Sunday afternoon we decided to make another giro to see parts of this gorgeous area we had not seen previously. Our ultimate goal was the little town of Laurino, perched on some dramatic cliffs above a gorge of the Calore river and privy to a 360° view of the surrounding mountains. I confess that my major incentive for wanting to see this town was no more than some pictures I had seen on one of the Facebook pages we follow.
Laurino is about 35 miles directly east of here, but as we used to say down home, "You can't get there from here!" This is a very rugged, mountainous area, part of its allure. We had two options, to head north for about 15 miles to Capaccio Scalo, then due east to Roccadaspide, then back south to the cut-off to the little town. Alternately, we could travel south down the superstrada to Vallo della Lucania, then wander northeastward along a ridge and down and across the Calore valley to the same cut-off. Because traffic was light on this Sunday afternoon, we chose the latter.
The drive to Vallo was pleasant enough, and we accessed the provincial highway, wound our way through Angellara and Moio di Civitella where our friends Aniello and Papa Botti had treated us to a tour of an Iron Age village, and twisted and turned our way along the flank of the ridge, bug-eyed at the vistas we were seeing to the east. This particular road took us through the little village of Campora, and I asked Sandy if she'd like to stop for a peak.
|Traveling northeast from Vallo|
Friend, take it from me, if you're ever conflicted whether the wayside stop is worth detouring from your intended destination, just do it! The greatest treats we've had in Italy have consistently been where we didn't intend to be. I suspect there's a life lesson there as well. In any case, we parked the car at the edge of the Centro and strolled up a narrow street through this beautiful medieval village. A tiny side street took us toward the mother church, and as we turned to find a better angle to view the bell tower, I noticed a ruggedly handsome man sitting on the stoop before the door of his home, cleaning mushrooms. "Porcini?" I asked. "Yes, porcini that I found this morning in a nearby forest."
|The campanile of the mother church|
|Intarsio of the family crest|
|This bathtub was Mario's father's, now reconditioned|
Now, anyone who is as passionate about these exquisite little fungi as we are is molto simpatico in my book, and that was our introduction to Mario Costantini, proprietor of the Domus Letizia agriturismo and yet another gracious Italian. We exchanged basic biography, talked of Mario's relatives in Pittsburgh and the New York area, of our plans for a travelogue on the Cilento, and before we knew it Mario was taking us on a tour of his home! It's a stunner, which Mario has been renovating for seven years now. In the foyer is a beautiful intarsio family crest, and the classicist loved the fact that the family motto is 'Omnia vincit Amor," Ovid's dictum that 'Love conquers all'. I'd say based on my limited experience that pretty well characterizes Mario. He showed us through the various suites of rooms, one on the ground floor for a disabled person whom Mario and his wife care for, and three suites of guest rooms plus the couple's apartment on the second and third floors. Every room exquisitely decorated: a large salon, bedrooms with gorgeous old antique beds, beautiful ceramic furnaces for heat, bathrooms, I swear, bigger than our guest room, complete with renovated footed tubs, beautiful tile work and modern fixtures. There were beautiful vistas from most windows.
The basement, the former cantina (wine cellar) is on exposed native rock, and Mario has plans to create a small restaurant here with a pizza oven. But the star of the show is a rooftop terrazza with stunning view westward to the mountains and the little villages of Stio and Gioi and eastward to the rooftops and mother church of the village. Mario explained that he sets up a large grill here in the summer and grills fresh seafood for guests, or prepares other meals down in the hotel's ground-floor kitchen and brings them up. We were astounded that such a gorgeous place could exist in such a tiny village in this out-of-the-way corner of the world.
|One of the guest bedrooms|
|The view west from the terrazza...|
|and east to the church...|
Next Mario led us down to the kitchen and insisted we have a seat. And what a kitchen it is! The cook in me was google-eyed at a gorgeous stainless six-burner with an industrial hood and all the appurtenances. Mario showed us his stainless canister for storing olive oil—50 liters, no less—from his own trees.
