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Calabria: Biagio and His Love Of Animals

01/18/2010


Nino

‘Silvestro! It’s been a long time’, said Biagio, beaming like a boy. ‘I knew you’d come. I just knew it!’.

‘We just slaughtered a pig, a really big one’!

And so lunch was on. He nods his head to a passing cook and a table is set for us.

First though, I’d have to see the place and he’s promised that I’ve never seen anything like it. Already, I see that he’s right.

We takes me down to a simple building at the bottom of the valley, to see the famous black pigs of Calabria, a race that has been very recently brought back, all the way from the verge of extinction to a commercial relevance. ‘Here in Calabria, the pig is everything. But without this particular pig, it’s hard to imagine our cuisine without it’.

‘Things were rocky there for a while’, he says, patting a snorty one that seems to know Biagio personally.

We pass the sheep, milked for their creamy pecorino cheese, consumed in a myriad of ways. They watch us, study us, as if we were interesting.

Back up stairs, we discuss the house ravioli, spiked as they are with piquant pecorino.

Biagio’s girlfriend Caterina lays out perfect pasta into individual servings. ‘Biagio says you make le orecchiette like an old signora pugliese’, she says.

It takes me a few seconds to realise she means it as a compliment. Biagio looks at the floor when I glance at him.

It seems that Biagio is as generous with his praise as he is with his friendship. He’d be embarrassed to discuss it though, as his averted gaze reveals.

Biagio calls the shots as several cooks snap into action.

My greedy fingers steal tiny feels here and there of the handles of the pasta station. My hands test the heft of the pan handles in my grips. The individual pasta baskets make me giddy with glee, such is my love for pasta. I’d love to stay on and work a shift with him but there isn’t time.

It’s been a while since I’ve worked in a commercial kitchen (my school’s kitchen is much more of a home scenario). And in general industrial kitchens still feel like old girlfriends to me.

Not the kind that involves break ups. But the kind that moved away, leaving only the sweetest of memories.

It’s funny seeing Biagio at work, as the basis of our friendship in Lecce was always dinners out in restaurants, where we’d sit around and discuss the food of famous Italian chefs.

He pauses before opening a door and his face lights up. ‘Can you even imagine the dreams you’d have sleeping in this room’, he says, inhaling as deeply as he can.

I can hear the Hallelujah choir as we enter, the smell both heady and sexy.

We just stand there together for a few moments, inhaling.

Like the pigs in Parma that are fed the left over whey from Parmiggiano cheese making, here in Calabria, Biagio’s chickens are fed only milk products, producing eggs with no visible difference between albumens and yolks.

He walks me through their handmade products, touching each as if they were designer fabrics: Cured pig cheeks, bellies, shoulders and back legs. The back legs of goats and sheep. Sausages. Salumis, trained with bamboo to stay straight. All of it is stunning.

As I ride out of the Calabrian mountain town of Tortora, it occurs to me just how lucky I am to have a friend like Biagio. For a few, sweet porcine hours, I was able to experience some of the best pork on earth.

Riding down the hill, I make a mental note to keep his glass full the next time he visits, to heap his plate with the foods I know he loves.

After all, it’s just what friends do.

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