Sunday, June 11, 2017

Hangin' with the Wine and Cheese Crowd Again

Ciccio and Salvatore

We’ve beeen hanging with the wine and cheese crowd again.  And loving it.

It started last week when we went with Fernando, Katiuscia and Fabio to Santa Maria di Castellabate, the seaside village below our favorite hill town, for the Festa del Pescato, a festival celebrating the local fishing industry.  Basically a good excuse to gorge on some of the freshest seafood you can imagine for not very much money.

Pasta with mussels

Fritto misto di mare

Locally made liqueuers

From a central ticket booth, we bought tickets in increments of 1€ for a series of booths that served flash-fried seafood (7€), pasta with seafood (6€), wine (2€ for a tall cup), sweets, etc., but there were also small kiosks where you could pay cash for local artisinal products.  As Fabio wandered the perimeter, he came across a stand selling locally made cacioricotta, our local goat-milk cheese, struck up a conversation with the proprietor, told him how obsessed Fernando and I are with these little cheeses, and before we knew it we were in an intense cheesy conversation which was capped by free cheese samples and an invitation to the creamery.  Mozzarella di bufala from this area is world famous, and should be, but I believe these little cheeses should be equally famous, so it was an invitation we couldn’t refuse.

Francesco's booth at the Festa

Fernando samples Francesco's fresh cacioricotta with arugula, which Fernando made as a child

So last night, we drove with Fernando to nearby Rutino, a beautiful little hill town about which I recently blogged.  On the way I thought I heard Fernando say something about meeting for pizza and assumed perhaps that was the plan after our visit.  But we stopped in the town’s centro, inquired about our host and soon were met by…Mr. Pizza!  Signore Francesco Pizza, to be exact, as warm and friendly a guy as you could hope to meet.  After a quick stop at a local bar for the obligatory caffè, Francesco led us to a high ridge just outside Rutino where he has his farm.  Now, the views from Rutino are spectacular, but I swear they’re even more eye-popping from the creamery, looking out over the Alento River valley to the north, to Monte Sorpano and the Alburnii massif in the distance, looking up to the imposing castello of Rocca Cilento and the peak of beautiful Monte Stella to the west, looking southward toward mighty Monte Gelbison and the mountains of the Cilentan interior.  I suppose I could come to work every day without wasting a good 20 minutes just gawking at that view, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.
The view from the azienda

Francesco’s cheesemaking operation is as sophisticated as you could want while still making real artisinal cheese, with a large stainless fermentation vat with a hot-water jacket to control temperature, a large stainless table for draining curd and placing it in the little plastic forms which have replaced wicker almost everywhere here, but still leave the imprint of a ‘basket’.  Behind the lavoratorio was the temperature- and humidity-controlled curing room, where rows of wooden shelves housed some 120 cheeses of various shapes, sizes, and ages of curing from fresh to several weeks.  To one side of the room is a large walk-in where another 100+ aged cheeses wait for distribution.
Temperature-controlled fermentation vat

Cheeses aging in the curing room

Cacioricotte from fresh (r) to slightly aged (l)

Posters for the Frecagnola

A beautiful, fresh cheese

On the wall were posters going back many years for the Festa di Frecagnola at Cannalonga, held every year at the beginning of September.  We had actually tried to visit the festival this past fall, but it was raining buckets and most of the purveyors had given up and gone home (it was the last of the four days of the festival).  Francesco explained that the age-old practice of transhumance, the herding of dairy animals to the high mountain pastures in spring and back to the lowlands in autumn (think of Heidi going with Grandpa to the high Alpine meadows), was a standard practice with local goatherds, and the local herds typically came down the old drove roads through Cannalonga about the first week of September.  In the little town, goatherds would meet and gossip, buy and sell livestock, and dispense with some of the extraneous bucks, (of which there would be many after the spring kidding season) by slaughtering and butchering them and boiling up the meat in a stew called frecagnola in the local dialect.  The meat was a treat for poor goatherds who rarely tasted it, but Francesco says that the broth is now the real delicacy.

