Naples: coffee, caves and cheese

Fontana dell'Immacolatella
Fontana dell’Immacolatella, along the waterside in Napoli
Napoli Breakfast
Neapolitan breakfast with Mozzarella di Bufala, fruit, Sfogliatelle and Pastiera
Galeria Umberto I
Galleria Umberto I
Caffè Gambrinus
Caffè Gambrinus, 150 years old

So I really like Naples. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong, I get it if you don’t: it is congested, there’s graffiti, never-ending construction, lots of noise and that whole distasteful cult around Diego Maradona, that chubby cheating Argentinian with his hand of God. But I still like it, and with every visit, I like it a bit more. This time around, I descended into the underworld of Naples. Literally. I did not got entangled in some organized crime web, I simply climbed down a substantial number of flights and found myself some 120 feet below the surface in a maze of tunnels, underground cavernous rooms and narrow passageways which, in their unassuming darkness exuded more history than many resplendent city elsewhere in Europe.

 

 

Napoli Sotterraneo
Ancient Cistern in Napoli Sotterannea

Over 23 centuries have passed since Greek colonists began digging holes under their feet to dig out the volcanic tufa stone that has been used through the ages to build above ground. The Romans continued digging, creating aqueducts through which they channeled the creeks and rivulets that carried water through the fractured rock to the sea. Neapolitans used the extensive network of cisterns until the arrival of modern plumbing, two thousand years later.

 

Above the cistern was a well, that provided access to water. fine resident of Naples would have a well in their house, while lowly commoners found them in courtyards or other semi-public places. Inevitably, all manner of crap ended up in these wells and in the dense urban area, it became a real job to keep the cisterns clean and the wells open. the well workers were known as the pozzari. Dressed in sober, habit-like outfits, they looked a bit like monks. Climbing up and down wells, going from courtyard to courtyard or from house to house, they moved around unseen and over time gained a mysterious and mischievous aura. Valuables that disappeared, long lost precious items which miraculously reappeared, women who experienced immaculate conceptions – Neapolitans would ascribe such inexplicable events to a “little monk”, a  Monaciello.

 

Napoli Sotterraneo II
In the “Bourbon Tunnel”

And then there was Ferdinand II of Bourbon, a monarch with a chin like an anvil who started his reign racking up a number of impressive feats: first train in Italy, first steamship in southern Italy, a telegraph connection between Naples and Sicily. he was a man of the people, or so he thought. Until the people, encouraged by their monarch who said all the right things, demanded greater freedoms, constitutional changes – the works. So Ferdinand let the genie out of the bottle and had a hell of a time trying to stuff it back. 20 years into his reign he was positively paranoid and asked Enrico Alvino, a well-respected architect and city planned, to build a tunnel under the city, to connect the palace with the cavalry barracks. Alvino drew a line, straight as an arrow between the two buildings and merrily cut his way through ancient cisterns and passageways, leaving some impressive brick structures along the way: places where walls needed reinforcement, water had to be diverted and so on. Ferdinand never used his tunnel which, despite auspicious beginnings, was badly underfunded and got progressively smaller towards the barracks. Coming to the aid of a besieged monarch through the passageway as it was finally completed would have been a hell of a job for the cavalry.

 

A further period of improvements an excavations was necessitated during World War II, when bombs from Allied and (later) German planes rained down on the city over and over again. The caverns got rudimentary lighting, bathrooms, makeshift triage stations and little classrooms for the thousands of people who spent more time underground than above as their city began to crumble over their heads. In many places, stoves, pans, pots, wash basins and all and sundry utensils and furniture is still being discovered today. Used as an impound lot and then as an easy place to deposit trash, the underground began to clog up until fairly recently, when archaeologists led the charge to uncover Napoli Sotterranea. 

