Serra San Bruno VV, Italy – When it comes to producing charcoal, there’s the regular way, and there’s the age-old way. In the southern Italian region of Calabria, photojournalist Stefano Milazzo caught up with a family that he calls “fire tamers” to explore how they make the charcoal that fuels furnaces all over the country. Milazzo’s photographs beautifully depict not only the ruggedness of the historic region, but also the sheer rigor of this visually-stunning burning process which dates back centuries.
Charcoal is used in everything from art, medicine, and cooking, to powering entire metallurgical industries. Yet its provenance is deceivingly simple: effectively a solid carbon residue, it is often obtained from burning wood.
But the big difference is in how it’s made. In the far-flung town of Serra San Bruno, this family employs a traditional method that’s more organic and ecologically-friendly. No chemical additives are used to expedite the process. In contrast to mineral charcoal, wood-based charcoal is burned at a higher heat and therefore purified of any toxic substances.
From dawn until dusk, the men — three brothers, a son and a cousin — engage in what Milazzo describes as “an incessant confrontation with fire.”
The wood, which comes primarily from larch and beech trees, seizes the senses as it burns for more than 15 days at a time. The pungent scent stings the nostrils as the fire slowly smolders, spewing thick smoke that dances off into the balmy, southern Italian air.
Charcoal-burning is an occupation that runs in this hard-working provincial family, and their skills are handed down from one generation to the next. These men’s parents and grandparents were charcoal producers, and most likely, their children will follow in their footsteps.
The southern end of the Apennine Mountains, which sweep through the tail end of Italy’s southwestern peninsula, is one of the oldest-inhabited in the country. Defined by its rustic beauty, Serra San Bruno is not a location one stumbles upon by chance. “It is a place where the noises of the bustling city, which we are so used to, are light years away,” Milazzo said.
As with any cooking process, charcoal production is a science. For instance, producing about 1,300 pounds of charcoal requires about 2,200 pounds of wood.
Marked “Charcoal Calabria,” the end product is packaged and shipped across Italy. But to call this curious family affair merely a “business” would be misleading. With deep roots in the local landscape, it’s a time-honored tradition that represents the very nature of Calabria itself: rugged yet beautiful, ancient yet timeless. Written by Dan Peleschuk, ViewFind