Naples and its province
The city of Naples is situated in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, halfway down the Tyrrhenian coast of the Italian peninsula in the most inland part of its similarly named gulf. Its province, however, embraces the region surrounding the gulf. This includes part of the peninsula of Sorrento, Vesuvius, the Phlegraean Fields, the Parthenopean islands and a small part of the plains of Campania, and, for a brief stretch, the Apennines.
The land is cultivated intensively with vegetables: cabbages, artichokes, cauliflowers, peas, tomatoes and sweet peppers; but the arboreous cultivations are of an even larger importance amongst which the most widespread are vines, citrus fruits and fruit trees. Fishing is also widely practised.
The Neapolitan cuisine which characterises that of the whole region is prevalently poor and working class, although, amongst the wealthy there is plenty of the more opulent cuisine which, historically, has its roots in the Bourbon court.
The former is based on vegetables and rarely on meat, or on poorer types of fish, above all anchovies and "purpetielle", the octopus sold by travelling market stalls and lastly, based on chitterlings, leftovers from the slaughterhouse and the less prized parts of the animals taken to be butchered which are often served outside on the streets. For the integration of the missing calories, there are the dairy products which in Naples have always been, and still remain, excellent: the buffalo milk mozzarella, and other cheese such as the caciocavalli, the provole from Irpinia and Sannio in the Benevento area.
A particular dish is that of the «ragu' alla napoletana» (‘Neapolitan meat sauce’). This sauce, prepared on feast days or weekends, which requires a whole morning’s preparation, has been exalted by many Parthenopean authors. It cannot just be left to cook on its own on the stove: it needs to be checked continually and corrected with the addition of hot water. Over heat, one arranges on a base of lard and ham fat, small slices of beef rolled around a filling of grated cheese, garlic, parsley, sultanas and pine-nuts. Red wine and tomatoes are then added. The nourishing sauce is used for dressing pasta while the roulades are served as a main course.
An important dish is, then, the pizza. This must be made from flour mixed with water from the Serino (the water of Naples, which is also the origin of the quality of the coffee), dressed with the pure oil from the olive groves of the Cilento or of the Coastline and with the lard taken from the pigs from the Sannio, coloured with the tomatoes ripened somewhere between Sebeto and Sele, enriched with mozzarella from Mondragone, and finally, aromatised with basil kept on the Neapolitan balconies and baked in a Neapolitan oven which is as large as a room, scorching hot and its flames sustained by piles of bone dry vine runners which only leave a very light ash behind them.
Another important dish belonging to this cuisine is the pasta. Since the raw material is durum wheat, which is very difficult to mix and process, the Neapolitans rely with the utmost trust on their industrially made pastas, and do not in the slightest believe– as in other regions – that to be good, a pasta must be home-made. In reality, in Naples, the pasta is extraordinary both for its quality and for the perfection with which it is cooked, which must be correctly "al dente", and for its dressing. From the classic "pummarola" (tomato sauce), the simplest "aglio e uoglio" (garlic and oil), the whole exhibition of sauces accompanied with vegetables or seafood up to the apotheosis of the ragù meat sauce, where the creativity of the South gives stunning proof of itself.
The «peperoni ripieni» (‘stuffed sweet peppers’) are exquisite and their preparation requires the yellow and red peppers to be carefully toasted, skinned and emptied. They are then filled with finely chopped black olives and garlic, capers, anchovy fillets and small pieces of bread fried in oil.
Amongst the products made with flour, it is worth mentioning the «taralli» which are produced throughout the South, although the Neapolitan «taralli» have something extra: it is enough just to see them displayed in the bread shops, in all the variety of shapes, sizes and flavours which are made available to the public. The variety is infinite: tiny sized, larger, more spicy, made crunchy from baking. And there are also particular types of taralli, such as the «tortano», large, soft and filling, which have ciccioli (scraps of pork fat), diced cheese, pepper and chopped up salami included in the dough; or the «casatiello», another large sized tarallo which is dressed with lard, plenty of diced salami and eggs broken into the dough without their shells, hardened and made darker and flavoursome by the cooking.
