Updated: May 27, 2022
It’s high time I created a blog about one of the places in Italy I hold most dear. Molinara. You won’t find it within the pages of a travel magazine or featured in one of the many ‘hidden gems of Italy’ lists. A Google search of ‘Molinara’ will give you pages of results on a grape variety - instead of the town where my father was born.
My visit to Molinara six years ago was like placing the last stroke of colour to an unfinished painting. It all began as a little village imagined through the hazy memories of my father and his childhood adventures. My dad, Antonio, left Molinara for Australia with his family when he was 9 years old.
Molinara is a small southern Italian town, about 100km northeast of Naples with a dwindling population of approximately 1,500 residents. It’s a town of natural beauty located in the hilly countryside of the Benevento province, or Sannio (its ancient Samnite name). The town is the epitome of slow-living; it feels like the hands of a clock move slower here. The gentle pace is a welcome change to the bustling tourist hubs of Italy. You’ll find olive groves, pastel coloured homes and a little piece of old world history.
Like many Italian towns, Molinara endured a significant population exodus in the 1950s and 1960s. For generations of Italians, including my grandparents, migration to countries like Australia, Canada, the US, Argentina, and even northern Italy, offered a chance at a better life. Whilst it was enormously courageous of those who took that long boat ride towards unchartered territory, perhaps it was equally brave of those who stayed behind and prevailed.
The landscape which surrounds Molinara is mostly rural, with clusters of hilltop towns scattered amid the rise and fall of forested pine-green hills. Gargantuan wind turbines take up real estate in fields throughout the area, generating electricity for overseas consumers. A handful of kilometres to the north is Molise and, to the east, Puglia. The commune of Molinara sits in the very centre of southern Italy’s ankle. It is a distant galaxy from the fray of Naples. Agriculture defines the area, with hobby farms, vegetable plots, olive groves and wide fields. In this world you grow your own produce. And if you don’t, your friend does.
Molinara produces first-rate potatoes, a variety that has had its own dedicated food festival. Not to be outdone by the potatoes are the local olives. Terre di Molinara is a co-operative that produces extra virgin olive oil from centuries-old trees lovingly cultivated by hand. Good food is important here, yet it is enjoyed without ego or fanfare. The spotlight on this food stage is small yet glows bright in every Molinarese kitchen.
The historic centre
At the end of Molinara’s main street is a window into a medieval world. After the earthquake of 1962 the historic town was mostly destroyed. Like many earthquake-inflicted towns, a new Molinara was built. It wasn’t until the last 20 years that a small section of the old town was carefully restored. Now you can stroll through a maze of old stone streets, a reproduction of what Molinara once was, with its high walls and towers, steep stairs leading here and there, and often nowhere. We bend under doorframes to discover tiny rooms and imagine a family once living there. Wild poppies burst through the stone cracks. Cultivated pots of geraniums and petunias adorn the buildings. The air is quiet and still, like the inside of a tomb, and we explore the town in reverent whispers, careful not to disturb the spirits.
When I visit my family in Molinara I am overwhelmed by the breadth of what they produce and grateful for the vegan meals my cousin prepares. We chug down on unadulterated homemade wine at lunch and dinner. We drink it like cordial and, not surprisingly, ease into a slower pace, languid and lazy. Oil from their homegrown olives graces each dish and tastes like magic. We feast on summer produce: potatoes, white beans, capsicum, tomatoes, cime di rapa, zucchini flowers, figs, celery and cucumbers. Even a last hurrah from the artichokes. We feel like royalty as each mealtime bursts with plant-based goodness, the table overflowing with heart-warming flavours. It’s all so deeply satisfying.
Where to eat
On my first trip to Molinara, we discover Pizzeria Al Borgo in the historic part of town. It’s lunchtime in late June and the streets are empty, but luckily for us, the pizzeria is open. Even luckier, the menu has plenty of vegan friendly options. We order pizza, a couple of vegetable dishes, a big bottle of aqua frizzante and choose to sit fuori, outside, where we have the courtyard to ourselves, amid the stone ruins and bright potted flowers.
A fast, winding drive up into the hills above Molinara, we arrive at Ristorante San Giovanni in Foiano di Val Fortore. We visit here several times during our stay. First for Pizza Marinara, then Penne Arrabbiata (which I actually had to re-order, because, for the first time in Italy, it was served with bacon). Our final visit was for a nightcap coffee and amaro. Ristorante San Giovanni is part restaurant, part function centre, and is located within a parkland and near the shrine, San Giovanni Eremita.
Closer to Molinara, we enjoy a slightly more unique meal at Agriturismo Preti Longhe - a farm and restaurant which produces olive oil and mushrooms. There isn't an official vegan antipasto on the menu, so one is created for us of chargrilled vegetables, marinated local mushrooms and bruschetta. Our pizza is an unconventional (but delicious) base of pureed greens and chopped fresh tomatoes. A welcome change to the standard Marinara tomato option.
Ristorante That’s Amore is also worth a mention - although we didn’t get a chance to visit, it is sure to have simple vegan-friendly pasta and pizza options.
Sagre e Feste
If you’re curious to explore the cuisine of the province, be sure to check out the local food festivals, sagre. A food sagra usually focuses on one seasonal ingredient. In the past, Molinara held a two-day potato festival La Sagra della Patata a Molinara, in honour of the local variety. The neighbouring hilltop village of San Marco Dei Cavoti also has its own festival Festa del Torrone e del Croccantino - which celebrates the locally made nut praline. Croccantino is largely made vegan. Due to Covid, some sagre haven’t been running with regularity, so a quick Google search or chat with the locals will keep you in the know.
The largest event of the year in Molinara is held in August - where the community, both local and surrounding, celebrates the patron saint San Rocco in the Festa Patronale di San Rocco a Molinara with religious ceremonies, music, concerts, pretty street lights, food, and (like most towns in Italy) fireworks. Even though the town is small, the crowds that gather in the Piazza San Rocco are large - the atmosphere is something special.
Like many small Italian towns - community is everything. When you visit 'borghi' like Molinara, you will see the residents coming together, whether it be creating beautiful flower street art for a religious occasion, playing in the local band or stopping for a chat in the street. A slower-paced town often means having an open door, both literally and figuratively, for your neighbours to drop by without an invitation. There's more support for local businesses, because there's little competition. And if you are a traveller, you will stick out like a sore thumb...and you better have some Italian vocab up your sleeve - fluent English is a luxury for the tourist towns. So when you find yourself in such a place, know that you are entering the everyday lives of the community, not an organised tour. And with this must come respect, but also a wonderful opportunity to learn, experience and embrace.
Now, I'd love to hear your story. Do you have a special connection to Italy, your ancestral town or a place that felt authentic to you?
Several excerpts were taken from A Vegan Summer in Southern Italy, which you can purchase or read about here (including the recipes from Molinara and my nonna's kitchen in Australia).