Francesco took us to one of his three barns where he keeps his bucks, two handsome fellows from a famous Swiss breed which he purchased in Holland for an exorbitant sum, and a little fellow who had bronchitis and looked pretty puny.  Goats are notoriously susceptible to chills.

Francesco explains how Ciccio was purchased in Holland

Sadly, we weren’t allowed to see the ladies; Fernando explained that ruminants such as goats need a nice, quiet riposo to digest the day’s grazing, and any excitement like a an introduction to a couple of rogue Americani could ruin a whole day’s milkings.  But Francesco showed us the pasture where the prima donnas graze beneath those same incredible views.  Francesco explained that he likes to allow the gals to free-range as much as possible because it improves the quality of the milk.

Many of us have the false notion that goats, like their ovine cousins, will eat just about anything.  In fact, I was indirectly indoctrinated in that nonsense as a kid (sorry about that pun) when my piano teacher, the saintly Mrs. Counce, tried to flog a little ditty into my talentless hands.  The treble hand played a phrase and the bass hand reiterated it with a series of chords.  Think of a barbershop quartet where the tenor sings the phrase and the lower voices respond in three-part harmony.  But the fun part was that the music book included the words, which I found so hilarious that I almost became proficient at this one song.  And so I give you the immortal “Bill Grogan’s Goat”:

Bill Grogan’s goat (Bill Grogan’s goat) was feeling fine (was feeling fine),
Ate three red shirts (ate three red shirts) from off the line (from off the line).
Bill took a stick (you get the picture), gave him three whacks,
And tied him to the railroad tracks.

The whistle blew; the train drew nigh.
Bill Grogan’s goat was bound to die!
He gave three groans of awful pain,
Coughed up the shirts, flagged down the train!

Music available upon request.  You’ll definitely want this magnum opus in your repertoire.  

But, in fact, goats are very picky eaters.  They receive their omnivorous reputation because they will gum almost anything, to release the esters so that their incredibly sensitive noses can make a judgment as to its desirability.  But most of their ‘tastings’ are actually rejected.  But goats absolutely adore herbs such as sage and thyme and the various mints, flavor notes that are transmitted to their milk.  And those herbs are rampant here in the Cilento.
The ladies' pasture

Transmitted along with their therapeutic powers, I might add.  Fernando assures me that goats are one of the few animals that never develop cancer, and medical science ascribes that in part to their feeding regimen.  And I can tell you from my own research that herbs and spices have powerful antibiotic and antioxidant qualities, powers which are synergistically increased in combinations.  And there is some evidence that all those therapeutic powers are present in our little cacioricotta cheeses.

We left the farm, but Francesco had another delightful surprise in store for us.  He led us through town, down a local road towards the Alento valley to a gorgeous agriturismo called ‘I Tre Tigli Casa di Campagna’.  Housed in a lovingly refurbished villa with manicured grounds, the villa has five guest rooms to let and the Paciello family provides meals to their guests.  Most of the products come from the farm itself, all organic produce, or from local (as in Rutino) producers.  Signore Paciello brought out a soprasatta, his own handiwork, Francesco sliced up a fresh cheese, and we uncorked a bottle of Il Barone Fiano, made up at the top of the hill.  I’ve raved about the fiano grape before, but I will reiterate, the wines from the Avellino appellation are good, but to my palate they pale by comparison with our Cilento versions.  And this one was stellar. 
The Villa 'I Tre Tigli' in Rutino

Signore Paciello with his soprasatta

Fiano, an undiscovered jewel

Maybe it was the ambience, maybe it was the delicious food and wine, perhaps the luscious weather or the aroma of the three linden trees which have lent their name to the villa, but by the time the bottle was empty, we knew we had met two more talented but unpretentious and thoroughly gracious Italians whom we are thankful to call new friends.

Fernando, Francesco, Sandy and Signore Paciello

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