Sunday, June 28, 2015

Lucania ~ As I See It

From the Radici del Sud notebook

Forget anything you know about Basilicata and Southern Italy. Disregard anyone telling you this is the poorest region in all of Italy. What I’m about to tell you, I hope, will change what and how you think about this region and the South.

There is an Italy that is still wild, that cannot be subdued by organized crime or disorganized government, and where few tourists venture. Basilicata, when I am in it, I look around and wonder why it took me so long to get back here. The vistas are broad and dramatic, the history is long and the people, well, they are some of the most interesting Italians I have ever met. There is an aura of fierce independence conjoined with a mystical, almost feral nature in the Lucanians. Time is measured by the beat of a metronome that one does not find in the rest of Italy. You have to be there  ̶  inside  ̶  to experience what I am telling you.

Yes, of course, this is not an easy place. Come here in the winter and find out for yourself. The wind is piercing, the cold is numbing, the fragility of life, your life, can be exposed in a moment’s notice. It is also invigorating, to put oneself on the edge, and to challenge one’s sense of a place. These are conditions with which the humans, the animals and the plants steer their lives. Here is where Aglianico, not Nebbiolo, not Sangiovese, not Pinot Noir, thrives. Aglianico. Tough as nails place to live? Impoverished? Off limits? To a vine, it’s Paradise. Or, at worst, Purgatory with a good chance for redemption.

All of Southern Italy falls under the protection of the Goddess. In many places now she is called Maria. But Her energy transcends the polytheistic, monotheistic and reason. Her metric cannot be gauged; one won’t find it with a spread sheet, a compass or a calculator. Find it with your beating heart. Lucania is the Mother Lode. Everywhere you look, Her guiding hand is there. In the sky, in the water, in the wheat fields, in the eyes of the animals. Does this frighten you? Does this sound a little too pagan for you? Or does this touch something deep inside of you that has long been sublimated? Come to this region and find out. Get in touch with your feminine side. Immerse yourself in a still strong matriarchal culture.

No matter how you slice this amazingly hard-crusted bread, there is a wellspring of spirituality here, untouched by the selfie-stick seller of Rome, the bus driver of Verona or the cashier of Eataly. Come, and see.

There isn’t a wall that has been built around the region by Federico II or Mussolini. The 21st century is here. It’s just in perspective to the other 20+ that have preceded it. The stones symbolize a time in which humans are just a small glimmer, a comma, not a volume. Some Lucanians have ventured out to the larger world. Talking with a young woman, her family owns a vineyard in Basilicata. “Did you leave your home and go to Rome? To Milan? To Torino?” I ask her. “I did. I was looking for my life away from here. I wanted a career. I wanted an identity as a modern woman. I didn’t want to be left in the dust of time.” she told me. “And what brought you back?” I prodded. “It wasn’t a coming back. It wasn’t like that. Rome and Milan, and my ‘career’ gave me the perspective to see that my life wasn’t going to be one where I served from the city. It was more circular than that. I saw my father, how hard he worked for this land, and my mother and my grandparents and great grandparents. How could I give that up for a 3rd floor apartment in Milan, and ferie in Forte dei Marmi?”

Her eyes penetrated through the strong back-light from the window behind where she stood, as she poured me a glass of her family’s Aglianico. That was all one needed to know, why she made full-circle.

“You know we are considered the poorest region in all of Italy.” I was interviewing another female winemaker from Basilicata. The matriarchal runs deep and strong in these parts, as already noted. “But it wasn’t always this way. When Garibaldi made his march to the north, he didn’t go empty handed. He plundered the banks in the south. He took much of our wealth. And now the people in the north look at us ‘poor southerners’ and they ask why they must always pull us out of the river.” I’ve heard this said many times.

In Sicily, sitting at a table having caffe latté and a brioche. “Garibaldi sat at this very table, after he ‘requisitioned’ our family estate as his temporary headquarters.” I was talking to a relative, in the searing summer morning about to become a scorcher of a day. There was little love for the man in those words, other than relief that he finally left and went up north. “Liberated Italy? Is that what the history books called it? He liberated quite a bit more than that. He pillaged the South. And we’re still trying to recover. With the Mafia, though, who knows when we’ll ever get back to who we were?” My relative never lived to see that day. We’re still not there. Yes, along with all the mystical, earth-mother meanderings here, there is also a darkness that in the brightest, hottest, sunniest Southern Italian day, masks the spirit of these folks and mars all of Italy.

