I was now ready to stir. I dug a spoon into the pot with strained tomatoes, beef, and sausage that had been simmering for two hours. The rich red mahogany color of the stew and its savory smell took me back to Newark, New Jersey. Outside, however, I was captivated by the sight of water buffalo roaming on the green grasses and bringing me back to the moment.
Although I was far away from the place where I first tried this sauce, I was paradoxically close to its source: a southern Italian farmhouse. This is where you will find the best Italian food, such as this ragu Napoletano (tomato-and-meat sauce) and pizza.
My husband and I met in Paestum, an ancient city that was founded as a Greek colony about 600 B.C. Arthur Schwartz is an American cookbook author, teacher, and former host of New York’s “Food Talk” radio program. Schwartz hosts groups on week-long culinary vacations. These include cooking classes, visits to the nearby Naples and Salerno, as well as wineries, restaurants, and farm visits. The trip was a great experience for me, a grandchild Italian immigrant.
It is located on the green, fertile Sele Plain in Campania, an hour and a quarter south of Naples. The setting is peaceful and unspoiled. Visitors come to Paestum to see its main attraction, the three most well-preserved Greek temples in Europe. Then they move on.
Our trip allowed us to get deep into the heart of the town, including its food, farms, and most importantly, its people. Arthur, who has been visiting this region for over 30 years and learning from the cooks and making new friends with the locals, was able to open the doors for us.
Arthur was a friend of mine through his book “Naples at Table”, which I had read critically and was praised as a “bible” of regional cooking history, history, and lore. It also contained recipes for Nana’s favorite dishes, some of which I hadn’t seen written down, and many more. It was an overwhelming urge to get on a plane after reading his passionate coverage of the region.
Baronessa Cescilia Bellelli Bartta was Arthur’s host. She was as down-to-earth and humble as Arthur, despite her regal title. Cecilia is the owner and operator of Tenuta Seliano, her guest farmhouse or agriturismo. We ate and stayed at this place. Three 18th-century stone farm buildings have been transformed into guest accommodation amid fields of escarole and fennel.
The turreted section of one of the buildings looked like a fairytale from the outside. It was as cold inside as a dungeon, but the warm old-world ambiance it had from Cecilia’s antique collection and its mahogany bed & armoire gave it an airy feel.
The downstairs dining room was where we spent most of our time. Long family tables created a cozy setting for delicious and lively mealtimes. Cecilia’s farms provided most of the food we ate, from the Buffalo steaks to the fig marmalade for breakfast to the Buffalo steaks.
My classmate, Flo, said, “Taste it, you won’t believe it,” as she passed me a plate filled with amozzarella di Bufala, a fresh stringy-textured white cheddar cheese made from whole buffalo dairy. Flo, her husband, and another couple, all from Long Island, New York, had made the same trip last year. They watched me take a bite, and then swooned as I savored the creamy fresh burst in their mouths. Ken, Flo’s husband laughed. “That’s nothing compared with what you’ll experience tomorrow at the buffalo farm.”
Ken was not kidding. We visited a caseificio the next morning, one of many mozzarella de bufalafactories Paestum is famous for. The men were busy in the brightly lit room, stirring hot milk vats. While the women chatted around a tub, they completed the process by pulling and stretching the white thickening mozzarella and then braiding it. It was the day that I first tasted mozzarella in its raw state. This was a memorable moment for me.
Arthur and Cecilia could be considered brother and sister as a couple. They are both in their 50s with expressive faces and an unrelenting enthusiasm to share their vast knowledge of Campania’s cuisine.
Arthur’s Brooklyn-born-and-bred sense of humor made us instantly feel at ease and eager for more. Cecilia is the epitome of multi-tasking, gracious businesswoman. Cecilia was teaching a class and supervising the cook assistants. She even arranged a car service for a classmate, who wanted to visit San Fele, a mountain town an hour away, where her grandparents were born.
The class took place in Cecilia’s large, white-tiled, renovated kitchen at Masseria Eliseo where she raises water Buffalo. Each student was given a printed copy of the day’s recipes, tied to our apron, and the party started with Arthur.
As we mixed and stirred in our well-equipped kitchen, it was a team effort to create a lunch of risotto and prosciutto (salty, air-dried, raw Italian ham), mozzarella, escarole, pine nuts, olives and pannacotta (which literally means “cooked cream”), which is a chilled dessert.
Making timballo, a Campanian traditional pastry drum filled with macaroni and meats, was what truly connected us. Arthur said that there are 24 variations of this recipe. In the 1996 film “Big Night”, starring Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci and others, a detailed rendition oftimballo was shown. The chefs were obsessed with it for days and its presentation was the movie’s climax.
Arthur’s version was simpler but required 20 steps. First, make the ragu napoletano. Next, make the pastry crust. Then, grate, chop, and saute the filling ingredients. Two of the cookies we made were sent to Tenuta Seliano for baking. They would then be served with othertimaballi prepared by regular cooks at the agriturismo. Ours would not be as distinguished from student efforts, I hoped.
We gathered with more than 100 party guests that night — Cecilia’s family, friends and Italian visitors. Everyone at the table grabbed their cameras to capture the moment as the timballo was being served. After spooning the ragu on our wedges, we all savored it and congratulated each other for a great job. Arthur’s friend rushed to our table and delivered the verdict that I had been waiting for. It was straight from Baronessa Cescilia’s brother in law: “Franco loved”
We enjoyed prosecco (a sparkling wine that is refreshingly sparkling) and danced around the tables. I was surrounded by people who could be mistaken for my relatives from so many years ago. I felt a surge of joy as they smiled at me with joyful approval. I had found my way back towards the source.
Four times per year, “Cook At Seliano Culinary Vacations” is held. The cost is US$ 3500 for room, meals, classes, and side trips. Airfare is not included.
Italian State Tourist Board