- Ancient flavours and fragrances
of the Sorrentine Peninsule -
The Roman alimentary customs in the sorrentine culinary tradition
(Translated by Marianna Mastro)
the Gulf of Naples is always more populated by the Romans who
populate the beautiful cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Cuma, Baia,
Amalfi and Sorrento and give origin
to the gastronomic tradition of the region.
This tradition handed down verbally by the oldest residents of
the places, finds correspondence among the modern alimentary practice
and the scientific proof among the recipes written by Apicio in
De Re Coquinaria like the vinegar sauce (scapece),
by Orazio in his first
satira with the narration of his return at home to eat a...."porri
et ciceris laganique catinum" a bowl of leek, chick peas and
lack of information suitable for an exact reconstruction of the lifestyle
and traditions is common in all the localities of Campania's region
until it became trendy, among the Roman noble rank, the custom to choose
islands and the localities along Campania's Coast as vacation resorts.
The visible signs of this fashion are the Roman villas of
the Amalfi Coast, Capri, and Sorrento.
It is very probable that the first
Romans who arrived from the mountains realized very soon they had discovered
a real paradise on
earth for the stupendous vegetation that existed, the abundant quantity
of water found, the position by the sea which could be of maintenance,
the great quantity of grazing grounds and the existence of a breed of
cattle with an extraordinary production of milk for which they called
the mountains of the locality "Lattari" (milky).
to remain in this locality, the Romans began to transform the main part
of the territory, which was rocky, into a cultivable area
by planting a flourishing agriculture with the products of the earth
of which they had a cultivation experience.
We are able therefore to confirm
that these patricians or other Roman citizens who settled in the localities
of the Sorrentine Peninsula and
Amalfi have been the first creators of the region's gastronomy.
well known that the Romans cultivated the spelt, which they removed
from the husk making it burn on big red-hot rocks, as well as wheat, broad
beans, beans, chick peas, medical herbs in addition to vegetables like
pumpkin, onions, garlic, all those products that for hundreds of years
have nourished the populations of our region.
These products have reached our days in their best combination like
the spelt soup with “cicerchie” a legume almost completely
disappeared or used only to feed the animals, or in the refined menu of
hotel, even of the nearby island of Capri, together with beans and dressed
with pork fat or in a more refined way with the sausages obtained from
the bloody meats and the poor parts of the pig, like the “noglie” and “pezzente”,
the fresh broad beans, cultivated in Baia and Capri, today fried in
the pork fat with the bacon; the pumkins fried and dressed with garlic,
oil, vinegar and mint leaves (scapece art); a great attention was dedicated
to the cultivation of the orchards and in particular to the apple, pear,
prune and fig trees.
Among the apple trees were cultivated the quince
and the “tubiole” or “tubione”,
the first quality is very difficult to find anywhere all over the entire
region while of the second quality still exist some specimen in the area
of Gragnano, Agerola, Scala and Tramonti where
they are very searched by the gourmet and the traditionalists who love
to eat them, as prepared
by the ancient Romans, sliced round shaped, dipped in a mixture of eggs
blended with flour, fried in hot oil and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.
We remind also the very scented “alappie” apples,
whose peels were put in the fire to burn or in the ashes of the brazier
the rooms of the houses or to desiccate amongst the cloths that had
to be dried near the fireplace. We remind also the white figs of which
resists a precious variety in the Sorrentine Peninsula and in Amalfi
and it is called “fichi vottati” opted figs.
the beginning of the century these figs were the delice of many Neapolitains
who would come to the Marina di Cassano in Piano di Sorrento
in occasion of the feast of the Madonna of mid August, when the “vottati” figs
were picked in the nearby hinterland, and bring home with them baskets
full of these figs decorated with the big beautiful leaves of this tree,
while the peasants, transformed in pedlars, offered their precious product
by yelling: “E’ doce come ‘a ricotta ‘sta
fica vottata, magnate, magnate vedove e maritate.” “It
is sweet like the ricotta cheese this vottata fig eat them, eat them
At this point we can not exclude to mention the Sorrentine walnut trees
which were probably planted by the Greek who, according to the legend,
consider the walnut a propitiator of joyful love affairs, evoking its
origin to the god Dionisio who was so heartbroken for the death of his
lover Caria, the Princess of the Laconi, that he transformed her into
a walnut so he would always keep her with him.
