We live along the Mediterranean coast, so we consume a healthy Mediterranean diet, of course. Well yes and no. Visitors imagine the locals consuming a healthy diet of leafy greens, legumes, crusty bread and fresh fruits ripe and locally-grown. This is all true, and yet there is another reality as well.
I have never seen people eat so much meat! Breakfast is the only meal that excludes it, so bacon and sausage are not acceptable choices for most in the morning. Breakfast consists either of a coffee and nothing else, or some refined flour and sugar confection, usually industrially-produced. Might as well eat nothing, I say. (Yes, I know Italian coffee and pastry bars are the best in the world, but only the most un-thrifty types head there for breakfast every day.) But then there is lunch, and there is dinner. Plenty of animal offerings, red meat mostly. A man will eat fish, but chicken is considered a demeaning choice, a feminine choice!…for real men. And cured meats never are far from any respectable table. You will be offered sliced cold cuts and cheese for the antipasto, meat sauce on pasta, mixed grilled meats, roasted haunches of meat, meat stuffed with more meat and cheese for a main course. Not surprisingly, Bernalda, which squeaks over the line with twelve thousand inhabitants, is rife with butcher shops: there are at least fifteen boutique-type shops, plus numerous supermarkets with their own butchers.
There are three butcher shops in Bernalda specializing—to the exclusion of everything else—in horse meat. You can pick your cuts and they will cook them for you right there. My sons are not unusual in their love of horse meat, which is considered a more robust and nutrient-packed alternative to beef and pork. Pregnant women and wimpified men, as well as sickly children, are encouraged to partake. Young men and boys here have the regular pastime of getting together and going out for a huge meal of freshly-prepared carne equina, which they swear is more flavorful than any other meat. My husband and I will not eat horse meat, but of course any explanation from people who freely partake of chicken, pig, and cow slices would be hypocritical. It just feels wrong. One visit to Calabria has provided me the stuff of nightmares. I saw butcher shops with the heads of cows and horses hung up high in doorways so as to stare out at the sidewalk. Their sad eyes looked out from behind those multi-string fly barriers which adorn every doorway, a mute rebuke to every carnivore passing by.
Even these familiar animals can offer some daunting cuts for the table. A very popular dish for festive occasions are the involtini (wraps) of organ meats, called niummurriedd. These can be tiny and charcoal-grilled, or very large and slow-roasted in the oven. The large wrapped meat roll–“u marro“— that my mother-in-law used to cook was absolutely excellent. They are made of heart, lung, liver, and more, and wrapped in lengthy pieces of sheep gut. They require hours of preparation time and are considered a great delicacy when made correctly. Folks say the best ones are those which aren’t exactly scrupulously free of, well, extraneous matter. Not recommended for the cholesterol-challenged.
I have been offered tiny birds, arranged on a plate with their startled eyes staring up as if to say, “I was swatted out of the sky for this?” Snails are popular, not large ones served with garlic butter sauce, but tiny little gritty ones. They are called “lumache” in Italian, but here they are known as “varvaliesc.” They are a very popular choice during the Spring, and folks can be seen alongside the roads with plastic bags collecting them on any humid morning. One unfortunate dining convocation had me refusing the main dish, a large stewpot full of boiled chicken feet. You should know that boiling them plumps them up and removes most traces of color, but not the toenails. The sounds produced by a table full of folks enjoying boiled chicken feet is similar to the sounds produced by people eating small garden snails in tomato sauce; musical sucking sounds punctuated by loud staccato slurping. I cannot deny that to a blind guest it might seem quite appetizing.
I have been served fox, without knowing it at the time. A fox is close enough to a dog to be, well, dog. Rabbits are popular, and my first neighbor across the gorge had a large corral of them. I always knew when the family was having rabbit for dinner, because the accoustics were such that I could hear the screams the poor animals made. There are wild hares, and pheasants, most of which have been added by the hunting associations for sport. Often in their dazed confusion, freshly released from a crate into an unknown territory, they are hit by cars. My son’s friends have been known to improvise a barbeque if the victim was fresh enough. Just the day before yesterday a boar ended up in the stew pot after being hit by a distracted driver. They say that Italians have perfected the art of making do, and this is prime evidence of the truth of that! I once gave my husband a T-shirt with a Road Kill menu on it, very amusing to some, but not to all.
Years ago I participated in the making of sausage, just pork mind you, and I suppose I made enough snide comments during the session that the women never invited me back. I will admit I am not sorry. Making sausage is, after all, a lot like politics. Another pork-related dish is sanguinaccio : If you are served a dense chocolate pudding after the meal, you might want to ask what it is called before you eat it. It is just what it seems, a chocolate pudding, made however with a large percentage of fresh pig blood. To my mind, one could leave out this ingredient and have a wonderful dessert. With it, not so much.
It should also be said that people here are equally disgusted by things like peanut butter, fried rattlesnake (this one never fails to earn me stares of disbelief), root beer, bottled salad dressing, Spam, and Velveeta. On the other hand, things do change rapidly in our traveling world. My husband loves Pizza Hut pizza over the original Italian kind, and imported Budweiser beer, pancakes and nachos are all the rage here this year! Do they sell chocolate Cornflakes in the U.S. yet? Go figure.
Of course the typical Mediterranean fare is available as well, but I will leave that for other posts. Enough has not yet been said about the quality and variety of Italian cooking. There are so many wonderful concoctions of beans, greens, vegetable stews, grains and fresh flavorful fruits, that becoming a vegetarian would be an easy step to take. We are almost there, in terms of quantity, but we do like a little added flavor in the form of animal flesh once in a while. But some will consider us cowards when it comes to adventurous preparation of animal parts. We keep to our safe ground, or sliced, and above all, recognizable, culinary path.
“At Pasture” oil on board, 2011