This article was first published on CIBUS / July 2011.
An Italian journalist Luciano Pignataro revealed that the secret behind the flavorsome Cilento cuisine is the absence of a clock. I investigate this secret and wonder why in Malta we still have not embarked on a slow food journey.
At the mention of the word Cilento or Trentinara I always get baffled looks. No one seems to have ever heard of it, not even the Italians themselves. Well, neither had I until sometime ago!
I started discovering Trentinara and the Cilento area when my parents, at the time on holiday in Southern Italy, met this Italian couple by chance – Alfonso and Cristina. The couple run this cosy and tiny tavern called Lo Vottaro situated in the historical centre of the quaint comune di Trentinara. My parents instantly fell in love with their restaurant and the town which hosts it. The food which Alfonso and Cristina so passionately prepare was excellent bait for my epicurean father. Therefore, it was not long before I was convinced to visit Trentinara.
The unspoilt ground of Cilento, in the province of Salerno, forms part of the Campania region in Southern Italy. The area is hushed and undiscovered, as if kept a secret from the rest of Italy and to tourists. Trentinara, a town situated close to Paestum in the Cilento area, is dominated by a placid and passive aura. There is tranquility around as if time stopped a couple of centuries ago. Yet, the feeling is positive especially as you realise that the locals cling bravely to their old traditions and customs and have high esteem of their products and territory, an attitude which we Maltese are still coming to terms with..
Walking through the tight alleys of Trentinara feels like being in the Middle Ages. The cobbled pavements were definitely not made for women wearing high heels, not that you see many of them around! Few inhabitants populate this hilltop town, many of them farmers and producers of local specialties like extra virgin olive oil, buffalo mozzarella, goats’ cheese, and cured meats. Alfonso explained that many locals still live a limited and traditional lifestyle; many women are housewives or work in fields together with their husbands. Men break their daily routine downing Vecchia Romagna (an Italian brandy) in the bars around the town. Alfonso, jokingly but truthfully describes the locals, especially the veterans, as penny-pinchers, who rarely travel away from Trentinara, and are oblivious to fashion, innovation and technology.
Yet, when modern Alfonso landed in Trentinara he wanted to preserve the past traditions. He acquired a couple of old residences in the core of Trentinara and restored them to their original medieval state creating a warm and rustic dining area and also spacious rooms which can be rented as holiday homes. As soon as you enter the tavern you are welcomed by an appetizing display of delicacies prepared as part of the menu of the day. At Lo Vottaro there is no fixed menu or wine list. Everything is put together freshly for the day and according to season. Ingredients used are procured from local farmers and suppliers. Herbs, mushrooms and wild edible kitchen essentials are hand-picked by Alfonso and Cristina during their regular walks in the woods.
The wooden tables, terracotta glasses and plates, and the decorative food items appended to the ceiling create a hospitable atmosphere. The glowing fireplace is not only a source of heat but also a cooking hob for calamari, wild boar sausages, and fresh eggs cooked on the open fire and served with grated truffle. Cristina is in charge of the kitchen. You will find no weighing scales in her cooking area where she, with her swift and smooth moves, prepares everything from scratch. Her recipes and measurements are stored in her mind. She grows her own vegetables and herbs, rears her own chickens, and a pig. She preserves fruit, makes jams, cures meat and she even bottles her own olive oil!
The menu is usually presented in the form of a mixed antipasto, a soup, the first course, a main dish and then a selection of desserts. Many dishes served contain typical Cilento specialties which are part of the Mediterranean diet, found to be, by the American nutritionist Ancel Keys, a healthier option. . During our stay we managed to taste a selection of cheeses including buffalo mozzarella aged goat’s cheese, a variety of cured meats, an artichoke parmiggiana, ricotta soufflé and of course the home-baked bread. As first courses we enjoyed ravioli stuffed with ricotta, fusilli with broccoli and clams, cavatelli with fresh tomato sauce and porcini mushrooms. For main courses we were endowed with, wild boar cooked in tomato sauce, oven-baked rabbit and roasted kid. To soothe our sweet tooth: rum savarin, pear and ricotta tart, wild berries jam tart, buffalo ricotta with acacia honey.
At Lo Vottaro food is a serious matter. This tavern is the refuge of people in search of traditional recipes, natural food and genuine delicacies. Alfonso and Cristina work hard to guarantee the use of fresh local products, carefully grown or chosen personally by them to ensure their taste is not marred by added chemicals or preservatives. Eating at Lo Vottaro is like eating at your grandmother’s house when everything was simpler yet with particular characteristics, distinct taste and healthy nutritional values. Once you experience Lo Vottaro few other restaurants will provide you with the same palatable satisfaction.
In Malta, the time has arrived to pause our clock and embark on a journey to discover the edible treasures of the Maltese territory. Local produce needs to be safeguarded and promoted to rekindle the traditions of local cuisine and ensure a slow and healthy food style for the new generations. Maltese citizens should be inspired by the work of Alfonso and Cristina and insist on eating local dishes and products. Would love to see a “Lo Vottaro” on our islands!