The biggest surprise on a recent trip for much of October, which took in various wine regions of Italy, France and Portugal, was not the expected wonderful little winery discovery – although there were a few of them – as much as the profound eye-opening experience of a visit to the venerable liqueur and liqueur chocolate producer Strega. In their (very) unprepossessing plant across the road from Benevento’s main railway station, this remarkable institution remains firmly in the hands of the Alberti family and in the same place, some 150 years after they made their first bottle of Strega for sale.
While current MD and Alberti family member, Giuseppe D’Avino (cute name in the circumstances) admits they are looking for a new site – heavens knows how they cope with the chaos that is Italian traffic in the vicinity of a considerable railway station – he reassures us that not a lot more will change. Certainly their intention is to retain as many of their 75 employees, even if they could probably mechanise/computerise etc and do it with half. It’s not their way.
Giuseppe led us through the museum part of the plant, showing the company’s rich history, not just in liqueur making, but in the wider Campania and national community as a big supporter of Italian film, theatre and literature for many decades. The major annual literary award in Italy is the Strega Prize, which has just been given for the 64th time since 1946. Then on through the displays of retired machinery and even a 20 metre cabinet with some 80 known Strega imitations, until we entered the wonderland of an actual working museum – the Strega plant itself!
The biggest eye-opener (jaw dropper!) was probably the maze of rooms where they prep the mysterious and legendary combo of herbs, spices, fruits, aromatic leaves and bark, which make up the secret Strega formula. Given the obvious quality of Strega, I would have been happy to accept the sight of rows of jars of various essences, but instead what we were greeted with was rows of bags and boxes of the aforementioned base ingredients in the form of…herbs and spices and leaves and bark, in their original, harvested form. Big, plump hessian bags and tea-chests, recently arrived from all over Europe, from Asia and Asia–Minor, India and the Middle-East, Africa, Oceania, the South Seas and the Americas all offering their incredible and exotic variety. For me it was almost staggering, but so exciting, to see that this meant they grind and steep and distill and combine all this gear, some 70 ingredients, from scratch. It was impossible not to want to rub and pinch and sniff the components as they waited in their bins; pepper, coriander, fennel and any number of other aromatic seeds, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, eucalyptus, saffron, cassia, fennel, juniper, iris, mint…each one, somehow time after time, eventually to play its little role in a remarkable amalgam.
So it wasn’t quite such a surprise when we moved on after the big old distilling pots, where the spirit and the spicing join each other, to the conching room. Yes, well of course they make their own chocolate…