Monday, August 31, 2015

A Tale of Witches and Spiders

A Tale of Witches and Spiders
    Driving back and forth between Calitri and Avellino, we’d passed the sign many times.  Though interested, we had never stopped.  Curiosity got the better of us, however, the day we dropped off visiting family members at the airport.  The day had had a hard time getting started.  Gloomy rain-grey clouds rankled its beginning, trying to stifle its early morning rays.  Its mood was catchy.    
    Though Maria Elena’s tears at their departure had stopped, the house would now seem empty.  Sad to see them go, we needed a pick-me-up, and fast.  We had the time, actually seven more weeks, so as we got closer this time, why not explore?  All we needed was to find the place off in the countryside, beyond some forgotten exit, along the SS7 well-traveled Ofantina. 

     Pass it as many times as we had, you would think one of us would by then have had some idea where the sign was, but we didn’t.  We looked for it around each turn.  You know how that goes – it seems to take forever, the kilometers ticking by at a snail’s pace.
The Montella – Bagnoli Irpino Valley

     From Calitri, by my count, there are two major valleys to cross before you get to Avellino.  After passing the lake near Conza, the first valley is a sprawling agrarian meadowland.  Small farms peppered with colorfully painted homes with golden hayfields for backyards and every-so-often a huddle of grazing cows, dot the landscape.

    The second valley of even greater majesty is simply spectacular no matter the time of year.  Topping a ridge, it stretches out before us as we descend into its bowl-like basin with the towns of Montella and Bagnoli rising in chestnut laden forests to the left.   Cresting the valley from its eastern slope, a superbly engineered bridge on towering supports is visible at its lowest point, a spot where, if I could but throw a marble out the window, it would come to rest.  We knew our exit couldn’t be far from there.

    We finally found it just beyond what we refer to as the one-way gas station.  Climbing out of the chestnut valley, the station comes up on you fast.  With each passing, we recall watching it being constructed years ago.  It was planned big and built bigger.  What with all the timbers, stonework and a grandiose paved parking lot, we at first suspected it would be a roadside restaurant.  Maybe, before plans changed, that had been the idea.  Whether they had or not, what the world didn’t need was another gas station --- another restaurant, however, is a different, more welcomed story.  But that’s what materialized, a gas station.  Funny thing is, there is but one entrance and only from the direction of Calitri.  Coming from the opposite direction, there is a ‘do not enter’ symbol and though I’ve never violated its sanction, the rogue in me has been known to u-turn on the road in order to enter from the proper direction.  I’m quick about it though, and thankfully in the process, haven’t yet met any Carabinieri.  You can now appriciate why we call it the one-way gas station. 

    The hardest part proved finding the exit.  From there it was easy, with the next sign indicating just 200 meters to go.  With all those kilometers behind us, what was another 200 meters!  We found La Cascina del Saba, a cozy combination restaurant, bar and pizzeria, in the heart of a wooded area known as the Morroni forest, just off the main road.  Yes, what better place to sooth a melancholy spirit than a gastronomic cathedral?  At least we hoped it would be.  Signs easily directed us into a parking area, but not before we spoke to two men cutting brush on the side of the entrance road.  We were please to learn, on that early afternoon, that it was open.

