Thursday, June 7, 2007

Artviva July 2007 Italy Travel Writing Competition: Julia Speht

Sorrento Beyond Summer (for the Gourmet)

My partner and I love to escape for a cheap winter break in January and in previous years we’ve picked up a package deal to Egypt or similar sunny collapse-and-sleep type places. This year, we went in search of culture, gourmet food and mountainous views in Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

As package deals out of season were not an option, we made our own DIY holiday combining four nights in a mountain farmhouse with views over the Bay of Naples, with three nights eating our way through the gourmet food of an international cookery school in Sant’Agata village on the outskirts of Sorrento.

We’re not sunbathers so the daily temperatures of Southern Italy (15-20 degrees) appealed, particularly as we planned visits to both Pompeii and Herculaneum, but didn’t much fancy trudging through the dusty ruins in glaring heat. In fact we had the ruins almost to ourselves: no queues; no noisy school groups; and no elbows or rucksacks in my Roman photographs. It made the experience much more enjoyable, especially in Herculaneum where on our way back to the train station we stumbled across a local wine shop selling home-made strawberry wine for €4.00 which was naturally sparkling and deceptively strong, but washed down the chocolate panettone perfectly on our return train journey.

We were surprised though to find ourselves on the sunny beach with a light breeze in Amalfi eating ice-creams in mid-January! However it seemed that this was not warm enough for the mainstream, because we were delighted to find availability for anything – and everything – we wanted to book. This drove the price down considerably, and we found ourselves scooping up bargains as tourists were few and far between.

We had no problems either booking into our favourite agritourismo farmhouse apartment in the Priora hills - 2km north of Sorrento - following a lemon-grove walk up the hill with glimpses of the sea, curving its way around the rocky cliffs into the distance. The owners always stock the kitchen with their own farm produce depending on season: I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be growing on the 19th January as back in blighty we had frosts and rain downpours. When we arrived, however the fruit bowl was overflowing with fresh oranges, huge lemons, misshapen pears and apples. The fridge revealed locally-produced cheese and butter, large eggs, home-cured ham and freshly baked bread with a hint of cumin. The usual staples of home grown onions, giant garlic and bushes of basil were still there, as were the jars of hand-picked tomatoes, passata and peppers. We revelled in this find and devoured a feast on our terrace overlooking the bay of Naples, as the lights twinkled in the sunset and white crests of waves flickered back at us until we couldn’t see anything except the lights of ships fading out to sea.

With aching calf muscles after four days of hiking up and down the lemon-grove hill from Priora, we had begun to feel at home in this sleepy hillside village: nodding hello to the neighbouring farms as we strolled past in the morning; listening to the church bells of afternoon mass as we clamboured back up the hill in the evening, clutching the treasures we had bought from the market during the day. The owners – Gina and Marco – had a new puppy which had also taken a liking to us and would greet us in the morning as we set out breakfast on the terrace to enjoy the view.

By the second day our relationship had progressed to the stage where the puppy was following us down the hill as far as the church, then barking a goodbye. On the last day, she had followed us almost a mile into the centre of Sorrento and we feared for her safety, having no lead or method of persuading her to return home. In the city centre she ran off down a side street, leaving us to ponder her all day, haunted by visions of her being run over by maniac motorbikes or a flashy sports car. Of course, as we reached the apartment at 10pm that night, she was waiting to greet us outside the door. As we bade farewell the following morning to Gina and Marco, they just shrugged at this and offered us a drink of home made Perno – this was a kind of liqueur made of fennel and incredibly strong. It was quite difficult to manage at 11am, but the result was a surprisingly warm sensation and strength of flavour that lasted for hours.

They enquired politely as to our plans, and we described our next B&B and planned trip to Naples on the train, to taste “real” pizza Neapolitan style. Marco thought this was very strange, and a long way to travel pizza. Why hadn’t we said so earlier? We could have joined their family on Friday nights, when they always have home-made pizza and bake the fresh bread for the following week. We looked sheepish, feeling like extravagant foolish tourists with more money than sense, and promised to return another year when we could participate in the Friday ritual.

On this occasion however, we had already booked into the famous International cookery school, Mami Camilla bed and breakfast with a discount package including dinner and a cookery class.

This turned out to be a real bargain as dinner was an orgasmic four-course affair of home-made delicacies from fresh local produce which the International chef and his team of students have spent the afternoon preparing with dedication and enthusiasm.

My day’s cookery class was exciting and delicious, with students scribbling down notes, and deliveries of fresh local ingredients interrupting regularly. It was clear that the head chef had many friends at wholesalers and suppliers, as well as famous restaurants in the city, when freshly made cheese, eggs and vegetables arrived with uproar, banter and exchanging of drinks. We learnt to make fairly complicated recipes and could taste, smell and touch throughout the afternoon which I found very enjoyable. I was one of six students and we all watched the hulking Italian head chef in awe as he explained every move in detail and invited us to copy various elements of the dishes – rolling the gnocchi; lining the soufflé cases; filling the cranoli baskets; whisking the becemal sauce etc.