In the richer cuisine, there is an abundance of crustaceans and high quality fish which are enjoyed by simply combining them with the most genuine flavours; but there are also elaborate dishes such as the «sartù di riso in bianco». This is an intricate dish with ingredients as follows: four hundred and fifty grams (1 lb) of rice, two eggs, fifty grams (2 oz) of butter, one hundred grams (3 ½ oz) of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper; for the sauce are required: two hundred grams (7 oz) of dried mushrooms, one hundred and fifty grams (5 oz) of minced meat, twenty grams (1 oz) of butter, a small piece of onion and one of celery, fifty grams (2 oz) of prosciutto cured ham, a teaspoon of concentrated tomato purée, half a glass of dry white wine; for the béchamel:
fifty grams (2 oz) of flour, the water from the mushrooms, milk and thirty grams (1 oz) of butter and, lastly, for the peas: two hundred and fifty grams (9 oz) of hulled peas, fifty grams (1 oz) of prosciutto cured ham, twenty grams (1 oz) of butter, a piece of sliced onion, parsley and salt. The preparation is complicated and requires a lot of time. An old recipe advises: soak the mushrooms in boiling water (but off the heat) for half an hour. Drain them, chop finely and cook them in their own water over a low heat for another half an hour. Now drain them, keeping the cooking liquid to one side. Sauté the ingredients for the sauce, wetting with a little wine from time to time, until they become slightly browned and shiny. Add the mushrooms and a little of their cooking liquid. Brown the onion and the pancetta slightly in the butter, add the peas with a little of the mushrooms’ cooking liquid. Allow to simmer and, after about twenty minutes, add to the rest of the sauce. Make a fairly thick béchamel with the butter, flour, half of the milk and half of the mushrooms’ cooking liquid. Add this to the sauce, stir together and leave to simmer for another five minutes. Boil the rice until it is al dente, dress with the butter, the Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and parsley and, when it is almost cold, add two eggs, previously beaten with a fork. Grease and line with breadcrumbs a timbale mould (that is, high-sided) and transfer most of the rice into it, leaving a hole in the centre to be filled by the filling after having drained it through a slotted spoon. Cover with the rest of the rice, flattening the surface. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and small knobs of butter and put into a preheated oven. The sauce drained off from the filling is to be served on the table in a sauce dish. The sartù can also be dressed with a tomato sauce or with a Neapolitan ragù meat sauce. In this case, the filling can be made with the addition of meatballs, chicken livers, mozzarella and segments of hard boiled eggs.
The «seafood salad» also undergoes a certain elaboration, made with mussels, clams or lupini or wedge shells, shrimps, octopus, one or more lemons, one-two teaspoons of French mustard from glass casks, one hundred grams (3 ½ oz) of oil, two cloves of garlic (optional) and plenty of parsley. This dish also requires a good deal of special attention in its preparation, as can be understood from the recipe which follows. Scrape and wash the mussels. Allow them to open up, without any dressing, in a large, covered pan over a high heat. Keep the resulting cooking juices. Remove from the shells, and put the latter into a saucepan with one litre (1 ¾ pints) of water and the usual broth aromas (onions, celery, carrot, rosemary, marjoram, thyme). Boil for twenty minutes. Throw out the shells and put the broth back into the saucepan with the shrimps, boil for three minutes and then peel them. Sieve the broth through a cloth. Cook the cleaned and washed octopus and the cleaned squids cut into rings in the sieved seafood broth. Drain them and then cut the octopus into small pieces. Put the mussels, clams, shrimps, squids and octopus into a mixing bowl. Prepare a sauce with one hundred grams (3 ½ oz) of oil, one teaspoon of mustard, the juice of one lemon (or more, if this is not enough), a whole, finely chopped garlic, plenty of finely chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Beat together with a fork and pour into the mixing bowl. Stir together, cover and keep cool until serving.
