1 June 2013

Memories of a Picnic in Capo Vaticano with Baked Artichoke Frittata

Baked Artichoke Frittata 
Have you ever had a life changing moment where you are so overwhelmed on many different levels of emotion that it is hard to put it down in words? I have experienced this only rarely in my lifetime... when discovering the tiny island of Kea in Greece through the eyes of Aglaia and Costas at Keartisanal; climbing up pinnacles of rocks to ancient monasteries in the Meteora region in Greece with a group of women from Colorado; driving along the Cinque de Terre in Italy at 18; a long table dinner with over 250 at the first Foodbuzz Festival in San Francisco; and the list will continue as long as there are adventures awaiting. Whenever I have sat down to write about the days I spent along the "Costa del Gei" in southern Italy I have been overwhelmed by where to begin. How do you convey the joy, laughter, new found friendships, jaw-dropping scenery and stunning food and wines and all the other experiences all rolled into one story. I have decided that it's simply not possible. 

You may have read about my arrival in Tropea along the "Costa del Gei" in Calabria. The town sits on top of an imposing cliff rising up immediately behind the turquoise sea and golden sand. Houses seem to cling precariously to its side and from your first glimpse of this fairy tale village your first impressions of Tropea with its well preserved historical centre, endless cobbled streets and quietly beautiful old buildings will never be forgotten. There is still a quiet, humbleness to this town, that seems to have been lost in many other places in Italy due to so much mass tourism.
Centro Antico Tropea
Compelled by a friend's description, and photographs of ''old fishing villages you reach by walking on a mule track'' I couldn't get to Calabria fast enough. The romantic in me pictured a place suspended in time, pure and uncluttered by the commercial icons of contemporary life, its people as weathered and rugged as the landscape, living alongside nature as their ancestors had for generations. What I found was a region and people not lost in time but content with their lives. The people and the region are beautiful and unquestionably Italian. They seem to speak little English, why should they, but they are very welcoming and friendly. I really do need to learn to speak Italian, to ask questions and feed my soul.

As time goes by and more people find this place I hope that will not change. I want to share my discovery with the world, but, at the same time selfishly want to keep the secret all to myself. Calabria is still being discovered by tourists. Tropea at its heart is one of those Italian towns that seem to cast a spell on visitors. With no great art or ancient ruins to offer, the place exerts a pull, composed of charm and a sense of restfulness. The accent here is on the landscape, the sea, and the constantly changing dialogue between the two.

The natural beauty of the area has not been spoiled by hotel chains and fast food. There are no huge crowds to contend with. The mountains still shine down beautifully, the coast is still clear and uncomplicated, the food is still indigenous to the region, and the people are still living the Italian way. Destinations like Calabria will not stay perfect forever.

"Costa del Gei" (Coast of the Gods - Capo Vaticano
Cliffs of granite extend out into the azure waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea near the toe of the Italian peninsula. Calabria's craggy mountaintops and spectacular stretch of coastline—including spots such as Capo Vaticano which are a popular swimming draw for adventure-seeking tourists.

To help me on my sojourn I had been in contact with Tania Pascuzzi of In Italy Tours. Her passion in life is to share her corner of the world in a way that most tourists would never experience. We had already arranged a cooking class within the next few days but she thought I might be interested in a picnic. "Why not?" I said. "The weather is ideal, and a picnic is the perfect way to explore the coast." I agreed wholeheartedly but I was oblivious to the treasures that awaited me. 

The following day I awoke to a cloudless blue sky, the waves of the azure Tyrrhenian Sea washing gently against the shore and was amazed at the sight before me. I was about three hundred feet above the roadway, on my balcony set in a sheer cliff. I had dreamed of this moment for over a year of staying at the apartments at Il Convento in the coastal town of Tropea. Far below I could see tables and chairs amongst the bushes where the men of the village boisterously played cards each and every night. Across the water, a little hazy at the early hour, clearly visible was Stromboli...one of the many active volcanos in Italy. I walked out on the balcony, fishermen were already on the water eager for their first catch of the day. From my bedroom door, my patio and balcony I could see the evocative Santa Maria dell'Isola rising from the beach on its strip of rocky promontory beckoning towards the sea and to the south a white sandy beach where only yesterday I had been frolicking in the waves.

