Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bella Italia

As September 2006 drew to a close my chief recipe taster and I packed our bags and fled to the sun soaked cliffs of Italy’s Amalfi coast. We had been invited to accompany a band of travelling South Africans, with whom we had become friends once we discovered the unifying bond of a shared sense of humour.

This escape was pivotal for a few reasons. It represented time to reflect on a hectic year that had been full of change, a time for celebration of 10 years of wedded bliss and my first chance to practise my novice Italian on real live Italians.

Our days were spent in a little seaside village called Praiano. Our villa, La Caravella, was perched high on the hill-side and boasted a view that seemed to span the entire world. Due to the concave aspect of the gulf in which we were situated, looking out on the Tyrrhenian Sea gave the illusion of being at the end of the earth – indeed had it not been for the American or Australian accents that seems to make their way on to every bus and into every restaurant, one could be loured into believing that you were in fact detached from the rest of civilisation.

This was a holiday spent avoiding tourist traps and enjoying the local scenery. Without the pressure of having to ‘see everything’, in 5 days we were afforded the opportunity to relax and unwind and live a little like a local.

Each morning our day would commence with the men of the household taking the trip up the road to Senora Rosa and the affectionately named ‘Tutti a la Frutti’ where they would purchase local delights that would become breakfast. Even after a language barrier induced hic-up resulted in Picante Fromaggio (chilli cheese) making its way to the breakfast table, all agreed that this was the best arrangement and so the morning routine was established.

After we finished our crusty bread, apricot jam and three morning coffees we would begin the trek down to the sea to bob about in the ocean for as long as the sun shone down and kept the water tepid but refreshing.

One morning we were joined by a group of local 60 years olds, who jumped and dove about in the water with all the energy of teenagers, albeit with far less dexterity. They laughed and sang at the top of their voices an Italian rendition of ‘That’s Amore ’– a tribute that Dean Martin would have been proud of. They all had big smiles and bronze skin – the kind of skin that has been ‘warmed’ in the sun for decades. The kind of skin you don’t see in England.

When the swimming stopped, we would lumber up to the sea side cafes where the food was fresh and the wine was cold and dry… the perfect combination. Our entertainment during these refreshment breaks was Bambino la Bella and her inclination toward concrete and stairs and the recurring game of ‘who knows how to ask for this in Italian’. This game was played through out the holiday – with Nona Carla playing the judge.

After one nightmare day of missing busses and boats being cancelled we took refuge at our swimming wall and the nearby seaside restaurant that served peaches submerged in white wine, and mussels in tomato sauce with Linguini. With each sip of wine and each mouthful of mussel the perils of the morning faded until the Limone profiteroles made by the ‘mama’ of the house eradicated all memories of the only morning we tried to be tourists.

My favourite memory of that meal was overhearing the conversation that ensued when an American couple asked for a dessert.

When the waiter offered a suggestion at the couples request the female of the couple asked ‘Did the mama make this?’, the waiter responded with an enthusiastic and slightly indignant ‘Si si of course’ as if to say 'This is Italy…. What do you expect!!'

To question the authenticity of an Italian menu option is to label ones self as an ignorant tourist.

The Italian approach to eating is about more that just food and wine though – It’s also about atmosphere and attitude, and how the right balance of all 4 creates a truly memorable meal.

The mixture of simple ingredients and local produce was the inspiration behind the triumphant night of the feast at La Caravella. It was a small affair, enjoyed in candle light and accompanied by conversation that cements friendships. We enjoyed thin slices of pan fried chicken breast (perfectly prepared by the chief recipe taster), baked tomato and aubergine, two types of Tomato sauce to cater for the non-anchovy enthusiasts amount the group and locally grown green beans – my green vegetable of choice as I believe it be adaptable to almost any combination of food.

The headliner of the night is a dish I’ve named Praiano Patata Con Gorgonzola. A dish that came about by chance and etched itself into our memories as the highlight of the ensemble.

It was a night and a holiday to remember!

Praiano Patata Con Gorgonzola

1 kgs of Potatoes, pealed and washed



Whole, dried chillies

2 small onions (or even a handful of Shallots)

Boil the potatoes until they start to soften, but are still firm. Drain and place back in the pot with the cream and sliced onions and continue to cook on a low heat, stirring continuously. When the cream is nice and hot place small pieces of the Gorgonzola in the mixture and continue to cook until the cheese is melted and the potatoes are soft. Place the chillies in the mixture and make sure they are big enough to be able to take out in case you do not like eating dried chillies!!