Cooking In Italy: Being Part of the Family at Mami Camilla
By Max Hartshorne
“I want you know the simplicity of the Neapolitan cuisine,” Giuseppe Longo told us. “It is about the simple way we cook our food and the wonderful ingredients we use here,” he said, setting before us a plate of very ripe yellow melon draped in prosciutto paired with the local fruity white wine.
We had stepped off the bus from the Naples airport in Sant ‘Agnello, a suburb of Sorrento on Italy’s southern Mediterranean coast.
We sat under the shade of lemon and olive trees in the courtyard, and contemplated the week ahead at Mami Camilla’s Taste of the South of Italy.
The delicious snack was a prelude to what would be a series of lessons, field trips, and big candle-lit dinners with plenty of wine and fascinating conversation.
Say Hi to Spike
We were greeted by Spike, a scary-looking yet gentle giant of a Great Dane, with a tiger’s stripes and a torrent of drool seeping about a foot down his mighty chin. He wanted a bite of prosciutto, and who could blame him?
We were prepared to open our belts a few notches as we began our culinary training at the Mami Camilla. This cooking school, founded just about a year ago, is not easy to find, even some of the locals didn’t know where it was. But we soon found the school on a dirt side street, entered through the metal gates and began our delicious adventure with the Longo family.
Giuseppe, the tall and handsome 26-year old son, runs the publicity end of things. Father Biagio Longo, a chef with decades of experience cooking in restaurants all over Italy and Europe, takes care of the cooking lessons. Biagio speaks well in German, English and French, except when he gets passionate about his recipes and then it is Italian all the way and Giuseppe steps in to translate. Mama Camilla herself runs the 10-room bed and breakfast where both cooking participants and hungry travelers can bed down for the night.
We were surprised when we popped our heads over the fence to find several ostriches among the goats, pigs and horses in the neighboring yard. The chickens got us out of bed early with their crowing, as well as the smell of the cappuccino Camilla was brewing for the al fresco breakfast.
Tranquil yet Urban Setting
Mami Camilla’s location is tranquil, contrasted with the noise and traffic of busy Sant ‘Agnello. The rooms are reached through little paths that wind their way past different kinds of vegetable gardens and are shaded by lemon trees. Mami Camilla’s has a reciprocal arrangement with another nearby B&B, so some of the students stay there. But nearly everyone shows up every night at 8:30 for the big dinner where the students share what they’ve learned from the Big Guy. You can join them for dinner for a mere 15 Euros per person, for a sumptuous four-course meal with plenty of local vino.
And inspire is what taking these classes can do! We came away with a full sack of recipes but most of all, we got a chance to watch how a thoroughly modern Italian family business works and how those little techniques that chefs take for granted can truly improve one’s own cooking techniques.
One of the first things we learned as we began our nightly classes (each begins at 5 pm) was how to properly slice that all important vegetable – the onion. Like most professional chefs Biagio deftly sliced them not quite all the way through, so the onion stays together until he was finished cutting the other side. Little chop chop chops give way to a perfectly sliced onion. Later he mashed up the garlic with his fingers before dropping it into the swirling yellow olive oil.
Nearly every recipe calls for extra virgin olive oil, in copious quantities, and one of our trips was to the source of this key ingredient. We toured the olive groves and frantoio owned by Imma Gargiulo’s family, where they have been making extra virgin olive oil from Sorrento olives for three generations. Imma, with her amazing coiled locks and warm smile, took us out to the woods and showed us her trees, many up to 200 years old, that drop their fruit into nets collected by local workers around October of each year.
Imma said that due to a four-month drought in the region, this year’s olive harvest would be a lot smaller than previous years. Still they produce oil from olives from several other regions so they will have enough for the year. After the quick tour of the olive oil pressing facility, we headed for the tasting room.
Sampling the Oils and Wines
Imma first poured us the Venus Biologico organic oil, produced in accordance with strict EU rules against pesticides and anything unnatural. This had a fruity and pleasing green color. The tasting technique is to pour the oil into little bottles, and then warm it in your palm, and wait to taste.
The additional oils Gargiulo offers include lemon and orange flavored olive oil and Verum, the “peculiar oil for people very fond of traditional gastronomy.” Having decorative tall bottles of this wonderful oil made great presents for our friends and family to enjoy.
Another field trip took us to Il Pizzo vineyard, where all of Mami Camilla’s wine comes from. It was a bittersweet story, since the proprietor Signore Pizzo, is getting on in years and lamented to us that none of his children were interested in working the lemon groves and vines that he’s cultivated since he took over from his dad. These young people, he said, like his son, who has chosen to become an engineer, and his daughter, who moved to the city, don’t want to put in the long hours involved with eking out a living at this farm.
Selling the huge lemons that grow in this grove and collecting the olives that fall from the trees is hard work. These lemons, huge and knarly, are full of both seeds and aroma. Pizzo scratched the surface of one of the fruits and it brought forth a pungent tang. Competition from South America and China has put up pit-free versions against these plump and savory varieties, with nowhere near the flavor. But sales and prices are down. So this elder Pizzo may indeed be the last generation to grow grapes and lemons in this Sant’ Agnello grove.
Chef Biagio Longo relies on the small local markets for his produce, focusing on the most in season items and growing as much as he can on his 4000-meter garden. A new crop of fennel was being planted and watered the week we visited. Also more fall broccoli and the ubiquitous lemons overhead.
The wine comes in large amounts via Sr. Pizzo by scooter truck, delivered in massive bottles every day. We took a stroll through the weekly outdoor market but didn’t find the lemons, basil and fresh produce, but belts, cds, and yards of cheap clothes.
A Chef’s Secrets
Biagio showed us some tricks of his trade. One of them is to put vinegar into a boiling pan of potatoes to instantly stop the cooking. A second was to freeze the fresh octopus for three or four days, and when it is defrosted it will lose that famous sinewy toughness and rubbery texture. The octopus salad we came up with was easy to munch on and easy to enjoy. The first course would be said octopus, cooked for an hour, and surrounded by yellow potato, gently boiled accompanied by some more extra virgin olive oil and fresh parsley.
That night we would go on to create some remarkable dishes, mainly because we used such simple ingredients. Every dinner included an antipasto, a primo, (pasta) and a secondo, (meat or seafood), and of course, a luxurious dessert. The recipes were provided but the most important thing we came away with was the art of serving the food and the small touches a professional chef can add.
Undoutedly the best part of sitting down at Mami Camilla’s table is the kinship you feel with the other diners and conversation that begins to flow immediately. Why not, since you’ve spent since five o’clock hard at work with your aprons on!
Our group was mostly Brits, Irish and some other Europeans. Instead of dining in a more traditional restaurant setting, we sat together a long table, and each course got congrats from those who hadn’t had the fun of helping cook.
One evening we were joined by a boisterous Scottish couple who got out a guitar and serenaded us with songs about Mami Camilla. Afterwards we sang every song we could think of and got a real treat when an Irish young lady sang sweet ballads.
It was la dolce vita — laughter, fine food, great conversation, and copious amounts of Il Pizzo’s wine. This is the way to truly enjoy wonderful Italy and learn lifelong lessons, without spending a fortune.
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