"Now We Are Friends!" Building Relationships Through Travel & Food in Southern Italy
Let me tell you about a professor who is a chef but will only refer to himself as a cook. An amazing man, born out of the red dirt and olive groves of Matera in Basilicata Southern Italy. A man whose passion for peasants who till the ground and give us the very best produce resounds in the food he puts in front of you. Who would rather lose his own sense of taste than to see another fast food restaurant break ground.
This is Francesco. A man of the earth. A man of Matera. And a CHEF whose heart is bigger than the Italian meal he presented us as we travel through Southern Italy. And that says a lot!
First, we enjoyed his roasted sweet Matera onions with herbed Gorgonzola, figs from the tree, sweet tomato passata, ricotta with pink peppercorn and caciocavallo cheese. The olive oil was the best Matera had to offer.
But this first course wasn’t without him showing me around his kitchen, explaining his collections of balsamic, wine, beer and his mothers jarred tomatoes. Most exciting to me was a pungent vial or what almost looked like soy sauce. As I took a sip from the small spoon he handed me, a burst of umami that almost fooled me into believing it WAS the Japanese condiment exploded on my palate. But it wasn’t Asian. It was anchovy. He told me about the condiment called “colatura.” A delicious experiment by ancient Roman fishermen meant to help them preserve anything else from the fish that they could, and add depth to any number of dishes. This was the equivalent of Asian fish sauce. But honestly? So much better. He explained how the fish are gutted, and then layered with salt in barrels for aging. After several months, a small hole in the bottom of the barrel is opened, and out comes the salty liquid, drop by precious drop. This will certainly be a weapon I’ll be tracking down to put in my culinary arsenal.
After enjoying a few moments of aperitivos with new friends, Francesco retreated to the kitchen again with my son Asher in tow. I followed behind, excited to catch more of the stories he’d be sure to gift us as prepared this beautiful food.
The next course would be a tribute to the one dish most Americans think of when they imagine Italian food: Spaghetti.
But please understand. You’ve never had Spaghetti until you’ve had it prepared for you by an Italian in Italy in their home. It’s different. I’m sure that what you’ve had is good. Maybe authentic even. But different.
This dish is in honor of the produce of Matera. Simply, it was quality spaghetti that you could feel in the rough texture of every strand. Cut from bronze dyes as it should be. Followed by a very slow cooked tomato sauce, the skins having been peeled, with no base other than olive oil and garlic. Trust me - if you cook it long enough, it’s all this dish needs. The special addition and gift from Matera was the Fagioli verdure - green beans!
When it was time to eat the dish, The Professor stirred the spaghetti into the sauce. And then he looked at me and said, “now! As my mother always says, it’s time to pray! You say one prayer, in order to give the pasta the time to marry with the sauce. Many times you eat sauce with spaghetti and you have two different tastes. But they have to be married! So we pray!”
His prayers are extremely effective. At plating time, there was one last addition. Beautiful stracciatella affumicata. Lightly smoked creamy mozzarella - but the wet and stretchy kind. It looks thick like milk, but as soon as you raise your spoon to add it to the dish, it pulls and stretches, like the most beautiful ballerina slowly warming up before the dance.