Caciotto
Cheese to go

I know, I know. This blog is supposed to be about cheese. But it is my blog so I’ll do what I damn well please, thanks very much. This time it took until the last hour to cut to the cheese, and we ended up meeting at the airport. There it was, the cheese with my name on it, in a very nifty portable cheeseboard, produced a few hours east of Naples, in the Appenine town of Calitri. My Caciotto conzato Calitrano (something like “cheese, made the Calitri way” had been rubbed patiently with oil, chili peppers, sage, mint and other herbs (secret formula, of course) and then aged in terracotta amphorae for about 3 months. Caciotta look like pouches, or teardrops because after the curd has been extensively kneaded, they’re hung up to age with a little noose around their cheesy necks. The cheese has a very creamy texture, but it packs a real punch: it is quite sharp, but the creaminess balances it so well, that it is easily my favorite sharp Italian cheese. I’ll take this over a sharp Provolone any day. Clearly, with the mottled rind and the clever packaging, we met because I fell for the beauty that is merely superficial. But I love her, because she is beautiful on the inside, my Calitri cheese.

 

Caciotto II
Mottled rind

In Ticino we call it Formaggio – Swiss Cheese

Paradiso
Boat stop on Lugano – Paradiso. We would have to agree.

Growing up I had little idea that there was anything beyond the large yellow wheels of Gouda cheese my mother would pick a pound or two from at the cheese vendor. Fast forward many years later, to the late eighties in the U.S. I had extended my knowledge of cheese, which by now also included the big French cheeses along with Parmesan, which came in powdered form in a cardboard container. And now, here I was introduced to the wondrous world of Kraft cheeses: orange for cheddar, yellow for American and white for Swiss cheese, and the latter would often have a few holes thrown in for good measure. I am pretty sure Kraft employs some underpaid immigrants to punch those holes in the cheese to make it more Swiss.

Today I have completely arrived in the land of Swiss cheese and regularly slather Raclette onto pretty much anything edible. We visit cheese festivals, inhale the healthy country air complete with cowpoop and we are patiently ticking down the list of Swiss AOP cheeses. This weekend we went over the hump: there are 12 cheeses with the Swiss AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) designation, and I picked up cheese number 7, a chunk of mountain cheese from Ticino, from the Piora Valley, to be exact. The latter is important, I was told, because the Piora valley, at some 6,000 feet, yields the very best of the Ticino cheeses. The beginnings of this cheese, which now commands rather steep prices, were quite humble. It was really because the poorest farmers had nowhere else to go that they herded their cows up these remote valleys – some pastureland was better than none, they must have thought. Eventually of course, people started to notice some differences in the quality of the cheese based on the pastureland it came from. Up in the high valleys, cows munch on as many as 150 different herbs and grasses, a smorgasboard that includes the blue gentian, a flower that inspired one of the absolute classics of German Schlager-Music, blau blüht der Enzian. You may click the link at your own risk – the German singer Heino could just rock your world.

Salumeria
Gabbani for meats, wines and cheeses

Only about 300 cows forage in the Piora Valley, so getting my hands on a piece of that cheese felt like an important milepost. I got it at the Formaggeria Gabbani, just across the street from the Salumeria Gabbani, and next door to the Enoteca Gabbani – you get the picture. With it, I got a piece of soft Ticino cheese and some rhubarb jam. Oh yes, that was in Lugano – funny you should ask. Of course it is delightful, stretching lazily along the eponymous lake – beautiful shops, beautiful cars, beautiful people but down to earth enough to not feel naked without a Rolex and a Jaguar. Ticino is Italy’s expensive, better organized and more polite little sister. The houses are more colorful, the sun more plentiful and the dishes more flavorful than in the part of Switzerland we inhabit – la vita è bella in Lugano. The Grand Café al Porto’s desserts and the food at La Tinera only helped to cement our assessment.

Cafe Lugano
Grand Café al Porto
Lake Lugano
On Lake Lugano

And then there was the cheese, of course. The mountain cheese from the Piora Valley is almost sweet, very smooth and rounded, without edges but not boring. It tastes like a really well composed piece of music, without any dissonance. The Formagella from Isone I bought is, in a way, a downtime cheese, made during the time cows are not out in the pastures. Often goat milk and cow milk are used together: the cow milk is skimmed and the cream is used to make butter – if only goat’s milk is used, the cheese is a bit fatter. The piece we had was a bit older and had a lot of flavor to it.

Ticino cheese
Clockwise from top left: Formagella di Isone, Piora Mountain Cheese, Schnokeloch, T’chiot Biloute

We enjoyed both of our Ticino cheeses with friends who complemented the dinner table with salami and smoked ham from Salumeria Gabbani – we all had traveled to Lugano together and in the food on our plates we relived the compelling combination of Italian flair and Swiss perfection of the city on the lake.

