Breaking bread: dining with the Di Meo family in Scauri, Italy
In the seaside town of Scauri, 100 miles from Rome, the Di Meo family produce all they need to dine like gourmets. Be it succulent beef rolls, tender mozzarella or homemade wine, it's all served with Italian hospitality — and a slice of wild cherry tart.
Having found what I hope is the correct unnamed street, I'm reassured to see Gemma waving at the gate. She directs my car to a spot beneath the shade of a lemon tree. A warm welcome is followed by maternal worry — about the weather, about my journey, about whether I've had enough coffee.
Scauri is a district of Minturno, the last coastal town before the region of Lazio becomes Campania. It's taken two and a half hours to drive here from Rome. Later, during lunch, Filippo laughs and shakes his pinched fingers at my journey along the Pontina and Appia — both B roads — when the motorway would have shaved an hour off that time. Slow it was, but the Appia, one of ancient Rome's most important roads, cuts through a changing landscape of reclaimed marshland, national parks and coastline, linking important towns to appealing seaside spots: San Felice Circeo, Sperlonga, Terracina, Gaeta. The final payoff for an extra hour in the car was the taste of the sea on my lips along a stretch known locally as Costa d'Oro ('golden coast'), which twists and rises through craggy almost-mountains and past holiday resorts, before arriving in Scauri.
I've come with my son, Luca, to eat Sunday lunch with Filippo and Gemma Di Meo, their son, Paolo, daughter-in-law, Manuela, and two grandchildren, seven-year-old Arianna and four-year-old Filippo. Inside, I'm greeted by the warm fug of cooking smells and the sound of a cartoon on the TV. The house was built in the 1960s next to the house Filippo was born in, which is now long gone. I'm familiar with insistent Italian hospitality. Guests are encouraged to make themselves at home. "Are you sure you wouldn't like more coffee, or tea, or juice?" "Would Luca like a biscuit?" "What time would you like to eat lunch?"
Involtini di manzo (beef rolls braised in tomato sauce) are spluttering on the stove, misting the kitchen window. Gemma explains how she rolled the slices of beef around batons of carrot and celery and secured them with a cocktail stick before simmering in the sauce. Peas are braised with onion, olive oil and crumbled sausage. She's also preparing chicken with potatoes and rosemary, while her son is bringing fresh mozzarella di bufala and her daughter-in-law a wild cherry tart. Would we like antipasti too?
As the potatoes are chopped, and garlic peeled and squashed with the heel of Gemma's hand, kitchen advice is mixed with talk of her sons, Gaetano and Paolo, of learning to make preserves as a young girl, and her frustration at not being as strong as she once was. I'm about to ask where she buys her ingredients when I realise everything we've seen, smelled or talked about so far — potatoes, olive oil, peas, onion, sausages, beef, tomato sauce, preserved vegetables, dried chili, vinegar, lemons, chicken — was grown, raised or made by a member of the family.
It may be my first time meeting Gemma, but I've known Filippo for 13 years. Now in his 60s, he has one of the longest-running and best fruit and vegetable stalls at my local market in Testaccio, Rome. Other stallholders joke that he's the most famous and photographed — which is most likely true — because he's affable and approachable, and because he's so distinctive, slight and strong, with very dark eyebrows and a Christopher Walken-esque crest of white hair. His greeting as he walks into the kitchen is much the same as the one he gives at the market: a raised arm, cocked eyebrow and easy, "tutto bene?" ('all good?').
He takes me to a storeroom across the yard. It smells of damp newspaper and wine, which is unsurprising given the two large aluminium tanks, each one 6ft high with the girth of a tractor tyre. Filippo has brought two empty bottles from the kitchen. He sits them beneath the tap on one of the tanks and twists — the bottle is filled with a rush of liquid, the room with the thick scent of fermented grapes. Even in the half light the wine is a deep, inky purple; a mix of three grapes grown locally by two of Filippo's brothers: Negroamaro (an ancient indigenous variety), Montepulciano and Primitivo.
Filippo describes his wine as simple, just for family and friends. Also just for the family is passata di pomodoro (tomato conserve), 100 bottles of which — maybe more — line the shelves. In the next room hangs salami, cured by Filippo and his brothers as a way of preserving the pig slaughtered each December.
As we walk back across the yard, Gemma is choosing a lettuce from the six or so picked that morning. While she pulls away the leaves, she tells me the great pleasure of having a modern house — of not living the hard, poor way they did as children — is that the produce, animals and earth stay outside and her house is clean.
