Mario Matassa looks at the rich culinary traditions in Campania and shares some Italian recipes from the Amalfi Coast…
In a country renowned for its cuisine, it is Campania that best conjures the popular image of Italian food, epitomising the ideal of the Mediterranean diet and the Italian reputation for good living. And in a region rich in the very best the Mediterranean has to offer, the Amalfi is a food lovers paradise. With its enviable climate, rich fertile volcanic soils and beautiful natural coastline, it hardly comes as a surprise that the area is a magnet for gastronomic tourists from near and far alike.
The dishes of the region are recognisable to all. Simplicity and quality of ingredients are the absolute cornerstones of the local cuisine. Spaghetti cooked simply with fresh tomatoes, milky white balls of buffalo mozzarella cheese drizzled in the finest extra-virgin olive oil or the freshest clams and linguine. Other everyday staples include squid, octopus and anchovies cooked with minimal fuss and added to a steaming bowl of pasta, pasta e fagioli (a pasta and bean soup) and sart? di riso, rice baked with sausage, meatballs, cheese, peas and mushrooms. Of course, we can?t forget the ubiquitous pizza, originating from nearby Naples, topped simply with the very best local ingredients, the like of which is not to be found anywhere else in the world.
Just browsing the market stalls in Amalfi is a treat in itself. A combination of climate and fertile soils make the produce from this region incomparable. Friarielli, tender greens that only grow in Salerno, impossibly plump, purple aubergines and, of course, the incomparable San Marzano tomatoes sit alongside huge rounds of caciocavallo, provola and Pecorino cheeses, olives, peaches, lemons the size of grapefruits and the best you will ever taste. If that were not enough, the gentle warm waters of the Mare Tirreno ensures a healthy year-round array of the most wonderful fresh seafood.
Those with a sweet tooth are also spoilt for choice. Sweet delights such as pastiera, a rich Easter cake (now made at any time of the year), Bab? al Rhum, riffoli (a creamy sponge cake) and cannoli, filled with a heavenly mix of fresh ricotta, citron, pistachio nuts and chocolate, compete alongside a bewildering array of ice creams. Of course, to end the meal, the choice from a broad range of artisan liqueurs ? made from lemons, oranges, limes, tangerines or something even more unusual ? will require a moment of pause. We are lucky with so many options available ? but whatever you choose, they are all superb.
Makes approx 2 litres | Preparation 20 days in storage | Cooking 10 mins
10 unwaxed lemons
1 litre pure alcohol (or strong vodka or grappa)
600g fine sugar
700ml bottled water
Wash and peel the lemons, avoiding the white pith. Place the lemon peel in a small demijohn (or a jar with a tight fitting lid) and cover with the alcohol. If you can?t find pure alcohol you can use strong unflavoured vodka or a dry grappa. Seal the jar and leave in a dark closet for 10 days.
Remember to shake the contents every couple of days.
Boil the water and add the sugar. Stir until completely dissolved and then set aside to cool completely. Strain the lemon mixture using a fine sieve and add to the water and sugar. Stir well and bottle. The liqueur will be ready to drink within 10 days. Serve ice cold from the freezer.
Makes 24 | Preparation 25 mins plus resting | Cooking 10 mins
For the cases
1 level tbsp plain cocoa powder
1 level tsp ground cinnamon
250g plain flour
50g vegetable shortening
30g icing sugar
1 medium free range egg
1 tsp salt
Oil for deep frying
For the filling
200g icing sugar
100g dark chocolate drops
50g candied peel
Sift the flour, cinnamon, salt, cocoa powder and icing sugar into a large bowl. Add the egg which has been lightly beaten together with the vegetable shortening and Marsala wine to the bowl and mix together well. Use your hands to bring the dough together and then wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for at least an hour. In the meantime, make the filling by placing the ricotta in a bowl, sifting over the icing sugar and folding in the chocolate drops and candied peel.? Place the filling in the fridge until needed.
Heat the oil to 170?C. Once the dough has rested, remove from the fridge and roll out to a thickness of 2-3mm. Using a round 9cm pastry cutter, cut 24 rounds from the dough, pulling them slightly to make an oval shape (you are better cutting and frying the dough in batches to ensure that it does not dry). Wrap the dough around a metal cannoli mound and fry in the oil until golden and crisp. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.? Once the metal mould has cooled enough to handle, remove them and allow the cannoli cases to cool completely.
When you are ready to serve (so that the cases remain crisp), use a piping bag with a large nozzle to pipe the filling into each cannoli. To finish, dust with icing sugar and serve.
Baby octopus with potato
Moscardini con le patate
750g baby octopus, cleaned
235ml red wine vinegar
3 large potatoes
200ml dry white wine
3 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion
1 clove of garlic
Small bunch of fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
Place the octopus in a pressure cooker with 1 litre of water and the red wine vinegar.? Bring to the boil and cook for 40 minutes.? While the octopus is cooking cut the potatoes into chunks and cook in salted water (take care not to overcook the potatoes at this point). Once both the octopus and potatoes are cooked, drain and set aside. Place the oil in a deep sided frying pan and add the finely chopped onion and crushed garlic. Cook over a moderate heat until the onions have softened. Then add the octopus and potatoes, turn up the heat and add the white wine. Allow the wine to evaporate by half, check seasoning, sprinkle over the finely chopped parsley and serve.
TIP If you cannot find baby octopus, you can of course use normal octopus. Just increase the boiling time in the pressure cooker to one hour and chop the octopus into bite sized chunks before adding it to the oil and wine.
Spaghetti alla positano with tomatoes
Serves 4 | Preparation 5 mins | Cooking 12 mins
4-5 anchovy fillets in oil
1-2 hot red chillies (according to taste)
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 large ripe red tomato
2 large cloves of garlic
Small bunch of fresh parsley
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the spaghetti. While the spaghetti is cooking place the oil in a large deep sided frying pan. Add the anchovy fillets, red chilli and garlic, all finely chopped. Stir until the anchovy fillets dissolve. Chop the tomato into dice and add to the pan. Continue to simmer over a very low heat until the pasta is ready. Once the pasta is ready drain, reserving half a ladleful of the cooking water and add to the pan with the sauce. Sprinkle the finely chopped parsley over the top, toss well and serve.