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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A Foodie Pilgrimage in Campania, Italy

Having recently spent a blissful week on the Amalfi Coast of Italy (reviewed here and here), I was thrilled to return to the region by invitation of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) on a foodie expedition to learn about some of Campania’s produce.

A region of great beauty and contrasts, Campania, on the southwestern tip of Italy has edgy Naples at its heart, ancient Pompeii nearby, as well as some of the most luxurious summer retreats on the Amalfi coast and Capri, where artists, celebrities and well-healed travellers have flocked for decades.

Life is a Beach!

A culinary and agricultural powerhouse, the region supplies some of the country’s sweetest tomatoes, the best buffalo mozzarella and burrata cheeses, as well as being host to the cities of Gragnano and Naples, the Italian capital of artisan pasta and the birthplace of pizza respectively.

A cheese platter from Campania - buffalo mozzarella, burrata, trecce

A wine-producing region, Campania is also famed for its native grapes, making for elegant whites including Greco di Tufo, Fiano di Avellino, as well as the aromatic Falanghina. It also produces hearty reds made from the native Aglianico grape.

The main purpose of our visit to Campania was to learn about the production process of peeled Italian tomatoes, from the farm to the consumer. We visited two major Italian tinned tomato producers – La Doria (www.gruppoladoria.com) and Calispa (www.calispa.it). At Calispa, we were taken into the production line for their Nobile range of peeled tomatoes.

The process is for the most part automated, from washing the fruit to de-stemming and peeling. The stage which requires the most care and attention is the final selection, which highly trained local Italian women have done for generations.

The sheer quantity of tomatoes being processed was staggering, but not surprising considering that Italy is the second largest producer of tinned tomatoes in the world, behind only California. Sixty percent of the Italian production is exported to Europe, with the UK luckily being one of the largest importers.

There are few tomato-based pasta dishes I can imagine making without using Italian tinned tomatoes, because they are harvested at the peak of their ripeness and flavour, they will make the richest sauces. Peeled tomatoes are one of the pillars of Italian cooking, and without them, there would be no pasta or pizza.

At Calispa, we tried their premium range of peeled tomatoes, Nobile, including the highly regarded San Marzano plum tomatoes, considered by many chefs to be the best in the world. Indeed the San Marzano were sweeter and more intense in flavour than the other varietals I tried, and I can’t think of another peeled tomato I would rather use for pasta sauces today.

To experience for ourselves some of the local peeled tomatoes, a magnificent dinner was held at the seafood restaurant Mare Nostrum (www.ristorantemarenostrum.it) in Salerno. Tomatoes were featured in every course including dessert – a refreshing San Marzano tomato ice cream, accompanied by a Baba of tomato cream and a confit of pachino tomatoes!

San Marzano Tomato Ice Cream

Another interesting visit was to the Syngenta Research Institute (www.syngenta.com), where we met some of the people behind the eye-opening work being carried out there. In Italy, Syngenta has around 400 employees mostly in R&D, where they study among other projects, different methods of helping rural communities increase farming productivity in sustainable ways.

Tomato Crop Research at Syngenta

Syngenta was followed by a visit and lunch at Agriturismo Al Celone, Foggia (www.alcelone.it). Agriturismos are essentially holiday-letting properties on Italian farms, either as part of the farmer's house or in a separate building in the farm grounds.  They are usually better value than hotels and are set in some of the most beautiful parts of the Italian countryside, but best of all, they are generally foodie places offering excellent meals, including lots of produce from the farm itself, and from the locality.

The Agriturismo Al Celone was quite a large, recently restored property with four bedrooms and three dining rooms, set in a farm on the outskirts of the town of Foggia.  This makes it a convenient base for visits to Campania, but is also very close to the plains of Puglia, the Gargano National Park and the Appenine mountains.

Lunch was a simple but delicious affair, starting with a selection of antipasti, including tomatoes over grilled bread, some fantastic cheeses and cold meats, followed by Orechietti pasta.

PDO Burrata of Campania
For me, one of the most interesting visits was to "Mail" – a traditional producer of buffalo mozzarella (www.caseificiomail.it), owned by the Raimondo family.

Buffalo mozzarella is made from the milk of the domestic Italian water buffalo, and is traditionally produced in Campania (which has had its own PDO or Protected Designation of Origin since 1993), and particularly in the provinces of Caserta and Salerno.

It is not entirely clear how water buffalo ended up in Italy (one theory is that the Arabs introduced them to Sicily, and then the Norman kings moved them in around 1,000 AD to southern Italy, initially as work animals). They have certainly been there for many centuries, and cheese has been made from buffalo milk in Campania since at least the twelfth century.

A special feature of the milk is its richness - to produce 1kg of cheese, 5 kg of buffalo milk is required, compared with 8kg of cows milk. A litre of buffalo milks costs three times the price of cow’s milk. On this visit, we saw the whole production process from milk heating, to curdling, curd maturation, spinning, shaping and packaging.

Particularly magnificent is the PDO burrata of Campania (burrata meaning 'buttered') - a stupendous fresh cheese with an outer solid shell of mozzarella, and a centre of creamy fior di latte. This cheese has become a staple in any decent Italian restaurant in London, but unfortunately it does not travel well, and it is hard to find anything in the UK as unctuously rich and flavoursome as the burrata I ate at Mail.  (Incidentally, the best I have had in London was at the restaurant Quattro Passi, reviewed here).

Close to Mail is the 80 hectare buffalo farm Agricola Filippo Morese (www.caseificiotavernapenta.it), where we had the opportunity to learn some interesting facts about the beasts, as well as seeing them close up and personal.

Owned by the Morese family since 1694, today the farm has 600 buffalo kept in modern stables, with several hectares of grassland for grazing. It has a yoghurt bar for visitors, situated in the ancient courtyard at Taverna Penta. Guided tours by the owner, Filippo Morese, or his Swedish wife Flavia are available by prior arrangement.