I stretched, wandered down the steps and through the courtyard and stepped out through the protective courtyard doors and onto a narrow cobblestoned street. The tiny village of Tropea was just awakening as I ventured out in "my" village, at least for the week, to meet up with Tania and her friend Rosanna. Tania is such a warm and genuine person everyone you meet is her friend and then yours through shear osmosis. Birdsong and the peal of church bells filled the air and I was aware of the deep impression the town had made on me already with its centuries of civilization compressed into one small settlement.

I met the ladies by the belvedere where I was welcomed with warm smiles, a sense of adventure and purpose, and a generous spirit. Our drive along the road that wrapped around the coastline once challenged by Odysseus was a breathtaking experience. Add to this the countryside surrounded by green, undulating hills planted with vineyards, olive and citrus groves dotted with large, colourful flowers, trees and cactus and all I can say is... spectacular! As I peered around I was mesmerized by the colours of sapphire, opal and jade. The further we drove the more excited I became and answered the call of land and sea as if they were the sirens in ancient mythology. In my future I could see myself spending long, lazy days swimming in some of the clearest water I've ever seen, dining at lovely waterfront restaurants and wandering around charming fishing villages.

Calabria is one region in Italy that has remained true to it's roots. Unlike other areas of the country where you come across throngs of tourists, much of Calabria seems to have been ignored by time. The rolling hills around the "Costa del Gei" are carpeted by olive groves and vineyards. The crystal clear azure blue waters backed by mountain peaks and the warm Tyrrahanean climate from May until November are bewitching. Last, but far from least are the beaches which must be the best in southern Italy.

Rolling hills give way to lush valleys boasting quaint villages and hamlets with the Tyrrhenian Sea as a sparkling backdrop. Driving along it's back roads, I am told it is not unusual to come across a donkey loaded down with firewood, or a shepherd leading his flock without a worry in the world across the road. We entered a thousand year old village where it felt almost like we had been transported back in time. It was a labyrinth of houses with terraces and balconies at all angles, winding streets and narrow up and down alleys. In an out of the way corner we stopped the car and entered a small rustic-family run cafe. The proprietors were an elderly husband and wife team who showed us into their kitchen where they have been making traditional cookies inspired by old-fashioned recipes that can be traced through generations. Once cookies like these were in high demand for weddings and all manner of special occasions but this is a dying art since their sons do not want to take over the family business. We had an Italian espresso to fortify us, said 'ciao, ciao' and were  back on the road for our adventure.

A small town near Capo Vaticano

Our next stop was to discover the famous ‘Nduja. A traditional Southern Italian salumi, ’nduja (pronounced en-DOO-ya) has an impact that is big from first bite, generating descriptions like “flaming liquid salami,” and “spicy pork butter," The ‘Nduja was originally produced in the small town at Spilinga and is still produced according to ancient tradition. For those outside of the salumi loop, ‘nduja is a fiery hot, spreadable salume that is native here in the province of Vibo Valentia in the region of Calabria.

I’d never actually heard of nduja before my adventure to Tropea, although I understand that its popularity has been growing as it becomes increasingly available all over Italy. It can even be found in a jar at our local Italian grocers. It’s a very spicy and soft sausage made of pork with plenty of "pepperoncino"...sort  of a spreadable spicy sausage described as everything from paté to salami.  I’m not really sure how I should describe it.  People in the know say that upon first taste you will be addicted. And case in point, I’ve become addicted to this dark red masterpiece of salumi.

