with an impressive view of the mountains to the east. Here they make the traditional bufala-milk mozzarella in the standard shapes, from the little bocconcini (‘mouthfuls’) to larger orbs the size of a small grapefruit. Not to speak of the braided forms and the aged stagionati. And now yoghurt.

Then there is the gelateria. I don’t know what it is about gelato that makes it so delicious; the only scholarly evidence I can offer is that when we were here years ago, the first Italian word five-year-old Amy learned (and learned perfectly and practiced with enthusiasm) was “Gelato!” Not even a trace of the lisp her daddy found so charming. The textbooks say that real gelato has significantly less butterfat than American ice cream and yet it has such a rich, velvety feel in the mouth that it’s hard not to imagine that it is far more decadent. Actually, the creamy texture apparently comes from the fact that the mixture of cream, sugar, egg yolk, and flavorings is churned in such a way that it incorporates more air. It’s what the food scientists call ‘overage’. The result is a product that is incredibly luscious on the tongue but is actually a healthier product.

So why haven’t American corporations cottoned onto the idea? Simply because gelato must be consumed quickly or it sets up hard as a brick and is awful. If you don’t believe me try some of those frozen products from the supermarket that purport to be gelato. Gelato needs to be made in a gelateria, and made in small batches that will be consumed within hours. Gelato, like Sandy’s aqua sale, is what ‘fast food’ should be all about.

In the gelateria of Il Granato we saw beautiful, creamy delights laid out in stainless steel canisters and artistically displayed. Wonderful flavors: hazelnut, pistachio, chocolate, coffee, ‘English soup’, lemon, cantaloupe, strawberry. All served in a waffle cone (made on the spot, of course. Fast food, remember?) or a cup, with the option of buffalo-milk whipped cream on top. We all agreed that this was the ultimate gelato.

But Fabio brought up an interesting point that makes me appreciate buffalo-milk products even more. Water buffalo were introduced into this part of Italy only in the 9th century CE and ever since the Campanians have made a virtue of necessity. It was at this time, you see, that the Sele River and its tributaries silted up, whether through bradyseism (the coasts of Italy have risen and fallen constantly over the millennia) or by virtue of deforestation and poor farming practices, or perhaps a combination of both. But the upshot was that the whole Plain of Paestum became swampy and malarial.

The Romans knew perfectly well that swampy places bred malaria. The very name malaria comes from the Latin mala aria, ‘bad air’. And though I have a sentimental predilection for swamps—I grew up in the Mississippi alluvial swamps of West Tennessee—it must be admitted that swamps smell pretty funky. That's why the wealthy Romans lived on the tops of those famous Seven Hills. Of course it was not until Walter Reed discovered that it was the anopheles mosquito that bred in the swamps which was the real disease vector that malaria’s real etiology was determined.

So the populace of the Paestum Plain retreated to the flanks of the mountains to survive. But what to do with all that swampy land? The traditional Mediterranean triad of olives, grapes and wheat was impossible, and standard livestock such as cows, sheep, pigs and goats quickly sickened and died. And so the water buffalo was introduced from India and the rest is history. Today, with channelization and even irrigation, the Paestum Plain is an oasis of beautiful row crops, but it is most famous for its buffaloes and the products derived from their delicious milk. And buffalo will only thrive in this one region of Italy, so genuine mozzarella di bufala can only be made (and sold, since it is highly perishable) in this one area.

Saturday afternoon Fernando escorted the Thurmonds to the Museum of Farm Life in the little village of Ortodonico some 20 miles south of here. We took the coast road, which guaranteed that Sandy was ecstatically making pictures at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, guys, the Amalfi Coast and Capri are spectacular and if you’re inclined to vacation there I say go for it; you will see scenery so gorgeous you will wonder whether your eyes are really seeing it. But if you want to see scenery equally gorgeous in an area where prices are one-third to one-half, where there are not the bumptious crowds of tourists (except on weekends at the beaches) and where you will encounter friendly, helpful local people instead of the harried, frustrated herders of tourists, then I say emphatically, “Come to the Cilento!”

And I must tell you in all honesty, these people need some of your money a lot more than they do in Positano. The little museum in Ortodonico, like so many other attractions in the region, has been forced to close because it can’t sustain itself financially and the governments in the region can’t or won’t make up the shortfall. Fernando had called ahead and arranged with the Direttore, Signore Maffia, to unlock the doors and show the Americans this little gem. The museum is housed in an old frantoio, or olive oil factory, right next to a Medieval tower. The factory contains not one but two massive oil presses, both in near perfect condition and cleverly housed so that every drop of oil could be wrung from those olives. I should explain that unprocessed olives and olive juice are completely inedible because they contain an intensely bitter watery element that not only makes the olive pulp so astringent you won’t be able to talk for several minutes if you sample it (ever eaten an unripe persimmon?), but will quickly spoil the flavor of the oils if not separated. Fortunately, oil and water don’t mix, as anyone who’s mixed his vinaigrette too early has discovered, so allowing the juices to sit and collect for a short time makes it easy to separate the two. Under the floor of the mill were several channels which conducted the different liquid components to their respective receptacles and even out into the courtyard of the facility, now a small piazza of the village. On the volcanic-stone press bed for one of the mills were two small, round, shallow declivities exactly the size of the canisters used to scoop the precious oil from off the bitter water, and to one side of these was a small channel which led back to the separation vat. Sr. Maffia explained that, since oil adhered to the outside of the collecting canisters, they were placed in these hollows and the oil on the outside ran off, through the channel and back into the vat to be collected. When I say every last drop, I mean it literally.

Driving back from the Museum and thinking about the events of the day I was reminded of something I have encountered repeatedly in my research. In case after case, modern technological innovations have allowed us to produce food products more cheaply and more rapidly, and I do not mean to belittle the importance of those considerations in a world where hunger is a constant menace for so many. But, in case after case, a superior product can, and often can only, be made with the simplest technologies. These plus that indefinable element of human culture, pride in what we are producing.

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