At Pizzeria Tenuta Antica Braceria (Cava de' Tirreni (SA) 84013
Via Vitale A., tel 0894689378) in the little hamlet of Sant' Anna II, 6 miles northwest of Salerno, we were given a pizza-making demonstration, including the use of peeled tomatoes as a base sauce.

The pizzeria produced some of the best pizze I have eaten anywhere - all their pizza bases are left to prove for 24 hours before being stretched out, topped with the most flavoursome local ingredients, and of course incomparable tomato sauce, before being whacked into a wood-fired oven. This is a gem of a place, relatively undiscovered (it does not have a website), and I highly recommend a visit if you are in Campania.

From pizza to pasta, the demonstration was followed by a visit to Pastificio Di Martino (www.pastadimartino.com), one of the oldest and most famous pasta manufacturers in Gragnano, the capital of artisan pasta in Italy. Here, we met Guiseppe Di Martino, the third generation of the family and the current owner.

Pasta has been produced in Gragnano for over 500 years, and is considered by Italian chefs to be the country's finest. Indeed it was granted its own PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) quality designation by the EU in 2013.

So what makes Gragnano pasta better than pasta from other parts of Italy? Gragnano producers are thought to have become so expert in the pasta making because of several factors unique to the town. One is that, before the advent of modern heaters, Gragnano had just the right combination of salty sea breezes and sunshine to provide the perfect conditions for drying pasta outdoors. Today, this is reflected in the lower temperatures and longer drying times (50 to 65°C for 18 to 80 hours depending on the shape) compared with the rest of Italy (80 to 100°C for 4 hours).

A second reason is that Gragnano pasta is made exclusively from the Senatore Cappelli durum wheat semolina native to southern Italy, giving a unique flavour and a higher percentage of protein than any other pasta in the country.

Moreover, the combination of low temperature drying and high protein content gives rise to pasta with stronger walls. As the hydroscopic starch cells absorb water, they push out the walls of the pasta, but since these are strong from the high protein content and slow drying, they will not easily break but remain al dente during cooking. 

Finally, the slow extrusion through a bronze die used in Gragnano gives rise to a roughened surface, ideal for holding the pasta sauce and flavours.

Pastificio Di Martino produces huge quantities of pasta, of which 80% is exported, including an own-brand Tesco variety (Lumache shape for 89p, buy it here) we saw being labelled up during our visit, so look out for Gragnano pasta at your local supermarket.

The closing event of the trip was a cooking show and superb dinner at the Citta' del Gusto Napoli del Gambero Rosso (www.gamberorosso.it), featuring one-Michelin-starred chef Raffaele Vitale of Casa del Nonno13 (www.casadelnonno13.it) in nearby Sant’Eustachio di Mercato San Severino.

Chef Rafaelle Vitale

We learned how to make the local PGI Gragnano pasta in three different styles - bucatini pizzaiola style with cherry tomatoes, mezzi canneroni lisci with peeled tomatoes and basil, and finally ziti with Neapolitan ragu sauce.

The mezzi canneroni lisci, despite being the simplest pasta dish, was to me the most interesting. The pasta was cooked in water for only two minutes, then transferred to a simple sauce of peeled tomatoes, basil, olive oil and salt, where it was cooked for a few minutes more. Cooked in this way, the pasta absorbed the highly flavoured tomato sauce, and was outstanding.

Dinner featured the finest produce of Campania, served with elegant simplicity and accompanied by local wines from Villa Raiano (www.villaraiano.com).

Tomato salad with buffalo mozzarella was followed by a delectable aubergine parmigiana cooked individually in jars – one of Chef Raffaele Vitale’s signature dishes.

Having opted for a later flight, I had most of the last day to explore Salerno on my own before returning to the UK (this consisted mainly in researching all the town’s restaurants for my final lunch).

The lovely main town of the Amalfi coast, Salerno is a great spot to spend a few days, with a beautiful seafront promenade, the Castello di Arechi and the magnificent Duomo all worthy of a visit.

The seafood restaurant L'Unico (http://www.lunicoristorante.it/), near the Duomo, came highly recommended, and this is where I headed for my last meal in Campania. This is a simple restaurant serving a selection of excellent Mediterranean dishes at reasonable prices. The outdoor courtyard in front of the restaurant is a nice place to sit and enjoy your meal whilst people watching.

I started with a couple of antipasti – fried anchovies stuffed with scamorza cheese and mint (€8) got proceedings off to a good start with a ½ litre carafe of a light and fruity Falanghina, produced by A. Sammarco (€7). The combination of cheese and fish worked well in this dish, which goes to show that deep-rooted culinary rules are there to be challenged.

This was followed by a platter of well-made, flavoursome roast courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese (€6).

For main, I opted for Spaghettone al Riccio di Mare or sea urchin pasta (€12). The sea urchin was very fresh and made into a creamy lemony sauce - this was a brilliant dish and one that warrants a visit to L’Unico on its own right. I enjoyed my meal at L’Unico and would recommend it to anyone visiting Salerno.

Writing this post, I am reminded of how much I experienced and learnt about Campania’s superb produce – its preserved peeled tomatoes (San Marzano especially), buffalo mozzarella and burrata, the wonderful pasta of Gragnano and not least, the outstanding pizze of Naples and the region as a whole. I came away from this trip with a deeper understanding of the provenance and quality of these ingredients, and will be looking to incorporate them in my cooking repertoire in the UK.

Special thanks to the Italian Trade Agency, Antica Pasta di Gragnano and the Associazione Nazionale Industriali Conserve Alimentari Vegetali and Citta del Gusto for hosting this trip.

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