Introduction

Introduction

By
Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705545
Photographer
Helen Cathcart

If you ask the Amalfitani – the inhabitants of the southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula – to define the boundaries of the Amalfi Coast, most will tell you it stretches from Vietri sul Mare to Positano, in the region of Campania. However, some will disagree (as Italians do) and tell you it stretches from the more westerly Punta Campanella to the more easterly Salerno. Many visitors will also take in Sorrento and Capri when they visit this area, which further confuses the boundaries, so we have included recipes from these areas too. In fact, we gave up trying to establish the exact geographical location of the Amalfi Coast and instead threw our selves into enjoying its virtues, feeling that a cookbook shouldn’t try to be an atlas anyway.

I am thinking the reason you bought this book is because, like Giancarlo and me, you may have been to the Amalfi Coast and wish to re-create some of the delicious dishes you ate there, such as lemon risott„o, gnocchi alla sorrentina, acqua pazza or a perfect pizza. If you haven’t visited yet but aspire to, save those pennies, sell something you no longer need or blow your savings and go! You won’t be disappointed; the views really are jaw-droppingly beautiful and you’ll dine on wonderfully cooked local food and wine in the most amazing cliŠfftop hotels and restaurants.

The sheer excitement of taking in the views is slightly marred only by the erratic local driving, which is hair-raising to say the least; it is a unique experience that makes the Amalfi Coast even more memorable. The near misses with the scooters, cars and buses were countless. I was shouting ‘Giancarlo!’ at almost every turn. ‘Relax,’ said Giancarlo. ‘How can I relax?’ I shouted back. ‘A car is about to reverse into us!’ Good grief, now I know why they drink so much limoncello – you really do need a stiff drink at the end of the day to get over the experience!

A little history

(and why the food is like it is)

Known locally as la Costiera Amalfitana, this area is rich with stories and legends that talk of famous heroes, nymphs and sirens. Even the name Amalfiis linked to the nymph Melphe, the apple of Hercules’ eye. Legend has it that when she died he built a city high up on the cliffs where he buried her.

Another theory is that the Romans who lived there in the 4th century named it Melfi. Over time, more Romans moved to the coast and so Amalfi grew in size until it became one of the four maritime republics, having the same importance and power as Genoa, Pisa and Venice. The Romans left… a legacy of richly flavoured food such as garum, a sort of anchovy essence now known as colatura di alici. They also enjoyed roast chicken and suckling pig with sweet and sour sauce made with saffron and marjoram.

This trend of strongly flavoured food continued during the Middle Ages. The rich bought pepper, nutmeg, cloves and saffron to spice up their food and show off their wealth, with some spices costing their weight in gold. The poor used local aromatics such as mint, rosemary and wild fennel seed.

By the 6th century, Amalfiwas trading salt, timber, gold, silk, slaves and grain in exchange for gold coins from Egypt and Syria. While the rest of Italy was still working on a barter system, Amalfihad its own currency. Through trade with the Arabs, citrus fruits, aubergines and durum wheat were introduced to the area.

The 9th to 17th centuries saw constant att”acks from Saracen pirates along the coastline. When the Normans took over the land in 1073 they built a series of towers so that when they spotted a pirate att”ack so they could warn their comrades in the neighbouring towers of impending danger by lighting a fire. A total of 30 towers were built and many of these are still in use today, housing hotels and restaurants such as the Torre Normanna (The Norman Tower).

In 1131, Amalfi was taken by King Roger II of Sicily, then four years later by the Pisans. Although it lost its power the Amalfi maritime code, which governed maritime trade in the Mediterranean from the 1000s to 1500s, remained in use until 1570. In 1343 a tsunami destroyed the lower part of the town and port and it never regained its previous power.

The Turks made constant a”ttacks from 1543 to 1587. A…er the ba”le of Lepanto in 1571, Amalfi came under the control of the Viceroy of Naples, who was a Spaniard, and a Spanish influence can be seen in some of the dishes today, such as Zucchine Scapece.