    The Saba revolves around its owner, Rosa Aurilia.  We met her as she stood behind the bar just inside the door.  There was something about her that went beyond simply business.  In her early fifties, her world clearly centered on the kitchen.  By the time we left, I’d pretty much discovered her genuineness and enthusiasm lay in what she did.  She was proud of what she had created since 1993.  It isn’t an empire of fast-food places, just this one cozy spot in the forest where slow-food is the order of the day, every day.  We learned that homemade or homegrown were her standards --- everything from double-zero farina flour for her handmade pastas (water, no eggs) to fresh vegetables were locally sourced, many from her own garden’s bounty.
    Lucky for us, sitting at the end of the bar when we’d entered was a man who was just finishing a bowl of gelato.  Most likely, Luciano had eaten lunch there and was just finishing up.  Thankfully, he
The La Cascine del Saba’s Bar
took an interest in my halting Italian and gladly played interpreter.  He turned out to be a vacuum cleaner rep for the American Rainbow Company, working out of nearby Altripalda. 
With his help we learned that the Saba was created from a century old farmhouse, with some rooms fashioned from converted stables --- feed troughs were still visible in the dining room.  We were given a tour. 
The dining room lay through a doorway from the bar that because of its thickness was more like a tunnel.  The room had a rectangular shape with its long side adjacent to the parking area.  Telling from the outside, I was expecting something rustic, maybe with wooden beams and rough stucco walls, since the exterior had an alpine look about it.  Instead, modernity had struck.  What with its white slip-on chair covers and tablecloths, it looked formal, waiting for a wedding.  A saving grace was the
An Accordion Awaits an Evening of Music
beautiful stone fireplace that dominated the room.  I’m sure its hearth helped create a ch arming family atmosphere on cold winter nights.  An accordion on the mantle only helped to emphasize this point.
Its name, Cascina, confused us at first, which is pretty easy to do, for it seemed a combination of the words --- Casa (home) and Cucina (kitchen or cooking).  Do Italians play word games like this?  Combination maĆ®tre d’ and sometime waiter, Roberto, soon cleared things up for us.  Cascina really meant ‘little house’.  As for the Saba part, that’s a little more difficult to explain.  It had to do with the Strega, who to the Italian people is a witch.

    In 1890, Charles Leland published a book entitled Aradia: Gospel of the Witches.  Among its pages he wrote:
“If there was ever a place where nothing is as it seems, where tradition and superstition overlap with history and religion, where piety and respectability rub shoulders with profanity and corruption it is Italy.  The country that now hosts the seat of Catholicism, the Vatican, is also the territory from which the cult of witchcraft originated and still preserves a clandestine presence.”
As Leland described, Italy was once a place of superstition, influenced by its pagan past.  Little has changed.  Take for example belief in the Santa-like, broom wielding, Befana.  La Befana, said derived from the Roman dialect's pronunciation of the Italian Epifania (The Feast of Epiphany), is a friendly witch who delivers gifts to good children and lumps of coal to bad ones.  Interestingly, Italy substitutes this pagan derived witch for the Christian saint and not on the Christian celebration of 25 December, but instead on 6 January.  It seems that just beneath the modern veneer of Italian bella figura, there remains a tendency to revert to magical traditions, like witchcraft, to explain the seemingly unexplainable.
    Whether folk legend or truth, or somewhat of both, the story goes that there was once a strega who lived in this area of the Morroni forest.  I can think of a few witch types, like the Hansel & Gretel forest witch or the Sleeping Beauty queen-turned-witch who trafficked in apples.  You get the picture.  Actually, out beside the Saba parking lot, in a grove walnut trees, was the location Roberto pointed to in evidence.  There, among the walnut trees, was the actual site of these witchy shenanigans.  Apparently, as he explained, there was some connection with walnut trees, believed sacred to Italian witches.
    The Saba witch was reportedly from Benevento, a large city farther north.  Coincidently, but then maybe not, the Italian liquor, Strega, comes from Benevento.  After first tasting Strega while in
      Our Calitri Strega Box Cover

England, no less at the home of an elderly Italian woman, we have since purchased a bottle. I must be a pagan heathen, for at home in the States we have the smiling, vine coiffed Roman god of wine, Bacchus, on the kitchen wall, and in Calitri, an equally attractive likeness of the Strega from a box of Liquore Strega on a kitchen shelf.  Either we’re mildly pagan or we drink a lot!  Removed from the box, a close inspection of the label on the Strega bottle clearly depicts a group of semi-naked women hand-in-hand with male satyrs dancing around the base of a tree.  A Medusa-like, snake-headed old woman sporting a broom over her shoulder, with an owl as her companion, completes the graphic.  Could this be a walnut tree?  It certainly looked like one.  On a whim I checked of the liqueur’s ingredients.  Disappointed, I found 