The sausage is smoked and then slow-fermented to produce the characteristic tang and funk of raw-aged salumi. Italian ’nduja cannot be imported unless it is pasteurized so that is why it is available in jars. ’Nduja is part of the Italian sausage family known as salami dal spalmare, spreadable salamis, made by finely grinding fat and meat and then aging the paste in a casing. The paste is piped into natural casings then secured with hand-knotted hemp string before being hung in neat rows on a rack and taken to the curing chamber. The first sensation is of the smooth, opulent fat melting on the tongue and then the fire hits with enough dried red chili peppers to bring tears to the eyes. It spreads its rich flavour and tingling spiciness in the subtlest way right into the part of the brain that stores the best memories of food.
Costa del gei, pepperoncino peppers drying, njuda

The ruddy paste can be spread thinly on toasted bread, used as a base for stew, fried with eggs (like Mexican chorizo, which it resembles), melted into pasta sauces or onto pizza, stirred into bean soup, or rubbed under the skin of a chicken destined for the roasting pan or the grill.  You will want more. Tied up in the spirit of this food is Calabria itself, the much-colonized region that forms the toe of Italy’s boot.

Forests of chestnut trees conceal small-scale farms where the nero di Calabria pigs roam almost wild producing the buttery flavoured pork that is used to make this Calabrian treat. The adult pigs are allowed to forage in the woods. In early autumn they feed only on chestnuts; the rest of the year they are given roots and vegetables. The pigs act as ploughs to the earth under the trees, but spearmint and marjoram also grow among the grasses, and all contribute to the wonderful flavour of the pork. The meat is used in the ’nduja, and also to make pancetta, capiacollo (made from a lean piece of neck meat) and sopressata, a semi-dried blood sausage featured in this salad.

Njuda curing
But, this is where that English author, William Shakespeare, got it wrong. In this part of Italy, in all of Italy, it is not 'music which is the food of love'. 'Food is the food of love.' And Italians take each equally seriously. Whenever Calabrians have a square meter of bare ground, they plant a garden. Every viable plot is cultivated to its greatest advantage. The typical orto, or home garden, is a bountiful jungle of tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, artichokes, beans, onions, peppers, asparagus, melons, citrus fruits (particularly the arancia calabrese, also known as bergamot, an orange grown only in Calabria), grapes, olives, almonds, figs and mountain-loving herbs that also grow well in the area. Calabrians tend to focus on the high quality of their ingredients so that virtually everything picked from their garden is useable and worthy of praise. 

As we drove the road wound through fishing villages and small towns where along the coastline there are steep cliffs and glimpses of narrow, curving beaches. With an abrupt jog to the left, the road climbed out of a gray-green olive grove and up into the hills. We entered a driveway bordering the green hillside where an old stone wall meandered snake like between a staggering expanse of farmland lined with a fringe of canes. Moments before, the path had been benign and well behaved. Now it flung itself into thin air with a view far below of the steep, rugged coastline and turquoise sea. Here a long string of white sand beaches followed one after another with jagged rocks that may have been accessible only by boat or on foot. We may have been at the most romantic view point in all of Calabria with a fantastic panorama over the Aeolian Islands and Sicily! I looked over miles of shore, and outward to the ever-rising limit of sea and sky. Very lovely were the effects of light, the gradations of colour; from the blue-black abysses, where no shape could be distinguished, to those violet hues upon the furrowed heights which had a transparency, a softness, an indefiniteness, unlike anything to be seen in northern landscape.

A picnic with Tania and Rosanna
Taking deep breaths I filled my lungs with both tranquility and fresh sea salt air breezes. Having just arrived, I paused to view the coastline and absorb all of the particulars of the beautiful scene. The sea was an intense blue and I was forced to blink against the flickers of light on the waves that shimmered like precious stones, and the whitest sand beach far below. The murmur of Tropean surf on shore is itself something of a siren spell, but I easily broke the spell with what was to unfold. 

Rosanna and her picnic

As we crept closer I realized we were bordered by a field of the famous Tropea onions. Many villages around Tropea produce a particular quality of red onion. In Italy these onions are so famous that cipolla di Tropea ("Tropea onion" or "Tropea's onion") has become an Italian synonym for all red onions. These onions are particularly mild and are used not only in stews and sautés but are also eaten raw.

