Basilicata Gourmet Traveller

The Secret South

Basilicata, the ‘instep’ of Italy’s boot, is historically a neglected and unexplored part of the country, but its spectacular, arid landscape yields a remarkably rich and individual culinary tradition born out of necessity, as David Gerrie discovers.

Travel Information

Currency is the euro. Italy is one hour ahead of GMT. Basilicata has a Mediterranean climate with dry, hot summers and mild winters. Temperatures during summer range from 15-27°C, while in winter temperatures range from 1-8°C

GETTING THERE - The nearest airports are Bari Palease and Naples. Bari is 40 miles from Matera, Naples is 100 miles. BA (ba.com) flies to Naples and Bari Palease from London Gatwick. EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Naples from London Gatwick.

GETTING AROUND - Avis (0844 581 0147, avis.co.uk) has offices at Naples and Bari airports.

RESOURCES - Basilicata Tourist Board (00 39 0971 507611, discoverbasilicata.com/uk) has an office in Via del Gallitello in Potenza. Italian Tourist Board (020 7408 1254, italiantouristboard.co.uk) provides information to help you plan your trip.

FURTHER READING - Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi (Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99). A chilling 1945 novel, whose author was exiled to Grassano and Agliano in Basilicata by Mussolini in 1935, that captures the isolation of the region during the Fascist era.

Imagine an Italian cuisine without basil or parmesan and only one regional wine of distinction. Unlikely would seem an obvious reaction, but there remains one area of Italy, largely undiscovered by tourism, where this is true. But the culinary upsides are enormous.

Basilicata, the ‘instep’ of Italy’s boot between the toe of Calabria and heel of Puglia, covers an extensive part of the southern Apennines, with the Ofanto river in the north and the Monte Pollino massif in the south. It is bordered on the east by a large part of the Bradano depression, which is traversed by numerous streams and declines to the coastal plains on the Ionian Sea. The region has coastlines on the Adriatic, Ionian and Tyrrhenian and almost half its landmass is covered by mountains, making it the most mountainous area in southern Italy. The region was originally known as Lucania, but Mussolini decided to change that in the 1930s, choosing the area as ideal for the exile of anti-Fascist activists, thus making it about as popular a destination then as Guantanamo Bay is today.

Historically one of Italy’s poorest regions, Basilicata is also one of its least populated. Craggy mountains and intractable soil have made agriculture a difficult proposition and many Lucani (as the people of Basilicata are still called) emigrated for luckier lands in the 1900s. Today, the economic situation is much improved, but the cuisine of Basilicata remains a rural one, deeply anchored in peasant traditions.

This is a rough, hard land whose only natural wealth comes from the sun, where life is still carried out according to ancient rhythms. The food is generally of the cucina rustica variety, with Lucanians particularly keen on the noseto-tail school of gastronomy.

Of all Lucanian pork products, the most famous is the sausage. The local version is not the long, thin type popular in northern Italy, but a flavoursome, unlinked cylinder usually consisting of a mixture of finely chopped pepper, cumin, parsley, sweet spices and bay berries mixed together with salt, a lot of fat and fennel seeds. It is then packed into an intestine and hung over smoke from a variety of woods in an open chimney.

A recipe which perfectly symbolises the philosophy and flavour of Lucanian cuisine is pignata di pecora, a lamb and mutton dish in which pieces of meat, potatoes, tomato, onion, chilli pepper, pecorino cheese and crumbled salami are put into a pignata, or earthenware pot, which is then closed and sealed with clay and cooked in a very hot oven.

Or there are friselle, slices of bread made from ‘0’ type flour (as used for making pasta), yeast, salt and water that undergo a process of toasting in the oven. Soaked in water and vinegar, they are used as the base of summer salads with tomatoes, onions and other vegetables, dressed with oil, or placed at the bottom of a dish to be submerged in a hearty vegetable soup.

