Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Naples has its pizza margherita, Caserta has its buffalo mozzarella and Calitri has its cingul. Cingul is the name of a particular pasta, locally made in Calitri. First, let me help you with the pronunciation, it’s ‘chin-gool”. How it got this name and what the name means, I have no idea but I suspect it is a local dialect for something similar in appearance to cavatelli. Unlike cavatelli, however, it has fewer, simpler ingredients - far easier to come by in hard times. Origins aside, boy does it taste good especially when a thick, tasty tomato sauce is added and it is sprinkled with a dash of ground pepperacino. Be careful though, not too much of the hot stuff!

We were in Calitri once for an entire month and with a month of yesterdays to draw from, I thought I’d try to describe the Cingul Festival, which occurred during our time there. One early morning in Mario's Caffé, just after the quick entry and departure of the man who delivers the cornetta pastry, some with chocolate insides, others with cream or marmalade and the equally swift newspaper delivery man making his rounds, I'd spotted a poster advertizing the festa along with another announcing the upcoming visit of the entertainers "Ricchi & Poveri".

When the day arrived, we started out for the festival early in the evening, using the extra time to explore the tangled streets of the borgo antico. Along the way, we were fortunate to come upon local friends who invited us in for refreshments. Later another family, this one from Rome with Calitri roots, seeing me taking pictures of doorways (subject of an earlier blog), invited us to see what I can only describe as a palazzo. Its multiple levels, tastefully filled with antique furnishings and artwork, extended from the street level where we'd entered to the one above on the sloping mountainside. Lucky for us we'd started out early!

The festival was held in the square in front of the Immaculate Conception Church located in the southern end of the borgo. There was a master of ceremonies of sort. I’m not really sure if he was because most of his words went by me faster than my ability to take them in let alone translate his first sentence. From what I did understand, he introduced each of the pasta makers and from the countdown, it appeared that there was some sort of fun loving competition going on.

The contestants, if they really were contestants, all wore white aprons and shower-cap type head coverings. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a man among them. They took their positions along the outside of a large horseshoe shaped arrangement of tables set up in front of the doors of the church. Each participant had a cutting board before her, which telling from their varied sizes and shapes, they had probably brought from home.

The ingredients they used to make the cingul were simple enough. No secret ingredients either, just double-zero flour and water. One used a bowl in which to stir and kneed the flour and water into dough while the others simply made a well in a circular mound of flour and to this dammed-in area gradually added the water to form a pool.

Once the flour and water had been transformed into a large snowball of dough, there was no setting it aside to let it rise. Without yeast there was no need, besides, people were hungry. Hunks of dough were first formed into lumps resembling small dollhouse sized pillows. The next step was to roll these pillows into foot long 'dough snakes' by hand. These were then cut into smaller chunks, using what any home handyman would call a putty knife, though these were much more fancier in their design and surprisingly all similar. Each dough pellet was now about the size of a piece of ‘Tootsie Roll’ candy or for those of you not familiar with this type of candy, about the size of the tip of your finger to include the fingernail. It was at this point that the magic happened. Using their middle fingers, some using both hands at once like a two-gunned cowboy, each dough pellet was pressed and simultaneously rolled into shells that wrapped around the ends of their fingers. A flick of the hand and they were on to the next. The result was a short, finger-tip-sized, fold of pasta ready to be boiled. It was fascinating to watch their dexterity. These were not amateurs but seasoned moms and ‘nonnas’ who had perfected the technique over a lifetime of preparing freshly made pasta for their families. Could this have accounted for the lack of male contestants? The final product resembled a small seashell closed in on itself. They were similar to gnocchi but made from flour, not potato. When all the flour had been miraculously transformed into cingul, the pasta makers joined hands and from behind their tables began to dance. Had there been a winner? If there had, I missed it.

The menu of items available that evening was straight forward and simple. A poster positioned alongside a table, where colored pieces of paper substituted for cash and became a fake currency good in exchange for each item, explained it all. The featured item of course was Cingul at €4,00 a serving. There was also a Panino con Salsiccia (sausage sandwich) for €3,00. Both of these along with a liter of vino for only €4,00 were, I thought, good values. One final item for €8,00 entitled Cingul + Involtino + Piselle (pasta, a roll and peas) seemed a little costly. Maybe those peas were the size of the giant lemons over by Positano or the bread roll the size of the two kilo loafs made in town. I didn't see any takers of this offering so I can't really explain the seemingly excessive cost. Buying the tickets was a breeze - the fun part of the festival was in getting the food. Food is important to many of us - gourmet to gourmand, but to the Italians it is life itself.

