Cultural and Culinary Immersion in the Italian Countryside

Professor Kolette Draegan

Southern Italy begins to cool in early November with a little mist, a little rain, and a little sun. Our adventure began on Sunday early afternoon with a drive up to Casa Gregorio nestled in the village of Castro dei Volsci. On November 3rd, 2019, three faculty, four students, and six community members ascended to this small hilltop medieval village in the Italian countryside about sixty miles southeast of Rome. Our home for the week was an historic residence of nobility, renovated by owner and visionary, Gregory Aulensi. On our first day, Gregory welcomed us into his home as though we were dear friends. Each and every staff member matched this warmth and hospitality.

Shortly after settling into our bedrooms throughout Palazzo Gregorio, we embarked on a walking tour of our new neighborhood to learn some history of Castro dei Volsci. Set atop the village overlooking the Ciociaria valley, stands Mamma Ciociara, a monument to the women who protected themselves and their daughters from violence and rape at the hands of French soldiers during World War II and after the Battle of Monte Cassino.

We also had a chance to tour the village church and were introduced to the patron saint, St. Olivia. According to local legend, Saint Olivia shielded Castro dei Volsci and her inhabitants against bombings from Allied forces, saving the village from total destruction.

Each of the next fours days was filled to the brim with stunning vistas, rich history, generous people, and delicious food. Each day consisted of morning to late afternoon tours with a mix of local culture and history, followed by course-themed cooking classes, and concluded with a group dinner in one of the Casa’s stunning, thoughtfully decorated rooms.

On Monday, we traveled to the town of Arpino, birthplace of Cicero and known as land of the “Olives.” We met Vincenzo Di Folco, an olive grower, who spent time teaching us about the cultivation of olive trees in order to produce the best extra virgin olive oil. He gave us a tour of his family’s frantoio, traditional olive oil mill, then invited us to his family estate where he hosted an olive oil tasting and served us a farm-to-table family-style lunch.

Our historical tour for the day was Torre di Cicerone, rumored to belong to the family of Cicero. We had time to stroll the grounds, take photos, and enjoy the scenery and architecture.

Upon returning to the Casa, we had a little time to rest up before our first cooking class: dessert! Our hands-on instruction, led by head chef, Valerio Giorgi, included dough-making techniques, cookies, biscotti, and cannoli. We learned about the particular characteristics and proper handling of eggs and flours as we made delectable treats.

Tuesday’s activities were drenched in local traditions, history, and of course, food. Our first stop of the day was the town’s local farmer’s market. Residents come to purchase everything from cheese and herbs to clothing and cooking tools. These weekly markets are also an important part of village life where people visit and exchange news.

The next stop was all about cheese! Some folks were surprised to learn that buffalo mozzarella is made from the milk of water buffalo. While visiting Ponte di Legno, an award winning caseificio (cheese factory), we had the chance to get up close and personal with the farm’s water buffalo then sample and hear about the process and culture of making fresh buffalo mozzarella. We were quickly learning how important a role food plays in Italian life and culture. As participant John Tyler describes, “Seeing where the food was produced (olive vineyards, water buffalo ranches) and learning about the mindset behind the production process gave me a broad context from which to appreciate the ingredients and care put into their preparation.”

After our morning cheese tasting, we ventured to an historical delight: the Abbey of Fossanova, a famous Cistercian Gothic monastery built in the 12th century where St. Thomas Aquinas died. Our guide, Andrea, started our visit with a bit of history then set us free to explore the grounds and enjoy the beautiful architecture.

Our last stop of the day was Terracina, a small seaside town along the Appian Way. Some of us shopped or enjoyed gelato from a local gellateria. All of us took off our shoes and socks to dip our toes in the Tyrrhenian Sea with the Temple of Jupiter Anxur looming overhead. Towering above the town and perched on the edge of a cliff, this structure dates back to the first century B.C.E. After enjoying a lunch of shrimp and pasta while watching the waves crash on the shore, most of us napped on the drive home.

Well rested and eager to learn, our cooking lessons this evening were all about antipasti, which literally means “before the meal.” My favorite was the suppli, or stuffed rice balls. We made two versions: tomato risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella and what I can best describe as mac’n’cheese balls. Delicioso! Coming in a close second were the delicate stuffed squash blossoms, followed by melanzane rollatini. There was no shortage of delectable bites to sample as we dinned in the kitchen, enjoying the rewards of our labor.

