29 January 2014

Brighten Up These Winter Days with Pasta Limone and Dreaming of Cooking Classes in the Cilento

Pasta a limone

Friends have described my trip to Italy as "the trip that keeps on giving." In many aspects they are quite right as there were many food memories made in and out of the kitchen. But anywhere I travel, even if it is just an outing to the local farmers market, I feel the need to immerse myself and dive head first into the food and culture of the area and then share it in every way possible.

 My first conscious memory of this type of travel was at a cooking school on the island of Kea, a small island in the Agean Sea off the coast of Greece. This was a life-changing vacation that altered my perception of food and how it should be enjoyed on a daily basis. Travel helps us to better understand and appreciate other people and their cultures. Nothing is more intimate, or more effective at breaking down cultural barriers, than cooking and sharing meals together.

When you have like-minded people from all parts of the world breaking bread at the same table magic happens. This is how this 8 year journey on this blog began... as a place to share my food discoveries with anyone who is willing to read  as well as with my daughter who was headed off to university. It continues to be a gathering place for family and friends to pull up a chair at the same virtual table and share what we have. My daughter is getting married in two weeks and will soon be ending her university life after 8 incredible years but we continue our love for food and sharing with others; hers as an accredited dietician and mine as a self proclaimed food and travel writer.

The Coast
With an upcoming trip in 10 days for my daughters wedding I am feeling nostalgic and wanting to share another adventure. In Italy I was met with kindred spirit Baroness Cecilia Baratta and enjoyed 3 incredible days at her agritourimo south of Naples in the Cilento. She picked me up at my lodging on the Amalfi Coast and I immersed myself in another life changing adventure. On our journey south we cruised the two-lane highway that meanders along the rugged coast where mountains covered with green and ashy-coloured olive groves reflected in the Tyrrheanian Sea. We discovered a mix of sandy bays, rocky coves puckered with caves and imposing cliffs, dotted with sleepy fishing villages and dreamy seaside resorts adorned with riotous bougainvillea. As I peered around I was mesmerized by the colours of sapphire, opal and jade. It was a windy day and the waves pounded the shores relentlessly, beating to their own drum. 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. In 10 days I will have to comfort myself with the beaches of a 5 star resort in Mexico. Yes I know.

The Cilento shows the unknown side of Campania. A little gem that is best known as the Amalfi Coast's quiet neighbour. Not yet largely present on the tourist map, it is full of mozzarella farms and rolling hills covered in vineyards and olive trees. I want to share it with the world, but, at the same time want to keep the secret all to myself. It is the land of the buffalo, where the best mozzarella in all of Italy is produced.

The extraordinary beauty of this area has been preserved for centuries thanks in part to its isolation which has left the gorgeous countryside unspoilt and local traditions preserved. To explain, Cilento and the Parco Nazionale del Cilento e Vallo di Diano is a protected Italian region that boasts 100km of coastline and a wild, mountainous interior sprinkled with historic villages. Much of it is a national park, the second largest in Italy, and is a Unesco world heritage site that sits not far south of the teeming holiday centres of Naples and the jet-setting Amalfi coast. As we drove we gazed at the rocky coastline falling into the blue sea with its hundreds of grottoes. Eventually it gave way to sun-baked hilltop villages and majestic undulating, chestnut and ilex tree forests. The wild interior is Cilento's trump card where you will find many hikers crisscrossing the landscape. The Cilento is a true slice of heaven on earth where nature meets up with history. It is wonderfully authentic. It is a place I hope to revisit and explore again and again.

Cilento is famous for its olive oil, one of the best in Italy, that has earned the denominational marking "Olio d'Oliva Extravergine Cilento DOP." Denominazione Origine Protetta (DOP) is a national designation defining agricultural products whose quality and reputation are specific to their geographical origin. Other specialties with this designation in the area are white figs, buffalo mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes and the artichoke of Paestum IGP. Many of the classic ingredients for Italian food come from  this region. It offers cuisine that is simple, with minimal cooking to allow the natural flavours to shine through.

It is easy to imagine that this fresco, made of charming and clashing shapes and colours would be the home of a very special place...Tenuta Seliano... the former home of Baroness Cecilia Baratta and her family. Seliano is only 5 kilometres from the archaeological site of Paestum and the sea and has been converted into one of the best agritourismos in the country. We travelled along increasingly narrow roads that snaked through olive groves and over streams in the flatlands of the Sele and Alento rivers, which are a natural habitat for water buffalo that thrive in this temperate climate. The buffalo are thought to originally be imports from India, and have been rambling around the temples and surrounding plains for at least 1,100 years wallowing in the lowland waters. We passed the mozzarella factories, or caseificio, driving along curving roads and arrived at our destination.