Meat is not very widely used, and, when it is, is always most elaborately prepared; amongst these dishes, we bring to mind the «pizzaiole», well beaten and trimmed slices of meat, cooked in the pan with fresh, quartered tomatoes, oregano, garlic, oil, pepper, salt and white wine.
Where cakes and desserts are concerned, the main protagonist is the «pastiera», a tart which is enjoyed everywhere and which requires a good number of ingredients and a lengthy preparation. In fact, for ten people, the following is necessary: for the pastry, four hundred grams (14 oz) of flour, four egg yolks, two hundred grams (7 oz) of sugar, two hundred grams (7 oz) of lard, grated lemon rind, grated orange rind; for the wheat: two hundred and thirty grams (8 oz) of soaked wheat, two knobs of lard, one and a half tablespoons of sugar, one and a half packages of vanilla, the rind of half and orange, six hundred millilitres (just over 1 pint) of milk; for the filling, three hundred and twenty grams (12 oz) of ricotta, two hundred and thirty grams (8 oz) of sugar, four egg yolks, three egg whites, due phials of orange flower water, one hundred grams (3 ½ oz) of candied fruit, cinnamon and a very low metal pie tin, twenty eight centimetres in diameter and four centimetres high, the special one used for pastieras. The old recipe advises as follows: the day before making the pastiera, cook the wheat in the milk, the sugar, the lard, the vanilla and the orange rind over a low heat for a few hours until it becomes creamy and the wheat has softened. Now, make the pastry. Leave it aside in the fridge for at least an hour. Cut the candied fruit into small pieces. Beat the ricotta together with the sugar in a large mixing bowl for three or four minutes, then adding one yolk at a time, the orange flower water (one small phial) and the cinnamon. Next, add the wheat and the candied fruit and mix. Grease the pie tin and line with two thirds of the pastry, rolled out into a sheet about a couple of millimetres thick. Whisk the egg whites until they are stiff and add them delicately to the mixture, stirring from the bottom upwards as usual. When the mixture has all been perfectly mixed together, check that the quantity of orange flower water is correct. Should it not be, then add according to one’s taste, but keeping in mind that the flavour partly disappears during cooking. Pour the mixture into the pie tin and level off. Roll out the rest of the pastry onto a piece of greaseproof paper, forming a rectangle as long as the diameter of the pie tin. Without moving the pastry from the paper, mark out a number of strips a couple of centimetres (slightly less than 1”) wide. Then, following the marks on the pastry, cut out the strips of pastry, along with the greaseproof paper underneath. At this point, take one of the strips and, turning it over, place it in the centre of the pie, at the point of maximum diameter of the pie tin. Remove the paper delicately. Place a second strip, and then a third at three or four centimetres, parallel to the first, central strip. The next five strips should then be placed on top of the pie in the same way, but lying across the first ones in such as way as to form a grid of diamond shapes. The pastiera should be cooked at a fairly low heat (150° C/300° F/Gas Mark 2) until it is a golden brown colour and the filling has cooked completely. Allow to cool and sprinkle with icing sugar. A cooked pastiera improves if left for three or four days (or more), wrapped and conserved out of the fridge.
It is worth remembering also the «babas», the «sfogliatelle» and the typical Neapolitan biscuits shaped like an ‘s’, known as «susamelli», which were born from the traditions of the monasteries of the fifteen hundreds.
Apart from the division between the working class and the richer class cuisine in Naples, the cuisine of the street survives for everyone.. From the "friggi e mangia" (‘fry and eat’), the many products of the local rosticceria (delicatessen), to the various “pass-times” which are offered in the kiosks or stands and which are eaten at any moment during the day (seafood, small pizzas, tarts or fritters). Naples shows, as ever, to those who wish to see it, its legendary creativity which stretches back thousands of years.