26 May 2013

Taste Memories on the "Coast of the Gods" with Wild Arugula Salad with Sopressata and Pecorino

Wild Arugula Salad with Soppressata and Pecorino
I awaken on a high bed plush with pillows and antique linens. Rays of sunlight filter through a grated casement door, casting a honeyed glow on the room’s curved, roughly-hewn walls and high ceiling. The exposed stone walls create a protective cave-like cocoon as I sleepily peruse my surroundings.  I recall that last night the simple, sculptural presence of the stone walls provided visual drama, enhanced by recessed lights and banks of flickering candles that created an almost church-like protective glow. As I survey my room in the first light of morning, it becomes clear that the work here by two famed architects was more conservation than restoration. I had been  dreaming of staying at Il Convento for at least a year and I was living the dream, "vivere il sogno." 

Il Convento
Halfway between asleep and awake I recall my arrival by train only yesterday in Tropea a charming seaside town in the south of Calabria. My journey began as I said goodbye to the Baroness Cecilia Baratta and her agritourismo Tutto Seliano in the heart of the Cilento. As I was packing my belongings at the agritourismo at the buffalo mozzarella farm my suitcase zipper broke completely so duct tape was needed to hold all of my belongings together. Thus began the comedy of errors of my luggage. My suitcase is a rather heavy portmanteau, and I know it is a nuisance but I must have clothing against a all possibilities and change of seasons travelling in November. 

View from my lower balcony of Santa Maria dell’Isola
The greatest thrill in travelling by train was to discover a region of Italy that is quite unique and, considering its history, it comes as no surprise that for most it is a best-kept-secret and yet the ideal destination for those who are looking for a real Italian experience. I revelled in the delight of discovery. I travelled in a first class cabin which was surprisingly inexpensive and easy to do. The people are beautiful and although they seem to speak little English they are very welcoming and friendly. 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 want to keep the secret all to myself. 

Through the windows tall, snow tipped mountains gave way to thick luscious forests, miles of white sand beaches, sapphire coast lines and crystal oceans. Calabria is a place of contrasts with high mountain villages seemingly built on the sides of mountains in the interior to red roofed villas on the coast, clustered around an ancient castle or church. 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 season 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.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Calabria. No one seemed to know much about the area except my friends who had grown up in the ‘toe’ of Italy’s ‘boot’ who spoke in excitable whispers about the many under-valued and undiscovered gems to be found in the mezzogiorno, the southern part of the country that used to form the Kingdom of Naples.

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. The people and the region are unquestionably Italian.
"At once the road began to climb, and nearly three hours were spent in reaching the highest point of the mountain barrier. Incessantly winding, often doubling upon itself, the road crept up the sides of profound gorges, and skirted many a precipice; bridges innumerable spanned the dry ravines which at another season are filled with furious torrents. From the zone of orange and olive and cactus we passed that of beech and oak, noble trees now shedding their rich-hued foliage on bracken crisped and brown; here I noticed the feathery bowers of wild clematis ("old man's beard"), and many a spike of the great mullein, strange to me because so familiar in English lanes. Through mists that floated far below 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."----George Gissing
Back street of Tropea closed for the afternoon
In my research I was immediately enchanted by the region’s capital, Tropea. Tropea stands on an imposing sandstone crag, in a magnificent position between the Gulfs of Sant´Eufemia and Gioia Tauro, and represents one of the most picturesque and artistically interesting centres in Calabria. This  town is well known to both Germans and Northern Italians I'm told, who come here during the summer months  to laze on the sandy beaches, stroll through the city’s well-preserved medieval centre and use it as a convenient base to explore the rest of the region. Teetering above the south Tyrrhenian coast, the city (founded by Hercules, legend has it) was once used as a residence for the Italian nobility. A jumble of architectural styles pay tribute to the region’s waves of invaders and settlers – Normans and Bourbons, Byzantines and Arabs – while its cliff-top location commands a royal sea view. 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 your first view of Tropea will never be forgotten.
Santa Maria dell’Isola
There are other historical and cultural sights, such as the imposing Norman cathedral, whose interior displays a couple of unexploded US bombs from World War II (thankful prayers to the Madonna are attached to each) but really, Tropea’s allure is strongly connected to its natural charms... that glorious azure sea, the long, sandy beach and the views of Stromboli, which, along with other Aeolian islands, can be visited by motorboat or ferry throughout summer.