In Edwardian times, the Amalfi Coast became the destination of choice for British aristocrats. Later, actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo and Sophia Loren brought fame to the area and now it is a flourishing tourist destination.

In recent years UNESCO has included the Amalfi Coast in its World Heritage sites, so no ma†er who you are or how much money you have, it is impossible to build anything out of place on this beautiful coast.

Damonte o mare?

From the mountains or the sea?

The terroir of the coast has shaped the diet of its inhabitants over the centuries. With only a few kilometres between sea and mountain it is unsurprising that as you walk into any local restaurant you will be asked if you would like to eat from the mountains (meat) or the sea (fish). It is also unsurprising that you will find combinations from both the land and sea, such as bean and mussel soup, spaghetti with clams and calamari stuffed with locally grown vegetables.

Further influences on the food include the unusual combination of ancient monasteries and modern hotels. Over the years, monks have worked with food and drink, creating liqueurs and keeping alive centuries-old techniques such as preserving fish and making sfogliatelle. However, it was the chefs in the hotels and private houses post-1950s that were called upon for a lighter, more inventive touch to many of their dishes by their customers. It is this lighter touch that separates and defines the cooking on the Costiera from neighbouring Naples. Giovanni, the chef at local restaurant Il Giardiniello, told me that Neapoletan cuisine was meat-based and heavy, whereas the food from the coast was lighter, featuring more fish, lemons and herbs.

Though the food may be lighter nowadays, even in the best Michelin- star restaurants the food is generally based on the old cucina povera or cucina casareccia, the home-style way of cooking from the days when money was scarce but produce from the land and the sea was plentiful. It has always been an extremely healthy way to eat, consisting of a diet based mainly on vegetables. Acqua Pazza, a simple dish consisting of sea bass or sea bream cooked in tomatoes, is a typical example of the belief that the flavour and freshness of the fish should shine through and not be masked by too many flavours. One resident told me that when she goes to a restaurant she always asks if they put wine in their acqua pazza; if they do, she chooses not to eat there!

From working with chefs and local cooks we found la cucina amalfitana (the Amalfi cuisine) to be simple cooking, often referred to as la cucina espressa, meaning quick and easy dishes to prepare.

Lemons

These bright yellow globes of sweet, perfumed juice, with a thick white pith and flavourful zest, have become the symbol of the Amalfi Coast. Their proper name is sfusato amalfitano and they were originally grown in China over 4,000 years ago. Over the years merchants transported the lemons to Egypt via sea and land where Arab traders eventually brought them to the shores of the Sorrentine Peninsula.

Lemons are available as early as January but their flavour improves in the summer. Used in both sweet and savoury cooking, they are everywhere and you will even find the leaves used to wrap fish or smoked mozzarella.

Lemons are oƒften sold with their leaves so that you can tell how recently they were plucked from the tree: wrinkly leaves mean the lemons were picked more than a week ago. Every part of the lemon is used. The bright zest is not usually waxed and is full of essential oils. If you have ever seen a barman twisting a length of zest and sett‡ing fire to it, that’s the essential oil burning. The zest can be finely grated onto pasta or risotto; the thick pith is used for candying; the juice is squeezed over almost everything, from potato salad to lamb casserole and fish; and whole lemons make a delicious marmalade.

Olive oil

A local chef, Giovanni, told me that the local oils are lighter and less fruity than other Italian versions, making them ideal for the delicate Amalfi cooking as they don't overpower the subtle taste of the fish, for example.

Have two types in the kitchen if you can: a standard extra-virgin olive oil for cooking and a single-estate extra-virgin olive oil for swirling into soup before serving, pouring over your Insalata Caprese or finishing lamb or fish on the grill.

A note on oven temperatures: It has been assumed throughout the book that a fan-forced oven is being used. Please adjust your temperatures to 20°C higher if you are using a conventional oven.

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