  A Close Look at the Strega Label
that it  did not indicate the presence of any walnut extract.   Interestingly though, it did contain costly saffron, which helps explain its color.  Clearly, Roberto was spot-on about witchcraft and the special nature of this tree.
    Who knows, this may have been the Benevento women’s summer home or country retreat.  People can do funny things when away, enjoying the anonymity of their ‘awayness’.  So why not, as reported of this forest strega, dance naked around a fire and howl like a wolf at a full moon, representative of the pagan goddess, Diana?  Here I conjure up a diminutive Rumpelstiltskin-like character romping about a fire.  I’ve seen worse in some bars!  Word spreads of the unusual behavior, and once upon a time, like the girls of Salam, she may have unfortunately been dubbed a witch, her actions deemed stregheria (Italian witchcraft).  Then again, her actions may have been innocent and simply misconstrued.  Thus went the derivation of Saba in La Cascina del Saba, in essence, the Little House of the Witch.
      Continuing our tour, the upstairs dining room retained its classic appeal.  Farm implements served as decorations and the beamed ceiling and checkered tablecloths spoke of simpler pastoral times.  The striking difference in the two rooms was apparently due to regulation.  Someone in government thought beams promoted dust, which could then rain down on the food!  We had noticed this type of creeping intrusion earlier in a Calitri restaurant.  When we’d asked for oil and vinegar cruets, instead of the traditional tray that comes along with salt and pepper shakers, we received plastic rip-open packets --- some with oil, others for vinigar, and little paper envelopes of salt and pepper.  We were told these changes were due to new rules from on high, introduced for health reasons.  Poisoned by cruet?  Get serious.  Don’t they have better things to do?  In addition to keeping government out of the bedroom, I vote they stay out of the Italian kitchen and dining room as well!
     Looking over the menu, La Cascina del Saba serves yummy cuisine typical of the local area.  With help from sous-chef Elena, Rosa’s dishes feature seasonal ingredients from the surrounding Montemarano countryside, served fresh daily.  For appetizers, the bill of fare included local cheeses, sausage and surprisingly, omelets.  Tasty pasta dishes are accented with locally gathered mushrooms and truffles.  A must-try is the tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms, or if you prefer, truffles.  There’s also handmade cavatelli maccaronara, thick and spaghetti-like, with red suace.  For bigger appetites, go for the bucatini pasta with cheese and egg stuffed rabbit.  For something slightly different, try the variation of chicken stuffed with cheese and eggs, again served with the traditional maccaronara.  Second plate meat dishes featured pork, chicken, rabbit.  Eggs and rabbit seemed to be mainstays on the menu.  Hard to believe, considering how far inland we were, but excellent seafood specialties were also available.  For lesser appetites, Antonio, the pizzaiuolo, will design you your favorite pie.  We were just stopping by for a look-see so we’d need to return to sample the fare beyond these descriptive, though tantilizing, words.
    There was another important facet to this place, in fact, the entire region.  A secret also lies in its wine, so important to its economy.  Here, the liquid nector from their sun collecting vineyards, is
 Montemarano Taurasi
Taurasi wine, made from the Aglianico grape --- a grape historically linked to the area since the Greeks settled the region millenia ago.  I still boast it is  my favorite.  Years ago, when we’d first become enthrawled with Italy, it was in a book by Carla Capalbo, entitled The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (everyone should have one), where among other things, I was introduced to a man described as a “wind-wrinkled” wine entreperneur.  He is fourth generation farmer, Salvatore Molettieri, who since 1983 has been a traditional vitner of Taurasi right there in Montemarano.  In addition to the sun, soil and temperature of Montemarano’s micro-climate, aging, concentration and tannins come together in this DOCG wine.  Like Rosa, another traditionalist at heart, he is willing to improve on the ancient knowledge handed down over the centuries, generation to generation, with modern insights.  Now state-of-the-art steel vats sit alongside barriques, tonneaux and oak casks.   His Cinque Querce vineyard is the flagship of the estate.  It is his Fort Knox, for it is in this vineyard that a selection of local, ungrafted, Aglianico grapes are grown.  Quality is always paramount.  To achieve it, Salvatore  goes as far as to increase the spacing between vines.  This production technique, while it may lower grape yields, fosters the sought-for higher quality.