Further interruptions came from the chef’s family – loud arguments with his wife, which usually ended in doors being slammed; excitable exchanges with his son and telephone exclamations with his daughter. These were all accompanied by arm waving and expletives in Italian, but usually included loud laughter and hilarity, whilst the six students desperately tried to hold together lumpy cheese sauce and overflowing vegetable pans until he returned, and with one wave of his hand, silenced the bubbling and panic.

Our first night treated us to Cauliflower soufflé, meatball lasagne, Bresola of Veal, followed by Sicilian cranoli for desert, washed down with local wine at 5 euros a carafe. Sitting round the communal dinner table with the other guests and cookery students from all over the world, we felt very much at home in the Italian family’s traditional house. At nearly midnight we made our excuses from the table and picked our way through the private lemon groves to our farmhouse apartment to sleep, until the roosters woke us the next day with the pouring sunlight into our rustic bedroom.

But our gourmet pilgrimage was not yet complete: we had found details of a local restaurant on the Internet that claimed to be a member of the “Slow Food Movement” in Sant’Agata, a small village 7 km inland from Sorrento. The restaurant, “Lo Stuzzichino” is known to locals as a low-key rustic place, playing second fiddle to the much revered “Don Alfonso” restaurant on the same road – “now that is the good restaurant in Sant’Agata!” our hosts confirmed. Yes, with three Michelin stars it ought to be. But our twenty minuets bus ride was worth more than just the spectacular views across the two gulfs (of Naples and Salerno), and the cute mountain village life in quaint Sant’Agata, with crumbly church bells pealing out in the hazy sunlight of the afternoon. Elderly ladies tottered through the cobbled streets with small dogs and shopping bags of groceries; although the small row of shops only seemed to stock lingerie, hand-made chocolates or cakes.

We walked past the prestigious sign for Don Alfonso (since 1890) to see that he too, was taking advantage of “low season” to make major renovations to the building. With delight, we scurried onto the cosy, “rustic” haven of Lo Stuzzichino with the walls covered in photographs of the staff in various states of merriment, and with certificates of award or thank you letters from food critics. Here we sank into our wicker-spun chairs for the mouth-watering marathon that followed, with time suspended in a delicious equilibrium of perfection and relaxation. Our waiter, a qualified sommelier, spoke melodic English and recommended the daily specials which we accepted without blinking. Over the next three hours we savoured delicious home made local specialities such as bruschetta, fresh seafood linguine; peasant’s potato pasta soup; local cheeses and home made cheesecake for desert. All this at extremely reasonable prices (we paid less than 20 Euros a head for a four course meal with wine and liqueurs and coffees) in a warm homely restaurant which was also bustling, romantic, and full of locals enjoying their village treasure.

In fact, we were the only English speakers in Sant’Agata that day; and on most days during our holiday – relaxing in itself. In Sorrento, where the main hotels were closed and the tacky cafes offering menus touristicos were shut for the winter, we found ourselves walking the passiegata with the locals. More importantly we didn’t feel hassled or hustled. Even if we were recognised as English, we weren’t treated as tourists, but with a friendly, curious welcome.

Our day trip out to Amalfi, as hair-raising as ever along the zig-zag hairpin bends of the mountainous route in the cliffs, was also a private exclusive pleasure with just the six of us on the local bus. The only crowds in Amalfi were the stream of teenagers pouring out of the local school at lunchtime: noisy, excitable, dapper. And the smart gathering of a local wedding on the steps of the famous, awe-inspiring Duomo in the main square. We felt privileged to have been allowed this insight into daily Italian life, so often obscured by “O Sole Mio” ice cream sellers, particularly in this beauty spot where wealthy travellers have been holidaying for centuries.

It seems that all the iconic parts of Italian holidays: food, scenery, culture, climate can be best enjoyed away from the madding crowd, but not by choosing obscure locations and missing world-class heritage, but by braving the winter weather and seeing this delicious country “at rest” away from the glare of the usual tourist season.

Julia Speht. 30.01.07.
Ryan Air from Gatwick to Naples, Sunday flights, £55 each including taxes.
Pink Elephant car parking (long stay) £36 for one week, Gatwick airport.

Mami Camille B&B
Via Cocumella, 4. tel.

The “Winter Special” costs 320 Euros for a double room, bed, breakfast and 4 course evening meal (for 2 people) for 3 nights; or 260 Euros for a single. This includes an activity (Excursion to the Amalfi coast or a cookery lesson with the International chef, Longo Biagini)

Lo Stuzzichino Restaurant
Via Deserto 1/A, S.Agata sui due golf
Massalubrense, Tel. 081.5330010. www.ristorantelostuzzichino


Ciao Laura said...

Chef Biaggo Longo is the BEST! Mami Camilla is fabulous and I had a similar experience on my trip to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast in April. Check out for more info.



Suma said...

Hi, the blog is very interesting...your trip experiences are really interesting...

suma valluru

Julia on the move said...

I am delighted to have won this competition. I can't wait to receive my gourmet hamper prize!
Julia :-)