Wednesday we headed off to the town of Guarcino, famous for its prosciutto. First, though, we stopped at Nero Caffé for an espresso, some candy shopping, and a lesson in Italian coffee micro-roasting. Once we arrived to the prosciuttificio, we learned that prosciutto must be cured for eighteen months. Walking through the curing rooms, we came to understand the system of rotation and temperature control needed to produce the regions finest cured meats. With mouths watering, we headed back upstairs to the little market for a picnic lunch. Each of us had the chance to decorate our own prosciutto sandwich with various tapenades, spreads, cheeses, and marinated vegetables. Stuffed in mind, body, and spirit, most of us napped on the drive back home.

Our evening cooking lessons and feast were all about primi piatti, or first course. Traditional Italian meals begin with a pasta course (and yes, they have salad last!). I volunteered for sauce duty; with the playful guidance of Chef Valerio, I made a traditional tomato sauce and a vodka sauce. My take-away: when in doubt, add more olive oil! In addition to sauces, we all got to try our hand at making two kinds of pasta dough from scratch. Valerio taught us how to balance flour and moisture to achieve the perfect consistency. He was also attentive to suggest how we might modify recipes back home where the same ingredients are not readily available. We kneaded for what seemed like hours then made a variety of pastas: fettuccini we cut into squares for Italian Wedding soup as well as tortelloni we rolled, pressed, cut, and stuffed with cheese. Buon appetito!

Thursday began with a long drive up to the Abbey of Montecassino, built in honor of Saint Benedict. Our guide, Giuseppe, spent time conducting World War II history tours in the area and gave us quite the lesson as we wound our way up the mountain. We learned that this site was a key point during the Italian Campaign of World War II known as the Winter Line; Allied forces repeatedly bombed the Abbey in attempts to gain control from Axis forces, eventually reducing it to rubble. I also learned that atop this mountain, which sits at over 1,700ft altitude and overlooks the entire valley, was an ancient, pre-Christian temple to the god, Apollo. As I explored the grounds, I could have sworn I was on Mount Olympus!

After a winding ride down, we met up with Valeria at La Ferriera to learn about Atina’s wines, which are famous for delicious Cabernet and other red varietals. The central property for La Ferriera used to be a foundry; they have retained much of the original building and the grounds are stunningly beautiful. Valeria taught us the location’s history as she gave us a tour of the property. She then showed us around the cellar before guiding us through a food-paired tasting of their wine.

For lunch, we journeyed into the town of Atina to partake in a three-course meal surrounded by antique winery relics at Le Cannardizie, a restaurant in the Old Cantina Visochhi. As became our custom, most of us napped on the drive home.

Cooking lessons this night focused on secondi piatti, or second course. In American culture, we know this as “main course.” Our secondi piatti was pork loin scaloppini with apples in a white wine lemon sauce. Valerio also taught us how to make cannelloni using pasta we had all made the night before, topped with my red sauce. To complete the cannelloni, culinary student Jack volunteered to make the Béchamel sauce following Gregory’s Nonna’s recepie. We also made our dessert course for the evening: Zuppa Inglesia. Despite the English name, this is a traditional Italian custard dessert.

The setting for Thursday night’s dinner continued our wine theme from the day and was perhaps my favorite. The staff meticulously set our table in the frantoio underneath the casa where, according to Gregory, “in the 16th century, horses turned the old stone wheel to mash the region’s olives and produce olive oil.”

Friday’s itinerary was a deviation from the previous days. In preparation for our early departures the next morning, we had more time to relax and pack. Our lessons began with a morning pizza dough demonstration by Chef Valerio. We learned about yeast, temperature, and time for making the perfect pizza dough. Many of us took advantage of the leisure morning to explore Castro dei Volsci more and visit some of the bottegas or artisan shops. We met back in the main kitchen for a lunch pizza party. Beginning with the staff, everyone made her own individual size pizza, choosing from a selection of fresh local traditional toppings. After rolling out the dough and topping my creation with salsiccia and zucchini, Pietro slid it into the massive wood-fired pizza oven for 90 seconds. I gave it a hearty drizzle of balsamic glaze, sliced it up, and presented my creation to the group. Collectively, we made over two dozen pizzas! What a party.

They value their history. They value their food. They value socialization with food and wine. As a history nerd and food-lover, every day was perfect in every way. —Heather Moulton, CAC faculty and participant

No trip to Italy would be complete without limoncello. To teach us the art of making lemoncello, Gregory brought in the folks from Sarandrea Liquoreria. Even though Valerio had to help translate, I think we all learned the tips and tricks to make our own Italian liquor at home. Check out my blog for the recipe and further chronicling the trip at https://centralaz-italy2019.blogspot.com/

Grazie mille to Gregory and the staff at Casa Gregorio for an unforgettable, life-changing experience!