Rosanna spread several checkered cloths and basket by basket laid before us a feast fit for the gods. She is the sweetest women you would ever want to meet. I really do need to learn Italian so that I can discuss with her the food of her beloved land. The impromptu scene was laden with dishes using whatever was in season. From what I remember our picnic started with all manner of olives, artichoke hearts, home cured meats, fresh bread and wine. Dio mio! Chunks of cheese... perhaps the local juncata di capra, a goat ricotta set in small baskets; caciocavallo, a three-day old fresh cheese; or the rich burrino di vacca, a cheese with butter in its centre... were served with home made preserves.

I was privileged to sample a wide variety of homemade Calabrian dishes Rosanna had prepared from an airy frittata (egg soufflé) made with bright green asparagus picked from her own garden that morning, to a type of pita bread from ancient times, a juicy salad of sun-ripened tomatoes and onions, bean salad,  both meat and eggplant meatballs and zucchini fritters. I am sure there was more but in my dream-like state it is hard to recall. The flavour of these gifts from the Calabrian gods was enough to make me weak. At this point my eyes were closed and I was savouring every bite. These local foods are expressions of simplicity, anchored in absolute freshness with occasional bursts of pungent, aromatic, fruity or creamy richness.

A local couple arrived to forage for wild greens for their dinner and a chat, in Italian of course. In the meadow I watched their progress in an almost hypnotic state as they filled their baskets with what they could gather from the land as many have done for centuries.

Pomegranate and Crostata
For dessert there was a delicious crostata, and all manner of fruits and nuts gathered in the area. Calabrians use the mountainous area covering most of the region to raise hill-loving pigs, goats and sheep, and comb the woods for chestnuts, acorns and wild mushrooms to add rustic flavours to their cooking. Adventurous fishermen have little trouble finding rich pockets of swordfish, cod and sardines, and shellfish are common in the forms of shrimp and lobster. The inland freshwater lakes and streams offer trout in abundance. For many families, it isn’t necessary even to go to a market as everything would be provided by family members from their own gardens, pens and fields. 

It was obvious that Rosanna had spent many hours preparing this feast and I was the grateful recipient eating as much as I could handle before I broke. Family life in Calabria centres around the dining table, where food is considered more of an expression of love and tradition than it is for simple nourishment. Many of the dishes in this ancient menu have not changed since their beginnings when shepherds offered the season's bounty to the gods.

"Vino! Valeria, drink your wine." One thing important to note was that Rosanna called me 'Valeria' so this became my name and I took on this personna from now on as I travelled throughout Italy. Oh, and  did I forget the taste of the wine! This was one unforgettable meal! This magical place was hard to leave with the lovely scent of wild flowers along the rock wall, the memorable company and conversation, as we listened to the siren song of land and sea. It was autumn where life is rather peaceful and contemplative.

White figs
If the splendid days of springtime beckon you outdoors why not create your own Tutto Italiano or "all things Italian" spring picnic? Whether you are into styling your own backyard trattoria or are more in the mood for an adventurous jaunt to some hideaway off-the-beaten-track with a picnic basket in one hand and the hand of a companion in the other, you are bound for an adventure that will satisfy more than your taste buds. Imagine Calabrian hills abloom with Spring flowers, and picnickers laying fluttering tablecloths over new grass for a picnic.

My picnic menu begins with a baked Artichoke Frittata to bring back warm memories of the frittata made by Rosanna. This could easily encompass pencil thin slices of Spring asparagus instead. You might add a pesto-laced and garlic-infused antipasto pasta salad of rich jewelled morsels of sun-drenched tomatoes, ripe olives, creamy imported cheeses, al dente pasta and artichoke hearts bathed in fruity olive oil. Fried Artichokes, Insalata di Polpo (Octopus Salad), swordfish or tuna seasoned with grapefruit and generous platters of young pecorino, fava beans, peas and salumi would bring Spring to the table.

