Food and wine route in the Agri Valley

The way that nature has expressed itself in this area is enchanting, with high peaks that encircle, almost protectively, an entire valley made up of small villages that let their voices resound with loud historical-archaeological notes that spread among the beeches, turkey oaks, maples, chestnuts and firs, crossed by the numerous waterways that distinguish the area. It is the land of the Agri, a river that was once navigable; it is the land between the Vulturino and Sirino mountains, recognised in 2007 as the Lucano Apennines – Val d’Agri – Lagonegrese National Park. It is here, among lakes, dams, green expanses and woods inhabited by the most varied animal species, that the magical association between mother nature, history and the flavours of the area takes place, the latter being the keystone in the path to discovering the territory. An innovative way of getting to know places is, in fact, to start with the table, the dishes that give it its colour and the flavours that characterise it. Elements that can guide our knowledge of a people and their culture much more than we think. The morphology of the territory, as well as the socio-economic conditions that have characterised the different historical periods, are the contributing factors to the development of a particular type of food, favouring the emergence of unique and recognisable typical dishes over time.

Getting to know the villages scattered around the Agri Valley, discovering their essence and bringing back memories is an experience that also involves the dinner table. After all, as the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach asserted, ‘man is what he eats’; the culture of each people, its identity, the traditions that define each community, are also reflected in food, which over time becomes one of the main vectors of cultural identity. An unmistakable symbol. Its preparation is culture, the tradition from which it originates is culture, and the moment it is eaten is also culture. Amidst the lush, wild forests, lake habitats and the many rivers that run through the Val d’Agri, there are small villages with an interesting history, with fragments of an ancestral past that still shine through in their architecture, art and even food and wine traditions. The smells that intoxicate this area are those of authenticity, goodness and handmade products. It is the smells of local tradition that take us on an unparalleled sensory tour. They are the combined result of history, tradition and nature.

A land of vineyards, the Alta Val d’Agri proudly produces fine wine, praised in the past by Pliny the Elder, described as a ‘divine beverage’ in the pages of Homer and known to the Romans as ‘lagarina’. The wine-growing and wine-producing tradition has its roots in ancient times and takes us back in time, sipping a nice glass of local red wine, to distant times that go back to Ancient Greece, through the Romans and all the various peoples that have followed. In fact, in its early days, the red nectar of the Lucanian mountains was produced according to techniques belonging to ancient Enotria. It is said that Greek colonists pioneered wine-growing practices in Lucania as early as the Iron Age. With the development of Greek colonies on the Ionian Sea, in particular Siris and Sybaris, wine production also spread inland and, after the destruction of Sybaris in 510 BC, the Sybarites settled permanently in the river valleys of the Lucanian Apennines, importing into this area the tradition of the Aminae, a particular type of vine known for its production yield and the durability of the wine to the point of becoming a household name. Later, around the 1st century BC, the Roman Marcus Valerius Messalla Potitus set up a proper farm with vines from the Ionian fortress of Lagaria, from which wine was named ‘lagarina’, with medicine of the time attributing it a number of therapeutic properties. The Terre dell’Alta Val d’Agri wine now carries the DOC label, and is mainly produced in the areas of Viggiano, Grumento and Moliterno. It is a blend of 40% Cabernet and 40% Merlot, with the remaining part of a Lucanian grape variety of choice, which further distinguishes its flavour. The areas involved in wine production are sites that can offer not only sensory emotions but also a real journey through time. Just consider the veneration of the Madonna of Viggiano, from its birth to the development of the entire tradition, the archaeological jewel of Grumentum with its reference to Roman history, or the origins of Moliterno: a village of white houses that is said to have been built following the destruction of Grumentum by the Saracens. For more than a century it was ruled by the Normans, whose majestic castle we can admire today, including the remains of the quadrangular tower divided into three floors, each occupied by a single room: the prison cells. But the ruins of the castle atop the highest spur are not the only point of historical interest in the small town. A series of elegant aristocratic buildings catches the eye even before you get to the Roman archway leading to the fortress: these are Palazzo Parisi, Palazzo Giliberti, Palazzo Mobilio Giampietro and Palazzo Lovito. Another attraction is the well-known MAM (Musei Aiello Moliterno) museum system: a series of museums scattered throughout the town, created thanks to the work of the Aiello family and home to works of art created by Lucanian artists (Palazzo Aiello 1786 Museum and Casa Domenico Aiello Museum) and contemporary and modern exhibitions (via Rosario Contemporanea Museum), entire collections of ceramics (20th Century Ceramics Museum) and, again, the history of books told inside an Art Nouveau structure (Biblioteca Lucana Angela Aiello library). Also not to be missed are the Hall of Maps and the Hall of Earthquake History. The tour of food and wine excellence takes us to another typical Moliterno product, the famous Pecorino Canestrato, recognised as a PGI product and the star of the Sagra del Pecorino festival, which every year attracts many dairy product lovers and curious gourmands. This is a very flavoursome cheese, made from goat’s milk mixed with sheep’s milk, enriched with aromatic herbs and preserved in reed baskets (hence the name ‘canestrato’ – ‘canestro’ means basket), which became famous and a source of income for the people of Moliterno in the 18th century. Its production, moreover, is closely linked to the toponymy of the municipality. The name ‘Moliterno’ is said to derive from the archaic ‘mulcternum’, which translated into English means ‘place where milk is made’. Our journey to discover the most significant flavours of the Agri Valley takes us to Sarconi, with its PGI bean. There as many as 20 varieties of local ecotypes of the delicious bean derived from the Cannellini and Borlotti plants. Every year there is a festival dedicated to the product which, for a long time in the distant past when agriculture was the only means of living, was the only source of food. Its tastiness is undoubtedly due to the climatic conditions and the sandy soil, rich in nitrogen but lacking in limestone. The alluvial soil that characterises the area reminds us of the important presence of water, which has a great effect on crops. Just think of its use in the past, with the construction of the Roman aqueduct “Cavour”, which can be visited today, built in 1867 in Roman style. Near Sarconi, there are other small places that serve pulses as part of their typical dishes, offering a winning combination of food and culture that will satisfy the minds and curiosity of even the most spirited visitors. This brings us to Spinoso. A pleasant “terrace” overlooking the Lago del Pertusillo lake, romantically overlooking the nature of the Val d’Agri. Here, too, you can enjoy excellent chickpeas cooked with vegetables or combined with homemade pasta. All of which is peppered with historical references that are impossible to avoid. The Mother Church, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta and dating from 1583, is remarkable. In Baroque style, with a Latin cross plan, it houses valuable paintings by well-known Lucanian artists and anonymous masterpieces, as well as unique wooden altars.