A little goes a long way
Filippo offers to show me his land, 1.5 miles away, and as we drive there he points out houses the way a tour guide would: the home of his brother who grows grapes, of another brother, of an uncle who is half-blind, a sister. A pop song by Loredana Berté plays on the radio.
We make a pit stop to stand on the sea wall and look out towards the island of Ponza while Filippo has a cigarette. In summer, this is a hugely popular destination for families, and even on a grey day like today the arching bay is impressive, ending with the lip of Gaeta one way, Volturno the other. The land in these parts is good — natural salt meeting volcanic soil and elevation, enough rain in winter to see it through the long, hot summers. It's land that begets some of Italy's great produce: olives, greens and citrus in autumn and winter; deep red tomatoes and watermelons the size of basketballs in summer. And it's good grazing for buffalos, whose rich milk produces some of the best mozzarella.
There's little to see at this time of year, Filippo tells me as we walk out over one of his fields. Only broccoli, artichokes and a variety of chicory called puntarelle. His 'little' seems like an abundance to me. Most of his and Gemma's extended family still farm and own much of the local land. No one is rich, but they live well enough, as between them they produce everything they need. But things are changing, as fewer children follow in their parents' footsteps and supermarkets undercut the true cost of ingredients.
Filippo grabs a handful of hay for the horse. There are also half-a-dozen chickens and two-dozen rabbits to feed. Most fascinating, though, are the large, intricately woven and painted pictures leaning against the shed, including a particularly beautiful one of St Francis. They were all made by Filippo for the local festa del grano, festival of grain — a ritual dating back to ancient Roman times, which sees the whole village celebrate the wheat harvest with a parade and a feast.
Before we leave, Filippo cuts some sprouting broccoli for me to take back to Rome. He is, he says, happiest on his land. With our shoes clogged in mud, we climb in the car and drive back the long way, so we can pause to look up at the ancient town of Minturno.
Back at the house, the scent of chicken, potatoes and rosemary fills the room. While we wait for the rest of the family, Filippo pulls out photographs of the festa to show me. It's touching to see the pictures of him and his brothers in the parade at every stage of their lives: as young boys, gangly teenagers, with their own sons. There are photos of Filippo's father, his and Gemma's wedding, him behind his market stall. He was nine years old when he first took the train to Rome with his older brother to work, and in 1967, at just 14, Filippo was given his own stall at Testaccio Market. Half a century later he still wakes up at 3am each morning to drive the hour and half into Rome. He arrives back in Scauri at 5pm and goes straight to his land to prepare for the next day. Sunday is his day for resting — and eating.
The front door bursts opens and the two grandchildren charge in, followed by Paolo and Manuela. They live in the self-contained, first-floor flat, but more often than not they eat here — and always on a Sunday, often with Paolo's brother too. A true Pranzo domenicale (family Sunday lunch).
Bread, wine and water are first on the table. Then antipasti: salami and vegetables preserved in olive oil. I ask if many families grow and preserve as much of their food as they do. "In Scauri, yes," says Paolo. That's because it's a town of farmers, because his parents' generation still know how to live by the seasons. Paolo, though, isn't following in his family's footsteps; he works for the local council.
More wine is poured and glasses raised. The sauce from the beef rolls is served with wide tubes of pasta called paccheri, which we eat as a primo (first course). The rolls themselves are part of the secondo, with chicken, which Paolo pronounces overcooked. I'm asked what I think — Gemma insisting I tell the truth because, she says, if you can't be honest about food, what can you be honest about?
With Italian meals, how you eat is often as important as what you eat; Sunday is the day for mangiata, a big get-together with lots of food. Family lunches are central to Italian culture and can go on for hours; bread — an extra piece of cutlery — is used to wipe plates clean.
The mozzarella arrives, tender and fragrant, some of the best I've tasted. Manuela laughs; for them it's a five out of 10 — just wait until the buffalos eat grass with spring herbs. We talk about the seasons, the beach, sights we should visit in Minturno, our return visit in summer.
Hours have passed, the light is fading, the children — tired of being at the table — are playing. Filippo keeps attempting to refill glasses. Manuela needs to take her family some vegetables, we need to return to Rome. Everyone begins to stir. "La crostata!" cries Gemma — the cherry tart! "You must taste it. And coffee! Would you like coffee?"
Published in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food
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