Tenuta Seliano

We passed through the iron gates at Cecilia's husbands family estate and were greeted by the excited barks of the many friendly farms dogs. I was taken to my room in the main courtyard and allowed to acquaint myself with my charmingly rustic surroundings. It was then that I realized just how heavy my suitcase was as it was dragged upstairs. Note to self, I really must pack lighter even if travelling for a month. The window had been opened wide and I breathed in deeply taking in both the atmosphere and the fresh country air. The picturesque buildings have been turned into lodgings with large, comfortable guest rooms with country-style elegance and refined taste. Dating back to the 1800’s, Tenuta Seliano’s main house and farm buildings have great character, and a rustic elegance evoking gracious country living, from a different era.  A well-groomed garden and some 91 hectares (225 acres) of land complete the property, part of which is dedicated to raising buffalo (for mozzarella, of course). It is the sort of place you'd never want to leave. The pool, sunbathing terraces and the large covered verandah, close by, are well furnished and perfect for relaxing and enjoying the tranquilizing calmness. I could linger all day by the pool in season with just the sound of birdsong in the air.

Courtyard in the outdoor kitchen
Seliano's setting is idyllic. It's an agriturismo of the purest kind where everything served at the table is produced on the farm, including the wine, olive oil and cheese. In fact from my room and the flower-filled balcony I could look out on to the very trees that the olives are harvested from. The views to the haze-shrouded coast were bewitching any time of day in this hypnotically peaceful spot. A few days of this and I was blissfully rested and refreshed. Agriturismo is an Italian term for what we might call a farm holiday or a form of agricultural tourism. In 1985, the Italian government passed a law encouraging farmers and landowners to convert  their farmhouses or abandoned farm buildings into holiday accommodation. They are exactly what they claim to be, a working farm, surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. Tenuta Seliano offered just what I longed for on an Italian vacation. An authentic Italian rural experience, the chance to live with an Italian family, and the opportunity to slow down from the normal tourist pace. The most difficult task each day was to decide how to spend my time, although Cecilia was the best guide in every respect.

Collecting Eggs at Masseria Eliseo
The food at Tenuta Seliano is based on fresh farm produce. We gathered eggs further down the road on their farm property Masseria Eliseo where there is a large kitchen for group cooking classes next to the buffalo pastures and barns. With their own herd of over 800 buffalo there is also plenty of tasty fresh mozzarella and occasionally buffalo meat on the estate. The glory of these historic buildings was counterpointed by the open countryside creeping right up to the sturdy ancient walls with fields of broccolo romano, peppers, eggplants and, best of all, in late winter and early spring, the famous artichokes of Paestum. This small, round-headed artichoke is sweet, pinkish, succulent and sufficiently unique to be awarded standing in the DOP.

Pretty soon it's time for an aperitif on the terrace in the dying sun, watching the lizards scuttle in and out of the masonry. I couldn't imagine being anywhere else in the world. And then dinner. I enjoyed a set menu every evening, devised and prepared single-handedly by a team of cheerful cooks and served at a communal table. The food was authentic, gutsy, faultlessly executed, and richly satisfying...and of course, as with everywhere in Italy, what was on the table is only what is in season. I would go so far as to say it was some of the best food I had the opportunity to try in the country. Each night I sat at a long table with an eclectic group of people. These were particularly convivial and memorable evenings, a chance to meet people from all walks of life and every corner of the world. Artists, doctors, hitchhikers, Cecilia's sons Ettore and Massimino and family friends all sipping local wine and breaking bread together; each enjoying a truly authentic Italian experience. The atmosphere is friendly and informal, feeling more like a relaxed stay with friends. It’s everything a holiday should be.

"When you acknowledge, as you must, that
there is no such thing as perfect food,
only the idea of it, then the real purpose of
striving towards perfection becomes clear.

To make people happy! 
That is what cooking is all about."

- Thomas Keller

Though lemons are grown year-round with a peak harvest in the winter months, we often begin to anticipate the warmer weather here in Canada with these vibrant, yellow citrus fruits. They light up a dreary winter day don't they? My friends and family who live on the East coast are dreaming of snow free days and warmer temperatures. With an abundance of lemons our spirits are renewed and our thoughts turn to warmer climates and sun drenched vistas.

