The region of Basilicata (once called Lucania) is a rough, hard land which is rich in sun, but only in sun: it is a mysterious land where, still today, life goes on according to ancient rhythms and where solutions still have to be found to many social and economic problems.
Its cuisine is poor and mostly makes use of the products of the land and of the meat deriving from the rearing of sheep (and, therefore, also of the dairy products) and of pigs, whereas fish is hard to be found almost throughout the region.
It is a land of shepherds and farmers: after all, the region is touched by the sea for only a very brief stretch of coastline – a few kilometres – although also marvellous with sheer rocky cliffs, with a dense, blue sea, pretty inlets, little towns high up on the slopes and the stretches of soft sand. The most important town of this coastline is Maratea, a tourist destination which has risen up in a few years from nothing to become famous.
Regarding the food and the cuisine, we should explain that the pig is the fundamental element. This is because it can be reared anywhere and also, and above all, because all parts of it can be used, even its blood which is used for making the well known dessert «sanguinaccio». Once, the slaughtering of the animal, like a kind of rite, was controlled by a ceremony which became a type of a bloody festival tied to particular legends, customs and traditions. The first cut of the knife which was to the throat of the victim, was entrusted to the head of the family. The innards were a particular object of interest since they could indicate good or a bad fortune for the whole of the year.
The festival had its climax at the table where, on that day, an exceptionally rich meal was prepared, in the same way as for religious festivities and on the occasions of births and weddings.
Of the different products obtained from the pig, the most famous, right back from Roman times, is the sausage. The name of lucanica (a type of sausage), which is widely spread in northern Italy, is born in all probability in this land, mediated by the name of Lucania. The proof of this is given by one of the many scholarly works by Marco Terenzio Marrone, who described its characteristics, adding that "our soldiers", that is, the soldiers of Rome, "have learnt the way of preparing it from the Lucani ". This was not, however, the long, thin sausage of the same name which is produced today in various parts of Northern Italy, but a type of very flavoursome sausage similar to the one described by Apicio in the following recipe: "finely chop pepper, cumin, peverella, rue, parsley, sweet spices, bay berries and mix them all together with the sauce of Apicio, salt, a lot of fat and fennel seeds: pack into a long intestine sack and hang over smoke...".
So, the lucanica, flavoured with black pepper and chilli, with a strong and aggressive taste, is eaten fresh, roasted or fried, or else it is smoked and left to dry or preserved in oil.
The Lucano pig is generally thin, or, indeed, very thin since it pastures on the mountains together with the sheep and lambs: it yields a ham which is dry and sinewy, wonderfully spicy and full of flavour, sausages made from a finely minced mixture, soppressata salamis, capocollo hams and the typical «pezzenta» (‘beggar’), so called because it was the salami eaten by the poorest people: composed of the scraps from the slaughter (lungs, liver, veins) which are chopped up into tiny pieces and then flavoured with generous quantities of pepper and garlic. Beef is not present in the traditional cuisine and is still somewhat hard to come by; it is, however, substituted with mutton, lamb and also (after a particular treatment) goat. An ancient recipe for a lamb and mutton dish is «pigneti»: the pieces of meat, together with potatoes, tomato, onion, chilli pepper, pecorino cheese and crumbled salami are put into an earthenware amphora which is closed and sealed with clay and then put into a very hot oven: the heat should be lessened little by little until the end of the cooking time. But – here, as in all of the South – the part of the sheep used most of all is its innards: in Lucania, they are called «gnumaredd», like in Puglia, and are rolled up in the intestines and the caul fat of the animal. They are preferably cooked on skewers or barbecued: it is a coarse type of food, robust and full of character.
Another fundamental food in Lucano gastronomy is bread. In the tradition of the Lucano bakers, there are some preparations with a base of common wheat flour. This is the case, for example, of the so called «friselle» or «frisedde», but durum wheat semolina is practically the overall base of all the relevant preparations both for bread and for pasta. The great majority of first course dishes in the regional cuisine has this ancient cereal as their main ingredient, and it is has been cultivated here from times immemorial.
The «friselle» are slices of bread made from flour of the "0" type (the type of flour used for making pasta), yeast, salt and water which undergo a process of toasting in the oven: soaked in water and vinegar, they are used as the base of summer salads with tomatoes, onions and other vegetables, dressed with the oil of the region, or alternatively, they are placed at the bottom of a dish to receive a helping of vegetable or minestrone soup, or other such preparation. We should also bring to mind the «scricchiarelle», small in size (four centimetres – one and a half inches – by four), the dough of which is made, along with the flour and yeast, with the addition of small quantities of oil: their requisite is that they are crunchy.
We should also mention the bread from Matera which, along with that from Altamura, is the most unusual bread produced in the South of Italy. It is made only from bran, in large-sized loaves which can remain soft and tasty for a few days. It was once a tradition for every housewife to prepare at home her own loaf of bread and to then take it to the baker to be baked. To be able to recognise one’s own loaf, it was stamped with a distinguishing mark which was normally made out of wood carved with the symbols or initials of the family. These “bread stamps” have practically disappeared from common use, and it is now easier to find them in museums dedicated to the farming civilisation.
