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Cooking in Calabria

Ginda Simpson

I love to eat! So it's a good thing that I also love to cook!

Discovery

I stumbled across the Italian Institute of Advanced Culinary & Pastry Arts website while doing a search for some unrelated information about Calabria. When I discovered that its location was within kilometers of my ancestral home my heart skipped a beat. The Institute's monthly newsletter detailed its full immersion course, to be held in towns and villages along the Ionian Sea, between Soverato and Santa Caterina, names already familiar to my heart. Countless cousins reside in the mountain villages and along the shores of the Costa degli Angeli, the coast that lines the inner arch of the Italian boot. For decades I have been feasting at their tables.

I immediately made contact with Italian-American John Nocita, award-winning chef and culinarian and head of this renowned institute. To list his achievements would take up most of this page, so I'll limit my list to what I liked about him: a warm response to my queries and the discovery that our grandfathers were born not far from each other. He knows many of my cousins, and in Calabria that makes us almost related. He is married and calls Calabria home.

Wheat fields by the Ionian Sea, painting by Ginda Simpson

Wheat fields by the Ionian Sea, painting by Ginda Simpson

Preparation

As luck would have it, I had enough time free to participate in one week of their May 2004 program, entitled "The Evolution of Italian Cuisine," a two-week culinary and baking program that included excursions in the south of Italy and Sicily. I read with relish the two-week itinerary and dare say I was drooling before I reached the end of the first page. The program was to include excursions to gastronomic centers of the region with visits to cheese makers, wine and olive oil producers and hearth bakers. The hands-on preparations and the demonstrations would be taught by instructors who were advanced chefs, active in the field, offering discussion for structure, color, diversity, consistency and harmony of flavors.

My next call was to my cousin to arrange a stay at our family home. Accommodations are included in the course program but anyone who knows Calabrese hospitality understands that there is no way my cousins were going to allow me to stay anywhere but with them. What a treat this was, a chance to learn to recreate some of the peasant dishes of my ancestors using products from the region, while learning another, equally satisfying and innovative cuisine, fine enough for a king. (Indeed, one of the chefs participating was personal chef to royalty).

Other participants were young professional chefs mostly from the United States. The program is taught in both English and Italian, with John translating as the Italian chefs share their secrets.

The Welcome Dinner

A welcome dinner was arranged so that we could introduce ourselves and at the same time be introduced to some traditional local cuisine. At a family-owned restaurant in Soverato, a sprawling resort town on the coast, we chatted amicably while being served an array of antipasti that included steamed mussels, fresh anchovies and zucchine fritters - how many hundreds of these have I had at my own familys tables!

For Primo: Fettuccine with fresh tomato basil sauce with monkfish followed by steamed scapolo with a light dressing of olive oil, aceto, a touch of oregano, lemon juice, salt and green olives. Scapolo is a long blue fish, shaped like a flattened eel, found in the Italian Mediterranean. It is very abundant and inexpensive, so abundant that fishermen used to throw it back into the waters. (According to my cousin, Sicilians used to throw it back because of superstitions.) It is just now becoming popular.

For Dolce we had lemon tart served with a glass of the famed Calabrian Amaro del Capo, a liqueur made with 150 herbs that have been distilled in sugar for 8-16 weeks, thus giving it its amber to deep brown color. By last drop of this 40-proof finale, we were all feeling well acquainted.

The Course

A good nights rest had us eager to roll up our sleeves and get to work, but first, we were treated to day-long introduction to Italian Raw Materials: cheeses, salamis, fresh produce. John Nocita did an excellent job of classifying the cured meats and cheeses according to region, tradition, and use, with all products available for sampling as he explained. We learned the intricacies of olive oil and balsamic vinegars with tasting to glean the subtleties of flavor and quality.

This first day was hosted by the Agriturismo Gocce di Sole, where award-winning honey is made; so naturally we sampled its golden sweetness and saw it being made. We walked the fields and hunted for wild artichokes. This was my first introduction to these marble-sized artichokes, which are put up in jars to be used in many regional dishes or just as an appetizer.

Cooking class in Calabria, Ginda Simpson

The second day had us with sleeves rolled up, making ice-cream, pasta, arancini (Sicilian rice balls), pizza and much more with Chef Maurizio at his restaurant in Santa Caterina. Making pizzas was truly a comedy, as we each struggled to slide our pizzas onto the paddle and then off again into the wood burning oven. That special turn of the wrist must be developed over time. That flair inherited! Most of us managed (with a little cheating) to get our pizzas where they needed to go, except for Paul, who looked over his shoulder before throwing his failure into the trash bin! Chef Maurizio demonstrated long (slow cooking) sauces and short (quick) sauces for pastas, the quick one became our lunch, followed by his award-winning gelato made from sheeps milk ricotta.

The following day was spent with a master baker learning the art of decorative bread baking elegant woven baskets filled with porcini mushrooms, grains of wheat, flowers and ornate leaves all made from bread dough.

Cooking class in Calabria, Ginda Simpson

Throughout the week, we worked feverishly and feasted royally. My notebook filled up quickly with history, folklore, hints and recipes, not including the great notes provided by the Institute for each of us as well. I could go on and on, but should probably spend less time at my computer and more time on the exercise mat!

For more information, visit their website (see below) and consider participating in any one of the programs offered.

Resources

Slow Travel Photos: Larger versions of these photos.

www.italianculinary.it: Italian Culinary Institute. Consider participating in any one of the programs offered.

Slow Travel Italy - Cooking Classes and Schools

About the Author

Ginda Simpson is an American artist/writer now living in the Umbrian countryside. It has been said of her work, "her paintings tell stories, her stories paint pictures." For more information, please visit www.gindasimpson.com.


© Ginda Simpson, 2005

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