In Italy, limoni are everywhere from hand-painted ceramics to lemons at the fruit stands the size of grapefruits. They are now a world renowned symbol of the coast where they are as popular and widely used as simple spices like salt and pepper. Just like in my own kitchen. Besides being a fundamental ingredient in seafood dishes in Italy, lemon is one of the most popular sweet treat flavours as well with its place right alongside almond, hazelnut and chocolate. They bring a tangy flavour and tart fragrance to our cuisine, where its cheery, refreshing presence dresses leafy salads and serves as a light marinade to Spring and summer pasta dishes. From the nationally celebrated beverage Limoncello to its tart, citrusy flavour featured in pasta, salads, biscotti, cakes and gelato lemon is celebrated throughout the seasons. I have memories of relishing these Italian thin-skinned, sweet cousins sliced thinly and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

Everybody knows the culinary delights of the Italian cuisine. However, hardly anybody knows where to enjoy genuine, indigenous delicacies in a family atmosphere. I have discovered trattorias in little mountain villages where fruits, vegetables, olive oil and wine are self-produced, lambs self-raised, wild boars caught in the local chestnut woods, and ricotta and pasta (gnocchi!) are homemade. Fruit and vegetable harvesting in the Cilento takes place four times a year; among them are citrus fruits (limoncello liqueur!), figs (covered with chocolate!), apples (apple tart!), nuts,mushrooms and on and on. The secret of the 'cucina cilentana' is an 'absence of time' and a profound relationship with the rhythms of nature from season to season.

Tenuta Seliano
The concept of 'Slow' has been with them for a long time. It was in Pioppi, in the heart of the Cilento region, that Ancel Keys, the father of the Mediterranean diet, once settled down and developed the guidelines of this now world famous nutritional model, which is based on a rich and generally healthier diet. Bread, pasta, fresh vegetables and fruit, cheese, fish and olive oil are favoured over dairy products and meat. Wine with the meals is also a must. All these products are used in the Cilento cuisine, which has hardly changed since the 1950s, a time when the local population lived solely on farming.

It was there that he started on his "Seven Countries Study", continued for 20 years beginning in the 1950's. Mr. Keys examined the nutritional habits of 12,000 persons between 40 and 60 years of age in Japan, the USA, Yugoslavia, Greece, Germany, Finland and Italy. He found out that most of the cardiovascular diseases, such as atherosclerosis and diabetes, are directly linked to nutritional habits. His book "Eat Well and Stay Well, the Mediterranean Way" argues that the risk of cardiovascular disease increases the more you stray from a Mediterranean kind of diet.

Cooking class with Baroness Cecilia Baratta

At Tenuta Seliano I was in and out of the kitchen taking a cooking class with the Baroness as well as observing the talented ladies of the kitchen making homemade pastas and many other dishes. I have been haunted by Cecilia's recipe for Pasta Limone which brightens up these wintery days. This version is from America's test Kitchen and offers the perfect balance of lemon flavour. What you have is a dish bursting with bright, bracing lemon flavour, moistened with just enough fruity olive oil to coat each delicate strand.

Close your eyes, take a generous portion and dream of joining me on this special journey through a stunningly beautiful area of the Cilento with a family that is passionate about their traditions. Just thinking about leisurely strolling through their sun drenched property puts a permanent smile on my face.

**Pasta Limone**

1 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil , plus more for serving
1 medium shallot , minced (about 3 tablespoons)
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons finely grated zest (about 1 lemon)
1/4 cup juice from 2-3 lemons
1 ounce finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup), plus more for serving
Ground black pepper
2 tablespoons shredded fresh basil leaves or oregano

Bring four quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven (or pot or what have you) over high heat. Add one tablespoon salt and pasta to boiling water; cook, stirring frequently, until al dente. Reserve 1 3/4 cups cooking water, drain pasta into colander, and set aside.

Heat one tablespoon oil in now-empty Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add shallot and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook until shallot is softened, about two minutes. Whisk 1 1/2 cups of reserved pasta cooking water and cream into pot; bring to simmer and cook for two minutes. Remove pot from heat, return pasta, and stir until coated. Stir in remaining three tablespoons oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, cheese, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Cover and let pasta stand two minutes, tossing frequently and adjusting consistency with remaining 1/4 cup reserved pasta water if necessary. Stir in basil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, drizzling individual portions with extra virgin olive oil and Parmesan cheese.

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. A beautiful post! Great memories and lovely places. That delightfully citrusy pasta dish must taste wonderful.



  2. You will love your daughter's wedding..we are left with such joy..weddings aare happy events and I found the weddings..more than I thought they would be:)

    I could eat the pasta off the screen.
    What an idyllic place..!

    Beautiful .

  3. ah Val Always I have dreamed go to Italy, and cooking class sounds amazing, what lovely place.
    Love your pasta limone!