In the original version, the bread from Matera is baked in a stone oven with a fire of oak wood. The loaves weigh up to, and sometimes exceed five kilograms (eleven pounds).
An ever present element of the Lucano table is chilli pepper which takes on mischievous names like «frangisello», «cerasella», «pupon», «diavolicchio». It is used in heavy doses, so much so that - especially for unaccustomed palates- it becomes too aggressive and dominates any of the other flavours. But why is this invigorating product of the land and the sun consumed in such abundant quantities? A local proverb says: «lu paprini e lu pupon ie' lu pranz r' lu cafun», which means:«the sweet pepper and the hot spicy pepper are the farmer’s meal». Who, it must be said, does not have much more – from the nature of his land – to present at the table. Once, for fighting against illnesses such as malaria, which was all but infrequent, chilli pepper was regularly eaten, and the habit has remained. It should be pointed out that chilli pepper gives a strong and decisive flavour to any dish, even the most insipid, and those who get used to vigorous flavours are no longer satisfied with more delicate ones. Finally, there is another Lucano proverb according to which man must be «bue di giorno, toro di notte» (‘an ox during the day, a bull at night’): evidently, chilli pepper was considered a ... valid help in the hours of the night and, hence, the «diavolicchio» is considered to be the king of this humble, but at the same time, fiery table. It can be found in the «sugna piccante»with fennel seeds, salt and pig fat, this is a characteristic and widely spread condiment which is preserved in glass jars and which is also eaten to accompany home made bread. It was once a daily food of the shepherds: today, its use has not waned.
We are in the South, and home-made pasta is a must. «Strascinari»,
orecchiette (typical pasta in the shape of little ears – ‘orecchie’), lasagne, and the so-called «manate» are the most characteristic. They are prepared using ancient techniques and special utensils like the "cavarole", in the case of the «strascinari»,which are small, furrowed chopping boards made by the shepherds during the long, lonely hours in the pasturelands.
The «minuich» is one of the oldest examples of pasta. The dough, made from bran flour and boiling water, is cut into small pieces which are then wound around a dry sorghum stalk or a special square-shaped instrument. The dough is flattened down with the hands to obtain small and short, hollow spaghetti which are then left to dry. They are dressed with a sauce of tomato, boiled turnip tops and grated pecorino cheese.
The «lagane» are also a very old form of home-made pasta which has maintained in its name its link with times past. Lagane was, in fact, in the Greek and Latin world, the name given to lasagne, and there are a great number of references to them by the classic authors. The base of the pasta dough consists exclusively of durum wheat semolina, water and salt. Once the pasta has been rolled out, the lagane are cut out into the preferred shape, or into quite thin rectangles which are then wound around a thin wooden stick or a metal wire. Left to dry, they become «minuiddi», a crude type of pasta quill. The characteristic of this type of pasta is that, once it has been cooked and drained, it remains perfectly firm.
The most used dressing for pasta is the tomato meat sauce with the «'ntruppicc» (stumbling blocks), that is, small pieces of mutton or lamb or also beef which have been sliced with a knife, never minced. Then, on top of the meat sauce, there is the addition of the «forte» (‘strength’), or the usual chilli pepper fried in oil, and finally a sprinkling of pecorino or «ricotta forte» cheese before serving – bright and fragrant, a substantial pasta dish. The ricotta forte cheese is a speciality of the cuisine of Matera which is also found in the Puglia region: the ricotta cheese made from sheep’s milk is adjusted once a day for at least thirty days adding, little by little, small quantities of salt so that it gradually becomes increasingly more spicy. When it is ready, it is spread on bread or is used on pizzas, flat breads and soups.
Amongst the desserts and cakes, the most traditional is the «scarcedda», typical of the Easter period: it has a base of short pastry filled with ricotta cheese and, hidden inside, it contains a peeled hard boiled egg. Whoever finds the egg (or a piece of the egg) in his slice of «scarcedda» will have a lucky year.
This region has always practised the art of preserving food. An art related to necessity: the few and impracticable roads seriously limited the possibility of taking in provisions, the harshness of the climate meant that one collected provisions for the long term, enough to last the whole of the winter. Where and when it was possible, the larder filled up with salamis, hams, soppressata salamis and sausages, as well as with the matured cheeses of home-made production. Self-sufficiency was the way of life for a humble and autarkic society, substantially excluded from the merchant traffic and from any hope of making progress in commerce.
Poor and closed in as it was, the farming society has left its following generations with a considerably sized patrimony, made up of ancient teachings, recipes which are still in use today, culinary customs tied to the oldest and most traditional beliefs. The lack of courts and their banquets entrusted to the great chefs of the time has certainly reduced the panorama of the art of the cuisine, just as poverty has kept alive the tradition of recuperating all that is on offer from the local production.