Our man in Calabria has a run-in with some very well-connected cattle
At the tail-end of summer we were driving through the forest to Gambarie, a small resort in the Aspromonte mountains, passing columns of Apé vans parked up and creaking with giant melons and soft peaches whilst their rough-bronzed owners sat by cardboard price lists offering nectar for a few centesimi.
A scented recipe of pine, campfire smoke and sausages drifted through the trees from the picnickers who’d arrived at some unearthly hour in the morning to enjoy the sweet and sour pleasures of woodland dining. I wasn’t concentrating, I needed a pee… badly.
“Just drive along a little further and I’m sure you’ll find it a little quieter,” suggested Maria. “Find a tree.”
Sure enough once we were round a few corners and I was certain there weren’t any more secret campers around I pulled off the road and onto a little dirt track. Leaping out the car with the engine running, I dived into the undergrowth and twisted along till I found what I was sure was a safe spot. Big tree, lots of bushes and no picnics.
“Aaaaaah!” I let a smile play across my lips in my reverie. “Aaaaah!”
Something hot and very wet suddenly touched the back of my neck,
I froze for a moment. Cold fear took over from relief. It was the loud, gruff snort which made me jump out of my skin and destroy my aim. I bolted, simultaneously trying to zip, run and shake my left leg as I hopped and tripped, petrified back to the car, thanking heaven for having left the engine running.
As I clambered into the car and slammed it into reverse I managed a quick glance back. My assailant stood at the edge of the trees, head tilted slightly to one side frowning at me and chewing slowly on a branch. Maria was in tears, her eyes wetter than my trouser leg.
“It’s only a cow!” she cried.
“How was I to know?” I said. “It could have been a bear!”
I reversed back onto the road feeling both relieved (well, half-relieved) and very stupid.
“What’s a flamin’ cow doing in the middle of a forest anyway?”
“It’s a Mafia Cow,” said Maria, still laughing.
“A Mafia Cow.”
“Now you really are taking the ‘P’ out of me.”
I wondered, what the hell a Mafia Cow was anyway? Does it sneak around the countryside extorting milk from other cows for organised cheese laundering or do they just steal grazing rights? I scoffed, beginning to imagine some sort of Sicilian take on Animal Farm.
“A bit of both I imagine,” Maria stated seriously. “They’re owned by the Mafia. They’re allowed to go where they please and you have to be careful you don’t knock any of them down when you drive round these roads.”
She grabbed my arm, as I swerved to avoid one which had appeared in the middle of the road round the next corner.
You won’t find ordered pastures liberally dotted with sheep or cattle in Calabria. Of course, there’s commercial farming in the onion fields of Tropea and the vast orange groves of Rosarno, but mostly it seems to be down to the smallholders, wandering shepherds and back-yard pig sties. The number one priority is providing food for the family. Market sales are a bonus.
Restaurant menus are a pretty good indicator of farming methods in this region too. Beef doesn’t feature much and they change with the seasons, except of course in the pizzerias where mozzarella and passata are as fundamental as your knife and fork. A tourist from Rome recently asked if anyone knew of a good Lebanese restaurant in the city and, as few had even heard of The Lebanon, far less what they ate, he was faced with blank faces.
The tourist changed tack and asked, “What about a good Indian then?”
This time he was met with laughter.
If it doesn’t grow here it won’t be on any menu.
Charles Winning is a Scot and Blue's guitarist who has started a new life in southern Italy. You can follow his adventures, in this largely ignored part of Italy, on his blog Winning Over Italy
"This was my introduction to the way that the Calabrian economy works. You never think about spending until you’ve met at least a cousin or a friend of the man who sells the item you want, be it a car or an evening meal. Drop the name and see the price drop too."
Exploring Puglia: Italy's beautiful but little-known province... More
Exploring Puglia: southern Italy's little known province | Destinations... More