Could it be true that the people of Campania and nearby Naples are the most patriotic in the world? I wouldn’t know how to measure this, except perhaps by their cuisine. And if you look at the two major dishes they’ve exported to the world, you might be tempted to answer in the affirmative.
The two dishes? Pizza, of course, and Insalata Caprese, Caprese Salad. These dishes are gold standards; they never lose their brilliance, they maintain their value, they are beloved by generations.
Today, I’m focusing on Caprese Salad, the culinary “Il Canto degli Italiani” (Italian national anthem) of almost all of Italy, even though it was created on the island of Capri, purportedly by a very patriotic mason. He, as the story goes, put mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil in bread and pulled it out for his midday meal, along with a big huzzah to his country. And the Caprese Salad was born.
Which Came First?
I love stories like this. I always take it back a few steps to see how it measures up to reality. I have no idea what reality was, though, for a Campano mason during a long ago summer. I imagine this person had seasonal ingredients on hand, which would include tomatoes and basil and, most likely, buffalo milk mozzarella. It seems likely this would have been a major part of the summer diet for anyone living in the region. That it echoes the colors of the Italian flag, well, which came first? The flag was formally adopted in 1797; the first recorded history of buffalo mozzarella is 1570, which coincides with the arrival of the tomato in Italy. As for basil it dates back some 5,000 years ago though it probably made its way to Italy in more recent times. So, who knows? Maybe the colors of the flag were chosen to echo the ingredients. Either way, the people of Campania can be proud of their dishes.
Rules for Its Creation
And whatever the story of the creation of Caprese Salad, it is one of the most delicious, and most simple and refreshing dishes to eat in summer. The “rules” for its creation include using beef heart tomatoes which are big on tender texture, slightly tart flavor, and few seeds; freshly made buffalo milk mozzarella which is so pure in milky sweet flavor it’s hard to stop eating; fresh basil and for some, a sprinkling of oregano. A drizzle of olive oil – a local ingredient too – completes the dish.
As with any iconic dish, a chef will play and come up her or his own ideas. Thus I present you with two versions of the salad; we tasted each in Naples, a stone’s throw from the Ile of Capri and the winding street where the salad was supposedly created. I highly recommend them both! Buon Appetito!
CAPRESE SALAD WITH A DIFFERENCE
- 4 good-sized, just-ripe tomatoes rinsed, dried, cored
- fine sea salt
- 1/3 cup; 50g almonds, toasted, coarsely chopped
- ¼ cup small-ish basil leaves
- 8 small balls of buffalo milk mozzarella
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Cut the tomatoes into ¼-inch dice and place them in a fine-meshed sieve set over a bowl. Sprinkle them with salt and let sit for about 20 minutes.
- Coarsely chop the almonds. Add the drained, salted tomateos to the almonds and gently fold them together.
- Place a ring mold on a plate, and fill it with one-quarter of the tomato-almond mixture, pressing down gently. Remove the mold, and repeat with the remaining tomatoes and almonds. Arrange several basil leaves atop each round of tomatoes. Drizzle with some olive oil, then place two balls of mozzarella atop the tomatoes. Drizzle with more olive oil, season with fleur de sel, and serve immediately.