Cambrian: Opinion

Italian cruise yields fresh memories of wonderful places, people, food

“Come Back to Sorrento” goes the song, and that’s just what I did, never dreaming I would return after having visited with Richard in 2006. This was part of a lovely cruise around the Mediterranean in October and, with literary license, I will relate the tale by starting this series of columns at the end rather than the beginning.

Our floating village of 850 passengers aboard the Azamara line’s “Quest” was small enough that our delightful Scottish captain could moor us right up next to the pier by maneuvering forward and back, and even sideways. The craft was also small enough that by the time we arrived at Sorrento, the only port where we were tendered in, everyone aboard knew the 150 of us who had been booked by John O’Regan of San Simeon Travel, and referred to us as “The Group.”

One becomes well-acquainted with others when we mixed and matched at mealtime in the non-reserved dining room or up top at the international buffet. Conversational topics run the gamut of who you are, where you’re from, where you’ve cruised before and where you’d like to travel next. The chief topic became “What’s the surprise John has arranged for The Group he accompanied?”

After we debarked in Sorrento at six in the evening, he greeted us with long-stemmed red roses, and then treated us to wine, a huge wheel of Parmesan, freshly cured olives and canapés on a piazza outside the performing arts center. The evening was illuminated by the waxing moon and cooled by a citrus-fragrant breeze, and it culminated with a folkloric ballet and opera buffo. The performance featured energetic young singers and dancers in traditional garb, with live music and gorgeous scenery changes.

As we returned to the ship, the other passengers asked what the surprise had been. Needless to say, we reported that John had exceeded all expectations!

During the day, my sister and I had been part of a small group who had ridden up the Amalfi coast to a small family farm, where we observed the crushing of olives gathered that morning for extra virgin oil. The highlight besides tasting local limoncellos (regular, cream, and other liqueurs flavored with melon, berries, and even chocolate!) was watching the lady of the house make fresh mozzarella cheese.

Using cow’s milk rather than from buffalo, she dug into a huge chunk of solidified whey, grabbed two handsful, and kneaded it as one would with bread dough. Plunging it with her bare hands into a pail of boiling hot water to make the cheese malleable, she continued to knead and stretch the cheese, and then plunged the mass in her hands yet a second and third time into two other pails of boiling hot water. After squeezing the cheese and tying it into its characteristic dome shape, she plunged it into a pail of ice water to solidify it.

This took only a few minutes, animated with amusing chatter in Italian, but “Number One!” in English. She then worked a second batch, same hot water process, and stretched and formed a braid of cheese. In the ice water bucket, creamy residue was ultimately retrieved, drained, and excess moisture boiled off to produce fresh ricotta cheese. Our sampler plate included home cured salami, artisan bread, bruschetta, the fresh cheeses, and olive oil. Did I mention the limoncello?

Back home I indulged in Trader Joe’s ready-made dough, (almost fresh) mozzarella balls packed in water, organic basil and tomatoes, and have since been playing with my food. By patting the dough in a pan rather than rolling it out I have pizza rustica, brushed with olive oil, topped with slices of mozzarella, tomato and shreds of basil — pizza Margherita, which originated in nearby Naples. A sprinkle of olive oil enhances it.

Take the same ingredients, but cube the cheese and tomatoes, and fold and seal them into pockets to make calzone. A very hot, 500-degree oven for about 10 minutes will make the cheese nice and gooey.

Looking for a fast but hearty Caprese salad? Slice the tomatoes, top with a thinner slice of mozzarella and sprinkle with ribbons of basil and the proverbial olive oil — that dish originated in Capri across the bay.

Our cruise was through the Mediterranean Sea, between the 30th and 40th parallels, the same as our Central California. We felt right at home with the climate, flora and fauna. It is also earthquake country, but that’s another story!