The celebrated hospitality of Italian people, striking beauty of the country, and extreme attention to seasonal ingredients in la Bella Italia felt unchanged since my last visit twelve years ago. The notable difference this time was finding that vegan and gluten-free are understood and widely available. Ask for gelato “senza latte” (milk), or pasta “senza uovo” (eggs), and “senza fromagio” (cheese) most anywhere you’ll hear, “certo”, sure. There’s a photo bomb ahead with the story of a group of travelers who became fast friends for life. We saw many historical and cultural sites, small private sites, and the big ones too, but this blog post is mostly about the food.
Donna Zeigfinger from Green Earth Travel and I met at the Naples airport two days ahead of our July 25 Vegano Italiano. A sudden lightening storm kept Donna on the plane for an hour, so I was glad to have eaten a vegan sandwich at Fiumicino in Rome. We met Giuseppe, who drove us to Cilento, home base for Vegano Italiano, and arrived for dinner with Miyoko Schinner, Matt Frasier and their companions.
Donna and I stayed nearby at the lovely B&B Al Vicolo del Cilento, where hosts Alessandro and Antonella greeted us warmly. My room was small but immaculate, with wifi and a breathtaking view from my terrace – it was perfect. So was Antonella’s vegan secret recipe Hazelnut and Chocolate Torta for breakfast, and the nondairy cappuccino, fruit, cereals, breads on the buffet. Alessandro drove Donna, Demetrius Bagley, and I to Parco Natizonale di Cilento, a UNESCO world site where we enjoyed a lovely afternoon. Happily we’d be back in a few days with our guests.
Castel San Lorenzo:
We moved to the villa on Saturday to await our group. Soon we were all chatting over antipasti and aperitivo on the terrace. Our gifted resident cook Renata showed us how to make Fusillo di Felitto, the special pasta of the region. Small pieces of fresh dough are rolled into logs and then individually rolled over a skewer, creating the hollow center. We each tried to roll this pasta, but no one no one got it especially right. Renata’s pasta, however, sauced with a simple but perfect tomato ragu made a thrilling course for dinner. We also had green olives that we dubbed the best we’d ever eaten.
Breakfast was served around the long table in the big room. Think oatmeal, warm polenta with pumpkin puree and cinnamon, a buckwheat flour and potato frittata, as well as well fresh fruit, granola, spectacular bread with vegan and nut butter and jam. Gluten free options were no problem. One morning, we emptied a platter of Power Balls made by Bob (a.k.a. Blender Boy) and Cathy from Toronto. I like a cup of strong cup of coffee first thing, so the automatic espresso maker in the kitchen was a boon, as were the nondairy milks warming on the stove. Pam from Tampa was in total agreement with me on the coffee factor.
The 3-Hour Lunch:
The platters kept coming at Ristorante Pizzeria L’Occhiano, and one dish was better than the next. Some of us walked around the grounds between courses, but we all ate a lot! I especially liked the caponata-like dish and the very particular bread and greens dish, all regional specialties. After the meal, digestives made from herbs were served. Sitting at this long table on a terrace in the middle of olive groves, with friends and ultra fresh food, this was as close to the movie of my dreams as I’ve ever imagined. We pushed ourselves away from the table and headed to the river.
Beach Day and the Grottos at Parco Naturale Palinurno:
Umbrellas, beach chairs, sand, and surf is always my idea of heaven. I’d read about the five grottos (caves) but the otherworldly jewel toned water took my breath away. Our skipper, Paolo taught us about the caves, some of which were very narrow. After more beach time and swimming, and walking on the beach, we ate lunch overlooking the sea. Some free-roaming cattle families slowed our way back.
Padula and The Potato Lunch:
I didn’t expect to flip out over the upcoming “potato lunch” at Hotel Villa Cosilinum but it was exceptional. The patata rosso, a regional specialty, were freshly dug. We ate potato chips, thin and freshly made, the best roasted potatoes of my life, white beans, sautéed greens, and zucchini, tomatoes almost too perfect, and even the bread was incredible. Herb and fruit- infused amaros (bitters) for digestion were followed fresh fruit salad topped with nondairy whipped cream. After lunch, we toured the wine cellar before we headed to our private visit with Duke Ettore Guilini in his family’s castle.
Casalinga (Home Cooking):
“That was my favorite meal” was a constant refrain. Renata cooked our dinners and her charming husband Massimo plated. However, Benay and I, assisted by our companions, made chef-quality food. With Pam and Daiyna’s help, I demonstrated how to make chocolate ganache for espresso truffles (or as I say now, tartuffo). We made Watermelon Granita from Vegan Chocolate and the Italian chestnut flour and rosemary cake, Castignaccio with Susan Andrew’s Rosemary Plum Sauce. From the Candle 79 and Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Café cookbooks, Benay organized Chickpea Crepes, Gazpacho and Avocado Soups, all recipes adapted to account for differences in ingredients. Everything was scrumptious and everyone participated, to Renata’s delight and amazement. (“On vacation you like to cook?)
Amalfi Coast: Sorrento, Postitano and Mondo Bio:
A hydrofoil ferried us to Positano, the famous hill city of the Amalfi Coast. We strolled, ate and drank, met a magician/jeweler who “worshipped vegans”, and then drove back to Sorrento. Dinner was at Mondo Bio, the city’s vegan restaurant in a natural foods store included a delicate caprese salade with the “not cheese-cheese” (owner’s description) and “not cheese” cheesecake. Mondo Bio is small with rather simple, but the tasty food is cooked to order. I suggest sitting outside under the trees. Most of us slept on the way back from this very long day.
Pompeii and the At-Home Lunch Feast:
Decisions had to be to made: About half the group went to Pompeii with Benay, Pasquale and Donna, and the rest stayed back at the villa with me. The stay-at-homes walked into town, stopping to fill our water bottles at the public water spigots. We bought organic beans, grains and dried mushrooms to take home in the little markets. Certainly we didn’t need bread, but the breads and focaccia in the panificio was irresistible – and so inexpensive. Some of it made it back for lunch.
We exchanged restaurant and gelateria recommendations for Florence and Rome, where some had already been and some were going. After the final dinner, we retired to our rooms to pack. For Daiyna and Pam the morning trip to the airport was actually the middle of the night. Reunions are planned, and sharing our photos has been a wonderful way to transition back to our lives.
On to Florence:
Benay and I boarded the Frecciarossa fast train to Florence on Saturday. The next blog post will offer links and review of restaurants, gelaterias, B & B’s in Florence and Rome, plus our magical visit to Querciabella Winery. I will also have a giveaway for a Gunas bag. My vegan Gunas served me well on this trip. (Cathy had the same bag in magenta.) Please join me next week to read more.
I love comments, so please tell me what you think! What is your idea of a dream trip to Italy? More touring or more cooking collaborative cooking classes, olive oil, winery visits, food shops and markets, time to shop, or more time to sit in the countryside or cafes?
Many of these photos are were taken by Neil Andrews and Daiyna Hines.