Pepper and Cream

He sprang out of the sea and stood on the quay, bronzed and wet. His slim body rippled with well toned muscles when he reached for his towel and began to dry himself. I slowed my pace to give me time to appreciate this beautiful Italian man. When he shook the droplets of water from his dark, crinkly hair my heart skipped a beat which could have been fatal at my age.

Then I realised that I knew him - “Antonio?” I whispered, uncertainly. The subject of my question turned round and a wide grin creased his face as he responded “Valery, carrissima”. An enthusiastic kiss was planted on each of my cheeks as he embraced me warmly, and wetly. I was surprised that he remembered me as it must have been at least four years since I had worked in Palinuro. Throughout that time I had only ever seen him in the formal black suit and bow tie of the maître d’.

By the time we had caught up on all the news Antonio had pulled on jeans and T shirt and crammed an old fashioned crash helmet on his head. He extracted a promise from me to call in at his hotel and then phutted off on his scooter the Adonis image fading with him. The rush of people from the ferry had dispersed and I was on my own and could enjoy the peace of the small harbour spread out in front of me. The small white fishing boats were reflected in the clear water around them. Some had filled up with people and were making their way out to sea. I knew that once they passed the sea defences and rounded the Cape of Palinuro they would turn sharp left and hug the coastline as they explored some of the numerous grottoes that extended back into the gnarled rock of the towering cliff face.

I stood for a while watching them and remembering the first time I had visited these wonderful caves. We had not known what to expect as we trotted across the hot sand of the harbour towards two small boats. Neither of our boatmen could speak English but indicated that we should divide ourselves equally between the two vessels secured to a wooden walkway. Once settled along each side of the small open boat we set off across the limpid water towards the open sea. It was lovely, the sun was shining and we were cooled by a slight breeze.

Out in the bay we could see a very small rocky island which our boatman managed to convey to us was called il cognilio (the rabbit). Mmmm with a stretch of the imagination one could just visualize a hunched up rabbit. Soon after that we entered our first grotto, gliding slowly through the low narrow entrance. This was called the Grotta del Sangue (cave of blood) and our boatman used his powerful beam to pick out the garish red stains on the walls that were reminiscent of dripping blood, an image reflected in the bright red algae just below the surface of the crystal clear water. Il coccodrillo (crocodile) lazing in the shallows was also picked up in the torchlight. We companions gasped in wonder, it was very realistic.

Soon after we emerged from the first cave as we were about to round another headland Francesco, our boatman indicated that we needed to have our cameras ready. He kept pointing up to the top of the sheer rocky cliffs. Was it going to be animal, vegetable or mineral this amazing sight we were about to witness? There was some excited chatter which the boatman frowned upon so anxious was he to get the right moment – he kept acting camera at the ready, finger poised to click the shutter. Suddenly a huge round hole appeared in the cliffs and through this opening; we could see the local weather station. It looked just like a lighthouse. There was a fleeting second to capture this image before the ‘lighthouse’ disappeared.

Was that the climax of our trip, and so soon? We lapsed into silence which lasted until we entered the next grotto. This was more difficult to navigate as the natural entrance had low hanging rocks and the boat had to twist and turn and the quietness was penetrated by shouts of ‘mind your head!’. Once inside this grotto we were unsure what we were looking for apart from the incredible landscape of stalactites and stalagmites. Our boatman then switched off his light and leant over the side of the boat to throw handfuls of water up into the air. The drops of water sparkled like slivers of silver in the dim light, a phenomenon that had earnt this cave the name, Grotta Argenta (silver cave).

After a few minutes back out on the open sea we swung back towards the cliffs and came alongside a small cave with waves crashing vigorously around its entrance. Francesco pointed out the extraordinary formation of the stalactites and stalagmites and what resembled piles of prehistoric bones and told us that many archaeological items had been found here. This was known as both the Grotta delle Ossa (Grotto of Bones) and Grotta Preistorica (the prehistoric cave) as it was possibly a settlement of prehistoric man.

As we continued to hug the shore a pungent odour invaded our nostrils and we were not surprised to discover that we were alongside the Grotta Sulfureo (sulphur cave). A little further along we turned into another low entrance that led into a dark cave. Francesco pointed ahead of us, and we all gazed expectantly in that direction. A trio of monks loomed up through the gloom, eerily lifelike; we were now in the Grotta dei Monaci (monks’ cave).

Around another promontory and we came into a small bay were boats bobbed idly on the warm sea. This was theBaia del Buondormire (bay of good sleeping) as people took the opportunity to swim and sunbathe where once fishermen would sleep in their boats on its calm waters. Above us stood one of the round Martello towers, part of the coast ‘watch’ but now redundant and derelict. As my companions sunbathed and swam I sat on a rock and gazed out to sea imagining a fleet of marauding pirate ships heading for this vulnerable coastline. The air would have rung with shouted orders and a ring of warning fires would have ignited, one by one, round the bay. We stayed here for a while before starting our return journey. Back on board we stripped off and lay back in the boat to sunbathe thinking all the excitement was over. As we neared the harbour we noticed some small boats gathered around a cave entrance that we had not investigated. We assumed they were divers as the area is very popular for this activity so we were surprised to find ourselves taking our place in the ‘queue’. After a short while it was our turn.

