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Basilicata: A region like no other

From the January 2017 issue.
Basilicata: A region like no other

Well beyond the beaten tourist track, among the tranquil mountainous setting of Basilicata, is a rich culinary tradition that has stood the test of time.

By Danielle Gullaci

Here in Basilicata, you’re unlikely to find droves of tourists or an abundance of tacky souvenir shops. Instead this Southern Italian region offers a real taste of Italy, where English is barely spoken, and centuries-old traditions are still respected and upheld.

This is also true of its cuisine, which remains rustic and uncomplicated, taking influence from the many groups of settlers that have called Basilicata home over the centuries.

Historically, Basilicata was among Italy’s poorer regions. Its very mountainous terrain and subsequent isolation from other areas of Italy, fostered the development of a unique style of cuisine, based on cucina povera – the poor or peasant kitchen – whereby people were forced to make the most out of the very little they had. By cleverly combining the ingredients given to them by the land, the people of Basilicata crafted many simple yet flavoursome dishes that still form the core of the region’s cuisine to this day.

Olive trees are found throughout Basilicata’s landscape and are used to produce some exceptional olive oils, which are present in many of the region’s specialties. As well as being used to produce great olive oils, local groves are also widely used to produce table olives too.

Basilicata’s olive groves are believed to be among the oldest in Italy. Evidence suggests that the tradition of olive cultivation in the Vulture area dates back to the times of Magna Graecia. It continues today thanks to several growers and producers, mostly small family businesses. Olive oils produced in the Vulture area are particularly well regarded, as are those produced in the Bassa Collina Materana area.

The town of Ferrandina, found in the Bassa Collina Materana, not only produces great olive oil but is also the home of a particular local specialty: oven-dried black olives. Once harvested, the olives are left to dry on wooden shelves for one week, before being boiled, seasoned with salt and oregano and stored in either glass or terracotta for a week. Then they are placed in the oven for the final drying phase.

Just like in neighbouring Calabria, hot pepper, or peperoncino, also features prominently in the region’s cuisine, often making its way into pasta sauces. Peperone di Senise, which bears the IGP label (Protected Geographical Indication), are considered the best. They are grown in several towns across the region including Senise, which gives the peppers its name. Due to their relatively low water content, they are perfect for drying and turning into a powder, which can be used to flavour cheeses, salumi, soups and sauces.

When it comes to meat, pork is the star in Basilicata’s cuisine. It features in the region’s most important local variety of sausage, the Lucanica sausage, and is also served roasted or grilled, among other ways, and used to produce many varieties of salumi. And for dessert, sanguinaccio, a chocolate pudding featuring pig’s blood, is another specialty.

Pasta, bread and cheese feature heavily in Basilicata’s cuisine as well. Pasta and bread is made from locally milled wheat and cheese typically comes from sheep’s milk, but goat’s milk is also common.

Though orecchiette pasta is more often associated with Puglia, it is also typical of Basilicata. Another regional pasta shape is lagane. It is similar to tagliatelle but much shorter. Lagane pasta is believed to date back to Ancient Roman times, and is often served with chickpeas, among other ingredients.

When it comes to bread, Pane di Matera IGP is one of the most sought after varieties in Italy, made using ancient baking processes. Its IGP label means that the bread needs to be made according to strict guidelines in order to bear the prestigious Pane di Matera name. It is crafted using a locally milled semolina grain known as Senatore Cappelli. A natural yeast, derived from the maceration of grapes and figs in water is also used, and the dough undergoes a long fermentation process in clay cisterns.

As well as being enjoyed on its own, Pane di Matera features as a key ingredient in several regional dishes. Examples include acquasale, a soup which is made with stale bread, water, onions, tomato, garlic and olive oil; cialledda calda, combining eggs, bay leaves, garlic and olives on warm bread; and cialledda fredda, moist bread that is served with tomatoes and garlic.

When it comes to cheese, Pecorino di Filiano DOP is Basilicata’s pride and joy. It is a firm cheese made from sheep’s milk in various areas of Potenza – including the town of Filiano, which it is named after. Every year, in early September, a sagra or festival is held in Filiano in honour of the treasured local product.

Another type of pecorino, Canestrato di Moliterno IGP, is well regarded too. The town it hails from, Moliterno, holds an annual festival to honour this cheese on the first Sunday of August.

While Pecorino di Filiano DOP and Canestrato di Moliterno IGP are made exclusively in Basilicata, there is another locally produced cheese that is well worth seeking out – Caciocavallo Silano DOP. In addition to being made in both of Basilicata’s provinces, it can also be produced in areas of the neighbouring Calabria, Campania, Molise and Puglia.

These cheeses pair perfectly with Aglianico, Basilicata’s most typical and celebrated red wine. The volcanic soil present around the extinct volcano, Mount Vulture, has created a thriving wine tradition, with Aglianico del Vulture DOC among the most notable examples. This wine pairs beautifully with red meat as well.

