Here are six uniquely Lucanian things you’ll want to savor. They won’t be hard to find:
After the first of several visits to this region, I traveled afterward to Rome, where I met a famous Roman chef. He asked where else in Italy I had been on that trip, and I told him Matera. He clasped his hands against his heart and shook his head. “Ahhh, Matera,” he sighed. “They make the best bread in all of Italy, and hardly anyone knows it.”
Walk the streets of Matera or Bernalda early in the morning, and the sweet, tangy scent of sourdough hangs heavily in the air as bakeries on nearly every block pull heavy durum-wheat loaves from their ovens. The signature loaf of Matera looks like a giant croissant, nearly 2 feet long, weighing as much as 10 pounds. The loaf of Bernalda is perfectly round but comparable in width and weight. Otherwise, it’s the same bread, a style of baking that dates to the Kingdom of Naples. The crust is dense and dark, much more so than anywhere else in Italy. Sit down at any restaurant, and this is always the first thing presented. Underneath that heavy, crunchy, chewy crust lies a pillowy, yellowish interior with the mildly sweet crumb of ancient yeast.
Olive trees blanket the valleys around Bernalda. Almost everyone owns an olive tree, or has a cousin or sister with a grove. And come November, the entire town descends upon the communal olive press with their family’s harvest, waiting their turn to fill their well-worn jugs with cold-pressed oil the same way they’ve done for generations. The region’s volcanic soil gives the local olives a mineral-laced earthiness that produces an extra-virgin oil of very low acidity.
Sausages and hams are the cornerstone of Lucanian cuisine. Cappocollo di cinghiale Lucano is a cured ham made from the neck of local wild boar – dark red, almost purple, and intensely flavored. Soppressata di cinghiale Lucano is a milder boar ham with a softer, floral quality to it. Salsiccia di cinghiale is a spicy wild boar sausage infused with local red chilies and wild fennel. Imagine a Spanish chorizo but with 10 times the heat. And the most prized of all is the prosciutto di maiale Lucano, a ham made from the hoofed hind leg of wild boar, aged for nearly a year.
High in the mountains of Matera, every afternoon the valley beneath the Sassi swells with a surreal chorus of bells that sound like an ancient meditation ritual. The volume ebbs and flows as the strange music fills the valley like a perfectly calibrated amphitheater. The orchestra is entirely bovine. A herd of horned Podolico cattle makes its daily pilgrimage from the opposite mountaintop, around the edge of the gorge, along a narrow trail that winds into the bottom of the ravine, where the cows drink water from a burbling creek. Along the way, the herd feasts on wild nettles, rose hips, cherries and hawthorn blossoms.
The milk of these cows is collected only in May and June and spun into a semi-hard cheese called caciocavallo Podolico. Come July or August, the cheese starts showing up in local markets, dangling in mesh nets, looking like smooth-skinned coconuts. Crack open the cheese, and its interior is tender and delicate, slightly sweet and reminiscent of the blossoms and herbs on which the cattle graze. Taste this same caciocavallo in February or March, and the outer shells have hardened like the coconuts they appear to be, and the cheese inside tastes potently musky.
Another unique Lucanian cheese to seek out is the manteca, which is as white as snow and shaped like an avocado. Slice it open, and the cross section looks like a hard-boiled egg, with a “yolk” of creamy Lucanian butter hidden inside.
The best wines of Basilicata come from the aglianico vineyards of Rionero in Vulture, another mountain town an hour and a half northwest of Matera. One of the region’s oldest wineries, Cantine Del Notaio, was the first to switch from using local chestnut barrels to French oak, which changed aglianico’s future. That was in the 1990s, and the grape is only starting to gain the international recognition it deserves. Vineyards closer to Matera and Bernalda are just as likely to grow primitivo as aglianico, and many of the best wines never travel beyond the Basilicata border.
Five wines to try:
- Rocca del Dragone, Aglianico: Bold yet amazingly elegant, with aromas and flavors of black cherry, coffee and minerals.
- Cantine del Notaio, Il Sigillo: Quintessential aglianico, with notes of volcanic earth and dark forest fruit.
- Cantine Terra Dei Re, Nocte: Biodynamic aglianico made from grapes picked exclusively in the dark of night.
- Paternoster, Synthesi, Aglianico del Vulture: Blood-red with notes of menthol and chocolate with well-rounded tannins.
- Masseria Cardillo, Titta Rosso: Elegant blend of aglianico and primitivo, with hints of roasted almond and licorice.
For the most part, Lucanians eat only three shapes of pasta: orecchiette, trofie (often referred to simply as maccheroni) and a sort of tagliatelle that is much thicker, more rustic than anything labeled as such in the United States. All are made from dough that is rolled by hand with nothing more than a rolling pin that’s been passed down for generations. Orecchiette is by far the most popular, tossed with either a vivid green pesto made from rapini or else a deliciously simple tomato sauce that is more orange than red.
At Giardino Giamperduto, a former goat farm and creamery turned agriturismo hotel in Bernalda, chef Giuseppe offers a cooking class where he teaches guests to make all three of these pastas using locally milled flour and chicken eggs gathered that morning. At Ristorante Francesca in Matera, waiters rush hot skillets from the kitchen to the table, where they ladle steaming spoonfuls of hand-rolled trofie cloaked in a wild boar ragu along with whole, crunchy Lucanian chilies. “Where does the boar come from?” I ask.
The waiter looks at me as if that’s the dumbest question he’s ever heard. “Nearby,” he says, “from a farm, just outside of town.”