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
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Cheese from the Pit

Mercato Publico
Covered Market in Ancona, Italy

Yah, that sounds none too appealing, right? Cheese from the pit? Unless of course you are a hardened cheese aficionado who likes ’em gooey, stinky, moldy and any other variety that makes mere mortals go: ewww….

With the Formaggio di Fossa, it is actually not all that bad. Don’t think of some dank smelly, crusted hole in the ground: instead, think of a pleasant, regular, straw lined hole in the ground, where the cheese (it can be a sheep’s milk cheese, a cow’s milk cheese or a mix), wrapped in canvas bags, is carefully stacked on wooden planks, before the pit is covered and sealed and the cheese allowed to mature for 80-100 days – the technical term is anaerobic fermentation, and the 80 days is the legal minimum, the 100 days the legal maximum. You see, the cheese enjoys DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status, and that means there are some stringent rules that govern exactly how and where the cheese is produced.  The pits are dug in soft tufa rock in the Marche Region of Italy, on the Adriatic Coast, around the town of Sogliano al Rubicone – on the Rubicon, that very same river Julius Caesar once crossed, yelling “alea jacta est, suckers!” . Ancona is one of the major towns here, and that is where I got my cheese from the pit.

Pecorinos
Cheese from the Pit: clockwise from top left: young Pecorino, Pecorino di Fossa, aged Pecorino

In this case, it was a sheep’s cheese, which made it a Pecorino di Fossa, and of course the pecoras have to be from the Marche region before you get the coveted DOP seal. The pits are very carefully prepared: straw is burned in them to get rid of the damp air and to reduce bacteria that may interfere with the ripening process. The pits are lined with straw for insulation and that straw is kept in place with an intricate frame of reeds and wooden hoops – it all has to be just so. The feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, November 25, is traditionally the day the cheese is hauled out of the pit, but the DOP today allows for infossatura (when the cheese descends into the pit) between March 1 and September 21, which means the cheese can come out much sooner or later than St. Catherine’s Day. I am sure cheese snobs will be able to tell November 25 cheese from cheese pulled out on any other day, but I was quite happy with my chunk. The ripening in the pit gives the cheese a light caramel color and the texture is a bit greasy – not all that appealing, to be honest – but the flavor is very distinct. it is a bit musty, really fills the mouth and there is quite a bit of sharpness. We use it mainly as a grating cheese, and you need just a bit to give your pasta dish a lot of extra flavor, it really packs a punch.

Fontana del Calamo
Fontana del Calamo, 16th century masterpiece

The city of Ancona doesn’t reveal its charms easily, by the way, even if it does have some interesting squares and streets. It is home to Antonio Budano’s Re Formaggio, a place of pilgrimage for cheese lovers, but I arrived there during the looooong afternoon break and I was unable to hang around until the King of Cheese came back from his nap. I found a small friendly store that sold cheese, salami, prosciutto and delicious homemade pies next to the covered market so I was able to score.

Sauro Zannotti
Small friendly cheese store

The cheese was sold to me by Sauro Zannotti, the proprietor of said small friendly store, along with a piece of aged Pecorino and a very young Pecorino, so that I could compare and appreciate the special qualities of the pit cheese. Ah, and of course there was pie. I cannot be entirely certain, but Sauro seemed so proud of the homemade pie that he left me convinced it was his very own wife who baked it. And even if my plastic-wrapped Pecorino di Fossa did not look as cool as the cloth-wrapped chunks that come out of the pits, it has made many a pasta dish in our household bring back pleasant memories of yet another successful cheese hunt.

Renaissance Arch
Renaissance Archway in Ancona

 

 

46 down, 6 more to go – some of the runners-up.

brown-cow
Future Remeker-maker

Today, I am getting cheese number 47 of 2016. I think it will be my final American cheese for the year, as I am heading back to Switzerland this weekend. High time for another snapshot of the last 46 weeks in cheese. The current tally by country is a good starting point: 12 American Cheeses were ‘cheese of the week’, along with 12 French, but the latter group is likely to grow, because we’ll be in France in a few weeks. There were 7 Swiss cheeses so far, and only 3 Dutch ones. Three times an Italian cheese got the coveted title; Mexican and Spanish cheeses each took the honor twice, as did the Greek cheeses which, for whatever reason, were both a mix of goat and sheep milk. Finally, there was one top billing for each of the following countries: Croatia, Portugal, Austria and England. By milk, the cows clearly had it: 30 of my 47 cheeses were made with cow’s milk, there were seven goat cheeses, 4 sheep cheeses along with the two Greek mixed ones. Two were made of the milk of water buffalo and one had milk of all four animals in it.

