Samnium Bikepacking Story: A Journey Through Ancient History and the Flavours of Times Gone By

Samnium is a large territory in Southern Italy, stretching from the Matese mountains in the East, across the Trigno river and up to the heights of Pietrabbondante and Agnone; the cradle of the Samnites, after whom the area is named. Here, Mario Casmirro shares his ‘Samnium Bikepacking Story’ – a journey through ancient history and the flavours of times gone by…

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Mario rides past the remains of a castle

 

The legacy of a land is passed on not only in its stories and traditions but its food and specialities. Sannio is an area where landscape and gastronomy combine to create something unique and special and my Samnium Bikepacking Story is a search for ‘caciocavallo’: the famous Samnite shepherd’s cheese. I knew where to find it, I just needed to motivate myself to reach the destination by bike.

My journey through these lands began with following an ancient road that used to be a green highway towards the Tratturo Lucera-Castel di Sangro. Tratturo was once trampled by herds of oxen, sheep, herdsmen and shepherd’s dogs from Abruzzi down to the plains of Puglia. Along the dirt road, I was accompanied by grazing sheep, reminding me that the Tratturo is still alive to this day. I pedalled along tracks surrounded by golden wheat fields, with hill-top villages in the distance standing out against the blue sky.

Mario rides down an ancient road amongst wheat fields

My first encounter with Samnite culture came as I entered Torella del Sannio – a town name that is clearly of Samnite origin. The entrance to Alto Sannio is impressive and reminds one of the battles and history from ancient times. The Samnites were herders within their land, but also supporters of freedom against the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Plenty of blood was shed to defend this small empire, and their legacy lives on today.

Fittingly, my next stop is the Tempio Italico di Pietrabbondante, where the history of Italy and the dream of those people in search of freedom began. I paid the entry fee, made my way down to the square and sat on the steps in silence to drink in the atmosphere. I could almost hear the speeches of the Samnite Meddis and the shouts from their audience as they turn their backs on the eagle of Rome, refusing the oppression of the empire.

Marco's bike leans against an ancient fountain

Mario's bike leans against ancient ruins with columns pointing toward the sky

Continuing toward the Samnite heartlands, I passed through the wood of the soprani firs of Pescopennataro; majestic evergreen dark pyramids, known as ‘sopranos’ for the quality and value of their wood. It is here that I encountered the first speciality of my pilgrimage.

Pezzata is a must if you ever visit Capracotta. Based on boiled sheep meat with aromatic herbs, shepherds prepared pezzata when moving the flocks from pasture to pasture. I camped under a silver fir after sampling the pezzata at a nearby restaurant. Tomorrow would be dedicated to my search for caciocavallo.

I headed from Capracotta toward Carovilli, then up toward Pescolanciano and Frosolone, drawn by childhood memories of playing in the local beech woods. The scent of boiled milk filled the air, drawing me forward to the tune of lowing cows grazing nearby.

Emerging from the woods, I came across a cottage. A shepherd, Vincenzo, lives here and I found him sitting inside preparing ingredients for the cheese. Caciocavalli are already hanging from the ceiling, ready for seasoning.

Mario rides along an ancient road in an ancient woodland

To make the stretch-cured cheese you first boil cow’s milk, which is then whipped and worked by skilled hands. This then forms two spherical heads which are hung from the ceiling of a dry room. I took some pictures of him working away, to capture the moment as he worked by hand.

I spent all morning with Vincenzo in the cottage. I’d cycled 230 kilometres just for this, but the cheese was even more delicious having worked up an appetite exploring the region’s past by bike. I thought about how much history there is behind this food, a recipe handed down between generations, a tradition repeated for millennia. This is the shepherd’s cheese; this is the Samnium cheese. The recipe for Caciocavallo has always been handed down from father to son, just as with these shepherds.

Mario's bike leans against an ancient cottage

Although I had everything I needed for the trip in my packs already, I had no regrets about making some extra space for the Caciocavallo, and managed 1,600 grams of added goodness. This was, after all, the reason for my bikepacking journey through time. Although I don’t live too far from Vincenzo, having embarked on a longer bikepacking adventure to soak up Samnite history made the food a more special occasion when it eventually made it back home.

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