Just about this time last year we were taking a day out in Gambarie, a small ski resort in the Aspromonte mountains, not forty minutes drive from the beaches of Reggio. At the right time of the year you can wake up and choose whether you spend the day on the beach in swimming shorts or take a right turn into the mountains for a day’s skiing. However, at the tail-end of summer we were driving through the forest, passing columns of Apé vans parked up and creaking with giant melons and soft peaches whilst their rough-bronzed owners sat by cardboard price lists offering nectar for a few centesimi. A scented recipe of pine, campfire smoke and sausages drifted through the trees from the picnickers who’d arrived at some unearthly hour in the morning to enjoy the sweet and sour pleasures of woodland dining. I wasn’t concentrating, I needed a pee…badly!
“Just drive along a little further and I’m sure you’ll find it a little quieter.” Suggested Maria. “Find a tree.” Sure enough once we were round a few corners and I was certain there weren’t any more secret campers around I pulled off the road and onto a little dirt track. Leaping out the car with the engine running, I dived into the undergrowth and twisted along till I found what I was sure was a safe spot. Big tree, lots of bushes and no picnics. AaaaaaH! I let a smile play across my lips in my reverie. Aaaaah!
“What the…!” Cold fear took over from relief. Something hot and very wet suddenly touched the back of my neck, I froze for a moment. It was the loud, gruff snort which made me jump out of my skin and destroy my aim. I bolted, simultaneously trying to zip, run and shake my left leg as I hopped and tripped, petrified back to the car, thanking heaven for having left the engine running. As I clambered into the car and slammed it into reverse I managed a quick glance back. My assailant stood at the edge of the trees, head tilted slightly to one side frowning at me and chewing slowly on a branch. Maria was in tears, her eyes wetter than my trouser leg.
“It’s only a cow!” She cried.
“How was I to know? It could have been a bear!” I reversed back onto the road feeling both relieved (well, half-relieved) and very stupid. “What’s a flamin’ cow doing in the middle of a forest anyway?”
“It’s a Mafia Cow.” Said Maria, still laughing.
“A Mafia Cow.”
“Now you really are taking the ‘P’ out of me. What the hell’s a Mafia Cow anyway? Does it sneak around the countryside extorting milk from other cows for organised cheese laundering or do they just steal grazing rights?” I scoffed, beginning to imagine some sort of Sicilian take on Animal Farm.
“A bit of both I imagine.” She stated seriously. “They’re owned by the Mafia. They’re allowed to go where they please and you have to be careful you don’t knock any of them down when you drive round these roads.” She grabbed my arm, as I swerved to avoid one which had appeared in the middle of the road round the next corner. “You also have to be careful of brown snow on the ski slopes in winter.”
This has all come back to me as I wait for the dreaded call from Diego and help Toto roll out the (empty) barrels in preparation for making this year’s wine. Both a stark reminder that the holidays are over and September is all hands to the mill-wheel to harvest the sun’s work. Diego had caught me at a weak moment during one of our massive family lunches in the mountains (massive applying to both family and food). Plied with enough wine, he’d seen his moment to get me to help him with the crops. “I’ll teach you some dialect as well of course.” He’d said as some sort of further enticement. Of course I would help, they’d shown me nothing but kindness and hospitality over the last two years and I wanted to do something to show my appreciation. However, it was 37 degrees and the thought of working on the farm was not quite as appealing with a clear head. In fact, after the recent 5.30am starts to make the passata last week I was beginning to remember the difference between the dream of self-sufficiency and the harsh reality of farming Calabrian-style.
You’d think that farming would be in my blood when you consider that my great-grandfather wrote the definitive ‘bible’ on rearing short-horn cattle and that my greater great-grandfathers had -between taking time off for the odd Jacobite Rebellion or Napoleonic campaign – been true men of the soil. I have let them down badly. It’s probably ironic, though I’m not sure, that I chose to live in a place where clan cattle still exist, free to roam without fence or wall. Like a jump back through history to before the Clearances, I’m sure that my forefathers would have been at home here. You won’t find ordered pastures liberally dotted with sheep or cattle in Calabria. Of course there’s commercial farming in the onion fields of Tropea and the vast orange groves of Rosarno but mostly it seems to be down to the smallholders, wandering shepherds and back-yard pig sties. I wonder if priority number one is often food provision for the family with market sales as a by-product, though I’m pretty sure where the restaurants get their veal from.
In fact, restaurant menus appear to be a pretty good indicator of farming methods in this region. Beef doesn’t feature much and they change with the seasons, except of course in the pizzerias where mozzarella and passata are as fundamental as your knife and fork. A tourist from Rome recently asked if anyone knew of a good Lebanese restaurant in the city and, as few had even heard of The Lebanon far less what they ate, he was faced with blank faces. The tourist changed tack and asked “What about a good Indian then?” This time he was met with laughter. If it doesn’t grow here it won’t be on any menu.
The form of horse power may have changed with the times but when I witnessed an old Ford Fiesta pottering along the Superstrada in front of me the other day with a sheep in the back seat, I couldn’t help wondering if this was just a by-product on its way to market or something far more sinister. Maybe there’s Mafia sheep as well. Maybe this was Larry ‘the chop’ Lamb I was following…..