But of course there have been many more than just these 47. Remeker cheese is sold at 3 months, 8-9 months, 16 months and 18+months and all four of them have very distinct characters. Considering that the youngest of these cheeses, which the cheesemakers are calling pril (an old Dutch word for young, basically) packed enough flavor to become one of my five favorites some weeks back, imagine what a really aged Remeker tastes like! There is a tradition among the frugal Dutch to use a cheese slicer and putting a thin layer of cheese on a slice of bread, but we never bothered much with the bread and ate the cheese in chunks – life is too short for moderation when it comes to this cheese.

In Croatia, I tried three of the cheeses the local cheese monger sold, and in many other places, I picked up more than what was decent. There was one of the five cheeses I found at la Cloche à Fromage in Strasbourg with a somewhat indecent name – a term of endearment in the far north of France is Biloute – um – dick. It’s what friends call each other and what a cheesemaker in that part of France calls his cheese: T’Chiot Biloute. The first word is a reference to the area and its dialect – it’s the French version of the sticks. But there it was, a beautiful rond cheese with a beer-washed rind, a slightly yeasty flavor – all great and good, but just a tad bit less great and good than the Sable de Wissant, which basically is the same thing without the strange name. So the Biloute came in second, and who ever remembers who won silver?

tchiot-biloute
Little Willy from the North: T’chiot Biloute

Another runner up was the exotically named Piacentinu ennese alla zafferano, a cheese with a DOP designation, made in Sicliy in the Enne region with an unusual color – saffron yellow.

piacentinu-ennese
Black peppercorns contrast with saffron-yellow cheese: Piacentinu ennese

In Basel, I once picked up a nice slice of a raw milk Époisses – always a crowdpleaser – that king of cheeses from Burgundy that makes you want to lick your plate (and lick you must because it is sticky).

epoisses
Oozing goodness: Epoisses de Bourgogne

See Naples and die! – San Diego, Sciò Sciò and Sfogliatelle (Week 42)

naples-sky-ii
The Sky over Naples, Vesuvio and Capri

There are another 11 weeks to go in my year of cheese and I have decided to ditch the format I have used so far for something a little bit more free flowing. Not that my previous rambles have been paragons of structured writing, but I am doing away with the listing at the top of the post (the “cheese – producer – where” bit) and I am having as much or as little cheese as I want. There are weeks where I munch away at the cheeses we got during some wild cheese-buying spree (our weekend in the Jura Mountains comes to mind) and nothing new enters our life – such was the case in the weeks after the Désalpe. Conversely, when I travel, there are new places to be explored and with them come new cheeses to write about. The past week has been one of those. After I ventured into the wild world of Greek cheese, I arrived in Naples and I had to get some Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.

mozzarellaaaaah
Mozzarellaaaaaah….

That’s a mouthful in more than one ways. It’s a cheese that is made from the milk of water buffalo in the Campania region of Italy, just south of Naples. And it’s a mouthful because you can’t really eat a tiny bit of it. The idea is that you get it as fresh as possible, and you buy it in a bag in some liquid, mostly a light brine, in a few cases whey. And you take a ball out of the liquid and you stick the whole thing in your mouth. Just like that. You can buy it in smaller and larger balls, sometimes in braids. It is a cheese that is kneaded, much like a dough, while hot water is poured on it and with that, it gets a degree of elasticity. No, that doesn’t mean the cheese is chewy. It has just a little give before it breaks when you bite into it – think of it as al dente: not too hard, not to soft – just right. Obviously, you run of the mill mozzarella doesn’t delight quite like this. My cheese was one day old, was as white as porcelain and had that perfect textural balance – and it really just tastes like cream. Nice, clean, ever so slightly salty cream. The Consorzio Tutela di Bufala Campana – a club that promotes this particular cheese, has some cool pictures of the magnificent bufala this cheese comes from on their website. The saddest thing about fresh Mozzarella is the what all the other Mozzarella tastes like. If you meet an Italian abroad who seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders – he’s probably just homesick for some Mozzarella di Bufala Campana that was still milk two days ago.

