By Luigi Diotaiuti
Chef/Owner Al Tiramisu Restaurant – Washington, DC – Ambassador of Italian Cuisine & The Cuisine of Basilicata in the world- Founder: Basilicata: A Way of Living – Certified Italian Sommelier
June is National Dairy Month, and there is no other month that brings my beloved homeland of Basilicata to mind more than it does. When I think of dairy, my mind immediately drifts back to my childhood and our farm. My food education was especially rich when it came to cheese-making, due to the constant supply of fresh milk from our herds. As a boy, I watched in fascination as my mother and father turned milk into caciocavallo, mozzarella, ricotta, and scamorza. My father expertly worked with cow’s milk to make products like butter, caciocavallo, treccie calli (braided cheese), and mozzarella. He was a master at shaping the caciocavallo into delightful designs like roosters for us kids. My mother prepared goat’s milk cheeses, churning out more than a dozen round wicker baskets of ricotta every day.
For me, cheese was more than just an amazing culinary ingredient, it was also a main source of our livelihood and currency. I actually paid for my tuition to culinary school with my father’s cheese. Nowadays, as the fifth most expensive cheese in the world, caciocavallo padolico does a great deal to boost my home region’s economy. Making it in the same artisan way preserves, just as the Italian language and our dialects do, our culture.
For this reason, I decided to start a non-profit organization in Italy called Basilicata: A Way of Living. My mission is to maintain the local traditions of the region while creating jobs, supporting sustainable agriculture, and promoting tourism. Two of our organization’s main projects, Pasta Lab and Sirino in Transumanza have garnered national and international media attention.
One of the activities that I enjoy most in life is to travel to Basilicata in June to take part in a 3,000 year-old tradition. It’s called la transumanza (“crossing the land”) and refers to the process of moving cattle from the lowlands to their summer pastures in the mountains, and then back again. I put on my cowboy hat, pack my back sack, and accompany my brother Antonio, as on foot we move nearly 120 cows through gorges, glens, rural villages, even across a few paved roads, until we finally arrive at the summer pastures in Monte Sirino, a popular ski resort in the winter with an altitude of more than 4,000 feet. The 75-mile trip takes us three to four days – depending upon how many calves are in the herd to slow us down.
I am thrilled to make the journey and not just for the pleasure of walking through breathtaking scenery accompanied by the ancient sound of cowbells. Participating in this ritual fills me with joy because I am able to help my brother Antonio carry on our family legacy. During the transumanza, I feel so deeply connected to the land, that it’s almost as if I never left. I also make the trip to help publicize a tradition that’s in danger of dying out. When I take part in the transumanza, word spreads, and I am able to voice the importance of this tradition through the Italian media. They ask me why a busy chef from Washington D.C. takes time to participate in the ancient tradition. My response is that everyone benefits from keeping the transumanza alive. Cows have access to good grazing pastures and therefore produce superior milk. Farmers use the milk to make top-quality cheeses, such as the famous local Caciocavallo Podolico, scamorza and ricotta. The high quality of these products makes them attractive on the world market, which ultimately gives a huge boost to the local economy of my native region.
We shouldn’t stop walking in the footsteps of our ancestors and by participating in the transumanza I am literally doing my part to perpetuate the tradition. It’s my declaration that ancient practices and harmony with our environment produce superior food and happier, healthier communities. I am honored to have so many residents and community leaders take part in this time-honored ritual and that Basilicata: A Way of Living is an official sponsor.
Our “Sirino in Transumanza” project is already in its’ 6th edition and was adopted by students at George Washington University who helped me monitor the success of the project and transformed it into a global model to promote responsible agriculture, hospitality, and tourism in various locations in the world. I am proud to say that our event continues to grow in content, visibility, reach, and attendance each year. Its’ mission is to share the rich history of Basilicata while demonstrating how the local culture developed its daily living arts through sustainable methods which are perfectly suited for future generations. The organic reach of the events covered on Facebook was over 94,254 people, many of which were outside of the region and Italy – not bad for an area that is home to only 5,471 people! In 2020, we also created a Premio Sirino in Transumanza event which was a competition for all of the region’s culinary schools to highlight the best usage of local products and practices.
At Al Tiramisu, my team and I hand-make dozens of kinds of pasta for their dishes, and as an enthusiastic fan of pasta, I promote Pasta Lab which pairs professional chefs with talented home cooks, mainly grandmothers, who are often the custodians of cooking traditions. In accordance with Basilicata: A Way of Living’s philosophy, the mission of Pasta Lab is to help preserve the region’s distinctive pasta-making
customs. It provides the perfect platform for artisan pasta shapes such as orecchiette, tagliarine, strascinate, manate, raschiatelli, scorze di mandorle, fusilli al ferro, cavatelli, foglie d’olive, from Basilicata to be preserved. In DC, I teach the students in the culinary program at DC Central Kitchen to make the same time-honored recipes – creating a culinary bridge between the two cultures.
It is my hope that by adopting practices like these, all of Italy’s regions, and even the world will be able to keep their rich agricultural, linguistic, and culinary practices going strong into the future. In addition to preserving the legacy of our lineage, a commitment to this type of lifestyle is better for our environment, our health, and our economies as well. I wish everyone a wonderful month of June!