|A tasting on the terrace of Santomiele|
I suppose all Americans think of themselves as somehow heirs to the tradition of pioneering. You know, we’re adventurous, daring, ever looking for new things, and just a bit suspicious of settled society and ‘the way it’s always been done’. So it is refreshing to get to know three pioneers here in the Cilento who’ve decided to do their pioneering right where God planted them. And we have tremendous admiration for the guts it must have taken them to do so. And to persevere. And to succeed.
Actually, Cilentans have a history of pioneering in the New World as well. I won’t depress you with a litany of all the forces, both natural and societal, which have conspired against these people for so many centuries. But a top 10 would surely include wars, piracy, famines, plagues, endemic malaria, grinding poverty, starvation, and rapacious overlords, including, sadly, many in the church. Small wonder that, beginning in the 1870s, hundreds and then thousands of young men and women who saw no hope of redemption here boarded ships for the New World, especially the US, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia. At one point the total population of the Cilento, which now stands at roughly 300,000, was down to less than 8,000. Understand, the Cilento is about the size of Delaware! The unification of Italy in 1861 was presented to the people of the Italian South as a chance to rebalance the scales. Sadly, the scales were simply rebalanced to the advantage of rapacious Savoyard aristocrats at the expense of rapacious Bourbon ones. And the floodgates opened.
Some measure of the extent to which the suffering of the locals was a function of their straitened circumstances and not laziness and backwardness, as so many northern Italians thought (and continue to think) is the incredible number of Cilentans who’ve achieved dramatic success in the New World when given the chance to use their initiative and talent. Francesco Mattarazzo, for example, emigrated from little Castellabate nearby to Brazil in the 1890s, became a hugely successful industrialist, and bequeathed his beloved birthplace piazzas, churches, a chapel, and numerous other benefactions.
|The sleek showroom|
|Displays of the products|
|Francesco demonstrates white figs|
But, if anything, we admire our local pioneers even more, because they have dared to start new worlds right here where all the cards are seemingly stacked against them and there are so many disincentives to innovate. Yesterday we visited Azienda Santomiele in nearby Prignano, where local boy Antonio Longo has elevated the humble little fig to gourmet status. Fig trees adore this microclimate, especially a local variety which is especially large and delicious. But figs have been for millennia a food of the poor. Fig trees are incredibly hardy, growing almost anywhere they can access direct sunlight, and they bear bumper crops year after year. Actually, they bear two crops per year. In mid-June, fig trees produce a modest first crop of especially large beauties which the locals call fiori di fichi, ‘flowers of the figs’. We are lucky enough to have several fig trees here on the farm and free rein to eat as many as we can. If there’s a more delicious dish than a fiore di fico sliced in half and draped with a thin slice of local prosciutto, I can’t imagine what it would be.
The late-August-to-mid-September crop is much larger but consists of smaller fruits. And these are the ones that the locals have been sun-drying and storing for winter for well over 2,000 years.
So imagine the chutzpa it took for young Antonio, trained as a geologist, to establish a business where he processed and packaged lowly little figs as delicacies. Azienda Santomiele was established in Ogliastro Cilento in 1999. Antonio had his workers process the figs in one of two ways, either with the outer (green) skin attached, skin which eventually dries to a lovely, rich brown color which any child of the 50s will know from the stuffing in a Fig Newton. Otherwise, local women laboriously peel off by hand the outer skin to reveal the beautiful tan skin beneath. The taste is more refined and delicate and the figs dry to a beautiful ivory sheen. Figs are most often split lengthwise to facilitate drying and stuffed with walnuts, almonds, lemon and orange zests, bay leaves, and other flavorings.
In 2010, Antonio bought a frantoio (olive processing plant) in nearby Prignano, razed it to the basement, and built a stunning new showroom/processing plant on the ridge overlooking the Testene River valley and the Tyrrhenian Sea beyond. At street level is the gorgeous showroom, with displays of Santomiele products, a grand piano, seating before a bank of plate glass overlooking that gorgeous vista, and a display of the photos of Norman Parkinson, a famous fashion photographer. On the upper floor are the test kitchen and a huge terrazza with the same vista. The terrazza is used as an open-air work space in the fall. At the basement level are the main workrooms, one for triage and processing, the other for packaging for shipment all over Italy and the world. The northern wall of the packaging room was left unfinished to expose the native rock, the flysch which is so common in the western Cilento. Flysch is a sedimentary formation with alternating bands of clay, limestone and shale. Flysch is loaded with minerals and degrades to a wonderful soil with perfect tilth for figs and grapes. More about the latter later. And of course it also reminds you that Antonio’s love of geology still lives.
In addition to the standard products, the plant creates a ‘bomba’, a hollow, hemispherical chocolate shell about 8” in diameter which is then carefully covered with thin slices of figs. The process can only be done by hand and can take as long as 3 days. Other specialties are fig syrup, with the deep intensity of a fine balsamico, figs dipped in chocolate, and little chocolate candies stuffed with fig jam mixed with limoncello. Figs take about 2 months to fully desiccate and all these little delicacies are thus ready just in time for the Christmas season.
|On the terrace|
|The processing room|
|The packaging room with its wall of flysch|
|The retail area|
My favorite creation, however, are little ranks of white figs stuffed into lengths of our local canna, a cane related to sugarcane and sorghum. These are split so that the figs can be extracted, but in ancient Rome the figs were trodden in a trough to create a dense jam and then stuffed into lengths of cane and sealed with beeswax. During the dead of winter, the canes would be split open and this precious source of sugars eagerly devoured. We’re told that such dried fig jam was the ultimate famine food and that many poor Roman peasants would typically have starved in winter were it not for the humble little fig.
So what would Antonio’s Roman ancestors think about his attempts to gussy up such peasant fare? I think they would love it! Like all true gourmands, the Romans recognized that often the simplest foods when perfect and lovingly prepared were the ultimate luxuries. I’m thinking of Ovid’s famous description of ‘country’ fare that includes our exquisite local cherries preserved in red wine and honey. If that doesn't make you salivate, better stick to McNuggets. Certainly, Ovid’s modern counterparts seem to approve of Antonio's efforts. Santomiele has been written up in Gambero Rosso, the Italian version of the Michelin guide, as well as the nation’s leading journal, Corriere della Sera, and many other publications. And the humble little white fig of the Cilento received D.O.C. status from the EU in 2013.