The Sunday excursion is quite popular in Italy. A little fresh air, a little culture, and a lot to eat. Recently, I happened upon an outing from Reggio Calabria to Caulonia. The day was to feature Caterina Niutta, an area craftswoman who would demonstrate “eco-printing” and serve a locally prepared lunch.
A DAYTRIP TO CAULONIA
The parties involved were members of various clubs with missions of spreading area culture, safeguarding nature and the environment, as well as promoting local products. Reggio Calabria to Caulonia is about an hour and a half drive, north up the Tyrrhenian coast to Rosarno, past olive orchards and across the hills of the Aspromonte Mountains to the Ionian coast, and east to Caulonia. The day’s destination was an old mill on the Fiumara Amusa (river).
The historic mill sits under the watchful eye of Caulonia proper, which commands from the crest of a 300-meter (984-foot) hill across the riverbed. The dramatic cliff is a fortress in itself. Four stone gateways lead to the historic center’s narrow streets filled with numerous old churches and buildings. The town takes its name from Kaulon, an ancient Greek colony that was founded nearby. Today, the Kaulon archeological site can be visited together with its adjacent museum along the coast in the town of Monasterace.
OLD MILL IN CAULONIA
I was participating in what the Italians would call a scampagnata, a countryside outing. The sun shone as women carried assorted pots, pans and trays laden with the afternoon’s repast from their vehicles to the little mill. A makeshift table held the food, and simple wooden chairs were strewn about the room.
Although the mulino had been out of service for about 50 years, the water continued to roar underneath the mill that had been used for grinding wheat, corn and other grains. Inside, a photo of the last mugnaio (miller) hung on the wall alongside articles of women’s clothing.
Large grinding stones and a wooden apparatus remained. Ahimè (alas), to have tasted the bread made from the grain milled between those stones!
On that day, the mill was the meeting place where we learned about eco-printing, a technique of stamping images of real leaves, flowers and bark directly on wool, cotton, silk, linen and felt. In contemporary jargon, an eco-sustainable printing method.
The first step in the eco-printing process is the preparation of the garment by soaking it in natural substances to render the fibers more receptive to color. Next, various plants are placed directly on the fabric, which is covered, rolled tightly around a dowel and tied with string, boiled or steamed for about an hour, and set aside to cure for 12 or more hours. The bundle is then unwrapped, revealing a distinctive pattern. Finally, the article is left in the shade to dry.
Eco-printing was first developed in Australia by India Flint who began experiments with the eucalyptus. Our Calabrian eco-printer, Caterina Niutta, demonstrated with various leaves and margherita flowers, which resulted in happy impressions of the daisy, as well as a scarf with a distinctive yellow hue.
The beauty of eco-printing is nature’s unpredictability and the uniqueness of each piece. The images vary with the season, the part of the plant, the temperature and other caprices of the natural world.
LUNCH AT THE MILL
Although the impetus for the trip was visiting Caterina’s mill to see her eco-printing, my experience in Calabria is that lunch is never an afterthought. It’s a key component, and often, the more rustic, the better.
On that afternoon, the local menu featured beans, olives from the trees outside the door, stuffed eggplant, zucchini fritters, cheese, bread, cake and wine. Un picnic stile calabrese.
The day was capped off with a walk through the property, past trees laden with nespole (medlars), oranges and flowering olives. I was surprised to see a young bergamot tree that still had its beautiful yellow fruit late in May. And it was a treat to eat an orange straight from the tree even though I had to struggle in order to keep the juice from running down my elbows.
ECO-PRINTING ITALIAN STYLE
I couldn’t walk away without purchasing one of the lovely garments, and a few days later I modeled it in Cannitello along the Strait of Messina. The silk scarf was made using onionskins, rooibos roots and eucalyptus leaves. Saluti dalla Calabria!
Read more about the fascinating region in the toe of the boot in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this important area of South Italy. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.
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