Italy with gusto
Lunch with the mob in the Calabrian badlands is an offer one cannot refuse
THEpreparations for lunch begin several months earlier when Colin McLaren calls the owners of this farmhouse in southern Italy and asks them to keep aside a pig for us. Summer is peak season for maiale in Reggio Calabria, but we are here in autumn, hence the special request.
McLaren has led tours to the south since 2006, so arranging a feast in the foothills of the Aspromonte massif is second nature to him. A former drug squad detective who famously infiltrated the Griffith mafia (his autobiography, Infiltration, was the basis for an episode of Underbelly ), McLaren prefers a quieter life now.
Mostly he keeps busy running his destination restaurant and small luxury hotel Villa Gusto in Victoria’s High Country, but twice a year he takes a small group of travellers to the badlands of Italy’s boot. The 14-day Gusto Sud itineraries trace the crooked trail of Italian mafia from Naples to Sicily and feature 14 lavish degustation meals held anywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants to a pretty villa in Basilicata, high above the Gulf of Policastro to here, in the grounds of a farmhouse halfway down the mount from the medieval town of Gerace.
The house is modest but there is a sweet garden of rosehips and pomegranates at the rear and invigorating views from its broad terrace. We are surrounded by a rugged, rolling landscape of pocked hillsides that once concealed kidnap victims of the Calabrian mafia, the Ndrangheta. John Paul Getty III was their most famous catch; the teenage oil heir was snatched off the streets of Rome and ransomed for $US17 million, a sum eventually bargained down to $US2.9m (young Getty lost an ear in the negotiations). Gazing at this alien terrain, you quickly realise how easy it would be to hide someone (or anything, really) in its lunar cavities.
McLaren echoes what we are all thinking. Where on earth do you find a man hidden away in mountains with 10,000 caves?
The Ndrangheta mainly targeted wealthy American and European tourists but we needn’t fret because, since the 1990s, they have concentrated on the much more lucrative global trade in ecstasy and cocaine. Now these same caves are used to conceal drug shipments that European authorities estimate net the Calabrian mafia about $US50 billion annually.
But back to the pig. It is enormous, at least 1m long and suspended above a charcoal grill on a gleaming steel skewer. Its skin has been roasted to a dark golden crispness and it smells incredible. I ask the chef, who seems to be wilting a little in the heat, what he’s stuffed inside the animal. He tells me there’s rosemary, onion, thyme . . . just about everything.
In front of the barbecue, a vast table has been set for lunch. There is barely room for our cutlery amid the smorgasbord sprawl. There are piles of chubby Calabrian sausages and salamis made in-house, rabbits that were hunted in these very same foothills, organic chicken and veal steaks.
There is chilli with fried broccoli, green beans and pecorino cheese plus fagioli in chilli oil and a generous non-chilli selection of fried and crumbed eggplant ( scrumptious), grilled zucchinis and peppers, mushrooms and artichokes in oil, chickpeas, simple salads of iceberg or tomato and onion, and glorious roasted potatoes.
It is more banquet than lunch — the sort of exaggerated feast you might see in a movie. To strengthen the allusion, a squat musician dressed in black hoists an allwhite accordion to his chest and begins serenading us with Italian classics. The theme from The Godfather, complete with finger vibratos, is a big hit, but it is the post-lunch tarantella that gets everyone up and jigging around the table in a human train.
Under a faded pink sign that says Benvenuti, everyone is suddenly cavorting and leg-kicking and laughing in this sundrenched corner of the Aspromonte Mountains. Calabrians might not have the most savoury reputation, but you can’t fault their hospitality.
Kendall Hill was a guest of Gusto Sud.