James Eats Italian – Naples Review
Many people ask to see pics of my personal ‘consume-ations’ around the Midlands and beyond, and although we share many of them ‘live’ on Twitter @eat_themidlands, when they are gone, they are gone! So here are some images to savour of a recent visit to Naples, Italy, by Editor, and food Reviewer, James Day of eat-the-midlands.co.uk et al, to learn about the origins of true authentic Neapolitan ingredients for Rossopomodoro Pizza Restaurant, now in Selfridges, Birmingham.
Naples – An Educational Trip of Provenance
“They taste great, but I bet they are not true authentic Neapolitan pizzas?” - A comment made during a recent review of the new Italian Restaurant concession in Selfridges, Birmingham. Two weeks later, my bags were packed and I was off for a visit to Naples, the ‘birth place of pizza’ to see for myself!
Rossopomodoro (translated as Red tomato) are the newest brand to open in Birmingham’s ever growing procession of National brands who seek the endorsement of the increasingly gourmet-savvy Midlands diners. Birmingham’s gourmands are spoilt for choice with 3 Michelin restaurants, and more brands you can shake a stick (or wooden spoon) at, plus celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver, and soon to be in situ in the Cube, Marco Pierre White opening at a rapid rate. Birmingham, recently named as the ‘gourmet capital of the UK’ by BBC Olive Magazine is certainly living up to its mantle, but what of the provenance of these venues, and the authenticity of origin of the national and international multi-brands, who are vying for the hard earned pennies of the Midlanders who frequent them?
We all hear about provenance, authenticity of origin, and local sourcing, and even ‘slow food’ – much promoted in Ludlow, and beyond – but how many of the city centre brands support this well documented mantle, and what is ‘regional sourcing’ all about anyway? My timely comment was met with a response from the Marketing Director of Rossopomodoro – “Why not come and see for yourself?” was the response. Two weeks later, and a very early start, and I was stepping off a plane in sunny Naples for 3 days of intense ‘seeing for myself’.
A hair-raising trip through the busy streets of Naples to the rustic head office for a welcome briefing, and even more welcomed Neapolitan coffee – seeing as I had not slept at this point for 24 hours! The senses awaking coffee was accompanied by Pastiera – Traditional Neapolitan cake with wheat, ricotta cheese and orange flower water. The briefing was then followed by a whistle stop tour of their suppliers…jumping in their company 4×4, and off to the mountains we went, around the beautiful Bay of Naples which seemed to sparkle as the sun reflected off the surprisingly clear waters; climbing up the side of the dormant (we hoped) and imposing Mt Vesuvius volcano, up to where they had just harvested the last olives – not rows of planted neatly trimmed groves, as I had previously seen in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus, but wild, rustic and somewhat precariously growing on the edges of the hillside.
Olives and Olive Oil….“The best olives are picked by hand, and traditionally pressed within a few hours,” the farmer explained (translated from Italian!) “we have been harvesting in this area for generations, and this year has been one of our best for a long time.” The hillside was densely packed with large, twisted olive trees, some up to 300 years old, covered in nets to catch the falling dark olives, and at the lower levels were younger olive bushes, lemon trees, and wild figs “the oils from the sub-terrain trees all add to the flavour and intensity of our olives” he explained; sampling the oils back at the farm was as much a delight as the trip up. Nutty in flavour, and golden in colour, this was the ‘daddy’ of all oils the D.O.P. (Denomination of Origin Protection – monitored for picking to packing) with strict controls on horticulture and purity of process, which was evident in the flavour. We tasted variants, mixed with the local herbs, including rosemary, wild garlic, and even the lemon oil, which raised the flavour not to mention the potentials for usage to another level – of course Rosspomodoro only use the pure DOP for their salads, and buffalo mozzarella drizzle, and the extra virgin for their pizzas, topping with the aged black olives, sweet and firm in texture.
But there is more to pizza than great olive oil. Of course there is the base, and the toppings – not the now customary, ham, pineapple, peppers, and even eggs, and chicken Tikka as I have seen in the UK – but true authentic Neapolitan pizzas contain four simple ingredients: “00” flour for the base, tomato puree, mozzarella (Buffalo of course) and olives.