In contrast, in a wonderful example of contrariness, the Lucanians do not stint on their wines. Despite the region being home to only one DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata – Italy’s equivalent of France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), oenophiles can revel in the fact that this is Aglianico del Vulture, a superb, powerful red produced in Barile, which can display great finesse and set you back about €60 for an outstanding bottle. Aglianico del Vulture comes from pure aglianico grapes and cannot be sold before spending at least one year maturing in cellars and caves dug out of the local rock. With a full, delicate and balanced bouquet, the wine becomes smoother with age thanks to the mineral characteristics of the soil and to the climate close to the mountains. It has great personality, vigorous and perfumed, that combines well with the local cuisine, mostly lamb and strong cheeses such as pecorino.

If there is one element that lets the traveller know he is eating Lucanian food, it is the preponderance of the ubiquitous local Senise chilli pepper, known locally as diavulicchiu (little devil) or frangisello (saddle breaker), awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 1996 and often used in such heavy doses it rapidly becomes a like-it-or-loathe-it addition to dishes. They have a sweet taste and low water content and are hung, put in the oven to dry, then ground and used in local dishes. Converts should seek out sugna piccante, a spread usually kept in glass jars, in which the aggressive chilli is mixed with fennel seeds, salt and pig fat and used as a condiment to spread on home-made bread.

Fans of more traditional Italian fare need not feel abandoned amid this highly particular cuisine, for they will still find pasta in abundance, prepared using ancient techniques and utensils. Almost everywhere are orechiette, ‘little ear’ shapes far preferred to spaghetti, tagliatelle or sheet pasta. The most-used dressing for pasta is a tomato and meat sauce with small pieces of mutton, lamb or, more rarely, beef topped with the usual chilli pepper fried in oil and a sprinkling of pecorino or ricotta forte cheese. The latter is a speciality of Matera – the city famed for its cave dwellings – with the sheep’s milk adjusted daily for at least 30 days, adding small quantities of salt so it becomes increasingly tangy on the tongue.

he best place to begin to understand Basilicata’s food is the Foresteria di San Leo, an ‘agriturismo’ in the mountain hamlet of Trivigno, about two hours’ drive from Naples, presided over by the ebullient Maria, who loves to share the history, culture and food of her region, while her husband tends their 450 acres of organic orchards, herds and dairy at 750m above sea level. Maria explains how agritourism has been used as a national government incentive to ensure people stay on their farms and historic buildings are kept in use, politicians having recognised farmers could no longer make a living purely from farming.

It’s straight off to her kitchens for an early-evening cookery lesson, starting with that most basic of Lucanian dishes, mollica di pane – little tubes of pasta strewn with breadcrumbs fried in oil with garlic, dried bay and crumbled flakes of those fiery chillies. The latter are only ever used fresh in ciambota, a dish in which aubergine, courgette and onion are added to scrambled eggs together with the peppers.

The altitude has its own impact on the pasta of this region, meaning it comprises an egg-free mix of only very finely milled semolina flour and water. So vital is it to the diet, there is a local legend that says if a woman cannot make this pasta correctly, she will never marry.

The alpine-like meadows are heavily studded with forest, making them ideal grazing ground not only for sheep, whose clonking bells add to the quasi-Swiss ambience, but also the extremely rare Podolica cattle, from which comes the highly prized provolone di Podolica, Italy’s most expensive cheese. This can cost twice as much as an aged parmesan (which Lucanians didn’t see until the 1970s) and tastes different from day to day, depending on what the cows have consumed.

The matured provolone made by the Latteria Salvia Maria is a small masterpiece of the southern Italian dairy. It is made from raw cow’s milk (brown alpine and Podolica breeds reared in Basilicata) and rennet from young goats, and is matured for seven to eight months. In this style of cheese, salt and piquancy often dominate, but the flavour notes of this provolone are much more subtle and the final effect is rounded and well balanced, yet distinctive, a product of truly excellent raw milk. It has a firm texture, clean on the palate, but is not used in traditional dishes.

Dinner in the converted stable is the purest possible introduction to Lucanian cuisine, starting with cloud-like ricotta, made that morning and drizzled with local honey, followed by platters of pale pink salami speckled with crumbled pecorino, lettuce and olive oil, segueing into pasta and peppers. A plate of cold scrambled eggs with courgettes is accompanied by slices of the brightest red tomatoes on grilled bread, with the pièce de résistance coming in the form of simply grilled suckling lamb topped with fried breadcrumbs. Alongside is a bowl of bitter green chicory that has been steamed, then dressed with oil and garlic and mixed with podded broad beans to add a contrasting sweetness. Dessert is a limoncello-soaked sponge cake, washed down with a glass of amaro lucano, a herby, coffee-based liqueur made in nearby Pisticci.

