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- Ancient flavours and fragrances of the Sorrentine Peninsule -

The Roman alimentary customs in the sorrentine culinary tradition


(Translated by Marianna Mastro)

Successively 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 the 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 lagane.

The 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 some 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 patrician 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).

Intentioned 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.

It is 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 an elegant 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 to perfume 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 still resists a precious variety in the Sorrentine Peninsula and in Amalfi and it is called “fichi vottati” opted figs.

Until 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 widows and married women.”

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 of the 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 Romans: 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 famous “Falerno”.

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.

Furthermore, 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 day or the latest after two days, this procedure gives to the wine its sweet taste.

Uva cornicellaThe 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 branch.

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 prunecerase cherry-prunes).

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 balm.

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.

Later on, 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.

The 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 herbs?”

Also the Sorrentine pigs supplied particularly tasteful and delicious meats such as to be distinguished by those raised in Salerno whose meat 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.

The 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 the meat.

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.

Birboni di grano duro con olive, capperi e colatura di alici Menaica.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 on Christmas Eve by many residents along the coast of the region.

Another 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 very 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 thermal baths.

Like an enchantment, in the middle of the bowl of the custrum soup appears the mozzarella cheese braid and the caponata becomes Sorrentine.