On Not Giving a Fig for Southern Italy

Never trust a travel writer
A taste of Cilento, south of Naples, Salerno and the Amalfi Coast, with a Slow Food trail centred on the sweetest figs, figs that are helping revive a sleepy region. The Unesco-listed Cilento National Park is also famed for the magnificent Greek temples of Paestum and the untarnished coast.
– summary

Slow Food trails don’t come any sweeter than this. The tantalising Cilento Coast draws fans of the Southern Italian dolce vita, with a sultry lifestyle typified by the juiciest figs. This may be the land of mozzarella and moon-faced buffalo but the figs take the biscuit. In the rural region south of the glitzy Amalfi Coast, these prized figs are helping revive a forgotten region. Since its heyday under the Ancient Greeks, the Cilento has slumbered, leaving the Amalfi Coast to entice visitors with the lure of lemon-scented Limoncello and, of course, Southern Italy's most dramatic coastline.  

We whet our appetites in Paestum’s temples, a slice of Ancient Greece in Italy. This Unesco World Heritage site represents the gateway to the rugged Cilento National Park and is a foretaste of the feast to come. From their base in Paestum, the Ancient Greek colonists cultivated figs and olives and used them as cures as well as foodstuffs. Apparently, fig molasses was the original sports drink, glugged by Classical Greek athletes before the Olympics.

Paestum is Cilento's greatest Classical site © Paestum
Paestum is Cilento's greatest Classical site © Paestum

Cilento – the land of figs

In the quaint hamlet of Prignano Cilento, just south of Paestum, a prize-winning fig farm is keeping the Greek spirit alive. Rolling hills slope down to a cobalt sea rippling towards Capri. Perched on a scenic hill, Santomiele looks a model fig farm. It’s a setting more suited to a boutique hotel but presumably the figs deserve it. These award-winning Cilento white figs are either the best in Italy or the best in the world, depending on who really gives a fig.

Figs have always thrived locally but until recently no one had the vision to see figs as part of a rural revival in this poorer part of Campania. As the Greeks had established, the growing conditions are perfect, with sunny, terraced slopes aired by gentle maritime breezes. Geologist Antonio Longo, the founder of Santomiele, decided this was the best terrain for figs and, in 1999, set to work converting his grandfather’s former olive mill into an upmarket fig farm. His mission was to replant the land with the most prized fig of all and to make it marketable. Difficult to harvest, the rare Dottato white fig had virtually died out until Santomiele came on the scene. To local surprise, it swiftly became a successful niche brand for serious foodies who can afford the best. Whether hand-rolled, flavoured with spices or soaked in liqueurs, a small box of hand-picked figs can cost as much as a top bottle of wine.

Prized white figs from Santomiele in Cilento © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Prized white figs from Santomiele in Cilento © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

Once dubbed `the bread of the poor,’ figs now provide rich pickings for the area. These Dottato white figs are found in the world’s finest delis, as well as on Giorgio Armani’s dining table. The figs were even presented to the Queen by the Italian Ambassador to London but, quite frankly, it’s not clear whether Her Majesty really gave a fig. No one present points out that the Queen has spent her ninety-one years learning not to say `fig orf’ to random gifts.

Amalfi lemons up the coast from Cilento © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Amalfi lemons up the coast from Cilento © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

Antonio Longo surveys his swish fig farm with pride. The look is Milanese minimalist chic, dotted with showy tasting stations, a scene at odds with the untamed countryside. On the terrace, it all falls into place. Set on a sunny slope, the farm uses its terraces for fig-drying, with summer dedicated to toasting and hand-turning the fruit. After being peeled, the figs are sun-dried, as in the days of the Ancient Greeks, before being slow-roasted on a bed of olive leaves. And then the fun begins, with fig concoctions studded with spices or enrobed in chocolate. Many are traditional recipes with a twist, packaged in luxe artisan style.

Quite frankly, it’s not clear whether Her Majesty really gave a fig. No one present points out that the Queen has spent her ninety-one years learning not to say `fig orf’ to random gifts.

Figs as food porn

For all its success, the fig business has humble origins. Longo picks up a conch shell and makes a strange wailing sound. Until several decades ago, these shells were used by fig-pickers in the fields to warn of an impending storm. This was the signal for the medieval church bells to ring out in Prignano, alerting workers to gather up the drying figs in time.

The Ancient Greeks didn't give a fig for propriety © Paestum
The Ancient Greeks didn't give a fig for propriety © Paestum

It’s finally time to tuck into the produce. The eager female tasters, myself included, produce lip-smacking sounds reminiscent of a poorly-dubbed porn film. The Ancient Greeks associated figs with fertility but this is about flavour, classic food porn. A single fig packs such a punch of sweetness and subtlety that the price is momentarily forgotten, along with thoughts of munching a boxful, even if I could afford them. “Our Cilento figs are sweeter, subtler and more fine-seeded than the coarse Turkish, Greek, or Calabrian figs you usually find in the market,” crows the owner. I vow to banish all coarse Turks from my life forever. 

Cilento's wild, Unesco-protected coast © Campania tourism
Cilento's wild, Unesco-protected coast © Campania tourism

The fig-tasting is far from over but I feel too full to do it justice. Figs stuffed with Sorrento walnuts and dipped in rum compete with syrupy liquorice and honey-scented fig molasses drizzled over ice cream. Capocollo fig rolls are filled with pistachios, almonds, cinnamon and rum. Pigna, the star cake, is made of dried figs, pine-nuts and hazelnuts enrobed in chocolate.  Fagottini `bundles’ of figs, stuffed with Sicilian almonds and Sorrento candied lemon peel, are soaked in fig molasses and a splash of rum. It’s probably not what Jamie Oliver would promote first in his anti-sugar crusade but I’m too much of a convert to give a fig.

Taste of Cilento:

Paestum, with its temples, beaches and tempting mozzarella farms, is a 90-minute drive from Naples (60 miles)

Tasting Campania (foodie day tours):  www.tastingcampania.com

Food and wine trails around Campania, including wine-tasting and truffle-hunting day/half-day trips around the Irpinia area, as well as an engaging half-day street food safari in Naples. Accommodating Italian-Australian owner Giuseppe Guanci can also set up customised food, wine or soft adventure tours, all at very reasonable prices.

Santomiele fig farm:   www.santomiele.it

Fig-tastings in Prignano Cilento, just south of Paestum and inland of Agropoli.

Savoy Beach Hotel, Paestum:  www.savoybeachhotel.it

Friendly, family-owned and well-run, this good-value beach base is a springboard for exploring Paestum and the unspoilt Cilento countryside and coast, and further afield to Salerno, Naples and Amalfi. The owners also have a new beach club and an impressive organic wine estate and farm in Paestum. The hotel's popularity as a wedding venue could be disconcerting but should be offset against the satisfaction of good food, decent prices, a huge swimming pool and the beachfront location.

Terre di Paestum, Paestum: www.terredipaestum.it

Rural restaurant and farm stay for hearty Cilento home-cooking, from pumpkin-stuffed ravioli to roast artichokes, and even figs in season.

Ramblers hiking holidays: www.ramblersholidays.co.uk

Holidays for walking off the fig feast on hikes through the Unesco-listed Cilento National Park.

ABTOI (UK tour operators to Italy, including for holidays in Campania): www.loveitaly.co.uk


Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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1 Comment

  1. Layla Bianchi03/09/17

    I enjoyed reading the article which is as exquisite as the Cilento figs whose origin it portrays.

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