A 90-minute drive away lies Matera, the regional capital and one of only two cities in the area with a population of more than 50,000. It is rightly famed for its amazing urban limestone cave dwellings, or Sassi, which have been designated a World Heritage Site and are best viewed from the piazza in front of the 13th-century cathedral.

The Sassi are among the earliest human settlements in the world. Grottoes with the floor of one home serving as the ceiling of the one beneath, these underground dwellings deteriorated from the 17th until the 20th century, by which time they had effectively become slums, with no electricity or running water. Inhabitants were forcibly evacuated in 1956. Grants are now offered to tempt start-up bed and breakfasts and restaurants help revitalise the area.

A fine place to enjoy the ambience of one of these dwellings – and to understand why residents of this area spend five or six hours a day eating – is the Restaurant San Pietro Barisano, enhanced by beautifully lit bare stones inside and out, where chef Stefano Catanese turns that old cliché about ‘traditional dishes with a modern twist’ into a thing of beauty.

Before even a menu has been offered, a bowl of ‘Basilicata popcorn’ emerges from the kitchen: crunchy, fried fava beans tossed in balsamic vinegar. Meltingly tender marinated artichokes with garlic sit alongside arista, fatty bacon sliced wafer-thin and scattered with nuts and peppers. Next up is aubergine rolled around dried tomatoes, Podolica cheese and the region’s famed red aubergine, followed by baked ricotta with bay (ricotta al forno). The star turn is the best piece of veal fillet you’ll ever be privileged to taste, sitting under a fondue of Podolica cheese (‘il filetto di vitello alla fonduta di caciocavallo podolico’). Pudding is a pastry filled with ricotta and boiled wheat in a pool of velvety chocolate sauce. If your wallet can run to it, a bottle of 2005 Bisceglia Gudarra proves the perfect accompaniment.

‘Eating in this region is very important because most people only have enough money for one substantial daily meal,’ explained Stefano. ‘Fast food has been almost unilaterally rejected because the experience does not involve people eating together.’

An easy stroll through town leads to the Latteria Rizzi, a cheese boutique in which it’s quickly apparent why the area is more famous for cheese than any other product. Pecorino reigns supreme, but try canestrato, still in the rich pecorino style, but made from 80 per cent raw sheep’s milk and 20 per cent goat’s milk. Envelope-pushers should taste the intense gorgonzola di capra made from pure goat’s milk and usually eaten with grated dark Amedei chocolate. Supercrusty local bread is made from durum wheat; the dough is folded many times to produce an airy interior.

Nearby is L’abbondanza Lucana, a little gem specialising in Lucanian delicacies such as the aniseed liqueur sambuca, or torrone de mandorle (almond brittle), calzoncelli (‘little chocolate parcels’ of fried pastry stuffed with a paste of chestnuts and chocolate), and all manner of salami. Look out for the Don Francesco brand, especially for local favourite salsiccia lucana, whose spicing, predominantly fennel, cumin and parsley, and wood-smoking, gives it a unique flavour.

The shop’s owner also runs Ristorante Lucanerie, a celebrated restaurant hidden on Via San Stefano where you can sample light as-a-feather strawberry cheesecake made with creamy, fresh goat’s cheese (produced by the owner’s cousin), surrounded by a warm fig sauce.

Matera has a compact open market in the Via a Persio every day but Sunday, where local produce, all defined by provenance, might include baby artichokes, wild mushrooms, furry carosello cucumbers or matchstick-thin asparagus and Senise peppers. Farmers from the surrounding area come to Matera to sell their produce to the town’s matrons in a picturesque urban setting within a pedestrianised precinct. Interestingly named shops fringing the stalls include Carne Equina, specialising in horse meat, and the inventive Evoluzione della Carne Bianca e Rossa charcuterie, where white meat is used to make take-home dishes more usually linked to red, such as veal goulash, or bocconcini de tacchino, a hand-made turkey roll stuffed with bacon, parmesan and herbs served with a rich tomato sauce.

