Italy with gusto

Lunch with the mob in the Cal­abrian bad­lands is an of­fer one can­not refuse

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KEN­DALL HILL

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.

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