Meet the Locals: Who you will meet while attending one of our Cooking Courses at al Castello
While it’s true that we are a school, we are also a community and here are some of the people who will meet when attending one of courses al castello.
Mario the butcher
At first glance butchers shops all over the world seem more or less the same, but that’s only if you’ve never actually cut meat, a discipline deeply driven by culture. Ask butchers from 5 different countries to break down a pig and their knives will flash five different ways as they isolate the muscles, each seemingly according to a different god. Sure, everyone quarters. And everyone breaks those down into primal cuts, but that is where things go local very quickly.
‘I’m 3rd generation butcher, so I barely remember learning the job. I was just always around it, identifying the cuts from the time I could see above the counter’, says Mario, threading pieces of lamb heart and lung onto bamboo sticks. ‘I won’t try to coax my son into the field but by the looks of it I won’t have to’.
Like every butcher I’ve ever met Mario has a wicked sense of humour, the punch lines often finally soaking in hours after the exchange. ‘You seem a bit moody today’, he might say, and hours later we’ll find the coupons for female hygiene products included in our bag.
Angelo the fishmonger
‘Great Italian Fish Recipes’ would be a very, very short book, not that fish isn’t great here. It is. It’s just that most of the time the lily is pathologically ungilded. You want fish to taste like fish.
‘Lemon on that?’, you must be joking. ‘Garlic?’, you ARE joking.
Which is another way of saying that it must be impossibly fresh, which is where Angelo comes in. The first impact of his shop is ‘modest’, but the reality is, if you are only going to sell very fresh fish, then you need to sell out of it, everyday. And it has to be local. And it has to be in season. Which means in the end you need very little space for only 4 or 5 kinds of fish, all of the eyes bulbous, all the gills smelling of melon and salty seawater.
’16 sea bass next week, right’, Angelo will say. ‘I have my cousin coming with us in case they’re not biting’.
‘There are two kinds of people in the world’, he says. ‘Those that know how things should work, and those that know that things fundamentally don’t’. And there is me. There is no ‘it doesn’t work’ in my job. There is only ‘make it work’, he says, laughing.
From generators to 60 year old tractors to internet routers to septic tanks, to Chinese ladders to turpentine-based paints to train schedules and mayoral inaugurations, he is the man that pounds the square pegs of guests’ desires into the sometimes round hole of Southern Italy, most of the time without anyone ever even realising that there was an issue.
This of course is just want is needed if you maintain 600 year old structures, with all of its temperamental electrical hisses, burping pipes and crumbling mortar. A tree needs trimming? Giuseppe bear hugs his way up the tree, a chainsaw tied to his sneaker laces. Need a fresh coat of paint on the ceiling of the baron’s private quarters? He knows a guy and will have the scaffolding arriving even before anyone knows that it’s been borrowed.
‘I love the South’, he says. ‘Here everything is possible, you just need to know how to finesse it a bit’.
Donatella: queen of housekeeping
Donatella trained with the Ninjas. It’s the only way to explain how she can take care of everything, even before you realise that she’s in the room. Like many, if not most of the women of the Salento, she calculates the wind cycle three days before planning anything.
For example, sweeping the courtyard? She knows when the wind will blow and cause more leaves to fall. Drying freshly laundered bed sheets? Wash and hang them tomorrow and they’ll take forever to dry but this afternoon is perfect. It’s easy to treat all of this as spitting gypsy superstition but as we keep more detailed notes of all of canning/sun drying projects, we’ve been noticing that the dry times each year followed exactly as she said.
Talks with Donatella reminds us that seasonality is more than fashion – it’s living in harmony with the natural world and the more we do that, the richer the experience.
Salvatore is the owner of the bar where we have our espresso culture lessons at the castle, teaching you how to order in Italian and why ordering a ‘latte’ will never get you what you want. Salvatore also personally delivers fresh pastry each morning. He simply knows everyone who passes through his bar with the ability to place each citizen on a mental chart of social connections. When he is thinking of the connection, his eyes will go to the ceiling, ‘Yes, that would be Mario’s uncle’s brother’s barber- nice guy- my girlfriend is friends with his wife…’.
As he expertly crafts your espresso, what you might not realize is that he is secretly dreaming of fishing for squid. It’s his obsession and the motivation for everything else he does. All so he can take time off to snorkel, line catch, trap and perhaps even judo pin, live squid, which he’ll eat in myriad ways, the merits of each technique causing his mouth to water as he recalls the steps of his recipes.
Occasionally I’ll work squid into conversations, just to see him begin to squirm, his face lighting up. Usually within minutes he’s cancelling appointments, scooting out the side door, tackle and rod in hand.