ACHENI Supper Club in Matera Italy Review – Feasts: History and Gourmet Both - unique visit to rock church and monastery in caves with gourmet meal
Before it was ACHENI Supper Club, it was where ACHENI co-owner Francesca would come for her grandmother Olga’s Sunday dinners…
Before it became the land of Francesca’s family 10 generations back during the Renaissance, it was a monastery where monks came to pray and live out their years…
Before then, it was a sheltering cave for shepherds…
…and if you go back more than five million years ago, this breathtaking panoramic landscape that unfolds before you was actually under the sea—leaving the oyster shells you can still spot in the cave ceilings today.
Only a short ten-minute or so drive from the Southern Italy cave city that dates back to antiquity—Matera, Basilicata now designated as a 2019 European Capital of Culture—you find yourself on a flat dusty dirt road with an arid feel reminiscent of Texas Hill Country in March right before the wildflowers go into full bloom. A large country home in disrepair reveals itself, clearly abandoned but not yet totally deteriorated. It invites a poetic musing on who lived here and when. The beating sun seems almost painfully bright.
Of the many cave structures toured in Matera, the rock church and monastery here that sprawls on three levels is relatively well-preserved--truly making it easy to imagine the stark monastic life in the caves.
The Divertimento Group’s Matera specialist, Jennifer Goodman, finally gets the call to begin the trek to the pre-arranged ACHENI luncheon in the countryside. It’s easy to get lost here, and also fun, at least for those of us just taking in the scenery. Turns are missed and ground is re-tread to find the right way. Periodically, Jennifer feels the need to make a mobile phone call in Italian for repeat instructions to get us oriented on track.
Were this a different day and more official ACHENI outing, the trek would have been purposely longer and led by a naturalist guide who can point out the miracles of the flora around us. On our visit, we meandered over dirt paths to eventual rock trails to in relative short order meet Francesca Bronzino, one of the co-owners of ACHENI, whose family owns this land that she has played on since a little girl.
Francesca, a chemist by training, takes over guiding and orienting us to the wonders of the land with a special emphasis on its hidden culinary treasures. We learn to take note of wild olive plants that are half a millennia old. We learn about lentiscu, one of the wild plants whose seeds are used to make oil for fried bread. Then there is santo reggia, a local plant with taste akin to thyme. She points out the juniper berries that when quasi-fermented become a chutney like delicacy. We learn how foul-smelling herba fetida can be used as a natural bug repellant. We pass pools of what looks like green lentils on a pond, and learn that they are actually quite edible.
And then you arrive...
You are at the ancient rock church circa 1000 AD, one of several structures in three layers of caves that occasioned official declaration of this as protected land, compelling Francesca’s family to open up its doors to anyone who calls in advance.
Francesca recounts the history, “My grandfather was one of eleven children and the only male. When he became heir to these 80 hectares he decided to walk the land and was the first to discover this church. UNESCO then designated this a national park in the 90’s. It goes ten generations back in our family..
“For me, this was the mainly a place where my family came for Sunday dinner in the spring and summer. “
Francesca’s love for this land—and her much missed grandmother — is palpable. You feel this deep affection for the beautiful terrain also from her partner, chef Helene Virno Lamberti, who shares that her affinity for the land was instantaneous on her first visit.
These two life partners, the co-principals of ACHENI, had met in culinary school and then worked 7 am -2 am hours for two years in a Spanish restaurant reputed to be in the list of Top 50 World Restaurants. Lovers of travel and food of all kinds—especially street food- -free-spirited Helene and Francesca have decided to put their skills to work in an evanescent supper club, so that they can pull up stakes whenever wanderlust calls. Matera though is their home base, and if you time your trip right you can book a feast born of their top tier culinary training.
First though—and especially a treat to those who relish the charms of Matera’s cave city history—you get to explore the layers of caves beyond the first rock church you encountered to see the well-kept remains of a monastery replete with confessional carved in the stone, that a smiling Francesca will demonstrate to you.
ACHENI Has Appeal for History Lovers and Foodies Alike
You too may find it somewhat difficult to know whether it is the excellent food, the tasty free-flowing wine, the breathtaking vistas or the historic cave church and monastery setting that is the best part.
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