This week’s blog post is a day late, and incredibly long. Why? Because I have been to Naples and I am in love. Goethe apparently said or wrote that “A man who has seen Naples can never be sad”. I however, think the opposite is true: now that I’ve been to Naples I can never again be completely happy in any other city. For every other place suddenly seems bleak and awful, and no city in the world can hold a candle to the beauty of Naples’ maze of streets, no people are as kind and generous as the Neapolitans, and the food, oh dear God, the food. I cannot even begin to describe it. And yet, I will. A love story then, about how I lost my heart to bella Napoli shortly after I arrived, and how it left me heartbroken on the train back home 5 days later.
For those of you not at all interested in my newfound true love, scroll down, there’ll be a story about their gorgeous food, and a recipe.
Naples has a bad reputation. For a reason, I guess. Port cities are usually a bit dodgier than other places, and Naples is no exception. Furthermore it’s home to an intricate network of organised crime, and it’s not necessarily a rich place, making petty crime somewhat of a problem. But things have gotten better in recent years and you can wander about the city aimlessly without a clue of where you’re going, without getting mugged and/or beaten to death.
However, here in the north, a lot of people actually hate Naples. Deeply hate its guts. The fascists of the local racist party (Lega Nord) sometimes like to sing “Lavali, lavali, lavali col fuoco, oh Vesuvio, lavali col fuoco”, which means “wash them with fire, vesuvius”. Don’t think they’re joking: they’re dead serious. Some people are properly repulsed by the city, though most of them have never even been there.
I’m not sure whether it was despite, or because of all the warnings, but I had to go see it. And as I arrived in Campania, and then in Naples itself, it seemed like I had entered another country. Like I had left Italy, or maybe like I had never been to Italy before and I arrived there for the first time as I got off the train at Napoli Centrale. Chaos was the first thing I noticed. Traffic everywhere, and more like I’ve seen in India than anywhere in Europe, with three cars driving side by side in two lanes, people making U-turns in the middle of the road, the constant sound of car horns and the buzzing of vespas everywhere. I arrived around 5 in the afternoon, busiest time on the roads. Then, from the bus on my way into town, I saw a chicken. It was picking away at some bugs or seeds it found on the pavement, not at all disturbed by the cacophony it was surrounded by. Any city in which a chicken can roam the pavement, looking for food, without getting killed by traffic or molested by passers-by, in my opinion, is a magnificent city. So I started falling in love.
And in the days that I spent there, I fell in love more and more, hopelessly, with everything and everyone I saw. It’s true, there’s rubbish everywhere, that’s still a problem. However, you’ll be rewarded if you manage to ignore that. If you go for a stroll in the Spanish Quarters (an area formerly notorious for drive-by muggers on mopeds) you’ll feel like you’ve entered someone’s living room. There’s loads of houses on the ground floor, and people leave their doors and windows open and put seats and laundry outside, so that street and house become one. Back in the old days, these used to be the houses for the poor. And still you can tell that there’s not a whole lot of money in these quarters: people walk around selling all kinds of stuff, trying to make a living out of whatever objects they can, from contraband cigarettes to live goldfish.
The city, among those who are interested in these things, is also known for its excellent street art. Mostly in the Old Centre, which is the university zone and largely the domain of the Neapolitan students, you see modern (and illegal) art on every wall in every alley. The Old Centre is also home to the Ospedale delle Bambole, one of the few doll hospitals in Europe. (Which, to be honest, freaked me the fuck out. Dolls are really rather creepy as they are, but even worse when they’re missing a limb or an eyeball). In the same street you can find a bar with a wee shrine to Maradonna, the local patron saint (along with Saint Gennaro) who is revered as much as or more than Jesus. From the balconies, still in the same street, you can see wee baskets or plastic bowls dangling from ropes. These are for the inhabitants of the higher appartments who can’t be bothered to walk down for a pack of cigarettes or anything else they may need. They put money in the basket, scream down to the shopkeeper whatever it is they need, and the shopkeeper sends an assistent to take the cash and deliver the wares.
And it’s all of these wee things that I love so much about Naples. It’s a peculiar place, and it’s not like any other city that I’ve ever been to (although many people say it’s a bit like Genova, which I guess could be true in that they’re both port cities with a unique atmosphere that you find in no other place and a labyrinthine historical centre you can lose yourself in for hours if you fancy).
The best of all, though, were the people. I’ve never seen people who are more openhearted and warm than Neapolitans. Here in the north, it’s usual that women exchange kisses on the cheek with other women and with men, but men amongst themselves shake hands or do nothing at all. Neapolitan men kiss each other on the cheek, too, and they call each other bello (‘beautiful’, which is only used for women up here). They never eat alone, and wherever they go, friends are automatically invited along. My host, who is actually from Calabria but who has lived in Naples for quite some time, is one of the most generous and kind people ever, and so were his friends whom I was introduced to, and his flatmates, who were more than happy to share their domicile with me. I have never felt more accepted instantly in a new place than with them. Although I fell in love with the city itself as well, mostly I am in love with its gorgeous, friendly, amiable and enchanting inhabitants.
