Campania – a foodie paradise

I spend a glutinous weekend touring this area of Southern Italy last December: three days of Limoncello, Panettone and mouthwatering pasta and pizza. Choose carefully and you can eat like a King here for relatively little, locals proudly proclaim that it’s “very difficult to eat badly in Campania”

We certainly did alright; our first evening was spent in Salerno, a picturesque port town south of Naples and gateway to the Amalfi coast. In the summer, apparently, you can’t move for busloads of tourists being ferried to and from Amalfi and Ravello. Interestingly, Salerno was the capital of Italy from February to August 1944, after the allies landed it was a temporary administrative base until they captured Rome. Little evidence remains of that today but the historic old town is a must visit, not only for the dark alleyways and passages but the abundance of restaurants. We ate on the seafront, though, as our guide suggested and everything was typically Neapolitan, gusty, robust and filling. As we learned over the weekend, try and mess with the established formulae here at your peril!

Saturday morning was spent in Eboli, our base for the weekend. An ordinary Italian town inland from Salerno (No wonder Christ stopped at Eboli) that nonetheless houses a fantastic food market every Saturday morning. Agriculture is the mainstay of its economy and it showed. If you love an abundance of fresh, local produce then prepare to enter heaven – fresh fish, an endless assortment of cheeses, Acacia honey, meats and enough fruit and vegetables to feed a few hungry sumo wrestlers. The contrast between the simple pleasure of choosing your dinner at this market and queuing at Tesco was painful, sometimes less really is more.

After our third espresso of the day, we set off to a renowned Buffalo Mozzarella factory, La Perla del Mediterraneo. Most Mozzarella we buy in UK supermarkets is made from cow milk but this was the real deal and we even spent an afternoon alongside the Buffalo pen to prove it. Every morning at 5:00am the fresh Buffalo milk is magically transformed into delicious Mozzarella balls, slabs, in fact any shape you could possibly want. When we arrived the production had already finished but what plenty of samples were available, including the most divine fresh pizza, topped with mozzarella only 1 hour ago and panettone. The flavour of fresh buffalo mozzarella is incomparable, a million times more intensity and freshness than the standard supermarket fare.

Lunch was a simple and leisurely affair, served at a local winery, Polito Viticoltori. Simplicity can still be heavenly, if all the ingredients are fresh and they most definitely were. Freshly baked bread, Frittata (Italian omelet) Prosciutto, big dollops of olive oil and mozzarella all hit the spot. The sheer amount of flavour being squeezed out of these ‘taken for granted foods’ was astonishing.

By now, we needed rolling out the winery (thanks Marco) and after thanking our hosts, we headed back to Eboli and the food festival taking place early evening. Eboli celebrated Campania’s local produce in its main square with food stalls, a cookery demonstration and even a Punch and Judy show (not sure about that one) for the bambinos. Italians do love their children don’t they? Everyone we met asked me if I had children, I mused to myself, do I really look that old. My reply of “no, but 6 nephews” seemed to satisfy them. This is not a place to deviate from the set formulae, and not just when standing over the cooking pot.

Winding our way to the top of the medieval old town, we dined at Gattapone, a tiny, charming restaurant built into an old cellar and perfect for smooching with your loved one. The lightening is perfect and the food honest, hearty and plentiful. Try the Lobster Linguine.

All this was very pleasant indeed but what really got our group excited was the prospect of a day on the Amalfi coast. This very enchanting and most visited route in Campania skirts the southern flank of Sorrento’s peninsula and is merely a 40 minute or drive away from Salerno. This is, incidentally, a great base for a day and should include a trip to Ravello and the like, as accommodation won’t break the bank. Our group was slightly skeptical about vising a famed summer resort in December but we are now sworn fans of coming in low season: Less traffic, less tourist and less kids. Heavenly.

The above is an apt description for Ravello, a fairytale village that sits above Amalfi offering peace and quiet and unrivaled views of the coast. Before you reach heaven, though, prepare for a bit of hell if you suffer from vertigo. The journey from Eboli to Ravello is terrifyingly spectacular, a narrow road that takes you up and over the top of the mountain side and then drops you into Ravello. It’s a good job the driver knew what he was doing as we had never seen so many blind corners and sharp bends in our lives.

What could be better than touring the beautiful gardens of the Villa Cimbrone in peace? Not a soul apart from our small group of 4! The Villa dates back to the 11th century AD and was lovingly restored by the British Banker Ernest Beckett, who brought the then derelict farmhouse in 1904. Today the Villa is run as a hotel with the gardens open to the public. I imagined groups of tourists staring out from the Belvedere across the bay and felt privileged to be there alone. It’s a sight to behold.

Coming back down to earth, we enjoyed a popular Amalfi pastime and dined on locally caught grilled fish at Ristorante Marina Grande in Amalfi. The coast’s largest town was actually a maritime power before it was subdued in 1131 by Kind Roger of Naples who didn’t like the competition. There are plenty of good restaurants in Amalfi, far more than in Ravello or Positano in fact and make sure to have an espresso in the Piazza Duomo, a great people watching spot!

It’s true; time does go faster if you are enjoying yourself. No sooner had we arrived than we were heading back to Eboli on that terrifying stretch of costal road. Our final treat was pasta stuffed with ricotta, chestnuts, and honey at Il Panigaccio in Eboli. By far the best dinner we enjoyed during our stay and if you make the trip out to his distinctly non-touristy town, eat at Panigaccio and you won’t be disappointed.

To think, I questioned the wisdom of visiting this foodie Paradise in winter. If you are not too bothered about getting a tan then I cannot imagine an easier time to enjoy than the southern coast of Italy. The weather is usually dry and pleasant enough (between 10-12 degrees), the number of other tourists negligible and the coastline just as spectacular. Leave the summer months to the hordes and pay a visit this February, before everyone else clues in that this is really the best time to enjoy Amalfi, Ravello and Mozzarella on tap.

Restaurants in Eboli:

Gattapone
Il Panigaccio
Hotels in Ravello:

Villa Cimbrone

 

James Lawrence

James Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to decanter.com and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, thewineremedy.com In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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