The Cilento shows the unknown side of Campania, a little gem that is best known as the Amalfi Coast’s quiet neighbor. Not yet largely present on the tourist map, it is full of mozzarella farms and rolling hills covered in vineyards and olive trees. I want to share it with the world, but at the same time want to keep the secret all to myself.
The Scene: Unrivaled Italian Beauty
The extraordinary beauty of this area has been preserved for centuries thanks in part to its isolation, which has left the gorgeous countryside unspoiled and local traditions preserved. To explain, Cilento and the Parco Nazionale del Cilento e Vallo di Diano is a protected Italian region that boasts 100km of coastline and a wild, mountainous interior sprinkled with historic villages. Much of it is a national park, the second largest in Italy, and is a Unesco world heritage site that sits not far south of the teeming holiday centers of Naples and the jet-setting Amalfi coast.
We traveled along increasingly narrow roads that snaked through olive groves and over streams in the flatlands of the Sele and Alento rivers, which are a natural habitat for the water buffalo that thrive in this temperate climate. The buffalo are thought to originally be imports from India and have been rambling around the temples and surrounding plains for at least 1,100 years, wallowing in the lowland waters.
We passed the mozzarella factories, or caseificio, driving along curving roads and arrived at our destination: Tenuta Seliano, the former home of Baroness Cecilia Baratta and her family. Seliano is only 5 kilometres from the archaeological site of Paestum and the sea and has been converted into one of the best agritourismos in the country.
Dating back to the 1800s, Tenuta Seliano’s main house and farm buildings have great character and a rustic elegance evoking gracious country living from a different era. A well-groomed garden and some 91 hectares (225 acres) of land complete the property, part of which is dedicated to raising buffalo (for mozzarella, of course). It is the sort of place you’d never want to leave. The pool, sunbathing terraces and the large covered veranda close by are well furnished and perfect for relaxing and enjoying the tranquilizing calmness. I could linger all day by the pool in season with just the sound of birdsong in the air.
Authentic Farm-to-table Experience
Seliano’s setting is idyllic. It’s an agriturismo of the purest kind where everything served at the table is produced on the farm including the wine, olive oil, and cheese. Agriturismo is an Italian term for what we might call a farm holiday or a form of agricultural tourism. In 1985, the Italian government passed a law encouraging farmers and landowners to convert their farmhouses or abandoned farm buildings into holiday accommodation. They are exactly what they claim to be: a working farm, surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty.
Tenuta Seliano offered just what I longed for on an Italian vacation: an authentic Italian rural experience, the chance to live with an Italian family, and the opportunity to slow down from the normal tourist pace. The most difficult task each day was to decide how to spend my time, although Cecilia was the best guide in every respect.
The food at Tenuta Seliano is based on fresh farm produce. We gathered eggs farther down the road on their farm property, Masseria Eliseo, where there is a large kitchen for group cooking classes next to the buffalo pastures and barns. With their own herd of over 800 buffalo, there is also plenty of tasty fresh mozzarella and occasionally buffalo meat on the estate. The glory of these historic buildings was counterpointed by the open countryside creeping right up to the sturdy ancient walls with fields of broccolo romano, peppers, eggplants, and, best of all, in late winter and early spring, the famous artichokes of Paestum.
Not Your Average Cows
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire by 1300, the free-ranging buffalo, which were originally beasts of burden, were providing a significant economic resource as their milk was collected by local ranchers who rounded them up.
These are not the big, brown, wild, hairy bison of the North American prairies; they’re the smooth, dark, curly-horned beasts you might expect to see in a documentary about rice farming in China. These intimidating beasts offer a living history lesson on the local area; they dominated this landscape when it was too waterlogged for humans to negotiate. When German author Wolfgang Goethe travelled through Cilento in 1787, he talked of “flooded places where we looked into the blood-red savage eyes of buffalo.” I don’t know if I could call the eyes wild since they seemed very content and docile, but instead of roaming swamps, they now bolster the economy.
Cheese makers transformed their milk into a variety of cheeses, notably mozzarella di bufala. By the early 17th century, random cheese making had taken a commercial turn, with one local farm keeping 3,000 buffalo for mozzarella and cheese production. The number of buffalo now in Paestum and its environs is seven times that, and among them are the over 800 fortunate buffalo that form the herd at Seliano.