Add a basket of luscious strawberries and a rapturous homemade tiramisu torte with just the right high-octane notes of java for a sweet edible finale. Perhaps a few select Italian-flavoured musical CD's, a good bottle of Italian vino and perhaps someone wonderful with whom to create a new memory.

Costa del Gei the "Coast of the Gods"
The small artichokes required for this dish are entirely edible once you remove the tough outer leaves. They don’t have a fuzzy choke inside like the softball-size artichokes. Nevertheless, they are from the same plant, and although they are often called “baby” artichokes, they are fully mature. They remain small because of their position on the plant, tucked down among the leaves where they don’t get much sun.  They should weigh about an ounce or more each and feel firm when you squeeze them. I like to use small, tender artichokes, about the size of a golfball. If these aren’t available, use larger artichokes, paring them down to their bottoms, removing the choke with the sharp edge of a spoon, and cutting them into pieces before cooking them. If you’re in a hurry, use frozen or canned artichoke hearts and omit the first step. 

Be ruthless when trimming the artichokes, removing all the leaves down to the pale heart, or your dish may be fibrous. If properly trimmed, the artichokes will soften fully when braised, becoming creamy and offering no resistance to the tooth.

In Italy markets are full of these wonderfully weird-looking vegetables which come in half a dozen different varieties, ranging from big fat round globe artichokes, very similar to what we have here, to gorgeous, long and slender, purple tinted ones. Most of the artichokes here lack the prickly centres that make our artichokes so difficult to handle in the kitchen or at the table. "Carciofi" originated in Sicily, where they grow wild, as they do in Calabria.

Torte d'Erbe, is a vegetable frittata similar to a baked omelet but filled with seasonal greens. Here I used artichokes and spinach but any vegetables can be used. Authentic homestyle Italian cooking leaves no room for waste—every scrap gets put to use. In this terrific torta, leftover vegetables take on a delicious new life. It also works beautifully with cooked, diced potatoes or  rice. Fresh herbs also may be added to the frittata. The dish can be prepared a day ahead and served at room temperature and makes a delightful addition to our picnic.

This dish is filling and satisfying with its fairly light egg mixture. A combination of small Spring artichokes, Parmesan cheese, spinach and proscuitto make a colourful combination that is a treat for the eyes as well as the stomach.

A picnic on the Capo Vaticano coast without a doubt was one of the most uniquely gratifying dining experiences of my life. Nestled in the hills our special spot was the catalyst for a feast  beyond compare. Words are not enough to describe the experience and all the dishes made with the finest ingredients, lovingly prepared by Rosanna. Thank you so much Tania for arranging the banquet. My understanding of the foods of this region is  just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a glorious one, revealing very quickly that although it’s essential and simple, there is nothing simplistic about its flavours, the ancient traditions or the heart and soul that goes into it. I will always hold fond memories of Capo Vaticano not only for its beautiful aqua beaches but for the delicious feast I was fortunate enough to share with Tania and Rosanna on a sunny ethereal day in November. Thank you for travelling on this armchair journey with me.


**Baked Artichoke Frittata**

12 small spring artichokes or 5 to 6 globe artichokes (you can also use 1 small jar of artichoke hearts, chopped)
2 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, minced
Juice of 1/4 lemon
1/2 cup water
2 oz. prosciutto, sliced thinly and cut into small squares
1 bunch (10 oz.) spinach, cleaned and stemmed
8 large eggs
1/2 cup half-and-half
Freshly ground black pepper to taste.
3/4 cup grated caciocavallo cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino
1 small bunch fresh basil, stemmed and coarsely chopped

Heat the oven to 375°F.

If using fresh artichokes pare them down to the tender centers (or bottoms if using larger artichokes). Cut them in half. Add the shallots and cook about 1 minute. Add the artichokes, lemon juice, water, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover and cook until the artichokes are tender in the center when pierced with the tip of a knife, 10 to 20 minutes, depending on their size (for frozen artichokes, thaw them and cook 5 minutes). Uncover and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has evaporated. Let cool.

