Three goats eye me suspiciously as I slice a plump, sweet aubergine in two and stuff it with a thick, creamy mixture of their own soft cheese, some egg yolk and bread crumbs. Behind me, Signora Cerullo, a portly mamma in clogs and black skirts, clatters a thick iron pot over the open brazier in her backyard, stewing wild greens picked this morning behind the farmhouse.
I’m sweating under a timber awning at a vast wooden table, hand crafted by Zio who sits on a stool in front of me, in complete silence, observing me pensively – the first inglese he’s ever met. Mamma is teaching me to make melanzane ‘mbuttanate, Cilento dialect for stuffed eggplant. For each slice I make, I am fed something impossibly delicious off the table to the sound of orgiastic groans from the small crowd of villagers who have come to ogle my rustic Italian cooking skills, or lack thereof.
This makeshift outdoor kitchen, with its battered copper pots swinging from the rafters, rusty old weights and cavernous stone bread oven look like they’ve been here for centuries. Less than two generations ago, however, the Cerullo family lived lì sopra, or “up there” says “Zio”, finally opening his toothless mouth and shrugging in the direction of the brittle grey mountain behind him.
The jagged, crumbling outline of a stone and whitewash ghost town juts out from the summit at awkward angles, barely visible from down below. Row upon row of houses lie empty atop the mount, broken windows and hollow doorways gaping at the wind that howls constantly, hurtling like a banshee through the “gola del diavolo” or devil’s gorge that splits the mountain down its middle. There had been a thriving merchant settlement here, uninterrupted, since the Norman era, with some evidence even of iron age burial sites.The poverty which devastated post-war southern Italy forced farmers to abandon San Severino and wind their way downhill to settle in Centola, in the shadow of their former village, where Mussolini had a train track built to carry their sons and daughters away to the economic powerhouse of the North.
The slow food trendies have begun to trickle down to these rural backwaters, although the term here is obsolete: the Cilentani know no other kind of eating. Rafaello Cerullo, who owns the farm, hopes this new income will allow the villagers to reclaim San Severino and rebuild it to its former glory. Until that happens though, I smile privately at the joy of being the first Brit to taste this unctuous, warm ricotta, drink Zio’s heady, syrupy wine and be given the eye by the Godfather of all goats.