    His winery’s Taurasi Riserva Vigna Cinque Querce, with its unique almost moody taste, is king.  Taurasis is as Carla’s book says “... a wine you don’t get tired of, that becomes even more dignified as it ages.”  On that first visit to the Saba, I bought a 2008 bottle of this ‘dignified’ Molettieri Taurasi for 20 Euros.  In the ‘Little Italy’ North End of Boston, it would easily go for over $80!  To describe it accurately is a challenge.  It has an intense ruby red color.  Sip it and it is warm, fat, persistent and opulent, yet fresh and sapid, its tannins tightly knit.  I’m seriously thinking of leaving my clothes behind and filling my suitcase with the stuff.  Maybe just enough clothes to wrap the bottles.  I think Maria Elena will do the same, but with cheese!
    August in Calitri sees many festivals, code word for block parties and good times.  The 6th was Musica e Centro Storico, the 9th saw XVIII Giornata di Solidarieta – Il Mercatino Gastronomico, the 18th was Festa di Vicinato, and on the 22nd, the special get there early pasta bash, Sagra dei Cingul, in the square outside the Immacolata Church, to mention a few.  If that isn’t enough, other area towns and villages have their equivalent sagri and festivals.  Luckily we’d stopped at La Cascina del Saba at the right time, for Rosa explained that in addition to the food, the wine and the tradition of the Straga associated with the Saba, there is a musical tradition as well.  Its rhythm unites the Montemaranesi.  It is the rebellious cadence of the Tarantella, a popular Irpinian folkdance she claims began in the hill-town of Montemarano and has been copied ever since.  She handed us a flier for the annual Tarantella Carnival, just around the corner, and we made plans, right then, to attend.  
    Nothing, starting with dinner, ever seems to begin before 9 pm in Italy.  With some padding, we arrived at the festival, some weeks later, around 10 pm.  It was the second night of the festival.  The streets of the Montemarano’s centro storico made a perfect venue to host the evening’s music and spirited dancing.  Its interwoven thread of narrow passages swallowed any light and served to link the evenings entertainments together.  Wandering the streets, various squares, small and large, materialized from the stony shadows of the labyrinthine.  Each held its own performers, whose music was filtered from the next by the walls and the turns that separated them.  Street venders served-up wine and tended to hungry appetites.  Hundreds of fellow visitors roamed along with us.  It was evident that the entire affair had been well throught-out, no doubt with years of rehersal. 
    Now the origin of the legendary Tarantella dance can be traced to a popular folkloric dance related to the tarantula spider.  The dance was thought to serve as a curative from the poisonous effects of a tarantula’s bite.  Its adherents believed that those bitten should rely on a music therapy for healing.  It was thought that the rhythms of a certain type of music related to pagan deities and the ruckus associated with their fast pace, would generate sufficient sweat to purge the spider’s poison from the body.  I guess they hadn’t thought of sucking the venom from the wound as is done for a snakebite.  Instead, movement was deemed essential, whereas with a snakebite, it is thought best to remain still to slow the poison’s progress.  There would seem to be the issue of the availability of the music when you happened to need it following a bite, however.  If anyone had recently been bitten, we soon realized they’d be cured, this night, especially.  The remedy hung in the air.

    As with any main event, there are preliminaries.  Early on, we came upon a two man ensemble in the elbow of a turn in the street.  One thumped a bongo type instrument producing a shrill metallic
Kasbah Duo
sound, his companion matched his beat on a bigger-than-a-mandolin, gourd shaped, electric guitar.  I guessed they were African, possibly Moroccan, telling from their colorful vests and the wild rhythms of their

Celtic Folk Music Musicians
Kasbah like beat.  Pulses were running high even then --- a woman caught in the spirit, writhed and twisted to their beat in the street.