Arriving in Tropea in November is off season. There were no cabs waiting at the train station to whisk me to my destination as there would be in the height of summer. As luck would have it the first person I encountered spoke fluent English and we walked with my suitcase down the hill and to the piazza in search of one. Outside, several workers were sweeping the village square with long-handed straw brooms as another used a hose to wash down the area. There we met a group of local men sitting on a bench, a familiar sight that is common all over Italy. They will always remind me of black crows sitting on a fence with their curious eyes. In small cities and towns across the region, older men spend hours playing cards at tables in the main piazzas, or sitting on benches watching the world go by and catching up on each others lives, while grandmothers still dressed in black, sit on their doorsteps to  visit with those who pass by.

 Discussion was made and one of the men volunteered to take me to Il Convento, my home for the next week, and lugged my suitcase into the trunk of his car. I was staying at one of two apartments in a renovated former convent built literally into the cliffs. A very short drive took us along charming cobblestoned streets, passing by romantic alleyways, surrounded by typical Palazzi from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I felt myself transported back in time. We arrived in front of a convent, an actual convent, but this was not where I needed to be. I could see that language was going to be a barrier as I tried to make myself understood. I have a fantasy that this group of men thought I was a Catholic nun with my broken duct taped suitcase. Of course in reality this was just another example of Italian hospitality and their generous nature. My flock had another discussion when I handed them the address. We arrived at an Italian language school with a newly formed parade of 3 vehicles where the caretaker of my apartment lived. My luggage was transferred from one car to another and we headed a very short drive down a cobblestoned street. In truth my apartment was only a few blocks from the main square. I really must learn to speak Italian. I am working on that.

I sat here in the afternoon on Wifi
Located in the centre of Tropea, a walled city whose origins are the basis of legend, this ancient convent which now houses converted apartments has a long and fascinating history. The Convento della Pietà is situated in the corso antico of Tropea, on a sheer cliff terrace overlooking the sea. I was fortunate enough to have an eye-popping view of one of the main draws of Tropea from my apartment without leaving my chair, namely the striking Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria della' Isola, which juts out to sea on a ridiculously idyllic rocky promontory right outside my window.

Walking down the stairs to the beach
The foundations of the convent date back to the Roman era. The original convent was abandoned. Centuries later, its rooms were used as a hospital for injured soldiers returning from the Crusades, the house of "Suore della Clarissa," and barracks during the second world war. The lower part where my apartment was constructed was built in the 13th Century, while the upper part was finished in the 17th Century. In the 1980s the building was restored and renovated, while keeping its beauty and original charm, by two famous Italian architects Nanda Vigo and Giorgio Maria Giffone. The two apartments Sole and Luna where I stayed are in the section built in the 13th century and the rest has  been converted into seven separate homes.

In my humble opinion Tropea would easily win any contest for the prettiest town on the Calabrian Tyrrhenian coast, with its well preserved preserved beautiful historical centre with endless cobbled streets and beautiful old buildings. 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. While tourism is becoming a major industry in the area, it has only marginally influenced the lives of the locals. Added to this, the town is surrounded by green, undulating hills planted with vines, olives and citrus trees and everywhere there are large, colourful flowers, trees and cactus. Spectacular!

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. Her last eruption at the time was in 2003 and I was hoping that she would put on a show for us. She was one of the main reasons I had ventured south to Calabria. My biggest disappointment on my sojourn was that the ferries had stopped running 10 days earlier so I was unable to venture out to the Aeolian islands, a dream I have had for many years.

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 beach that needed exploring.

I had no supplies to make what I would call a "home-cooked" breakfast. All over Italy I had succumbed to an Italian breakfast of strong espresso and a pastry, but, now that I was in my own apartment I was dreaming of breakfasts I had at home of pancakes, hash browns and bacon or the nearest fascimile I could make with ingredients I could find locally. In our culture breakfast is the most important meal of the day I hear my mother saying. So I stretched, wandered down the steps and through the courtyard in search of what I could scavenge. I 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 to become acquainted with what this week will be "my" village. Birdsong and the peal of church bells filled the air and I was aware of the deep impression the town has made on me already with its centuries of civilization compressed into one small settlement. Many of the shops and restaurants were closed for the season so you will find their owners about town. There was always a group of 5 Italian men on the beach who spoke to me in Italian that may have been businessmen. Each lane I follow eventually brings me to a view of the sea. It doesn’t take me long to fall irreversibly  in love.

