A Hungry Archaeologist in Southern Italy
Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Many years ago the late, great, Cambridge prehistorian Glyn Daniel wrote a book about archaeology and food in France (his particular region of specialisation). Daniel was at his best an iconoclast and well-known for his peculiar niche interests, but the academics of St. John’s. College raised their considerable eyebrows at this low brow intervention, apparently so far removed from the serious world of solid scholarship. I am afraid to say that Glynn Daniel gets my vote for sure. As Mortimer Wheeler famously said, archaeology can be the driest dust that blows and lightening it a little with some well-timed culinary tips can be no bad thing.
Some years ago, when I was working as an excavating archaeologist in Italy, one day each weekend was set aside as a trip out for volunteers and diggers to see the sights or visit the beach. I was first properly introduced to this tradition when digging with Prof. Alastair Small and his Canadian team at Gravina in Apulia, a place many Andante Guests will remember from our Apulia tours. A solid morning of visits, perhaps Cannae, site of Hannibal’s greatest victory; Venosa, Roman colony and capital of the Norman Count Robert Guiscard; or Matera, the extraordinary Byzantine and later cave city; would be followed by the important search for a restaurant, a search that became increasingly frantic as time passed. Over the excavation season a whole host of new venues were sampled, from new glitzy palaces built for weddings and christening parties (we did attend a few of the latter gatherings by chance), to tiny Hostariae in even smaller villages where the lady of the household (or sometimes her husband) had prepared just one type of pasta for everyone, take it or leave it! Thus I was introduced to the delights of southern Italian cooking (my experiences in the north were a different story) and several things gradually became clear:
First off Italians eat pasta and lots of it. This might seem a banal observation but I am continually surprised by colleagues who find it odd to see it on the table at least once a day. There are, after all, at least 310 varieties of it to try and it can be served traditionally, with a sauce, or without – just with oil and garlic and a touch of hot chilli. The latter is considered the connoisseur's approach – apparently it makes it possible to taste the difference between the actual pastas of different regions and cities. Long-term favourites of mine include real carbonara, with pancetta, eggs and pecorino cheese (and not a jot of cream!), and some of the more exotic servings such as Black spaghetti with black Sepia sauce (the black ink from squid or cuttlefish) which is really rather tasty.
Seafood is, of course, a huge favourite in Italy. Sometimes when one visits the seaside in season it can be difficult to find non-seafood menus, as Italians find it most odd that anyone would not want to eat the fruits of the sea at the seaside. Seafood includes fish, mostly whole (with eyes!), shellfish, and cephalopods: octopus, squid and cuttlefish. This latter group can be quite challenging at first. I recall my first encounter with a fritta mista di mare (including fried squid tentacles) after visiting the ruins of the Greek colony at Metapontum. Initially hesitant and squeamish, I soon realised how fine they were. They became a favourite.
And no tour of southern Italian cuisine would be complete without mention of the humble pizza. Modern pizza is a fusion of ideas, based on southern Italian traditions. It was exported to the New World with the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who fled poverty, from whence it returned, transformed by the pressures of American life and readopted in its new form. In a modern Italian Pizzeria what you eat is the result of this fusion. The Pizzeria itself is an extraordinary institution: as with all decent Italian dining, it is relaxed, almost casual, and is frequented by all classes from Princes to paupers. Many have become quite famous. It is still possible to eat in the Pizzeria in Naples where the Margherita Pizza, named in honour of the wife of King Umberto 1 and the basis of almost all modern pizza, was first created.
The big surprise for many Northern Europeans, myself included, is the lack of vegetables. Italians tend not to eat green vegetables. They may eat them in sauces, or cold grilled with oil and garlic, but Italians get the majority of their vitamins from salads which they eat in profusion and great variety. As most Italian food is served on the plate alone (an order for a steak will produce… a steak) I found it necessary to remember to order a side plate of whatever vegetables were on offer that day.
During my time digging, archaeology was enhanced by the food that accompanied it, and some wonderful memories were engendered by the combination of the two. Memories of enjoying seafood while looking across the bay to the great Norman cathedral on the beach at Trani; a luncheon of local mozzarella and salami with a view of the three Greek temples at Paestum; or merely sampling bread, oil, and local olives and beer with the excavation team after a long hot day excavating at Botromagno near Gravina.
Guests on Andante holidays can affirm that food is indeed a crucial element of their archaeological experience. Traditions and conditions vary but we try our best to find local products to sample in congenial surroundings. A challenge indeed given the variety of places and countries that we visit, but for one I am ever more certain that Glyn Daniel was right: food and archaeology do mix remarkably well.