The Romans perpetuated
this legend ascribing to this fruit not only the power as propitiator
of joyful love affairs, but also the influence to
facilitate prosperous earnings considering it a good luck charm that
should never miss on the tables during the feasts and mainly in occasion
wedding feasts. “Pane e noce mangiare da sposa” “Bread
and walnut is the bride’s food” narrates and ancient
and well-known proverb maybe derived from the tradition of the ancient
the bride and the groom, specifically for this reason donated walnuts
instead of the confetti given nowadays.
It is not difficult to understand
the origin of such custom rich as it is of proteins, lipids, sugars,
vitamins and minerals the walnut results
mainly a tonic aliment, a beneficial and blessed nourishment especially
for the habitants of areas rich of woods
like the charming Sorrentine Peninsula. It was here in the Sorrentine
Peninsula and in Amalfi where it was possible to taste the finest walnut
and honey cake, which never missed on the table on New Year’s Day.
Every big meal was concluded with the nocino a noble infusion obtained
from the walnut-husk picked off the tree during the night of Saint Giovanni
on June 24th.
Until the last century it was a custom, in many regions of Italy, to
plant a walnut tree when a baby girl was born. When the girl reached the
age to get married, the walnut tree was cut down and from the wood obtained
was made the wedding bed, until that moment the fruits of the tree were
utilized to feed the family.
The Romans put great care also in planting vines that they disposed in
rows together with other trees.
Regarding the quality of the vines utilized I believe at least two types
still exist nowadays, one is called “S. Nicola” and produces
a sweet wine with a very delicate bouquet. This type of vine is not present
for all the researches made, even personally, in any other grape and wine
Italian region but it can be found exclusively only in the territory of
the Sorrentine Peninsula and Amalfi. The numerous quotations of Sorrento’s
wine in the passages of the various Latin authors attest the diffusion
of the product, famous as a dry and strong wine, they refer probably to
this wine which, according to some historians, was compared to the most
The production of this wine inspired several craftsmen's enterprises
such as the production of the amphorae mentioned by Marziale and by Plinio.
It must have had a large market if we still find the Sorrentine wine listed
in the small management of the Diocleziano's official price-list.
Plinio doesn't hide any doubt about the existence of a quality
of a sweet Sorrentine wine, thanks to the traditional Sorrentine wine-making
still in use nowadays among the wine-makers of the region which consists
in separating the wine from the dregs of the pressed grapes after a
or the latest after two days, this procedure gives to the wine its sweet
The other quality of grapes is called “cornicella” (corneal)
composed of big, hard, very oval shaped grapes with a very thin peel
and of an exceptional taste.
These types of vines are about to be extinct because the few peasants
in the place of origin of these vines, prefer to implant or change the
new vines with the technique of the rootlets already grafted which produce
a fruit of a finer quality and rapidly rather than the vine-shoots called “maglioni” implanted
with the “S. Nicola” or “cornicella” wine
As a result after millenniums we are witnesses of a rapid transformation
of the cultivation of the products who have formed the gastronomic tradition
of the region.
Unfortunately, we are certain that by now our children will not have
the opportunity to taste the wine obtained by the miscellany of the grapes:
S. Nicola, Sorrento, Biancazita, Biancolella, Vacca, Pepe, Ianestella
because already nowadays some of these vines mentioned are almost completely
extinct (as on the other hand various types of fruits such as the Sorrento
Largely used were the milk products. The cheese was used both fresh and
seasoned while the butter, which they also produced, was used as a medicinal
Both in Campania and mainly in the Sorrentine Peninsula, this tradition
was initiated by its ancient residents by producing the most famous mozzarella
as you all know prepared “in carrozza” (the cheese
is put between two slices of bread, passed in a bowl with beaten eggs
and fried); the “provolone”,
the smoked “provola”, the soft pasta “caciocavallo” or
the seasoned “caciocavallo” which can be
used grated substituting the very well-known Parmesan cheese.
very astute Sorrentine hands invent the mozzarella cheese braid whose
millenary talent is fortunately still handed down from father to
son and allows this product to be the most emblematical of our Region.
meats used were those that we still prefer even today , the veal, the
boar and the pig (of which they perfectly knew the preservation techniques)
and the chicken which they used the eggs as well.
