Calabria: Stage of the Absurd, Part 2

For part 1, featuring hazelnut themed marriage auctions and beekeepers, click here.

Day three took us from an interior peak of Calabria down to the eastern coast and a toe-dip in the Ionian sea near Soverato, back inland toward a farm visit (featuring a quotable hanger-on who most certainly deserves her own post) and the Guglielmo coffee factory, before finally winding our way back up into the mountains toward our home for the next two days: Serrastretta. This small, mountaintop community is notable for several reasons: they’re very (and admirably) focused on reinvigorating their local food economy through their children (i.e. encouraging them to stay and learn the trades of butchery, farming, cooking, etc instead of running off to the city); the journey-worthy restaurant Il Vecchio Castagno and its chef-owner Delfino Maruca; and, perhaps most relevantly of all, it is kinda the ancestral homeland of famed 60’s-era Franco-Italian chanteuse Dalida. As befits a town of such musical roots, our arrival was met by a charming group of citizens wielding guitars, accordions, tambourines, and stunning vocal skills. They serenaded us into city hall, where a sunset-lit welcome by the mayor soon devolved into dancing around the chamber until we couldn’t stand it any more and spilled back outside. Dancing an italian hora around a mountaintop piazza while Yukako keeps time on the tambourine? Southern Italian mountain living, I could get used to you. Dinner that night introduced us to both some local specialties, and the aforementioned youngsters who are sticking around their small towns to make these specialities instead of running off toward the big city lights of Lamezia. Also known as Calabrese Marriage Auction, Round 2.

Welcome to Serrastretta!

Welcome to Serrastretta!

Day 4 started out on a bleat of promise. Fueled by cappuccino and crostata, we visited an eight hour-old goat, and crunched our way through a chestnut grove and its encompassed mill. Then, shit got weird. First of all, the bus. Until this day, the 10 of us had been rattling around Calabria in a 14-seat van, commanded by the charming Alessandro/Alejandro. We knew Ale had returned to his fava bean farm by day 4, but nothing had prepared us for what was in store. Strike that, bus rides to school in kindergarten had prepared us, since that is exactly what arrived that morning: a shining yellow Serrastretta school bus, outfitted for children ages 4-6.

The magic school bus took us first to an equally magical beechwood forest, where we learned the importance of sitting in silence on a giant rock for 30 minutes. With that settled, we piled back in, knees to our chins, and rolled back down the hill toward Il Vecchio Castagno. This remarkable restaurant is the labor of love of the incomparable Delfino Maruca and his family. The restaurant sits on a rather sizable piece of property where Delfino grazes his small herd (is that the right word?) of pigs – they forage for chestnuts and other forest goodies, preparing themselves to become salumi within the year. Delfino cures all his own meats, hanging them to age in the cellar, and then replicating the aging process with his plating – a prosciutto-draped rack towering over an accompanying platter of ricotta baskets and soppresata. This being our fourth day in Calabria, we knew to pace ourselves as plate after plate of formaggi, tacchino, melanzane, carciofi, fritti, and more came out. Because even though there was enough to feed an army on the table in front of us, we still had three courses to go. The wonderful thing about Il Vecchio Castagno, however, is that even though with each course you are consuming food in quantities greater than what you could possibly need to make it through a Siberian winter, it is all just so good. Yes, you eat because it’s there, because you want to try it, because you have learned by now that the Calabrese love nothing more than to feed guests, and it is above all polite to eat as much as you can. But also, here, at least, each dish had distinct, flavors, each worthy in their own right, and not getting lost in the shuffle. You eat because it’s delicious. And then Delfino’s adorable son Mattia comes out at the end wheeling a cart full of home-infused digestivi, and you realize that if you had to stay here and just keep eating forever, it wouldn’t be so bad…

Delfino's delicacies

Delfino’s delicacies

We next visited Giacomo Gigliotti, another of the Serrastrettan young guns. Giacomo led us through a pig-butchering, but not before stopping to offer us a caffe, glass of wine, or some tequila, leading him to utter the delightfully charming assurance “I’m not just a butcher, I’m also a bar!”

But nothing, not the baby goat of the morning visit, nor the magical beechwood forest, not the gut-busting deliciousness of our afternoon with Delfino, nor Giacomo’s raw meat-stained fortifications could prepare us for what came next. After nearly 20 hours of anticipation, the time had finally arrived for our pilgrimage up the hill and into the glorious confines of the Dalida museum. Here, we could finally see the life story, the posters, the photographs, the records, and all manner of memorabilia dedicated to the famed songstress whom but one of us had heard of as recently as the day before. But we love Serrastretta, and Serrastretta loves Dalida, so there we were.

Our final day brought us down the hill to Migliorina, a picturesque yet hidden small town that is doing its best to boost its tourism. A government program is sponsoring apartment renovations to create a sort of diffused B&B around the town, encouraging guests to stay for awhile, and explore the beauty and history of the place. After lunch, we loaded back up for our final ride in the school bus, and hurtled down to the west coast of Calabria to dip our toes in the Tyrrhenian, before heading inland to meet up with the rest of the class. While the majority of the evening consisted of me and my overtired classmates arguing over who had the best and most relevant Calabrese experience, by midnight we were all friends again – just in time to ring in my 28th year with a bout of dancing the tarantella around the dining room and a few final del Capo’s. Tanti auguri a me, indeed.

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