I discovered that Napoli has its own Taralli biscuit.

Taralli NapoletaniThere is a brief moment in the Neapolitan day when the hubbub and frenzy that has characterised the city from its founding, is momentarily becalmed. It’s a golden hour around two o’clock when locals climb back up cool marble staircases to stuffy bedrooms for siesta and when red-faced cruise liner tourists give up on locating the original Pizza Express and return to their berths for a Guinness; when men like me drop off 20-week pregnant girlfriends at little pensiones, to find the nearest bar and quietly break pregnancy promises of prohibition.

It was in this cessation I discovered that Napoli has its own Taralli biscuit. You know the culprit, that little hand formed crumbly toroid you eat handfuls of because they are “probably” healthier than crisps. They are to the 2020’s what Grissini was to the 1990’s. Baked (good), bready (good) and perfect to market towards the aspiring classes for dinner parties as “aperitivi” (probably good). So far, the few brands which have entered the market in the UK, and I name no names as I was previously a poster boy for one of the bigger ones, have done a sterling job of playing on the Pugliese provenance of the product. In fact, if you ate a Taralli you’d be forgiven for thinking Puglia and its drum thumping reputation for bread was the only source of Taralli joy. You, and I were totally wrong. The Pugliese Taralli smacks of the ancient Greek/pre-collapse of Rome basics: wheat, olive oil, white wine and some form of spice, usually either fennel or chilli. The Neapolitan the slightly more Germanic collapse of Rome; “Hello Barbarians!” As it uses pork lard as the main source of fat or “Nzogna” in dialect.

I had seen the Taralli on that trip, skulking in windows of bakers, alimentaris and street food shops but wrote it off in favour of the usual Neapolitan razzle dazzle staples of pizza fritta, tripe, fritella and those paper cones full of fried fish that become nauseous after the third or fourth mouthful. Tarrali has its moment though, a moment in which it gently pushes its way to the front of the culinary crowd and lets you know it’s not a shrinking wallflower reserved for nothing more than the gummy suck of a baby or the slow, gummy nibble of a pensioner.

Its time is when the cheap-o plastic cups of wine start being poured from the hatches, which vie for space against shrines to fading saints, built into every wall in the old town. Hand over a couple of those small Euro-y coins and you will get the magi of Italian wine snacks; peanuts, crisps that taste like they have been dredged through the dead sea and the little ring of flour, strutto, wine and almonds, beloved of the city.

For a moment the humble Taralli can nudge the sinister, avian like face of Pulcinello and his perennial plate of spaghetti to one side. The pizza and pizza fritta await the descent of night and the mottled lengths of tripe dangling in windows amongst bunches of parsley and lemon don’t seem as enticing anymore. The cold glass of wine precariously balanced on the uneven wooden slats of a little picnic table demands the fatty, short mix of crumb and almond. The wine slaking away the residue of Taralli, and the Taralli setting up the mouth for the cold acid tang of cheap 80 cent home brew/wine.

The Taralli has mysterious origins. Just like pizza or pasta, it’s almost impossible to establish, who, when and where it first made its debut on the world food stage. Some sources claim the word Tarallo comes from the ancient Greek Torrere, which means ‘toaster’ and it started to appear around the 7th century. This all smacks of Marco Polo and Seaman spaghetti “discovering pasta in china around the 15th century” to me. I think the likelihood is that as long as bakers made bread, they have traditionally never wasted dough and recycled it to some degree. I remember years back, when I was working in the bakery of one of London’s better Italian restaurants, the head baker saw it as akin to blasphemy if leftover dough was thrown away. It is considered a living organism and Christ-like as it is alive, before dying and then rising again (and then dying in the pit of your stomach acid).

In Napoli, the history of the Taralli began in the fearsome gizzards of the city itself, just around the old port area. It was a part of the city that experienced incredible overcrowding, disease and malnourishment right from its inception, until the19th century when it was Italy’s largest city with half a million souls and Europe’s most overcrowded city (to put it in context in the mid 19th century, London could count around 13,000 people for every square kilometre, while Naples contained around 65,000). Painful, unrelenting poverty was the norm for a lot of the old town’s inhabitants. Many of its inhabitants ate in the streets, buying little dishes for paltry sums of money. Popular amongst these was greasy slices of pizza, fritters made from cabbage stalk and edible leaves, snail and whelks in broth and the Tarrali.

The Taralli really was a bit of a lifesaver for the impoverished classes. It contained carbohydrate, animal fats from the inclusion of “Nzogna” and was traditionally spiced with a little black pepper and finished with almonds, which regularly made their way into the port from the famed groves of Trappani in Sicily. Older generations of Neapolitans would also argue that to truly experience the real character of a Neapolitan Taralli, it is best dunked in seawater; after spending countless hours sat on the Lungo Mare watching the old folk, bodies like wrinkled leather sacks, dip in and out of the bay, I will probably give that one a miss. And you should too.