So, Rossopomorodo olives – yep, wild flavoursome and hand-picked – also resulting in great olive oil – “Tick”, but what about the rest of the ingredients?
Tomato puree.….Off we set, and within the hour we were back down off the side of Vesuvius and winding through the narrow cobbled ancient streets of what was Roman Naples (and Spanish, Cypriot and many other claimants in the distant past) – under an old aqueduct and into a small courtyard, where a small group of ladies or ‘Nonnas’ (grandmothers) were tucked away at the rear of what I can only describe as a ‘volcanic cave’, which had been painstakingly carved out and had become the rear of the tomato packing plant with large Kilner jars stacked up to the roof on well used pallets containing rich red tomatoes, and fresh fruits, jams and preserves. The local San Marzano tomatoes, a variety of plum tomatoes, are considered by many chefs to be the best sauce tomatoes in the world – reputed to be a gift from ancient Peru – and grow on the sides of Vesuvius, to create a unique rich intense flavour and firmness of skin, and they certainly had both qualities.
The freshly picked rosso-red beauties had recently been delivered by the farmers from the mountains, grown throughout the summer under the searing Neapolitan sunshine in the rich volcanic soils. This was one of the last deliveries of the season, again one of the best for many years. On arrival the ‘Nonnas’ heat the firm tomatoes in warm water, making it easy to remove the hard skins to reveal the firm but sweet flesh beneath – the perfect texture for storage – and what goes into the jars? As many tomatoes as these ladies (and I whilst having a go) can squeeze into a jar with their seasoned hands – and a pinch of a fresh basil – nothing else!
So, Rossopomdoro olives, and oil – Yes fresh tomatoes to make the puree topping, straight from the sides of Vesuvius – “Tick” but what about the cheese – it must be from a processing plant which also makes cheese string? Wrong!
After a night sampling the delights of Naples, lively, welcoming, noisy and vibrant, accompanied by the tastes of the region, and of course some of the most perfect tasting, rustic pizzas, I have ever tasted at not one, but two Rossopomodoro restaurants (they have eight in and around Naples, and a little over 100 in Italy itself, with 4, so far in the UK incl London and Birmingham Italian Restaurants) .
Buffalo Mozzarella…Up at the crack of dawn, and off through the quieter, but equally vibrant streets of Naples – to the lowlands of the region, about an hour from the City, just in time to see the last batch of the day’s Mozzarella “di Bufala Campana” from the DOP Compagna region being produced. Now, I have seen cheese being made in the UK, the long laborious process of separating the curds from the whey, waiting for it to settle, age, mature and testing the ‘wheels’ for ripeness…but not here. Fresh straight from the Northern Hills, where the milk is tested on arrival for purity and authenticity of origin coming only from water buffalo on a farm in Paestum, Campania.
The factory consisted of stainless steel vats and white tiled floors, as ordained by the DOP institute (Mediterranean Institute of Certification) but the cheese makers had fought for one tradition of retaining their wood mixing vats to ‘retain tradition and remind our workers of the origin of their works” which I must say looked out of place, but certainly added to the contrast of the need for modernity but maintaining the origin of tradition. Watching the skilled workers ply their trade with the thick rich milk, as it set during heating process, and plying it by hand, until it began to form its sheet like qualities when hung – then inserting into the shaping machine which creates the unique ‘ball’ of cheese we all know (and love). Trying it at this stage was a complete taste sensation – a firm rich outer texture, and then on biting it revealed its inner intensity, creamy, warm, airy, and lush – still being able to taste the fresh grass the Buffalo were grazing only a few hours ago, like a savoury marshmallow that one could savour all day; the unique quality of Buffalo Mozzarella. The owner has been producing this mozzarella for many generations and is considered a master in his field – supplying only the finest outlets in Italy, and selected European destinations – including Rossopomodoro in Birmingham (even in their ice cream)! So, Buffalo Mozzerall….”Tick”
So what else can one see and sample when visiting Naples? When you are being shown the authenticity of the core ingredients of Neapolitan food – as they say, “when in Rome” you MUST go to a pasta factory. Fresh authentic Italian Pasta…. When we think of factory we think of big chimneys, lorries, large storage areas, and industrial units – not here. A drive back towards the city to the West side of the imposing Vesuvius which dominated our entire trip, we entered a busy street with turn of the C18th buildings either side, and the colossus of Vesuvius at the end like it was only pushed up from the core of the earth yesterday. Entering the building through a small wooden door we were greeted by a glass wall, behind which were a dozen Neapolitans busy carrying racks and trays of fresh pasta – working like Umpa Lumpas for Mr Wonka. The aforementioned, was played by our ‘host’ – “Pascal” – a character remnant of someone from the last Century who waxed lyrical, passionately and entertainingly (in Italian, translated) about the history of pasta, versus the processes of modern pasta manufacture, and why we should be wary of poor imitations!
