The fourth study trip (or stage) of our year at UNISG took us down south to Calabria. This trip was particularly noteworthy for being our first experience with small group trips. Instead of herding 28 of us around cheese factories and farms, we were broken up into three groups of 9-10, with each group visiting a different area of the region and focusing on different themes. Groups of this size are much more conducive to the types of visits we tend to make, which in turn gave all of us a better overall experience and the opportunity to get more out of each encounter. It also, incidentally, gave us a profound numerical disadvantage when it came to the seating arrangements at dinner on our second night, but we’ll get to that.
The week started off pretty standard – one third of our group was exhausted from a terrifying bus ride up the Sicilian coast at 2 o’clock that morning, and the other two thirds were exhausted from an early morning wake up call in Bra and flight from Torino. We visited a large-scale olive oil and wine producer before heading up to Trattoria GO, a delightful seafood restaurant on the cliffs near the town of Pizzo. Platters of fishy antipasti arrived in front of us, along with my favorite southern Italian harbinger of spring: fava beans. Muscle memory kicked in to gear, and I swiftly depodded the beans and popped the bitterly buttery bits into my mouth. After lunch, we headed down to the Callipo tuna fish factory. Up until this point, most of our visits (on all trips) had tended toward the small producers doing great work in idyllic country farms. So, it was nice to finally mix things up and see some production on an industrial scale. Of course, the Callipo tuna factory is tucked into a bucolic copse at the base of the mountain range that splits the Calabrian peninsula lengthwise -I mean we were still in Italy, after all.
After getting a full tour of the tuna processing plant – everything from cutting to steaming to packaging, we swung by the Callipo ice cream factory – who ever said seafood and dairy don’t mix? A sunset stroll in the seaside town of Pizzo, and then it was back to the interior for dinner and a well-deserved night of sleep at our agriturismo. Of course, this being Calabria, land of too much food and a rather inhumane desire on the part of many locals to feed you until you physically cannot ingest another morsel, we still had a bit more earning to do before we could get to our beds. We arrived in the dining room to a table groaning under the weight of the antipasti piled on top – formaggi, salumi, fried artichokes, fried everythings, really, stewed greens, tubes of ricotta di pecora, and, of course, a ceramic chafing dish/pot thing full of my favorite Calabrian treat: ‘nduja. A spreadable salame made from pork trimmings and loads of peperoncino, I could eat that stuff daily. We made it through the antipasti, found some spare room for the pasta, and then settled down to enjoy a digestivo before bed. Eyes were drooping shut as the door opened again, with the servers bearing glasses and a bottle of del Capo, we hoped. Nope. It was the chef, and the board in his hands held not a nightcap, but an entire roasted lamb. For the ten of us. Welcome to Calabria!
Day 2 kicked off with an early morning farm visit, and a taste of the traditional shepherd’s breakfast: tangy calabrese bread chunks dunked in a bowl of warm whey and topped with minutes-old ricotta cheese. It’s actually quite delicious. We spent the morning exploring the farm, watching the day’s cheese production, and filling our memory cards with photos of the lambs, goat kids, puppies, and bunnies that were scampering around the property before loading back into our van and heading off to visit Nazareno Circosta, the Shaman of the Bees (seriously, they call him that). Nazareno took us to visit his bees, housed near his family’s property, and where Naz himself grew up, sharing a room with about 4 brothers at any given time. Following the delivery of some apiarian wisdom, and a detour to a rocky outcropping where Naz was almost struck by lightening 50 years ago, we headed down toward a lake, and lunch. Our midday meal that day was hosted by a club of small food producers from the area, and they wasted no time in filling us up with their cured meats, pickled vegetables, delightful cannelini beans, pasta slicked with a pesto made from borage, and wine from a label-less green bottle. Post-prandial entertainment included lessons on hand-cracking nuts, and a ten minute walk to visit “the Baroness’s Castle”. I’m not entirely sure if timekeeping just works a little bit differently down south or what, but it ended up taking us nearly an hour and a half of traversing muddy fields, creeks, previously invisible national borders, and brush-filled hillsides to reach the destined pile of rubble. Worth it? Eh, debatable, but it was certainly fun.
For dinner that night, the scene must be set. The information provided to us was only that we would be dining with the “Hazelnut Consortium of Calabria”. Basically, a lot of guys that like nuts. We entered the dining room that evening to discover the tables had been arranged into a rather large u-shape – images of royal banquets immediately sprang to mind. Piero, our designated guide/matchmaker led us to the front of the room, seating us across the top of the inverted U, and filling the arms (legs?) of the table arrangement with the rank and file of the consortium. Dinner was four courses, each of which included the evening’s featured nut: the hazelnut. Each course also featured Piero rotating through the ten women in our group, catching the eye of one of his hazelnut brethren as he gestured to the chosen lady. We were, as it turned out, at a rather nutty marriage auction (pun totally intended), yet all made it through unbetrothed (save Tylda). Dinner begat dessert begat del Capo-fueled tarantella dances begat a recorded sing along begat finally time to go to bed since we had to be up at 7 the next morning.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “Calabria: Stage of the Absurd”