    A few turns later, we emerged in a piazza to the entertainment of Emian Pagan Folk.  Had we entered a warped window in time?  In full medieval regalia, they performed Celtic music and sang in cadenced verse.  Their faces were lined with dots, their robes accented with fur, their beards and hair wildy ascew, their sounds from a harp, bagpipe, tamborin, drums and a portable, hurdy-gurdy, crank operated affair with keys similar to a piano, simply haunting.  Maria Elena and I found a nitch, sat, and listened to their folk-magic hypnotic rhythms.  Closing our eyes and in the tradition of ancient ways, in this ancient place, we stepped out of 2015 and for a moment were transported hundreds beyond a thousand years into the past. 
    We thought we’d heard it all but then came the Taiko Drums, or at least their Italian cousins.  Unlike their Japanese counterparts, here the massive drums were made from what appeared to be  
Italian Taiko Drummers Ignite the Night
wooden barrels, fittingly reminiscent of wine barrels - metal bands, staves and all.  They were made even more palpable by the presence of microphones inside their hollow cavities.  Accompanying these gigantic
percussive behemiths on stage were a series of baton wielding drummers, as well as hammer toting performers, who clanged on strips of metal.  Their primal beat was intoxicating.  Proof of this lay with the people in the surrounding audience.  Some simply bobbed their heads to the beat.  Some pounded along with their feet, while others, in the smoke-filled special effects air, jumped and twirled in helter-skelter abandon.  Electronically amped-up as the band was, we could feel their percussive energy on our chests.  Even the hair on my legs shook from the vibrations they emitted.  Together, their individual instruments turned their savage pounding energy into the marshal-like tempo of musical shock and awe.  I could imagine a Roman legion entering the square at any moment. 
No one had been bitten, but in the thrall of the repeated rhymes and patterns, what catharsis there was, was achieved in the craze of the dance as onlookers capered about in the small ovals of space the crowd would afford them.  The franetic sound of the music had sapped their judgement to restrain themselves.  As the witches of old had thought of the night forest, the size of the crowd shielded them, offering them further anninimity.
    Shortly afterwards, following the razzmatazz of a professional introduction that rivaled something out of Las Vegas and included a recognizable bit of Lion King music, came the Molotov D’Irpina Band.  Their’s were the more conventional instruments of a rock band, which kept the blood pulsing in the audiance. While nowhere as loud as the drummers, they too were explosively entertaining. 
    The evening’s finale was of course reserved for the Tarantella.  We learned that the Montemarano Tarantella, little changed for centuries, had withstood the ravages of time to include the Church’s purge of pagan cultural practices, from which the dance is believed derived.  They needed no stage.  Instead this group of local dancers walked through town to the beat of the Tarantella of course.  Like a master-of-ceremonies, the procession was led by a sort of local Pulcinella, dressed all in white and red.  The dancers themselves, clothed in velvety-grey traditional Montemaranesi costumes, followed in two separate files, men to one side, women to the other.  The men’s high socks and capri style pants, along with the women’s shoelaced bodices, gave them an almost alpine appearance.
    Their dance took the form of an animated procession.  Just as it had been with the witches, at times it became circular in shape, moving round and round, in symbolic reference to perfection and protection.  Grouped arm-in-arm, their circular movements sometimes contracted, sometimes expanded.  There was only the rhyme of the music with no voice accompaniment, common with other forms of the Tarantella.  Their music, said to be reminiscent of warrior-priest dances in honor of the god Mars, got faster and the pace quickened to the flick of fingers on a tambourine, the toots of snake-charmer flutes, the clap of wooden castanets and the wheeze of an accordion.  When paired-off, their motions in many ways were suggestive of an American, western style, square-dance.  Though colorful and quaint, I found that it unfortunately lacked the impassioned energy of the drums that had suffused the night with its overbeat.  The earlier performers had apparently poisoned us beyond saving with their infectious rhythms.
    By this time we were entering a
trance-like, almost hypnotic stupor ourselves.  Maybe it was the electric charged atmosphere, maybe the abstraction of the place played a part.  More likely, the

Could these be Witches Brooms on
            this Calitri Town Vehicle?
thought of
the hour-long drive back to Calitri had more to do with it.  Being well past midnight only added to our stupor.  The sign for the Saba well behind us, there was plenty of time on the ride back to reflect on what we’d experienced.  Our little Fiat 500 was shy of any room for much more.  There hadn’t been any Aperol Spritz’ for us this night, instead any buzz had been from the cocktail of sights and sounds we’d discovered.  Like voyeurs in the night, we’d stolen a glimpse into the unbridled, visceral rhythms of traditions, some new, and some older than the stones beneath our feet.
    While the organization of the Tarantella dance had added a touch of decorum to the evening, and the Celtic musicians had seduced us with the natural rhythms of medieval times, it was the endorphin rush from the Italian Taiko drummers that had baptized us in the rite of loud and won our vote as the hit of the evening.  What spiders there may be, there just might be a cure.
    One of the things about travel is that you must move about to experience it.  As movement cures the tarantula’s sting, hopefully, our travels return the favor and unexpectedly move us.  Driving east, bathed in the silver-white glow of a summer moon, our thoughts lingered on tales of the strega, spiders, and the brazen flair of the music that had been so moving.  In search of the Italian experience, we’d once again fallen under Italy's spell … or had it simply been a Saba witches charms
From That Rogue Tourist