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the spinach for 2 minutes. Drain in a colander and refresh with cold water. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as possible. Transfer the spinach to a cutting board and chop it finely.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl, pour in the half-and-half, and whisk to combine. Season with about 1 teaspoon salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Add the cheeses, chopped spinach, basil, prosciutto, and the artichoke mixture and stir well.

In a medium frying pan, cook the pancetta pieces over medium heat until the fat reduces and the bacon is just crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain all but about 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings from the pan.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of  olive oil over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until translucent. If using canned or frozen artichokes add to pan and sauté unit heated through.

Add the egg mixture and immediately put the pan in the preheated oven. Bake the frittata at 450 degrees for 10 minutes till the edges have set and are starting to brown. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake the frittata another 25 to 30 minutes until set in the middle and golden brown and puffed.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool to just warm or room temperature.

Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes and cut into 1-inch chunks. Serve the torta pieces at room temperature.

You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author/owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.
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  1. Valeria..I would love that area:-)
    Your friends are beautiful..the food..coastline..people..dreamy.

  2. Look absolutely fun dear Val, georgeous I love artichockes and the pictures look amazing!!!xo

  3. Achingly gorgeous photos, Val!!! How I love this. :-) You've taken me on a beautiful escape on this shiveringly cold winter night. :-)

  4. A wonderful picnic! The coastline is absolutely stunning.

    This torta must taste really good!



  5. Truly looks like heaven on earth! What a wonderful time you had! This torta sounds so good and must have been exquisite eaten in the fresh air and in that beautiful setting!

  6. This is my kind of vacation! And I like Valeria, it has a nice Italian rhythm to it. Great food, great pictures.

  7. What a great, albeit very long - but absolutely compelling - read! I want to go! ’Nduja is a love of mine, too. First met it when in London at the Borough Market and bought it from a fellow there. One taste, and I was in love. That first pic is in that post. Then, when in Rome at the Testaccio Market, a gal I met there had married a man from the ’Nduja making town and took me to Volpetti's to buy more! YUMMMM!
    Brought some home both times and you have me salivating now!

  8. What a positively spectacular post! Yo photos are sumptuous, and your writing is so evocative. For an armchair traveler like myself, this is an utter delight, pure heaven! Complimenti e grazie mille!

  9. What a trip and gorgeous views and picnic

  10. I want a life changing event like that, not the negative stuff I keep having!

  11. that sounds absolutely amazing! Artichoke in the fritatta is such a good idea!

  12. Thank you for taking us on your journey of memories. I don't know where to begin as there is so much to comment on about this lovely post from the gorgeous scenary to your beautiful writing and for your fabulous little recipe. I noticed that one of your life changing moments was driving along the coast of Cinque de Terre at the age of 18. Just last year during the fall we made our trip from Marsielle and drove along the coast of Italy and ended in Bologna. Some of my most memorable moments were stopping off to get supplies and have a picnic along the beautiful scenic views along the way. Blue skies, fresh air and beautiful friends and food. Life is good!

  13. What a lovely area Val. I would have had a very hard time saying good-bye.

  14. Wonderful, wonderful ... tutto!

  15. I enjoyed your photos from your trip so much - it is amazingly beautiful there! And this frittata - yummy! We are pulling fresh asparagus from our garden right now, so I might opt to use that, but this is going to be a dinner here very soon - thanks you!

  16. This is where you stop, take a breath and say "life is good, damn good" Awesome post.


  17. What a fantastic day...thank you for sharing it with us. It is wonderful that there are still areas of Italy where you can enjoy yourself without seeing loads of tourist buses parked. The frittata sounds delicious.

  18. Val, your posts are so beautifully written that I can close my eyes and imagine travelling right along with you. You truly had the trip of a lifetime.

  19. "How do you convey the joy, laughter, new found friendships, jaw-dropping scenery and stunning food and wines and all the other experiences all rolled into one story." SEND VAL! What an enjoyable post. Thanks for sharingthis adventure with us. Blessings...Mary

  20. what a magnificent place for a picnic! the view is breathtaking. frittatas are perfect picnic fare. :)


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