Shaffer, Kitt Culture
Dr Kitt Shaffer Shares her Adopted Italian Culture
My adopted culture concerns the Southern part of Italy, in the province of Calabria. We fell in love with the locale when we decided to buy a tiny apartment when on a tour with another couple We have never regretted it. This impulse has given us a chance to learn about the South of Italy, with its wonderful warm people and fabulous food.
One of the most charming things I find is how, despite a very low employment rate at very poor wages, everyone in the town eats very well. They each have a private garden (called an orto) where they grow much of their own food, and most have a storage area in their basements (called a cantina) where they store olive oil (from their own trees), wine (from their own vines), tomato sauce, olives, dried fruit, and many other delicious things. They also harvest things from along side the road, like figs, wild anise (called finoccio), rosemary, and many other herbs. We have participated in making pasta from scratch, making soap, grilling eggplant outdoors, and deep frying savory treats that are a bit like donuts but better (zeppole). With little employment, people can spend much of their time on cooking and eating.
The cultural heritage of Calabria is very diverse including Greek influence from the time that southern Italy and Sicily were considered part of ‘Greater Greece’. There are also Arabic and Albanian influences and many Norman fortresses and castles. This part of Italy is often considered wild and unruly by the rest of the country—a region of bandits and ‘brigande’. We have not encountered any of these villains in our visits, and perhaps it is why the area is relatively unspoiled, with virtually no tourists.
The landscape is amazingly beautiful and wild. Fresh water can be had at many public springs in the hills, and everyone has their own favorite source to go and fill empty cola bottles with icy cold drinking water. The commercial part of the town has many tiny shops, often selling only a few items, so that shopping and cooking becomes an all-day affair. Our house is near the top of the central hill of the town, with streets that include steps (so no motorized vehicles can make it up to our front door), and everything we buy must be carried up about five flights.
We have also participated in a major fall cultural event: the olive harvest. Methods for harvesting vary in different parts of Italy, but in Calabria the trees are often not pruned and harvest involves use of ‘shakers’, which look like very long-handled rakes but with a power unit that causes olives to fall into nets are spread on the ground. Once collected, the mix of olives, leaves and small branches are taken to the local communal press, where hand picking is done to remove debris (although it is said that the taste is improved when a few leaves and branches are left in). What comes out is pure heaven—cloudy, greenish-gold liquid that tastes strongly of the actual olive fruits and is absolutely delicious poured over local bread with just a dash of salt.
We were fortunate enough to spend New Years with Antonio and his family one year at his country house near the top of the hill outside of town. The traditional meal on New Years should include 12 fishes, and Antonio’s wife (who is a fabulous cook) managed to fit all 12 into about five courses. It was an overwhelming meal, followed by sitting out on the terrace and looking out over the valley, from which you can see Mount Etna in Sicily, as well as several of the Aeolian island volcanos out at sea. I feel incredibly fortunate to have friends in this wonderful, isolated place, where everyone has been welcoming and many have taken us into their hearts and treat us like family.