Aglianico del Vulture Superiore was given the further honour of being awarded the DOCG designation (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin), the only wine in Basilicata to hold this title. The exceptional quality of this wine has resulted in the nickname of the ‘Barolo of the South’.

While food and wine is undoubtedly one of Basilicata’s major drawcards, the region is also filled with many wonderful sights to explore, many of these steeped in centuries of history.

Formerly known as Lucania, which is still commonly used, Basilicata features two provinces – Potenza (the region’s capital) and Matera. Though the region is mainly inland, both provinces have their own coastline and some great beaches. Potenza lies on the Tyrrhenian Sea and Matera on the Ionian Sea.

Maratea, a medieval town in the province of Potenza, is the region’s most iconic seaside destination. It is best known for its enormous white Carrara marble statue of Christ, Il Redentore (The Redeemer), which dominates Mount San Biagio. Crafted by sculptor Bruno Innocenti in 1965, the 22-metre-tall statue can be reached via a set of steps opposite the Basilica of San Biagio, the area’s main church.

Along with its iconic statue, Maratea boasts some pristine beaches that are often listed as being among the best in Italy, and regularly compared to those of Amalfi. Its coast ranges from sandy beaches to pebbled coves, and there are several grottos that can be reached by boat. La Grotta delle Meraviglie, which translates to the Cave of Wonders, is the only sea grotto accessible by foot. It impresses visitors with its stalactite and stalagmite formations.

To add, Maratea is home to 44 churches, though less than half of these are open to the public. Along with the Basilica of San Biagio, other notable churches are the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Chiesa dell’Annunziata.

While exploring the province of Potenza, its main city of the same name is worth a visit. At 818 metres above sea level, it is Italy’s highest regional capital.

The city has been rocked my numerous earthquakes over the years and also suffered heavily as a result of World War II. Therefore, much of Potenza has been rebuilt in recent times, though there are still some remnants of the distant past. The walls that once surrounded the city are long gone, but three of its gates remain – Porta S. Luca, Porta S. Giovanni and Porta S. Gerardo.

The Duomo of San Gerardo is one of the city of Potenza’s most important buildings. It was originally built in the 12th century but heavily renovated during the 18th century. It still features the rose window and apse from the original building. The church also houses the remains of its namesake, who is the city’s patron saint.

Other notable sights found in the city are the Torre Guevara, which is the only remaining part of a medieval castle, the Roman Villa of Malvaccaro with its beautiful mosaics and the Church of San Michele Arcangelo, which is home to many important artworks including the ‘Madonna del Carmine’ and ‘Madonna of the Rosary’.

About 45 minutes away by car are the towns of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa, Basilicata’s highest villages. Nestled among the dark and imposing mountains of the Lucanian Dolomites, these beautiful mountain towns seem almost otherworldly and evoke a sense of mystery.
Thrill-seekers can quite literally ‘fly’ between the two villages via the Volo dell’Angelo (Flight of the Angel) zip-wire, which runs between Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa. But this is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It is one of the longest and fastest zip-wires to be found anywhere on earth. There are two lines, so it is possible to begin from either village. The longer of the two is the Linea Paschiere, which starts in Castelmezzano and is 1452 metres long, reaching speeds of around 120 kilometres an hour.

Back on solid ground, there are some lovely towns to be found around Mount Vulture. The medieval town of Melfi is surrounded by Norman walls and features a Norman Castle. It is known for its cultivation of chestnuts of exceptional quality, called Marroncino IGP. They are regarded as being among the best chestnuts in Italy.
Venosa is another notable town at the foot of Mount Vulture. Here, visitors can find the region’s largest monastic complex, the Abbazia della Santissima Trinità. Also important is the Holy Trinity Church, which is adorned with beautiful frescoes and mosaics.

Over in the province of Matera is one of the region’s most well known and peculiar attractions – the Sassi di Matera. Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1993, the sassi are a series of cave dwellings that were dug into the limestone of a chalky plateau. They sit on top of each other, with the top of each level serving as the base for the next. UNESCO describes the unique setting as “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region, perfectly adapted to its terrain and ecosystem.”

Dubbed the ‘Second Bethlehem’, Matera’s sassi were even chosen by Mel Gibson as the location for his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.

These sassi are believed to have been inhabited since the Palaeolithic period, with the first settlements dating back to around 7000 B.C.

During the 8th century, the sassi were used by communities of monks, who made their homes inside existing sassi and even built many new ones. They also transformed sassi into hermitages, crypts and churches.

Several elaborate churches now lie hidden beneath rocky unassuming façades, such as the Church of San Pietro Barisano, the Church of Santa Lucia delle Malve, the Rupestrian Complex of Santa Barbara and San Nicola dei Greci.

It is also possible to stay inside one of these sassi, with many that have been converted into luxurious hotels.

Though its location and terrain have made it somewhat challenging to reach by tourists in the past, Basilicata is the ideal destination for the discerning traveller, looking to experience an Italy like no other. Its sights and attractions are truly unique, and its food and wine a delight to the palate. In this Southern Italian treasure called Basilicata, mystery, nature, history and mouth-watering cuisine are beautifully combined.

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