From Buffalo to Mozzarella Delicacies
On one day we ventured to the dairy where Seliano takes its milk to be transformed into cheese. The whole procedure of mozzarella production is multi-staged, with each phase accomplished almost entirely by hand.
We were fascinated by the moment when the cheese makers, working as a team of two or three, would take the hot, stringy cheese by handfuls and cut it away (mozzare) from the larger mass, making smaller balls which they dropped into vats of cool liquid. This took on the appearance of a timeless dance, the cheese makers falling into step with one another as one pulls and the others push against him as if making taffy, and then reforming the cheese to keep it fluid and warm. The procedure concluded with the balls transferred to soak in a salty brine for no longer than fifteen to twenty minutes. The larger mozzarella are said to have the most flavor, but the smaller tidbits are my own personal favorite.
Buffalo milk has roughly three times the fat of cows milk, which makes it decadently creamy and flavourful. It contains much less water and more protein and fat. This all makes for an exceptional cheese. The higher percentage of solids in the milk means you can get more cheese from a gallon of milk. The bummer is that water buffalo produce less milk than cows. A dairy cow will produce between 50 and 70 pounds of milk a day, while a water buffalo will produce 10-12 pounds a day. It is easy to see why it is so revered. From the leftover whey, they make their highly prized butter and ricotta cheese.
The word mozzarella, when spoken in the Cilento, refers to buffalo mozzarella only. Mozzarella made from cow’s milk is “fior di latte.” In the Amalfi area, the term “mozzarella” means the cow milk cheese, produced in Agerola. The product from Cilento, or from Caserta, is referred to there as “mozzarella di bufala.” You will always be politely corrected wherever you are. Buffalo mozzarella from Italy is perhaps the most difficult cheese to replicate and highly prized by Italians. Fresh mozzarella di bufala is one of the miracles of Italian cuisine.
With fresh mozzarella you get a little pool of buffalo milk coating the plate after you’ve sliced open the ball. It’s fantastic! Mouth-filling and saltier than the traditional, you taste sweet notes and a gentle tang along with full, grassy flavors and a long, salted-butter linger. The texture is pleasantly delicate and yielding, but needs to be supple enough that it can be sliced. Mozzarella di bufala seems like the reason the word “mouthfeel” was invented, with a depth of flavour that makes even the freshest hand-pulled artisanal cow-milk mozzarella taste like glorified string cheese.
If you’ve ever bought mozzarella di bufala before, you know it’s not packaged like other cheeses. Whether in Italy or at home, it comes in a container (either a plastic tub or bag) filled with milky, room temperature brine which is crucial in keeping the prized mozzarella moist.
Until this time I had only dreamed of having unpasteurized buffalo milk mozzarella, which is a time sensitive cheese that must be consumed within twenty-four hours of its creation. This cheese is widely regarded as the best mozzarella in the world, a true delicacy, and you have to be in southern Italy to have the privilege of having a taste.
Given its importance as a typical food product, the Campanian Mozzarella di Bufala exists under very strict rules of production, the regulation of which has pertained to the Consortium of Protection since 1981. The consortium is the only organization recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry as having the official capacity to protect, uphold, appraise, and promote Campanian Mozzarella di Bufala D.O.P.
Although mozzarella di bufala is best eaten as fresh as possible, if you should have any leftovers, you’re limited only by your culinary imagination. At its simplest, all it needs is a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a grinding of aromatic black pepper. In the classic Insalata Caprese, it is paired with ripe tomatoes and sweet basil and dressed with extra-virgin olive oil (traditionally with no balsamic vinegar or lemon). It is also essential to melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant parmigiana), deep-fried half-moon pastries called panzerotti that also feature salami, and calzone. And, of course, pizza wouldn’t be the same without mozzarella di bufala.
Pretty soon it was time for an aperitif on the terrace in the dying sun, watching the lizards scuttle in and out of the masonry. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world. And then dinner. Each night I sat at a long table with an eclectic group of people. These were particularly convivial and memorable evenings, a chance to meet people from all walks of life and every corner of the world. Artists, doctors, hitchhikers, Cecilia’s sons Ettore and Massimino, and family friends all sipping local wine and breaking bread together, each seeking a truly authentic Italian experience. The atmosphere was friendly and informal, feeling more like a relaxed stay with friends. It’s everything a holiday should be!
All photos are courtesy of the author.