And then the food began to come! First we were offered aqua sale, which I suspect I've oozed about before: a simple but perfect dish of stale hearty bread quickly softened by running it under water and then dressed with utmost simplicity with sea salt, herbs—especially oregano—and sometimes tiny little dead-ripe pomodorini sliced in half. In my opinion, there is no more perfect dish in the world. I've attempted it twice with limited success, so it was a treat to watch it being made, the only real way to learn to cook, as anyone who learned at their grandma's side knows. Mario broke up the little breads by hand, ran them under the tap, then waited a few minutes, tested one and sprinkled a bit more water over the dish. Then he sprinkled salt and oregano, and, "Basta!" Perfect!
|The hotel kitchen|
|Fifty liters of olive oil|
|Arancini and porcini|
|Mario serves wine|
|Good old cab has found a new home|
|"A little snack"|
Next out were arancini, those peculiar little stuffed and fried rice balls famous in the South, plus simply dressed halves of fresh porcini and slices of a small, bulbous eggplant that's popular here. Mario had offered us a glass of wine at the beginning of the tour which we declined, I suppose out of some ridiculous sense of propriety, but when he offered a second time with this delicious food, there was no way we would refuse. And out came a bottle of Raspente '07, a gorgeous red, round, mellow, fruity, and unlike any wine I've had in these parts. Absolutely delicious. I'm embarrassed to admit I found out last night the grape in this wine is....Cab! There's a young man in Ascea, 20 miles south of Agropoli, who's planted 14 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon and is doing wonderful things with the old standard. Next up was a delicious ragù of beef loin and tomato sauce, which of course paired perfectly with the red wine. Along with this there were little chunks of a delightfully tangy pecorino cheese. Mario brought out a whole cheese wrapped in waxed paper and explained that a friend made this delicacy, a form of percorino buried in the ground for several months, during which time cheese worms infest the surface of the cheese and allegedly digest the fats and create a luscious paste. This is a form of pecorino called casu marzu, famous in Sardinia. I regret to say we declined Mario's offer to open this one.
Mario made toward the refrigerator, and I suspect we'd be eating still had we not stopped him and thanked him profusely for his hospitality. Sadly, it was growing toward dusk and we really wanted to see Laurino and make it home before being forced to drive on curvy mountain roads in the dark. But, as so often, we exchanged contact information and we have plans to return, perhaps for a quick stay in Mario's hotel and some cooking demonstration. Meantime, yet again, let me encourage you to let me know if you have any interest in visiting Mario's agriturismo. You would love it!
|Western vistas on the way home|
What is it about these people that makes them such generous hosts? I've probably abused your patience gushing about this so much, but it's so true and it's so typically Southern Italian. So I'll abuse your patience even more and suggest a crazy idea. In ancient Greek and Roman religion, hospitality toward strangers was not just a social amenity but a religious obligation. Could it be that hospitality is inherent in the Southern Italian ethos? This is, after all, the 'Greek' part of Italy. Zeus himself, king of the gods, was also Zeus Xenos, patron god of strangers. And mythology is filled with examples of how the gods descend to earth in mortal guise to check up on us and make sure we're offering that succor to strangers in need.
My favorite example is told in inimitable fashion by Ovid, the same Roman poet who, appropriately, provided Mario's family motto. Jupiter and Mercury (Roman names of Zeus and Hermes) come down to a village in the guise of traveling strangers and seek succor at various houses in the town, starting with the most prosperous, and are repeatedly scorned until they come to the humblest little hovel in the town, owned by a doddering but devoted old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who instantly invite them in, ask them to sit (as Mario did us), and prepare them the best they have. Husband Philemon goes to the garden and harvests a fine cabbage while Baucis takes down from a hook on the ceiling joist a slab of guanciale, what we call fatback, and slices off two thick rashers and plops them into the pot with the boiling cabbage. When the dish is finished, they invite their guests to the table, a bit rickety but propped up with a stone, rubbed down with fresh mint and piled with apples, a slab of honeycomb, bread, olives, good rustic bread, cherries preserved in wine, and other simple country foods. Then there's the 'wine'—in truth, far closer to vinegar than wine. But a strange thing happens: the wine exudes a heavenly aroma, and no matter how much the guests drink, the bowl remains full!
Realizing the true identity of their guests, the old couple apologize profusely for providing such humble fare; after all, aristocrats must have proper meat! And so, armed with a butcher knife, they hasten out to the yard where an old goose acts as the guardian of the household, and begin to totter around the yard trying to catch the poor, perplexed creature. With predictable comic effect, much to the gods' amusement. Well, at this point the gods intercede on behalf of the goose, reveal their identity and thank the couple for honoring them, not with food or drink but with true hospitality, and offer them their fondest heart's desire as reward. The couple at first protest that they want for nothing, despite their poverty, but at the gods' insistence, they finally ask that they be allowed to die at the same time so that they need not face the prospect of living without each other.
Don't you think there is a profound truth there? Happiness isn't a matter of material wealth but of being with those we love. And of offering to succor those we don't yet love but may. And so often it is those who seem to have so little that are quickest to offer. This is an area that is not rich in material wealth but is rich in so many other ways, not least a precious tradition of hospitality.
|Baucis and Philemon by Rubens|