Entering the Grotta Azzurra (Azure Cave) when the sun is high in the sky is a truly amazing experience. Beyond the low narrow entrance we entered a large cavern illuminated by a spectacular blue light that is reflected in the water through an underground passage. We were stunned by this spectacle, so unexpected and so memorable. As we glided back into the harbour, making our way round the numerous boats moored there we could appreciate the natural beauty of this area and the perfect position of our hotel, Grand Hotel San Pietro, we could see across the bay perched on the cliff above a small beach. It was a beautiful hotel with an infinity pool that seemed to merge with the sea beyond and access to the beach below. Before I had been assigned my first trip to Palinuro I had never heard of this small resort on the Cilento Coast, a two hour drive south from Naples. Since then I had worked in the resort several times and but I had not been back for a few years and now I had a chance to take a trip down memory lane. I continued on my way towards the town centre. Passing through the main square, dominated by the church, I followed a narrow shop-lined cobbled street until I found the alley that stepped down to the main road where the hotel was situated.

When I reached the main road through the trees in a small park I glimpsed the little museum that related the history of the town and displayed some artefacts that had been found there. The local people were very proud of this monument to their heritage and never missed an opportunity to take new visitors there. It was here that I had learnt some of the history of the town. Palinuro takes its name from Palinurus, a helmsman on a Greek ship captured by the Trojan hero Aeneas, whose descendants would one day found the city of Rome. It had been prophesied that the price for the safe passage of Aeneas and his people from Sicily to Italy would be the life of one of the Trojans. The mother of Aeneas offered Palinurus in sacrifice. As they rounded the Cape of Palinuro Somnus, the mythological god of sleep, appeared before Palinurus disguised as his best friend. Palinurus conscientiously refused to let the disguised Somnus take the tiller, claiming that although the sea was calm, he could not risk going off duty. Somnus was forced to use magic to make Palinurus sleep and tricked him into falling asleep by promising he would take the helm for him. As soon as Palinurus fell asleep Somnus threw him into the sea. Palinurus swam for three days and finally came ashore on the coast of Luciana (now known as the Cilento Coast) in southern Italy where he was killed by a native tribe, the Lucani, and left unburied on the ground.

When Aeneas the Sibyl (a prophetess) visited Palinurus in the Underworld Palinurus begged him for a decent burial. The Sibyl promised that the local people would be moved by signs to provide the helmsman’s body with a proper burial on the promontory that now bears the name of the helmsman, the Cape of Palinuro.

When I reached the hotel I received a warm welcome and the offer of some lunch in the poolside bar. I was shown to a table on the small terrace outside the bar overlooking the pool and the sea beyond. It was a beautiful panorama, the bright yellow of the sun umbrellas in the foreground against a background of different shades of blue as the pool merged into the sea and the sea fused with the sky. I selected the caprese and a glass of Orvieto, one of my favourite Italian white wines. This region, Campania, was famous for its production of mozzarella di bufula and I could taste the freshness.

The slices of white mozzarella alternated with exquisitely flavoured slices of tomatoes. Olive oil had been dribbled over this attractive dish and a sprig of fresh basil added a touch of green. As I ate the memories of my first week here flooded back to me.

At the end of each week the hotel had organised a candlelit Gala Dinner. The first week, as is typical for such dinners we worked our way through a set menu with a fish theme. It was a wonderful meal commencing with antipasto misto (mixed appetisers) on the buffet that included prawns, marinated swordfish (gorgeous), smoked tuna and very thinly sliced compressed smoked octopus. Our primo piatto (first course)was tagliatelle (ribbon shaped pasta) with mussels, courgettes and tomatoes. Il secondo (the main course) was grilled sea bass with two large prawns accompanied by cold vegetables or salad from the buffet. The finale, a fabulous dessert of chocolate gateaux was wheeled into the restaurant on a trolley and was sliced up and served with mountains of cream while we waited.

Instinctively everyone bowed their heads to the great god chocolate before plunging their spoons into the cake, liberally sprinkled with tiny flakes of chocolate. During this moment of devotion I noticed one of my companions delicately sampling the cream with the tip of her little finger. She immediately recoiled in horror. She caught my eye and indicated that I should try my cake which I did. Instantly I realised that the tiny brown flakes were actually derived from peppercorns. I told everyone on my table to wait before they tried their dessert and galloped across the restaurant to Antonio and proffered him the offending dessert. A quick taste, a raised eyebrow, some simple instructions rapped out in Italian and the tables were cleared within seconds.

We sat in stunned silence. The kitchen door that had swung shut behind the last scurrying waiter remained closed. We looked nervously around us, most people had not yet realised what had happened and a big question mark hovered in the air above us. As lips parted to voice the query so the kitchen doors swung open imperiously and Antonio appeared at the head of a small procession. Behind him was a metal trolley bearing two splendid iced gateaux, flanked on each side by waiters bearing plates. Ceremoniously the cakes were sliced, plated and carried aloft to each guest. Mountains of fresh cream or scoops of delicious ice cream were offered as accompaniments. A crisis averted and harmony restored.

Sadly it was time for me to leave. I went upstairs to the restaurant to say goodbye to Antonio. He raised an eyebrow over a wry smile. I knew what he was going to say and I intervened – “Yes Antonio, I remember – the pepper on the chocolate gateaux.” I would always remember – the place, the people and the peppery dessert.

Author: Valery Collins, © 2013