“They take our wine to make theirs stronger, our wheat, because it makes the best pasta. They eat our tomatoes in January; we feed them in the winter. And they mock us whenever they can. But if any of them would come and make an honest living here with us, they wouldn’t last a year.” In a shop, getting stamps, gum, tobacco, lotto, the man behind the counter, how many times have I heard this? Italy's North/South bitterness rivals America’s present day tribal/economic/racial acrimony.

And all along this path of life, walking with us, are the animals. Cows, clinging to a hillside, their muscles strengthened by their routine and their healthy diet, making their meat, for humans, so desirable. Those creatures. Birds, flittering, all types, from raptors to doves, navigating their ways with celestial guidance, making music for the earthbound ones as we look up in wonder at how easily they ascend. And the unseen ones, the wolf, the turtle, the dormouse. An occasional lizard sunning themselves on a hot rock. Teeming life, of which we humans rarely ponder. But which, regardless of our consideration, fills this land with more life than we mere mortals can comprehend. All this, leading to a glass of red wine.

Pure wine – strong wine – wine of truth. Aglianico. Not the Barolo of the South. Never. Ever. It isn’t light wine. It’s dark and brooding. Aglianico from Basilicata, which I prefer over the Campanian style, is purple and spicy and herbal and absinthian and it’s like being a little kid being held by your mamma, holding you while you cry as she gently gives you drops of bittersweet medicine in order to keep you from suffering for one more night. Yes, Aglianico, to some of us is medicine. Good Medicine.

Have you ever had a 50 year old Aglianico del Vulture? If you have, you’re one of a few who have ever. The wine, the land, the people were not so organized to store them to see about that claim. They were too involved with living their lives, with survival. Oh, yes, there are bottles in those rock hewed cellars in Rionero. But who’s going to tell you what the vintage is on those unlabeled bottles, piled up for so many years. Maybe the man (or woman) who placed them there is now gone. And even if you could find someone, what language will you speak it in? Theirs? Do you know this language?

Looking for old wine is a conceit for urban dwellers. Take, instead, your cue from the old guys. Drink the Aglianico. Don’t wait for it to get old. It’s a waiting game you won’t win. Drink it. Open it in the winter. Open it in the summer. Have it with meat. Have it with vegetables. Make sauce from your garden of too many tomatoes and marry it with pasta and just drink the Aglianico.

And for those of you who do venture south, go to this little corner of forgotten time and refresh your spirit with the ageless ones. There are happy people there, living simply. Don’t pity them. Don’t covet their life. Celebrate life with them and with their unconquerable red wine for which there is a name and for which there is no equivalent.

Again, thank you to Nicola Campanile, Maurizio Gily and Ole Udsen for conspiring to finally get me to Radici del Sud and back to Lucania.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco Aspromonte said...

Coming from similar Southern Italian radici, your words bring out that longing for home steeped in the mysteries of the Mother cult. said...

A few years ago I read a book about Sicily. Wanting to know more about this Island that runs deeply through my veins, I was surprised to find that the deep feelings I have internally were a surprising and somewhat disturbing way. I believe the book was titled, From Persiphones Garden. But that doesn't really matter, what matters to me are the strong feelings that book exposed. Much of it talked about this very subject that your article addresses. I know that there is so much truth in what the people in Basilicata express. Southern Italy and Sicily were raped and pillaged by so many cultures. Their natural resources were stolen and used to adorn and feed the pillagers. Their trees were forested and never replenished to build Rome. They were the "breadbasket" for Italy. Then sadly left to be criticized and mocked for the poverty they were left with.
The irony here is that because of this history, they have strong bodies and minds and passion that runs deep. So deep, that that passion and drive are handed down genetically. I feel it inside of me and I know it is because of our heritage.
Al, this is one of your best pieces yet. Love you, Sis.

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