  4. Thanks for describing my region with always lovely words. Can I say I am grateful? I really am! In regards to the book, I am very curious to find out if the Mediterranean diet is better than the Japanese "diet". People have very long life there and I always thought it was thanks to the food.

  5. Every time you post about your experience in Italy, I get the urge to recreate it for myself!

    Have a wonderful time at the wedding.

  6. What a fantastic adventue that must've been. How in the world did you connect with this adventure? Congrats on the upcoming wedding. This pasta sounds so simple, and delicious. I'd love it, too.

    1. I contacted the agritourismo Debbie and we planned from there. It was off season so Cecilia was able to accommodate me, act as my tour guide and give me a cooking lesson. It was the best 3 days spent so far.

  7. Mexico will be a wonderful and warm place for a wedding! Enjoy your time there. Delicious pasta and lovely photos.

  8. I cannot wait to try your pasta limone!!! :-) I love the Cilento area too, Val. :-) I stayed up in the hills and loved exploring the small towns and farms and orchards. :-)

  9. Oh the places you've been!!!!!

  10. Fresh, simple flavors. So perfect!

  11. What an amazing adventure....and exciting to be headed to your daughter's wedding! I am anxious to try your pasta limone!

  12. What a magnificent vacation! I am such an armchair traveler, and I just adore articles like this! The pasta looks wonderful, too. Thanks!

    1. The types of vacations can only happen every few years so I armchair travel in-between too Adri.

  13. Sigh.... you so make me miss Italy, even though I never had the chance to visit this region. Stunning photos! And the food! I adore the photo of the women making pasta and it reminds me of a hotel we stayed at outside Bologna. When we left the hotel each morning we could peep into the kitchen and see the ladies making tortellini by hand! The cooking classes must have been spectacular! And I love pasta al limoni! I'll try your version... and yes I even have a ceramic serving platter made by hand in Tuscany with lemons painted on it! Thanks for sharing your splendid holiday.

    1. The unexpected is the best part of travel Jamie. I was serenaded by a group of Italian men on the coast while they danced and enjoyed each others company…the pasta, the antipasto, the wine!!!! We went our separate ways but oh the memories.

  14. Italy is on my bucket list - thank you for sharing all the beautiful photos! The pasta looks so delicious.

  15. Your photos of Italy are just amazing Val. They could well be in a travel book. I can see why your trip keeps on giving. Who wouldn't enjoy a drive by the sea and the olive groves. I know we still talk of our trip to Provence, The lifestyle is just so incredible in Europe. Your pasta would be welcoming and delicious meal to savor, thinking of Italy and the lovely people that you met.

  16. I wish I could have "dived" in with you! These Italy posts continue to inspire. GREG

  17. What lovely images you have presented us with…a magical time for you I'm sure. I know you will have a wonderful time at your daughter's wedding celebration.

  18. Lovely photos, thanks for sharing them! That pasta dish in the first picture looks so darn good!

  19. I need to spend more time reading this lovely post Val. So much to take in. I feel like I need to read this again the first thing in the morning when all of the images will be at their best. You write so well. Enjoy that lovely wedding, as I am sure you will. My best, Penny

  20. this is a pasta dish that actually sounds light and refreshing, which is rare and very appealing!

  21. I really enjoyed reading this post. Lovely pictures and lovely memories. Makes me want to go to Italy again soon. The recipe is great, too :)

  22. What a post, Val! I love travelling and staying in smaller local places rather than big name hotels ... you really get to meet the people of the region when you stay at guesthouses or small pensiones. What a trip you had! Lemon pasta looks wonderful! I could gobble a big old bowl of it !
    Have a wonderful time with family at your girl's wedding! A special time, indeed!

  23. Val, you keep outdoing yourself with these beautiful posts. I agree with your observations about the benefits and impact of travel. It opens you heart and mind. I am on the train from Barcelona to Madrid, on the last leg of our adventure. Lots to share when we get back home.

  24. I loved the simplicity--the flavors are light but bright and delicious! I sauteed chicken to serve with it and served with a light salad...it reminded me of the incredible food we ate while we were in Italy last fall! Thanks for sharing this great recipe--

    1. I am glad you enjoyed it Carrie. It will always remind me of Italy.

  25. I am so happy that I discoverd your website!! As a foodblogger myself I am always looking for insoirational people and you are truly an inspiration. Thank you! And the Pasta dish!! Uff....I will cook it once I get back home from my food travels :) Sending you all the best wishes and i will follow with Enthusiasm! Michael from foodvagabonds


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