For 100s of years pasta has been made using traditions of generations of Neapolitans and more recently Italians (not the same!) but in recent decades climate change has meant a re-writing of the pasta rule book. Gone are the traditions of drying the pasta in the streets from the sun heated air falling from the great volcanic hillsides down to the sea, also gone are the fields of durum wheat growing on the surrounding lush fertile hillsides, and the families eating the hand-made delights shaped by ladies whilst chatting and laughing in the Neapolitan sunshine. No, pasta is a big business, and the climate has undergone a big change.
What has clearly remained is the lifeblood, passion, belief and drive to retain this staple of any Neapolitan family, and of course, those further North to Italy, and South to Sicily and keep its unique qualities as true to origin as possible and as Pascal explained, not just to keep traditions alive but to continue to produce a ‘live’ product. How have they achieved this?
True authentic Pasta...the key ingredients: Firstly location – air – growing in similar climates and retaining the passion to ensure that those who turn their back on mass produced over-processed, high gluten ‘dead’ substitutes – intensely heat treated, effectively ‘killing’ the live wheat which provides the ancient properties of slow released energy, and lightness. Historically these unique properties used to fuel the workers in the fields and factories, and now the offices, but these qualities have been replaced with the ‘modern pasta’ which sits heavy when eaten at lunch, and is now a hard to digest demi-product which manufacturers try and pass of as ‘fresh pasta’ – In contrast, in the traditional ‘factory’ we visited who retain the original properties, eating it straight from the drying lines believe me is ‘fresh pasta’ a far superior product to the ‘best’ any modern mass produced factory can offer.……Processed so much to not swell up in water, thus making us buy more! Traditional ‘live’ pasta can swell up by as much as 45% on cooking…and is a pleasure to eat, with very little ‘sauce’ needed, and is a tasty product in its own right.
Low gluten Pasta (& pizza dough!)...In the UK we serve supermarket pasta soft, and cover it in mass produced sauces, often to substitute the lack of flavour, however, real ‘live’ pasta, should be served al dente. Why? When eaten, it sits in the stomach, but retains air (due to the firmness of the product) thus making it easier to digest, and release its energy captured from its slow growing in the long Summer sunshine. Many ‘wheat intolerances’ in the country such as coeliac’s, can be attributed to over processed high gluten wheat which has flooded the market and the processes it goes through before we buy it as bread, pasta, flour, and in processed foods as wheat flour. Try some authentic pasta, made with “00” or Durum wheat and you will notice the difference (I should know, i am one, and certainly consumed my fair share of pasta, pizza, and wheat based products on this trip to over test my point) – light, refreshing, and full of flavour; if nothing else, it will save you a fortune on over priced supermarket sauces, all you need is a good quality olive oil and maybe some Parmesan, or tomato puree.
So, the perfect tour to make the perfect pizza. Do the ones at Rossopomodoro in the UK taste like “true authentic Neapolitan pizzas” do in Naples? Well, returning to Birmingham, I went straight to Selfridges and ordered a margarita (the first ever pizza created for Princess Margarita, in, er Naples) and they come pretty damn close – fired in their authentic oven, at over 480 degrees, taking just 90 seconds, from heat to pate, they are a light de-light to eat. I may be tainted by the gourmet experience that this was, but why not go and see for yourself and let us know?
All information in this article is the personal views and experiences of James Day editor of Eat-the-midlands.co.uk Midlands restaurant reviewer and food critic. All imagery protected (c) 2011/12 by ETM and LMM LTD
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