Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Taste Memories of 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 comforting linens. Rays of sunlight filter through the windows, casting a honeyed glow on the room’s walls creating a protective cocoon as I sleepily peruse my surroundings. As I survey my room in the first light of morning, I realize I had been  dreaming of staying on the Coast of the Gods for at least a year and I was living the dream, "vivere il sogno." 

Halfway between asleep and awake I recall my arrival by train only yesterday in Tropea a charming seaside town in the south of Calabria. 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. 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.

I sat here in the afternoon on Wifi

Walking down the stairs to the beach

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. 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. 

I walked out on the balcony, fishermen were already on the water eager for their first catch of the day. 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.

After a coffee break I joined the locals who wandered outside to find a seat to people watch along the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle. 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. 

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.

"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, 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.

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