'Interview with Flavio Carnevale, owner of Popolo Restaurant, Sydney'
Flavio, his partner Lucinda and two young daughters Luce and Perla explore the Cheese Caves in Italy.
How did you come about visiting the cheese caves in Italy?
The cheese caves we visited are owned by a great character called Luigi De Cecca. Luigi visited Sydney last year and came to dinner at Popolo. It wasn't long before we realised we were kindred spirits from the same location with family connections via my brother Aldo (whose passion is making and working with cured meats as part of our family Carnevale butcher business back in my hometown). Six months later when I was in Italy, Luigi showed me around his cheese factory which was amazing in itself but it wasn't until we were leaving the factory that he said he also wanted to take us somewhere really personal and special to him.
Where were they located?
That's when we drove from the factory in the valley up to the historic centre of his hometown Calitri on a mountain (neighbouring to mine) in the Irpiania area. Whilst snowing, we walked down a narrow laneway to an old heavy wooden door which opened to one of the most incredible sights I've seen... an underground cave... deep, dark and filled stone wall to ceiling with hundreds of aged rare cheeses each hand labelled and dated.
What is the history of cheese and caves in Italy?
Some say the history of cheese itself can be traced back to Italy. There is strong evidence of Italians first trading cheese in 10th century BC. The Romans being passionate cheese makers and eaters were responsible for introducing hard cheese making to many European countries. Most Roman homes had a special kitchen set aside for cheese making called a 'caseale', where cheeses were stored and aged. Following a larger scale of this method, caves were and are still used to ripen cheese instead of the current highly industrialised process involving machinery and biochemistry. Many cheeses in my region are still made using historical methods, such as this caciocavallo. Luigi's cave has its own additional history of previously being an old flour mill for over two hundred years - you can see the original 'grain grind wheel' in my photos.
What is so special about this cheese cave?
Cheese matured in caves develops a microclimate and microflora, which is ideal for the maturation of the caciocavallo and other cheeses. Another benefit is the humidity varies between 80-90%, while the temperature is almost constant between winter and summer, varying from 10 to 15°C. With long aging, for as much as two years, the cheeses are tied together in pairs, hung astride wooden beams as on a saddle, which is where the name of the cheese came from ('cacio' means cheese, cavallo means 'horse').
Why was it important to you that your children were able to experience these caves?
For so many reasons but mostly to immerse them in the unique experiences I had growing up with my parents, always connected to cooking, produce and the land. For me at their age, it was so normal to visit my grandfather's cave, our 'cantina', where we stored our wood, wine and cheese. My children live in an urban society in inner Sydney so I want them to also see life through different eyes that is such a strong part of their heritage Lucanian (from me) and Sicilian (from their mother). My daughters were so excited to be in that factory and cave, not only because cheese is their favourite food, but also I think because the cave looked straight out of a Harry Potter movie.
Has the experience influenced your menu at Popolo in anyway?
Every travelling experience I have influences my menu from reconnecting with my family's home-cooked meals, to meeting my known and new producers, farmers, restaurants, etc. but yes, Luigi and I are excited to be working together at the moment getting his cheese on my menu... coming soon.
What advice would you give travellers visiting the area?
I would say a great starting point in this area of Calitri is to have a meal at the Agriturismo and talk to chef Donato Tornillo about where he sources his produce, it's enough to mark on your map and get you started on your own regional wine, farm and factory tour. Tell him Flavio Carnevale sent you!
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