Delia Morinelli has been cooking all her life and she’s not about to stop now she’s in her 80s. In fact, she is making the most of her ninth decade by taking on a new challenge – her first restaurant. On the terrace of her hillside home in the coastal village of Pioppi, two hours south of Naples, A Casa di Delia, is reached by narrow stone steps through a garden. From vine-shaded tables, diners look out across the Tyrrhenian Sea, where windsurfers leave white trails in the sparkling blue water.
There is no menu. Instead Delia’s son Angelo, who moved back to Campania from Rome to help with his mum’s venture, brought us dish after dish of seasonal specialities: anchovies in lemon; broad strips of homemade pasta with tomatoes, capers, olives and tuna; more anchovies, this time deep-fried; melanzane parmigiana – a rich, oozy aubergine, tomato and cheese bake. We barely had room for the cannoli, handmade using the bamboo that grows around the house, and stuffed with chocolate custard.
It was a typical feast from Campania, a region renowned for its seafood, tomatoes (said to be the secret to Neapolitan pizza), and buffalo mozzarella – but there’s nothing typical about Delia. Decades before Jamie Oliver made his fortune from the rustic cuisine of southern Italy, Delia played her part in bringing the local way of eating to the world’s attention. For 40 years she worked as housekeeper and cook for the US scientist Ancel Keys, who moved to Pioppi in the early 1960s after studying the link between the local diet and the low rate of cardiovascular disease in the area.
“He wanted to eat what I cooked for Giannino,” Delia told me, smiling at her 87-year-old husband, a former fisherman. Keys coined the term “Mediterranean diet”, detailing its benefits – and some of Delia’s recipes – in How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way, co-written with his wife and published in 1975. The book put the pretty but otherwise unremarkable fishing village of Pioppi on the map. An old palazzo on the seafront now houses the Mediterranean diet museum, which highlights the health benefits of lots of fruit and vegetables, oily fish and limited meat; and the many speciality vegetables and grains grown in the area. Meanwhile, Delia is a local celebrity and an official ambassador for the diet.
Just south of the Amalfi coast, the Cilento is Italy’s second-largest national park, yet relatively few foreign tourists come here. This is partly due to access – it’s about a two-hour drive from Naples airport – and partly due to a lack of large-scale accommodation. We spent a week at Le Favate, an agriturismo in a 17th-century house a few miles inland from the seaside town of Ascea. Managed by Caterina Socco, whose grandfather opened the park’s first agriturismo in 1989 and whose mum cooks, it is everything you could want in an Italian hideaway – a beautiful, secluded family enterprise with fantastic food that we could never finish. At sunset, our building glowed pinky orange and swallows dive bombed the pool.
To eat in the Cilento is to have that old M&S ad ringing in your ear … These aren’t any old tomatoes, they are the finest tomatoes known to man. Montoro copper onions are the sweetest onions you’ll ever taste. The buffalo mozzarella is the best in the country – and therefore the world. Many of the villages in the national park are famed for a single product: in Cicerale, it’s chickpeas; in Menaica, it’s anchovies; while Prignano is devoted to the white fig. A total of 26 products grown or made in the park are recognised and protected by the Slow Food Movement.
I spent a day zigzagging across the park on a mini culinary road trip via sleepy villages where residents still evidently enjoy the longevity Keys first identified. In Gioi, I tracked down the tiny butcher’s that produces soppressata di Gioi, a spicy sausage with lard in the middle. In Felitto – famed for fusillo pasta – I found the shop that sells the noodle-like delicacy – though at €5.50 a packet it cost about what I paid for a lunch of fusillo with ragù in the village of Stio. After hours of driving around in 40C heat, I stopped off at a secluded swimming spot in Gole del Calore (the Calore gorge) near Felitto, where kids used a concrete slope as a water slide and leapt into a separate narrow channel with pinpoint accuracy. Stepping into the cool, pure water of the river was the most delicious moment of the day.
Life in these honey-coloured settlements in the folds of wooded hillsides may move as slowly as treacle but it’s not preserved in aspic. Local entrepreneurs are starting to offer the Cilento’s main asset – its food – in a more modern, upscale environment. Giuseppe Pagano, owner of the Savoy Beach Hotel on the edge of the park and the sophisticated Beach Club 93 opposite, recently turned his attention (not to mention a substantial sum of money) to food and wine.
His vineyard, San Salvatore 1888 (book ahead to visit), is the only commercial winery in the national park, producing 12 wines from five grape varieties. His buffalo farm produces mozzarella, plus ice-cream, yoghurt and cheese, all sold in nearby La Dispensa, a deli and restaurant that opened last year. It’s a slick operation, in keeping with Pagano’s philosophy that “things have to be beautiful and good”, but this is rural Italy and the wine is still a bargain from about €3 a glass and the ice-cream is fantastic.
Pagano is as smooth as one of his reds but there’s no doubting his devotion to the land and its products. Showing me around the deli, he joked that his buffalos are the happiest in the land. “We play them classical music and they have a view of Capri,” he said pointing at the speck of land in the hazy distance. Animal welfare is promoted heavily at the area’s most famous buffalo farm too, Tenuta Vannulo, a vast operation where you can see the buffalo, watch men in white coats cut the mozzarella by hand, and of course, sample the products. Its restaurant is another sophisticated spot with a €29 set menu – pricey for these parts but popular with Italian families.
Vannulo and La Dispensa are both close to the extraordinary ruins of Paestum, the city founded by the Greeks around 600BC to exploit the fertile land. Borgo la Pietraia, a guesthouse that opened the high-end FOOD restaurant last year, where we dined on spaghetti cacio e pepe with tuna, is also nearby. The outer walls and doors of Borgo la Pietraia are painted bright red and green but inside it’s all cool shades and minimalism. In the evening I felt distinctly underdressed compared with the local Italians who came for cocktail hour and DJ tunes on the terrace. These new tourism ventures aren’t just helping to shine a spotlight on the Cilento, they are creating jobs, luring back the young who in the past have left the region in search of work. People like 30-year-old Chiara Pierro, director of communication at the Savoy Beach Hotel, who moved to Milan in her early 20s to work for one of the big fashion houses.
It’s not hard to see why Pierro wanted to return to her roots. As well as its mountainous interior and idyllic villages, the Cilento has a gorgeous coast. Some of our most memorable moments were eating and drinking by the sea, from Delia’s place to the deck of Caffè del Capitano in the fishing village of Marina di Pisciotta, watching our son play in the lagoon. As the sun set, we sat drinking aperol spritzes – not strictly part of the Mediterranean diet, but good for the soul nonetheless.
Way to go
Car hire was provided by Sicily by Car. A week’s rental from Naples airport costs from €400, including insurance.
There are flights to Naples from Gatwick (easyJet, BA), Stansted (Ryanair) and Luton (easyJet) year round. The budget airlines fly from East Midlands, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Edinburgh and Birmingham from March-October, and Belfast June-October.
When to go
The shoulder seasons of April/May and September/October are best. If you go in July or August, stay somewhere with air conditioning.
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