One of the main cultural highlights of the entire Basilicata area, due to its immense artistic and historical patrimony, is the hilltop city of Venosa, an ancient locality in the north of the region along the road from Melfi to Puglia. It’s an outstanding example of historical continuity between Roman, medieval and modern times. The Romans conquered Venosa in 291BC, making it a main city along the Appian Way which united Rome and Brindisi.

Venosa was founded on a level border or edge of two Walloons, Ruscello and Reale. The Pirro del Balzo Castle can be found over the ancient cathedral of the city. Today, it is also the seat of the National Archaeological Museum. Nearby, one can also visit the Angioinian Fountain and Purgatorio Church. The main monument of Venosa is the SS. Trinità Abbey, which is located in the northern part inside the Roman walls but outside the medieval city walls, which still partially exist. From the times of ancient splendour, only the archaeological park remains, where one can admire a Roman amphitheatre, thermal baths and a Lapidarium Venusinum.

The town has the largest Jewish catacombs in western Europe, which are usually, but not always, open to view. A surreal sight worth taking in on the edge of town is the unfinished Trinity church – a magnificent facade, including a bell-tower, with nothing but blue sky and an endless horizon behind.

It’s also well worth taking a day out for the pilgrimage through Pollino National Park to Terranova di Pollino, the region’s largest national parkland. It’s a 90-minute drive from Matera and at the foot of Mount Calvario, spreading out between 800 and 1,000m above sea level. The landscape here overlooks the upper valley of Sarmento and is dotted with old water mills, as well as ancient Catholic chapels and churches.

After a testing journey over hilltop bends and some tricky parking, a walk along a hilltop alley will bring you to the tiny terrace of Luna Rossa, where Federico Valicenti has earned a reputation as one of Italy’s finest chefs for his use of local produce in dishes based on Old Testament, Roman, medieval and Renaissance recipes. Luna Rossa has been recognised by Gambero Rosso Restaurants of Italy 2010 as one of the best trattorias in Italy and it recently received the nation’s prestigious, highly coveted ‘Tre Gamberi’ or ‘Three Shrimp’ prize. The rural hideaway was awarded the highest score.

As proof, Valicenti serves us an expansive eight-course meal which includes toasts slicked with silky rendered pork fat; an orange timbale of potato, sausage and fennel seeds; porcini mushrooms with egg and pancetta; red pasta made with chillies, lemon and ricotta; escalope of pork with smoked cheese and asparagus; melting lamb and crispy potatoes crusted with oregano, thyme, rosemary and sage; apricot cream with mint, strawberry syrup and Chantilly cream; and a gorgeous ricotta and citrus-peel cake with a pear and cocoa topping.

‘We used to consider ours a cuisine of poverty,’ he says, ‘but now we see it as a cuisine of richness. Everything I cook with comes from within one kilometre of where I live as my protest against globalisation and homogenisation, because I believe that people are integrated through food rather than politics.’

Where to Stay

Foresteria di San Leo Contrada You’ll get a wonderful immersion into the food and traditions of Basilicata at this hotel, set amid rolling mountain meadows. Very little English spoken. Doubles from €92 including breakfast. San Leo 11, Trivigno, 00 39 0971 981157.

Palazzo Gattini A converted monastery opposite the cathedral, dating back to the 15th century, sympathetically transformed in to a five-star spa hotel with 40 all-different rooms and suites, some on two storeys, right in the middle of town. A two-minute walk will give you a view over the location used for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Doubles from €159. Piazza Duomo 14, Matera, 00 39 0835 334358, palazzogattini.it

Locanda Di San Martino Three-star cave hotel and thermal spa with a very friendly owner. Doubles from €99 per night. Via Fiorentini 71, Matera,
00 39 0835 256472, locandadisanmartino.it