So the cheese was reason enough to love Naples, but there was a lot more. It is not a particularly clean city, there is quite a bit of graffiti and as a port, it has it big industrial zones right on the water – welcome to cranes and containers. But let it grow on you for half an hour and it becomes a glorious display of disorderly conduct, from the way people get their coffee and pastries at Scaturchio to how they hand their laundry in the impossibly narrow streets where you have to look up, up, up to see the sky and to the way the makers of terra cotta nativity characters display their things with a decent sprinkling of soccer players. More than anyone else in that particular category of Saints, Diego Maradona, the Argentinian enfant terrible is still revered. Mixed in with the nativities are also local characters made from terra cotta. I brought one home and Christine is insisting that I am putting him in a room where she doesn’t have to look at him.

scio-scio
Scio Scio

His name is Sciò Sciò, he has a hump that you’re supposed to rub for good luck, so I don’t get the problem. Finally – not finally, there is a lot more, but the post needs to come to an end at some stage – there are the pastries. Two in particular I must speak of: the pastiera, originally eaten at Easter (really, the Neapolitans don’t want to eat these all the time??) which is made with ricotta cheese, eggs, wheat berries and some very, very fine orange flavor. I got one in a beautiful box to take home to the family (much appreciated, best husband/dad in the world) and the sfogliatelle, where I must give a shout out to my friend Patricia who introduced them to me.

sfogliatelle
Sfogliatelle

These ricotta-filled shells are made of crackly, superthin, deliciously buttery layers of dough. Bite into one and you will find yourself in the middle of an explosion of razor thin crumbles: so much goodness is such a little pastry!

mosaic-in-herculaneum
Roman mosaic in Herculaneum

Visitors come to Naples, give it a passing glance and continue to Pompeii or Herculaneum. Yes, those are some very awesome ruins, centuries old. But when have those ancient Romans every given you anything good to eat ?

naples-cloister
Pastoral Scene in the Cloister of Santa Chiara
naples-balconies
Street in Naples’ Old City
naples-i-see-ice-cream
I see….. ice cream
grangusto
More Cheese
mozzarella
Italians are serious about their Mozzarella

Pannerone Lodigiano (Week 13)

Pannerone Lodigiano
“You don’t want this cheese, trust me.”

Cheese: Pannerone Lodigiano

Producer: Caseificio Carena

Where: Casella Lurani, Lodi Region, Italy

Just about 20 miles from Milan is a small town called Caselle Lurani and in that town is an easy to miss creamery that turns out this cheese, among others, that is actually on an endangered species list of sorts. Pannerone, a cheese made from afternoon cow’s milk (2% more milkfat, apparently, than the morning take) has a few things that make it unique, and give it an acquired taste which may be why it is not nearly as widespread as it once was. In fact, the creamery run by the Carena family is the only producer left. Pannerone’s (comes from panéra, which means cream) unique qualities come from an unusual production process; the whey is allowed to run off naturally, there is no pressing involved at all and that makes for a soft cheese. Then, it sits for four or five days at 28-32 degrees until all the whey has drained. No salt is added to the cheese, so the bacteria that are at work here are solely responsible for the flavor. The cheeses look impressive in the cheese counter, which is how I happened upon it: a cylinder is about 8 inches high and a foot in diameter. It has lots of little holes and a nice pale ivory color.

My next challenge was to get a piece, after I identified what I wanted. That went through the point-and-use-exaggerated-facial-expressions method, because even if Venice is inundated with visitors from abroad, a lot of merchants do not speak anything but Italian, and my Italian is non-existent. It was clear what the message directly aimed at me was to convey: ‘no, this is not what you want.’

