Teaching a retreat for a week in Italy has the added benefit of a small food-tour for us. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that was at least partly a motivating factor for planning this particular retreat. Between discovering The Italian Farm shop in our new new neighbourhood this year and Theresa buying me a pasta machine for my birthday, I’ve been quite into Italian.
Our retreat took place at In Salento in the Puglia region, the heel of the boot that forms the shape of Italy. Further south than I’ve been before, the countryside and the cooking reflected the warmer climate, more rural living and poorer people.
First thing you notice from London is that stuff was growing everywhere. Ripe figs hanging off every tree; aubergines, tomatoes, zucchinis in every garden, as well as a variety of their speciality; the local greens we call escarole. Back home our tomatoes planted first thing in May, still haven’t ripened and our aubergine only got as far as producing a single flower.Here it feels abundant.
As I always say, cooking can only be as good as the produce you have access too and this is particularly true of Italian cuisine, relying as it does on very simple cooking to allow the quality of the ingredients centre stage. I’m surprised so many people are still growing; in the rural area we taught the retreat in they grew most of their food around their 35 hectares working farm.
Naples was a different story, however. We lost the peaceful and spacious feel of the countryside as soon as we got off the train at Naples station. Between the both of us, I would say we’ve visited a lot of the cities of Southern Europe, but nothing can prepare you for the chaos and energy of Naples. Of course, the suburbs are large and I would assume quieter and more dignified, but the centre is brash, squalid, vibrant; a city where everyone seems to be on the street hussling. Most importantly there was loads and loads of street food immediately evident.
With Theresa at the helm of the camera, I’m not sure the photos really go far to show the craziness and the colour and interest of the place. But left to me we wouldn’t have any photos, and really, it was the character of the people that was really unique to the place. I cannot describe them without being a bit blunt; they were the most gypsy-like people I’ve ever seen on masse. Loud, demonstrative, dressed in clothes you couldn’t pick-better, quite friendly but you wouldn’t want to turn your back on them. Again, I hasten to add, for any Neopolitan’s happening by chance to read this, that this was just my impression of the people in the old-town centre. There was certainly a middle-class present; but the centre was filled with a lot of fairly impoverished people living whole families to a couple of rooms literally piled on top of each other in the tiny, cramped streets.
However, we weren’t here to look around, but on a serious mission to try the pizza of Naples. Famous throughout the world as the birthplace of pizza, signs hang everywhere denoting the restaurants that conform to the rigid guidelines of what denotes a true D.O.P status Neopolitan pizza. The rules are stringent and govern everything from what flour you use, to what tomatoes (they have to be San Marzano, of the region), what temperature the pizza is cooked at, how long, the list goes on. The one important difference that is meant to lend Naples pizza that edge over pizza from anywhere else is the water and soil. In the shadow of Vesuvius, the volcanic ash lends a certain flavor to the water and anything grown in the soil – like the San Marzano tomatoes they use; the soil being most fertile due to the minerals present the ingredients are said to take on the best flavor here.
The main thing you notice, however, when you sit down for your first pizza here is that it comes very ‘wet’. If you like your pizza with a thicker, crispy crust, you’ll be out of luck. Neopolitans produce a pizza that has a centre most other food-writers describe as ‘soupy’. There is no way to eat it without a knife an fork, a little crust around the side provides a well for the tomatoes and cheese, but the centre Is almost spoonable. It doesn’t sound immediately a good thing, but this was really the fantastic thing about them. Even the people doing pretty good Neopolitan-style pizza in London now, fall short of achieving this texture.
A lot of research was done by us before coming to find the most well-known and best places for pizza in Naples, of which there were actually so many it made it difficult to decide which to go to without eating pizza at all meals for the whole of our trip. We opted for the no-frills Di-Machelle, famed for being the pizza place Julia Roberts goes to in Eat, Pray, Love. Right choice for the pizza place I think, even though the rest of the film was a dramatically wrong choice from start to finish. It is widey agreed by most locals to be the overall winner. Of the other places of note, we went was Starita, known for their deep-fried pizza; a tradition unique to Naples and actually lighter than you might imagine. Not something you would eat often, but interesting to try, and of course, how could that not be good.
Often over-shadowed by the pizza, Naples is also famous for many other traditional foods. It is claimed Ice Cream was invented there; we tried it at the intriguingly named “Gay Odin”, said to be the best. Very good, but no better than other ice cream we tried on our trip. Always of a higher standard than most Ice Cream in the UK, these days there are a number of places in London serving ice cream to rival anything you’ll find in Italy; Gelupo and Ruby Violet beign our favourites.
Pastries also play a major part in this region. Like many cities in Europe, these constitute breakfast. Theresa, who likes proper and more substantial savoury breakfast, is never happy about this, though I quite like it. In Naples the speciality is Sfogliatelle , a shell-shaped croissant-like-thing stuffed with a variety of fillings, most typically ricotta, candied fruit and spices. The unusual quality of this pastry is it’s crispiness which nicely balances the creamy inside. One place near the train station that everyone recommends serves these hot out of huge ovens, so on the first morning we headed straight over.
But other than, this an amazing range of sweet goods are displayed from pretty much every café. We tried a number of others at recommended loctions like the Cannoli and the Rum Baba, so popular amongst the locals. Like so many things there is nothing in London to rival the freshness of the stuff we found here. Eating traditional Italian specialities in Italy is a different experience to doing it in London. Maybe it’s just the atmosphere , but it’s reason alone to visit even if you don’t always find the very best stuff.
With local Trattorias (think low-end restaurant) serving the basic and rustic “Cucina Povera” we didn‘t have so much luck. Literally cooking of the poor, denoting the simple, fresh and rustic diet of a mainly rural farming population, it is now not so easy to find due to restaurant competition and the cost-cutting that engenders. You either pay a lot more at a fancier Italian restaurant, or you go to one of the local places where it’s cheap and cheerful cooking, but, unfortunately, lacks the quality of produce which originally made this type of diet world famous.
Every street was littered with Trattorias in Naples. We tried two of the most highly recommended but, although, indeed very cheap, they didn’t come up with the good on the taste front due to lack of quality ingredients, but that is what you get when 2 people can eat for 12 euros at a sit down restaurant. Both did have a lot of the local colour and would be worth trying for the experience alone but, just make sure you clarify with them what is actually vegetarian. Many of the pastas for example are supplemented with small pieces of pancetta though only listed on the menu as different vegetable pastas. This was the case when we attempted to order the two pastas most well known in this area; Gnochi Sorrentina and Potata e Provola though this is not always the case but seems to rest on the particular whim of the cook that day.
|a local coffee they make here with almond milk. Finally relaxing after a long day of research...|
However, the main reason when we travel to a different place, is to get inspiration from seeing the different dishes and then trying to recreate them at home in a more healthy way and without the meat. It’s more a time of research than a pilgrimage to eat in certain restaurants. We’re not into the restaurant experience; overpriced and impersonal, you never know with what care and how whayt you’ve ordered will be cooked, and generally it is not how you would like it. Then there is the whole wastage issue and supporting meat-serving places; so in way, that whole industry too. It sounds a bit uptight when you write it down, but it’s been our experience over the years that we’re not usually satisfied when eating out and this trip was no excepetion. We definitely took a few blows on this trip to and are happy to be back with our own kitchen, yet a whole load of memories and ideas to influence our Italian menus for the months to come.