Hotel Sant’Angelo This four-star property in the Sassi with spectacular views over the ancient city and ravine and cave rooms is the result of a restoration process involving integrating cave dwellings, buildings, stairs, narrow streets and courtyards to form a new concept of hotel – the ‘scattered hotel’ or albergo diffuso. From €226 per night. Rione Pianelle, Matera, 00 39 0835 314010, hotelsantangelosassi.it

Le Grotte della Civita Four-star ultra-eco-friendly conversion to another albergo diffuso, offering 18 large rooms in the oldest part of the Sassi on the edge of the Gravina river valley opposite the dramatic Murgia Park. From €200 per night. Via Civita 28, Matera, 00 39 0835 332744, legrottedellacivita.com

Where to Eat

Restaurant San Pietro Barisano If you only have time for one meal in Matera, this is the place to go. Dine in the midst of the Sassi with a view of the open kitchen which sends out luscious dishes such as lamb and vegetables cooked en papillote and Podolica beef and veal. €45 for three courses, excluding wine. Via San Biagio, 52, Matera, 00 39 0835 346191.

Ristorante Lucanerie This place serves multi-garlanded yet unpretentious Lucanian specialities, using local ingredients. €35 for three courses, excluding wine. Via San Stefano, 61, Matera, 00 39 0835 332133, galleriaportapepice.com

Luna Rossa For all his fame throughout Italy, chef Federico Valicenti charges very reasonably (main courses are €10) at his little hilltop hideaway for ultra-locally sourced rustic dishes that draw inspiration from Old Testament, Roman, medieval and Renaissance recipes. €75 per person for a six-course tasting menu with wine. Via Marconi, Terranova di Pollino, Potenza, 00 39 0973 93254, federicovalicenti.it

Food Glossary

  • Amaro lucano: Bitters, made in Pisticci Scalo in Basilicata to a secret recipe consisting of herbs and roots, are less bitter than some other Italian amaro liqueurs. At a relatively low 30 per cent alcohol, it can be served neat as a digestif, or on ice as an apéritif, with a twist of lemon and topped up with soda water.
  • Arista: Slow-roasted pork loin seasoned with salt, pepper and various spices.
  • Bocconcini de tacchino: Turkey roll stuffed with bacon, parmesan and herbs served with a rich tomato sauce.
  • Calzoncelli: Sweet chcolate and chestnut fried pasta parcels
  • Carosello cucumber: A crisp, sweet, melon-like Italian heirloom variety Ciambota A dish of cooked salscicca di lucano, peppers, onions, eggs and tomato.
  • Friselle: Slices of bread made with ‘0’ type flour (as used for making pasta), yeast, salt and water which are then toasted in the oven.
  • Limoncello: Lemon liqueur produced in southern Italy.
  • Lucanian canestrato: Cheese made from 80 per cent whole goat’s milk and up to 20 per cent cow or sheep’s milk.
  • Mollica di pane: A quintessential element in Basilicata, made of coarse breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley, sage, chilli flakes and olive oil, often used instead of cheese to top pasta dishes.
  • Pecorino: PDO cheese of Filiano made from the whole milk of several sheep breeds including Gentile di Puglia, Leccese, Comisana, Sarda and their crossbreeds.
  • Pignata di pecora: Ewe cooked with potatoes, tomatoes, onions, pork and pecorino in a clay pot called a pignata.
  • Provolone di Podolica: Rare and highly prized cheese made with milk from Podolica cattle.
  • Ricotta forte: Tangy sheep’s cheese, a speciality of Matera.
  • Salsiccia lucana: Lucanian sausage: dried and seasoned with wild fennel seeds, other spices and pepper, these U-shaped sausages are 40-70cm in length.
  • Sambuca: Aniseed liqueur.
  • Senise peppers: Known locally as diavulicchiu (‘little devils’) or frangisello (‘saddle breakers’), PGI is given only to the small types, although hooked, pointed and trunked types are all included.
  • Sugna piccante: Lard flavoured with Senise peppers which is stored in jars and spread on bread or used for cooking.
  • Torrone de mandorle: Hard almond nougat.

David Gerrie and Carl Pendle travelled to Basilicata courtesy of APT Basilicata (00 39 0971 507611, discoverbasilicata.com)

This article was published on 1st October 2011 so certain details may not be up to date.

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