AS FOR THE FOOD
The food down there really is completely different. To start with the most important thing in the world: pizza. Rome and Naples still argue over which city makes the best pizza, and it’s a hard dispute to settle, because both types are completely different: Rome does thin, crispy bases, and Naples does thick and soft ones. However, Naples wins points on the toppings: they have real buffalo mozzarella. Buffalo mozzarella was passed down to mankind directly by God himself, it’s one of the most precious jewels we have in this world, and eating it is like tenderly licking an angel’s earlobe or other erogenous zone.
They’re also quite good on the sweeties. The babà (Neapolitan for a bonnie lass) is a sort of wee cake drenched in rum and yet suitable for breakfast. Then you get sfogliatelle, a pastry filled with cream and rich, almost sensual spices and aromas (I’m guessing cinnamon, citrus and something else that I can’t put my finger on…). With it comes Neapolitan coffee which is not like any other coffee. It comes in a scorching hot cup that will slightly burn your lips, and often they put sugar in it for you, unless you specify you want it without. In one seedy little bar in the labyrinth of the Spanish quarters (that I randomly walked into one day and which I then looked for for ages the next day) they added some kind of beige, sweet cream. I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what it was (I asked, and all they said was “cream” – thanks, Captain Obvious), but it was delicious.
For a snack, fairly often they deep fry stuff, and they do it well. You can get wee paper cups of battered calamari or wee alicci (small anchovies), or frittatine, a deep fried ball/disc with meat and peas in the middle, surrounded with pasta and cheese and coated in breadcrumbs. I noticed one shop that had a sign on the window that said “pizze fritte” – deep fried pizza. I guess Glaswegian cuisine is not quite as unique as we thought.
Something that may interested you is to hear that the famous Caprese Salad is from near Naples, from the island of Capri, to be specific, hence the name. And I have come to realise that eating this salad anywhere else than Capri, or let’s say, anywhere else than Campania, would be an abomination, because dear God it is good there. The tomatoes in the region are fantastic, and they’ve got buffalo mozzarella. Good tomatoes don’t exist in northern Europe and buffalo mozzarella is not the same: they export a load, true, but they keep the good stuff for themselves, and I don’t blame them. We can try to recreate what they eat in the south up north, but all it would really be is an insult to something that comes close to divinity. Let’s try and not anger the kitchen gods, shall we.
AS FOR THE RECIPE
I guess there’s one wee thing we can try to recreate. It’s a sauce, sort of, that my wonderful host who also turned out to be a wonderful cook made one night. It’s fairly easy and you can use tomatoes from a tin, which is good: no need for depressing, sour, hyperborean tomatoes. It probably won’t be as good as it was down in Naples, but you can’t blame a girl for trying.
let’s say about half a kilo, one red onion and a tin of tomatoes.
Wash, dry and deep fry the green peppers in a load of oil in a deep-ish pan if you have one, or do what I did and stick ’em in a normal frying pan. Leave the wee sticks on, they’ll come off easily later on. Take them out of the pan with a skimmer and put them on some kitchen tissue.
Get rid of most of the oil in the pan, finely chop the onion and gently fry it. Once it’s gone nice and soft-ish, add the tomatoes, a wee bit of water, some sugar if you need to and enough salt (don’t be stingy on the salt, people!). Leave to simmer for a couple of minutes, then add the peppers. Leave for a while more, then serve with some bread, as a starter or a snack.
Another wonderful thing I learned in Naples is mint vodka. A friend of my host, lovely bloke from Finland, was about to leave the country after having lived and studied in Naples for several months. The exact weekend that I was in town, his study period abroad had come to an end and he was taking a flight back home. A goodbye party was in order and I was invited along. He had made three bottles of flavoured vodka: two with Fisherman’s Friend flavour, and one with liquorice flavour. (For the Dutch: he’d actually made this with drop, which exists in Finland, too, and the Finnish, like the Dutch, say that they are the only country that has it). It was really good and it’s not difficult to make, nor is it expensive: you can use the cheapest, gadziest vodka (such as this Keglevich which cost me a grand total of 6,29) because you won’t taste the difference after you add the Fisherman’s Friend.
You’ll need 3 packets of FF for a normal sized bottle which will usually hold about 3/4 litre. Crush the mints using a mortar and pestle if you happen to own them, or just leave them in the sachets and use the vodka bottle to crush them. The finer you get them, the better. Drink some of the vodka (or pour it down the drain, as you wish) to prevent the bottle from overflowing and add all of the sweeties. Leave it for a day or so to allow everything to dissolve and blend. It’ll look a disgusting brownish colour but don’t worry, the flavour’s grand. I was told you can do this with just about any type of sweetie, so I’ll repeat the experiment soon with some sherbet lemons or pear drops or something.
I have to say it just one more time: Naples is one of the most amazing places I have ever been to, and I cannot wait to get back there. I am in love, and I feel that it’s mutual.