The finished products were served on a first come, first serve basis in a side street adjacent to the church through a convenient side door leading to the basement. The problem was the crowd, packed into that narrow street, had come at once, even before word got around that the pasta was ready. Actually that news only added to the already waiting crowd. There was nothing like a queue of people with a single or couple of people at the head of the line being served. Instead there was all told, I’d estimate, a muddled mass of about one hundred people waving their tickets, all demanding to be served at once what little emerged from the bowels of the church. The problem, I came to understand, was that the church kitchen had only one stove available to boil all this pasta. It was prepared in sporadic dribs and drabs. What was clearly needed was a small miracle on the scale of the biblical ‘loafs and fishes' to multiple the number of kitchen 'cookers' (their term for stoves) and reduce the crowd or at least its appetite. Impatient and hungry, some in the crowd did give up and go elsewhere. One couple gave me their cingul tickets and wished me luck as they headed off. It must have been the determined look on my face and my wry smile because I wasn’t giving up. My height may have given me hope because I could see what was happening up ahead. I had plenty of time waiting there in the capricious crowd to watch who got served and their behavior, which surprisingly resulted in the reward of priority service.

I soon broke the code. If you complained or insisted, your service improved. I guess it goes along with the maxim, "the squeaky wheel gets oiled". Here it had something to do with an Italian's desire to maintain harmony, in this case the appeasers being the overwrought servers. As a firefighter moves quickly to douse each outbreak of new flame, so I observed how these poor, over-tasked, women volunteers attempted to quiet each surge of demand by quenching it with cingul! I thought about shouting something myself but the impulse soon passed.

To give you some idea of how dense-packed the crowd was ... if you were ever unfortunate enough to pass out in this crowd, the good news was that you'd never hit the ground! You could forget about your 'agita' or being anxious with someone inside your personal space. You had no space! Even trying to use a line like “lady with a baby”, however what might translate to get through the crowd, wouldn’t help. So convinced of its hunger, there was no getting through easily even when you tried to depart with your hard-earned booty. Bad though this may sound, I want you to know it was actually a lot of fun - something akin to the dash for the buffet table at a wedding by everyone at once just after the bride and groom take their seats. It was all rather civil with no one throwing an elbow or boxing you out.

This was our first time at this event but something like this had certainly gone on annually for years, if not decades. Could this have been the very first time that the demand and supply curve were so out of whack? As I thought about it, I began to doubt it as the acronym "TII" (This Is Italy) came to mind. This would have made for a great case study in how to prepare and serve large hungry crowds at any hospitality school.

Picnic tables had been arranged along the perimeter of the piazza in front of the church to eat on or to just sit and sag while watching the goings on. Additional tables lining Via San Martino adjacent to the church also filled up with the curious and hungry. Room in the corner of the piazza had been reserved for a band. Small town, small world - the manager of the local CONAD supermarket had told me he'd be playing at the fèsta and there he was, playing the guitar while his father, Benito, who sells newspapers and magazines in town, was transformed into quite the accomplished crooner. Only later did we hear the story of how he'd left Calitri for Argentina years ago. Before he returned to Calitri, 'Roberto Luna', as he was professionally known, had become a successful singer in the Italian community.

This visually striking celebration also gave us an opportunity to make new expat friends when a couple, currently living in Spain, came by. "You're Paolo" they said to my surprise. I may have blushed from the unaccustomed notoriety. They apparently recognized me from these blog postings although I try my best to always stay behind the lens. Old acquaintances, Richie, Debbie, Helen and Giovanna with her pocket sized poodle, Toto, also made the evening special. Later on, the cingul now long gone, as we sat taking in the scene in the church courtyard, a young man came by our table and disregarding her protests, scooped-up Maria Elena. Together they joined in with costumed folkloric dancers and other revelers in a lively dervish and danced in the evening light of a full moon.

We experienced something special. It had been simple but in its own way elegant. That evening had been a charming confluence of culture at its best. The food, music, costumes, dancing, the generosity and boundless good nature of the people all came together into a special evening for the inhabitants of Calitri and especially for us, 'wannabe Calitriani'. For a few hours, I felt off the map, off the grid and off in the past. That night the people of Calitri had met to celebrate a tradition handed down over centuries - a melding of the urges to celebrate and to eat. That they had, even in the fun-loving competitiveness of obtaining their celebrated pasta, Cingul. Andiamo a mangiare (Let's eat)!

From the Serial Traveler,


To watch a short video taken in neighboring AQUILONIA (by www.mcgerry.com) of Cingul being made, click here on CINGUL VIDEO.. Looks easy doesn't it.

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled "Cingul".