As a tour designer and guide I don’t get many opportunities to experience what it’s like for you to travel to a place you’ve never been to before. The only chance I have is when I research a new tour or course. And I did just that this month. I want to offer a mozzarella course. Since we don’t make mozzarella in Tuscany (not properly, anyway), I had to go to Campania in the south, the home of water buffalo and birthplace of mozzarella. You probably know Naples, Pompei and the Amalfi Coast, but I hadn’t even been to any of these.
It was a bit daunting going south of Rome to the infamous Mezzogiorno of lawlessness. But I had a big advantage over the average tourist: I had locals to show me around. I had met a Scottish woman on a Ryanair flight from London Stansted to Pisa. Her Italian husband was from the province of Salerno, just south of Naples. I knew that Salerno and Caserta provinces were famous for their mozzarella. When I told her of my plan, she said they live in Florence now, but her husband knew the Cilento area inside out (central and southern part of Salerno Province).
A couple of months later I found myself at Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, boarding a train bound for Salerno with Audrey and Enrico. I was to stay at their house in Trentinara. They were renting a car and they were going to introduce me to owners of agriturismi (farm accommodation), a mozzarella dairy and restaurants. Everything I would need for the course.
First a stop at an agriturismo Aia Resort Cilento owned by Vincenzo, an architect friend of Enrico’s. It’s perfect for the course: tasteful rooms with private baths, a swimming pool, pizza oven and BBQ.
It was after dark when we arrived at their house and, while Enrico lit the fire, Audrey took me next door to meet her mother-in-law Antonietta. Even though we planned for dinner to try the restaurant owned by Enrico’s cousin, it was compulsory to sit down at the table to sample Antonietta’s stuffed artichokes (carcioffule ‘mbuttunate), lately picked from her garden. I had to forcibly prevent her putting two on my plate.
The next morning we met my cheese and salumi courses colleague Giancarlo Russo, who had arrived separately, and proceeded a short distance down the road to a private house to meet Lilla and her son Antonio La Mura. Lilla is a great cook (as it seems is everyone from this area) and might give a short cooking lesson either during the cheese course or during an optional extension before the course. We gathered around the table in the kitchen to talk. But no talk without food in these parts. Antonio went to the cellar and came back with his own salsiccia (air-dried sausage). Lilla sliced her homemade bread, made with sour-dough starter and baked in a wood-fired oven, while Antonio uncorked a bottle of excellent homemade wine.
Giancarlo and I have tasted a lot of sausage and salami in our day, and this was exceptional. Encouraged, Antonio disappeared down below again and re-emerged with two cheeses and a salami, all of his own production.
Last (at least we were hoping it was), a cured sausage called nnoglia, which was stuffed with lungs and other of the least noble parts of the pig. Usually it’s used to flavour vegetable soups, but Lilla threw it on a grate over the fire that warmed the room. More delicious than you can imagine.
She just happened to have some pastries from the local shop, and we weren’t allowed to leave without coffee and a digestivo, her homemade finocchietto, alcohol infused with fennel leaves and flowers. Good thing we hadn’t booked lunch at a restaurant!
After that feast of salumi, we had to see Antonio’s pigs…
and his cows…
in the oak and chestnut woods where they have parties in the summer.
That evening at 10.30 Giancarlo and I had an appointment at Caseificio Prime Querce to watch the whole process of making mozzarella and its pasta filata (spun curd) relatives scamorza, burrata and caciocavallo. The head cheesemaker Antonio (everyone seems to be named Antonio) is, of course, a close friend of Enrico. He showed us every step, explaining the reason for each process and giving us generous samples to taste.
But the mozzarella wouldn’t be at its peak until it had bathed in brine for another five hours. We finally left around 2.45 am. The next morning Antonio stopped by Enrico’s house to drop off two bags of mozzarella, one hand-formed and the other moulded by machine. It was a revelation! Juicy, firm and milky. How can I go back to eating week-old mozzarella in Tuscany?
We still hadn’t had a tour of the town with Enrico and Audrey, so we set off up the streets of Trentinara, hailed and stopped at every corner by Enrico’s cousins and friends. At the top we made the day for Zì Cosimo, the basket weaver. I learned that here ‘zì/zà’, literally meaning ‘uncle/aunt’, is a title of respect for older people.
On the way to the restaurant for lunch we passed Enrico’s aunt carrying a basket of freshly baked bread from her wood-fired oven.
We were wondering how we could stuff in lunch after gorging on mozzarella for breakfast, but we needn’t have worried. Locanda Lu Vottaro, owned by the chef Cristina—you guessed it, a friend of Enrico, was closed, but she opened specially for us and prepared a superb tasting menu.
It was time to leave our friends Audrey and Enrico, this town and the people who we felt we already knew well. Suddenly I realised this must be what it’s like to go on a tour with one of us in the Slow Travel Tours group. You’re met at the station, transported to your accommodation, escorted to see places and meet people you could never find on your own. They open their arms to you because you’re accompanied by us, their friends. What better way to spend a holiday?
|Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won't find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.