Volcanic island of Stromboli in the distance
Two women playing cards on a stone table nod cordially as I pass on my way to a lookout over the Tyrrhenian Sea.  As I approach, they wish me, "Buon giorno."

“Una buona giornata viene naturalmente qui, nel tuo villaggio rilassante (A good day comes naturally here, in your relaxing village),” I answer in Italian, and catch their proud smiles. I was proud that I could remember the Italian phrase. I only know the basics of hello and goodbye and a few Italian phrases and compliments but I easily made purchases of fish, pasta, vino, fresh fruit and vegetables throughout my stay. The beautiful people of Tropea spoke little English but they didn’t need to. Sign language is a wonderful thing! Italians after all do talk with their hands.

"Valerie. Are you Valerie," I hear as I get my bearings. Walking towards me is a beautiful dark haired Italian girl with an infectious laugh. I immediately recognize her as Tania Pascuzzi. Tania and I had been trying to arrange cooking classes or other excursions for me by e-mail for months through her company In Italy Tours. Travelling in November is a good time to come and while all the "touristy" places will be closed there is still plenty to see. The weather is still warm, but it can be unpredictable. We decided that in addition to the cooking class we had already arranged with Peppe I would splurge on an adventure down the Coast of the Gods for a picnic with Roseanna the following day.

We went for a coffee at Caffe del Corsol where.....was already at the little coffee shop busily making cup after cup of espresso for the locals and his tongue-teasing cappuccino for visitors. He's like a maestro conducting an orchestra as he carries on conversations with several different people, in Italian of course, and all the while his hands busy at the machine. Breakfast for the locals is simple  as it is  all over Italy with a cappuccino or espresso with a cornetto or a piece of focaccia. I spent many mornings at Caffe del Corsol for my morning coffee watching the world awaken.

After our coffee break I joined the locals who wandered outside to find a seat to people watch along the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle. Tania was in the midst of moving to an apartment along the narrow  street across from where I was staying so had some packing to do. I made my way along the cliff top, meandering in and out of tiny alley ways, admiring the architecture. Every now and then I came across a break in the buildings and had a look out to the stunning blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Stromboli had disappeared into the mist. I came to some steps that took me down the three hundred or so feet of the cliff face to the road and sea below. I wandered carefree along the roadway and then along the beach itself. It was a magnificent day, beautifully warm under the azure blue sky. There were people fishing along the shore and others soaking up the very late autumn sun. I decided to have a swim since it was 21 Celcius in the middle of November. At the end of the stretch of beach, steps took me back up to the main town. The ringing of the church bells all over the town seemed to indicate that it was noon and time for the shops to close for the afternoon siesta. Even after a month in Italy this is something I never became accustomed to, no matter how hard I tried to arrange my day.

The town was shut up as tight as a drum, almost ghostlike as families enjoyed their time together.  I popped into a local shop that was open to purchase another suitcase since the one that had travelled with me for over 10 years was being held together by duct tape. I paid 25 Euro, which I know is not a lot, but I was hoping it would hold together long enough to get me back home to Canada in a few weeks. I underestimated the power of the many stairs at the train station further into my trip at Lemezia where the workings on my suitcase broke and each wheel popped off one by one as I manoeuvred my suitcase up and down the stairs. Which led me to purchase another suitcase in a harrowing ride in the mountainous town of Calitri with my new found friend Angela one foggy and rainy night. For this suitcase I paid $45. Surely it would stand the test of time. When I finally arrived back in Canada its wheels had broken off, so as you can see I am in need of yet another suitcase for my next adventure.

But suitcase fiasco's were the furthest thing from my mind as I dined that evening on the terrace of a local trattoria specializing in the regional "cucina povera." Munching on toasted beans of some kind and sipping a glass of wine from the region, I watch the evening parade of locals and a handful of visitors  who were out enjoying a warm evening. I read where it was so incredibly romantic that one visitor was tempted to propose to the waiter. Mine was at least 30 years my junior. At dusk I wandered back down through the village to a viewpoint over the sea and sat staring as the scene changed from shimmering silver-blue to burning red before me. Sunsets from the town of Tropea are truly spectacular with the sun setting directly on the church of Santa Maria in front of my apartment with the Aeolian Islands and the volcanic show of Stromboli as the encore in the distance.