Dinner
Dinner!

Leidse Kaas – Cheese with Cumin

Leidse Kaas I
Leidse Kaas met de Sleutels

After more than 2 years writing about cheese, it is confession time. About a skeleton that has been in my closet longer than I can remember. And it has everything to do with cheese. I must have been eleven or twelve or so, and I was at the market in Gouda with my mother, and we bought cheese. As was customary, the merchant offered me a random slice of cheese. It wasn’t so much a sample as a treat – butchers would hand out slices of sausage in the same way to good kids that helped their mothers carry groceries. With an understated yet carefully rehearsed flourish he turned the business end of his cheese slicer towards me, presenting a thin slice of creamy goodness. I took the cheese, put it on my tongue and allowed it to start melting away. Shortly after my tastebuds woke up from a lazy slumber, alarm bells begun to go off but by the time the devastating reality set it, it was too late. I had inadvertently ingested cumin cheese.

I hated cumin cheese. I thought it was the vilest thing in the world and I couldn’t even stand the smell. But the merchant was beaming with pride in his own generosity, my mother looked at me with great and somewhat stern expectations, and so I made some appreciative noises and nodded my head approvingly as I tried not to gag.

So when I visited Amsterdam’s Dappermarkt, it was time to face my cheese demon. You see, there is a rather famous PDO (Protected Designation of Origin, the old AOC) cheese from the Dutch city of Leiden that is made with cumin seeds. It is a cheese with a story and it’s only one of four protected cheeses in the Netherlands (the other three being Edam, Gouda and Kanterkaas from Friesland) – so there is no way I can forever pretend as if it doesn’t exist. I asked Richard Jansen from Jansen Bio Kaas to hit me, and he obliged: I got a sliver of cumin-speckled cheese and…. I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed it. Either I had never had a slice of the real deal, or my tastebuds have matured after that meltdown so many years ago. Leyden Cheese is no longer my Angstgegner!

Leiden
Koornbrug in Leiden, with the keys in the city coat of arms.

The cheese has a lowly origin: it used to be made as a mere byproduct of butter production and because of that, it is low in fat, because the milk used is skimmed. Buttermilk and rennet are added to get the milk to coagulate and it’s actually produced with or without cumin seeds, but the latter version seems to be much more synonymous with “Leyden”. Back in the 17th century, the cheese was favored by the VOC (the United East Indies Company) as a provision on long voyages: its lower fat content meant it could be kept longer and sweated less. It was precisely the VOC that also brought the cumin used to spice up the cheese a bit to Holland from the Indonesian colonies. The combination really works well and while cumin is an acquired taste, there isn’t anything quite like it among any of the Dutch cheeses. It is made with raw milk, and the cumin seed in Leyden is crushed a bit more than in most other cumin cheeses so it’s more  evenly distributed which makes for a more consistent flavor experience.

There are only about a dozen or so producers of the PDO cheese, imprinted with the crossed keys of St. Peter, patron saint of Leiden. Another detail that makes the cheese different is its shape: it has one round ‘shoulder’ and one with a sharper edge. Finally, the rind is given the typical red-brown coating that makes it stand out (no, not edible) among its yellow classmates.

Dappermarkt II
Roots at the Dappermarkt

The Dappermarkt in the meantime, is the ideal place to get a chunk of cheese, but they also have fish, myriad ethnic foodstuffs, smartphone covers, tools, 5 euro Tupac t-shirts, watches and fake Birkenstock sandals. It is in a part of Amsterdam not yet discovered by tourism and not yet gentrified. On the edge of the neighborhood is Brouwerij het IJ, named after the body of water that runs along the northern edge of the old city. In a former bath house under one of the tallest remaining windmills in Holland is a brewery and a delightful café, where I enjoyed a Columbus amber ale, along with a Skaepsrond sheep cheese from a nearby cheese farm (the sheep feed off the leftovers from the brewing process, so it seemed an appropriate choice) and some osseworst, an Amsterdam specialty. After all, vanquishing my cheese nemesis and turning him into a friend called for a bit of a celebration.

Badhuis
In the Bath House, now a brewery
Brouwerij
Beer, Osseworst and Skaepsrond cheese