‘But it most certainly is!’ said my English words and my facial expressions and my body language. The gentleman I spoke to decided to bring in the big guns, the owner of the shop, who reiterated: ‘bee-ter!’. I was certainly not going to like it. After this final attempt to dissuade me, I just had to have it, and the experience of finally sinking my teeth into it was rewarding: not that it would make it to the top of my list, but my buying the cheese over some local objection and then reading up on it made the tasting feel like the end of a journey.

Pannerone II
A cheese of many holes

It is creamy and a bit sweetish at first, but it does develop an unusual, mildly bitter flavor in the mouth soon afterwards. It could do with some fruit, to counterbalance the bitter taste, and that is a popular combination in many recommendations. Pannerone has a D.O.P designation and the Slow Food organization recognize it’s uniqueness as well – they are in fact the people talking about it as if it is an endangered species worthy of preservation. Things look good though, at the Carena Creamery: the descendants of Angelo Carena who passed on to that great dairy in the sky two years ago seem to have fun doing what they are doing, judging by the images on their website, adn a determination to carry on the good work, all the way down to the youngest members of the family. Great-grandpa would be proud!

Venice (Week 13)

Venice I
Gondolas everywhere

Of course there are too many people in Venice. On the Ponte Rialto, visitors from India cross selfie sticks with the Chinese as if they are swords and pickpockets must have lobbyists working city hall to get a spot in the area because it just seems such a safe bet that in that line of work you can earn a very healthy living here. But even in season, it only takes a few turns and you are in a neighborhood of quiet streets and alleys, lined with pastel-colored houses hundreds of years old, an occasional view of a narrow canal opening up as you venture further into the medieval maze. Venice is always, always, worth your time. This week’s visit was very short, I knew the cruise ship I was on would leave with or without me.

Santa Maria Formosa
Santa Maria Formosa

I practically ran from the Piazza di Roma to my first destination: a cheese shop I had found online right across a canal from the Santa Maria Formosa, a church with a  split personality: it has a well-proportioned baroque facade on the north side, but on the side facing the canal and the cheese shop, it looks like a Renaissance church. There is a generation between the two facades. The tower is the best part of the complex: it has some very robust, simple patterns that segment the structure and give it a certain visual rhythm. They did towers quite well in Venice, centuries ago.

Prosciutto e Parmigiano’s website is in two languages and raises the specter of a slick experience, but I was pleasantly surprised: the owner spoke some English, but body parts other than our mouths had to be deployed frequently to ensure that I got what I thought I wanted: some buffalo mozzarella di campagna (try it and you’ll immediately understand why these globs of cheese candy usually are finished off in a single seating); a piece of straw-coated Tuscan Pecorino, and a thick slice of Asiago, the sharpest Provolone Stagionato I have ever tasted, and a piece of Vezzena di Lavarone.

Casa del Parmigiano Venice
Giuliano Aliani at work in his store

With my singular mission (get the cheese) accomplished, I began my quest back to the Piazza di Roma across the Rialto Bridge through the maze of water and stone. And that’s when Venice kept its promise: in the Campo Cesare Battisti già della Bella Vienna (really, you still ask what is in a name?) I stumbled across the Casa del Parmigiano, Giuliano Aliani’s cheese shop, and – but of course – I got even more cheese. A piece of bright yellow Piacentinu Ennese, given its unusual color by adding some saffron to the cheese (it also has peppercorns); the Pannerone Lodigiano that became the cheese of the week, and the Montasio Friulano.

Scuola Grande
Venice – a surprise in every street. The Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista

And a little closer to my destination I came past the beautiful courtyard of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, the building of a religious organization which used to house a piece of the true cross of Jesus. Of course, so many of those pieces existed that the cross poor Jesus carried up Golgotha hill must have been absolutely humongous. The initial inhabitants were so-called flagellants, people that would viciously whip their own backs in a gesture of penance during certain celebrations. Right after this place was founded the city, wisely, outlawed this gruesome practice: who wants blood spraying through the streets? The courtyard has a beautiful Renaissance gateway, dreamed up by architect Pietro Lombardo near the end of the 15th century. After some time looking around I returned to the ship, picking up some rolls and pan pistacchio on the way. With more than half a dozen cheeses in my bag, I was destined for a cheese-arama…

Pan Pistacchio
Venetian Pastries