A group of teenagers had gathered to exchange gossip.  An older man wanders up to me.

"Bella," he nods, smiling out to the ocean. "Bella," I simply have to agree. When, later, I stroll back to my room, the old town of Tropea sits incandescent in the night, the rock-hewn churches transformed by theatrically choreographed lighting.

With Tania I spent the following day on a driving tour with Rosanna, the sweetest lady you'll ever meet. They showed me the beautiful scenery and took me to a small salami (njdua) artisanal factory (delicious!!) before we went in search of the perfect picnic location where I was privileged to sample a wide variety of Rosanna's homemade Calabrian foods and wine. But all of that I will share another day.

"Costa del Gei" Coast of the Gods
For today I leave you with a recipe that reminds me of November in Calabria with hand plucked arugula, sopressatta a traditional cured salami, and pecorini an aged sheep milk cheese.

Had I not gone to Calabria I would have missed the serendipitous discovery of Tropea, never tasted the local sweet red onions, njuda or seen the setting sun sink into the open mouth of the volcanic island Stromboli. The view from my apartment in the old town, the charming church, the symbol and landmark of Tropea, "L'Isola" will never be forgotten from my balcony as I sat with a glass of wine or an espresso, with the Aeolian islands on the horizon. True, you won’t come across many Michaelangelo’s and the locals may be forward on occasion, but you’ll discover friendly, down-to-earth people and nature, history and culture in abundance. I learned that new culinary discoveries are often as memorable as the magnificent art and architecture of the places visited. I experienced "la bella vita" in Calabria and can't wait to return.
Santa Maria dell’Isola at night

**Wild Arugula Salad with Sopressata and Pecorino**

1⁄2 clove garlic, pounded to a paste with a pinch of salt
1-1⁄2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice; more as needed
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 bulb fennel, trimmed
4 large handfuls arugula, preferably wild, about 5 oz., washed and dried
Kosher salt
4-oz. piece of salami picante or soppressatta cut into slivers
3 oz. aged pecorino, shaved

Combine the garlic and vinegar or lemon juice in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Whisk in the oil. Taste and add more salt or vinegar if necessary.

Just before serving, use a mandolin to slice the fennel thinly. In a large work bowl, combine the shaved fennel with the arugula, salami, and cheese, and season with salt. Gently toss with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat the greens. Taste and add more salt if necessary. With a delicate hand, transfer the salad to a platter or individual serving plates, making a fluffy pile of greens. Sprinkle the salami and cheese that have fallen to the bottom of the bowl on top. Serve immediately.

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 and or owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.
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  1. You certainly had an amazing time, thanks for taking us with you!

  2. What fun! Great story and wonderful pictures. Wish I was there right now.

  3. What a lovely salad! Filled with so many tasty ingredients.

  4. A beautiful plcae! Now I'm dreaming of going away on vacation...

    Your salad looks scrumptious! Arugula is ever so flavorful.



  5. You write so well!! That room is equisite..
    I think Calabria in November sounds quite idyllic:)

  6. What an absolutely extraordinary experience. This was a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing it with us.


  7. I got lost in your story Val, you should write a book! beautiful photos and that simple salad is wonderful!

    1. Thank you very much on all accounts Marie. In Italy I found the dishes uncomplicated and yet the perfect balance of flavours.

  8. I can always tell when we're going to get an Italy story because of the beautiful poetry your posts begin with.

  9. I think I've fallen in love with your special place. Your photos and words are both amazing. I must also give your lovely salad a try. I hope you had a great weekend. Blessings...Mary

    1. Thank you Mary:D Tropea and the Costa del Gei is very special indeed.

  10. I feel as if I'd just spent time reading one of those wonderful travel articles in "Gourmet" of long ago. Thanks so much for sharing such a wonderful time and visit.


  11. You are such a great writer! The photos are lovely.

  12. Yes, I second that, you should write a book!
    You are a great story-teller.
    (and salad maker!)

  13. Salad with Soppressata and Pecorino is a favorite way to eat it! Haven't had it in a while and now it's all I want.. swoon!

    Really beautiful pictures and words, thanks for sharing your journey!

  14. This reads like a novel and the imagery is spectacular. It's clear Italy is your muse. What a wonderful experience you had.

  15. Thanks for sharing...I was there with you..virtually...


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