Also in this sector the region respects the tradition by continuing to
raise for centuries the “mongana sorrentina” a particular
type of milk cattle today considered an historical animal since it is
extinct, as the veterinary of the area affirm. These cattle provided meat: “which
melts in the mouth with great delight better than the sugar. What a marvel
it is if it has its delightful taste since the herd is fed only with catmint,
rosemary, marjoram, citronella, mint, serpillo, spico and other similar
Also the Sorrentine pigs supplied particularly tasteful
and delicious meats such as to be distinguished by those raised in Salerno
instead was “hard, dehydrated and quite dried up.
We also find the Easter Lamb that evokes ancient cooking methods not
altered over the years. “O beneritto”, “the blessed”,
this is how it is still called by the peasants of the Sorrentine countryside
the lamb cooked in a soup with the onions, beaten eggs, pepper, a lot
of grated hard, well seasoned, caciocavallo and when the dish is ready
it is blessed by putting in the cooking pan some blessed laurel leaves.
fish represents an important component of the region’s tradition,
which has also been handed down from the Romans. For the Latin the fish
was considered an aliment of fine quality.
From the fish was obtained
a famous sauce with which our ancestors used to dress a great number
of dishes: the garum. It was obtained from the
maceration of mackerel, anchovies, small tuna fish laid on a layer of
herbs in a container, almost always of earthenware, alternating a layer
of fish and herbs and ending with a rich layer of salt. The container
was put in the sunlight for about a month and the contents was mixed
often and covered with a wooden lid.
The herbs utilized were fennel, celery,
rue, mint, and origan to which was often added some white wine.
The garum most preferred was the one
produced in Pompeii and the one imported from Spain. It was so frequently
used that the roman cooks would put it in every dish from the eggs to
This dressing will be used in our region until it will be
exceeded for the quality, fragrance and aroma besides the simplicity
of its production
by the invention of the colatura d’alici (the filtering of the anchovies)
which probably began around the second half of the thirteenth century
from the idea of the Cistercian monks who resided in the ancient parsonage
of S. Pietro of Tuczolo, situated on the homonymous hill of
the city of Amalfi who divulged among the convents and the monasteries
of the area
the technique of this dressing. it was mainly used to dress cooked or
raw vegetables added with garlic, oil and chilly pepper.
Later on this
dressing obtained from the filtered anchovies was added with red and
black pepper, olives, capers, parsley, garlic, oil, and lemon
juice all mixed together a couple of hours before and used to dress
the linguine pasta once drained. This dish has become a poor dish eaten
Christmas Eve by many residents along the coast of the region.
reference has to be indicated to testimony our convincement that the
gastronomic tradition of the region is Roman. We refer to the caponata (water-biscuit soaked in salt water, oil and vinegar) this is a dish
well-known in our region that is the direct descendant of the “custrum” soup
a barley or whole-wheat flour bread biscuit soaked in water added with
anchovies, capers, olives, laurel leaves and oil while the sea version
is dressed with fish or mussel soup. The caponata was the famous dish
invented and served by the “caupo” the host of the crowded “caupona
viaria” the street of the taverns with many meeting-places
for the lovers of the rustic simplicity.
Very famous were the “cauponate” the taverns of the alleys
of the neighbourhood of Pizzofalcone in Naples, patronized very probably
also by the patricians who lived in the Roman villas along the Amalfi
Coast, Sorrento and Capri in occasion of their frequent visits to Naples
where they went to bathe in Naples’ mineral water and medical
Like an enchantment, in the middle of the bowl of the
custrum soup appears
the mozzarella cheese braid and the caponata becomes Sorrentine.