One may think that a cheese festival would be a rather smelly affair and one would be correct. At least, for me, the Sagra del Pecorino di Filiano was, for the most part, an olfactory experience but I can say with absolute conviction that I prefer ripe cheese to ripe people. My position on the matter clearly established, I must say that our weekend experience in the wilds of Basilicata with our dear friends, Silvia and Piergiorgio, was one of those comings-together-of-circumstances that was the reason we moved to Italy. Amazing, moving, hilarious, ethereal, sometimes awful but always stimulating, the events of the weekend will not soon be forgotten.
The annual “Sagra del Pecorino di Filiano” celebrates sheeps’ milk cheese and is held in September in the small town on Filiano in Basilicata, the region of Italy that is the “arch” of the boot. Basilicata (also known as Lucania) is one of the least well-known of the Italian regions and one of the most rugged and least forgiving. It is, however, the place where some of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” were filmed and is remembered as the boyhood home of Francis Ford Coppola. Except for a few extraordinarily interesting facts about the sassi of Matera and the cave dwellings there that were actually inhabited until the 1950s, that is about all I know about the history of Basilicata but I’m sure you would rather hear about the cheese.
Piergiorgio generously volunteered to drive the two hours it took to get from his home in Taranto on the west coast of Puglia to the central part of Basilicata. We passed the towns of Bernalda, Matera and Potenza and, then, passed the town of Lagopesole. Unfortunately, our bed & breakfast was located in the last of these but we passed in anyway and landed in the town of Dragonetti. Le Gemme where we would be spending the night was located at 2 Via Lucania and we found Via Lucania immediately upon our arrival in Dragonetti but number 2 eluded us so Piergiorgio stopped the car in front of a woman standing outside a house and asked where number 2 was.
“You go straight up the hill and it’s on the right,” she said casually. “Why are you going there?” she asked.
“We’re staying there tonight,” Silvia responded.
“But 2 Via Lucania is my home,” the woman protested mildly.
“Then we’re sleeping with you tonight,” Silvia said and then everyone broke into laughter. It was about then that we realized that we had the right address, but the wrong town and we headed back to Lagopesole. We checked into our rooms, took a pausa for an hour or so, and jumped back into the car for the 20-minute drive to Filiano. First, though, we took a short detour and drove to the top of the hill that was the town of Lagopesole and visited the castle built by Frederick II which was subsequently occupied by his son, Manfredi and his wife, now known as The Lady in White. There is a legend associated with them having to do with her wandering around the castle at night while Manfredi sits on his horse outside the grounds, but I want to get to the cheese.
When we arrived in Filiano, it was clear that we were on the early side of the festivities. The parking field was mostly devoid of cars and many of the booths that bore signs boasting of cheese from all over Europe were either just being opened or were, as yet, unoccupied. The streets of the town were mostly open only to pedestrian traffic so we casually strolled the narrow cobblestone avenues lined with more booths hucking nuts & candies, local wines, produce and herbs and the ubiquitous vacuum cleaners. To take the edge off of our hunger, Silvia bought a pecorino panino (a hot cheese sandwich) that was big enough to feed three of us. Piergiorgio, meanwhile, went for the ricotta-filled cannolo and an ear of corn. We tried many different cheeses, most made from the milk of sheep, but cows, goats and water buffalo were represented as well. We took our dinner from the offerings of a food truck. The proprietor, who was from Rome, made a special vegetarian sandwich for Jessica and the rest of us had one kind of animal flesh or another. For me, it was a sandwich of porchetta, roasted pig. I wondered if life could get any better as I ate the succulent bits of salty, juicy meat and washed it down with the aglianico wine we bought at one of the booths.
After our sustenance, we again took to the streets of Filiano. Our plan, such as it was, was to return to a little piazza we had passed through earlier. A band was setting up and, according to one of its members, the show would begin at 9:30. We took a table at a cafe on the piazza, ordered some drinks and sat back to take in the entertainment. We were not disappointed. Niky Fox, the front man and band’s namesake, plays the concertina with energy such as Chuck Berry could only dream about. We should have expected something out of the ordinary when the fog machine let loose a stormcloud on the piazza and the polka music blared from the sound system that I think was borrowed from the Rolling Stones. Niky bounded around the stage, leaped off the platform and into the crowd and acted like the rock star everyone there took him to be. See Niky for yourself at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiR_XGsOLIQ and try to keep your feet still.
After a few tarantellas, some waltzes and a number of polkas, we decided to return to Le Gemme and our beds for the night. As we departed the grounds of the sagra, however, a food stand caught Jessica’s attention. She lead our approach to it and, at first, we thought it to be a lemon drink stand since the most prominent offering was lemons but, as we got closer, we saw pieces of some kind of meat displayed among the lemons. Silvia walked up to the young man tending the cart and asked him what he was selling.
“Musetti,” he said simply. I asked Silvia what musetti was. As good as her English is, and it is very good, she struggled with this one. Finally, I got it. The best translation is that musetti is cow face. You know, like the lips, the cheeks, maybe even the nose, I’m not sure. I do know that we would call it the face. Not able to just leave it at that, we had to try this “delicacy.” It seems that this kid’s grandfather, Pietro Vagabond, thought that pickling and selling cow face to people to eat would be a good way to distinguish himself from the other guys who sold more popular parts of the cow like the steaks, the ribs and the roasts. I think he also figured that the margins would be pretty good since he could get cow faces for real cheap, like free. His idea has turned into a multi-generational business, though not yet a multi-cultural one. The lack of broad appeal may have to do with the look and texture of some of the bits, at least one of which was clearly the inside of some organ that the kid would not name. The preparation was simple: the meat was cut into small bits order-by-order. Then, once the meat bits were in the plastic takeaway container, they were heavily salted and then doused with a generous amount of lemon juice. Those of us who were meat-eaters, that is, all of us except for Jessica, our leader in this expedition who happily pled vegetarianism at that moment, ate some of the cow face both from politeness and with recognition that the kid was still holding the knife with which he had cut the meat. When I said “awful” (Or, is it “offal”?) above, it was to this that I was referring. I was not sure of the protocol in Basilicata for offending one’s grandfather so I took several pieces and decided that they tasted not unlike some other pickled meats I have not enjoyed before. We took our plastic container of cow face bits, said our good-byes to the kid, to pecorino and to Filiano and went back to Lagopesole.
On the way back to the B&B, we stopped for digustivi and, as we left the bar, in sympathy for the hungry-looking dogs hanging about outside and our own sense of self-preservation, we donated the leftover cow face bits to the canines’ well-being. They seemed to enjoy it but, then, there’s no accounting for taste.
For more amazing photos of the Sagra del Pecorino di Filiano, check out Jessica’s website at www.jessicacoup.com.
Next: Roll Out the Barile