I’m not sure how many life preserving snacks there are in the world? Innocuous morsels that bridged the gap of poverty to our contemporary 24hour non-stop drinks and nibble culture, but the Neapolitan Taralli is most likely one of the few and best. The next few weeks and months for me, with a baby imminent, will be a whirlwind. Midnight bottle feeds, nappy changes *gulp* and that milky solution that seems to erupt from deep inside them over unsuspecting citizens shoulders. In these moments though I will mentally retreat to those back streets, amongst the dark, brooding tenements that seem to touch the ozone layer and were described by one Swedish visitor in the 19th century as: “The most ghastly human dwellings on the face of the earth”. There I will sit, plastic cup of wine in one hand, fistful of Taralli in the other, sun slowly browning my knees that poke out of the shadow cast by the tenements above.

The Baba is about as Neapolitan as Maradonna

BabaIt started with Asterix launching a fist full of magic potion into the noble, patrician nose of Caesar. It was accentuated by Napoleon’s march over the alps and his conquest of the peninsular, before being topped off in 2006 when Zinedine Zidane anointed the chest of Materazzi with his gleaming tete in the world cup final. Almost a millennia of antagonism has existed between the French and Italians, and none more so than in the kitchen, on the pages of cookbooks and in popular food folklore but, the now humble, once royal Baba may be a seminal moment of culinary collaboration between the two tricoloured nations.

If you have ever engaged with Napoli, even on the most basic level of viewing a postcard or some ghastly influencer’s Instagram timeline, it’s hard to not notice a Baba lurking in the background. They are intrinsically linked with the myth of the city, filling counters, bar tops and pasticcerie alongside the other cultural staples of the city: pizza, fritella and petty to severe street crime. 

The problem is, that the Baba is about as Neapolitan as Maradonna, though no one seems to acknowledge it or care.

 You know when the Italians elevate a dish to one of their own because they immortalise it in miniature fridge magnet form. If you have been to an airport gift shop you will see tiny, perfectly detailed bottles of limoncello, boxes of Barilla spaghetti and even little plastic, shrink-wrapped trays of Mortadella snaking their way up magnetised display stands. Most remarkable though, out of all of this Lilliputian bounty is the actual, baked sponge Baba you find in Napoli, coated in plastic to be observed for eternity in its truest form. Now, without wishing to invite any sudden paroxysm from one of Europe’s most volatile cities, the Baba isn’t actually Neapolitan or Italian. If you knew this already, I would like to apologise immediately for my ignorance. I don’t have a sweet tooth and for years have given it as much thought as Thomas Markle gives his to his personal dignity.

 The Baba is a bit like Celine Dion; a bit French but not quite the whole “ooh-la-la pass ze snails Pierre” package. The origins of the Baba probably go beyond France, with some sources claiming that it made its way to Paris via Poland, much like their beloved baguettes probably did. The name itself bears some resemblance to “Babka” which kind of means Old Woman or Grandma. Either way it seems to make its recorded debut in the end of the 18th/middle of the 19th and was made popular by a French chef and patisserie Nicholas Stronher.

 The Italians, or more specifically the Neapolitans, have made it their own, transporting it from, in my humble opinion, the kind of thuggish flavour that rum gives the Baba, to the dizzying ziggurat of the super sticky, ultra-violent sweet heights of the limoncello Baba.

 The story of how this little enriched dough minaret came to be is really linked to Italy’s love-hate relationship with that old culinary rival and alpine bad neighbour, France.

 Italy, and I use the term as more of a geographical expression, went through a bit of an inferiority complex back in the 18th/19th centuries when it came to the French and their cooking. Ridiculous as it seems now as Italian food dominates the globe (come on, how many times do you call out for a Crepe or make a midweek meal of Pot-Au-feu?), back then a slew of French chefs came over the alps at the behest of the house of Savoy to work in the kitchens of the royal court.  This was a period when the old medieval style of cooking, which John Dickie described as a process of “Mixtures”, gave way to a new cuisine of “impregnation”. Traditional cooks and chefs were quickly viewed as slack-jawed simpletons not fit to feed a tongue-less dog, and the top chefs emanating from the culinary capital that Paris was establishing itself as, were sought out by the rich and royal of the Italian peninsular.

Joe Hurds ‘Wish list’ for a perfect Christmas…

christmas listJoe Hurds Christmas Wish List:

I can remember the last Christmas list I wrote. I was probably about 10 and ambitiously penned the demands on Christmas Eve before popping it into the fire place with all that magical innocence, and faithful expectancy children invest into heating vessels this time of the year.

Of course, I was quietly disappointed the next morning when the Captain America outfit, figurine and VHS failed to manifest themselves under the tree. To some degree, it was my own little acid test of the season, a challenge to Babbo Natale, Sintaklasse or Dun Che Lao Ren to see if he really did last minute wishes.

Clearly he didn’t. It would of been 1996, he probably was too busy delivering Bill Clinton a Nintendo 64 or fetching matching Buzz Lightyear playsuits for Liam and Noel.

To save myself the abject pain of being left out in the cold, or probably “mild” these days, Im vesting the ever reliable Delitalia with the task of making my Christmas complete, all I can suggest is that you do the same.

1. Sicilian red prawns. The moment some oil rich Sheikh or former Russian peasant who bought a discount aluminium mine from Yeltsin back in 1989, realises the taste, texture and appearance of these coral translucent crustacea blast caviar out the water, you will be looking at them through thick glass display cabinets in Piccadilly. The king of the sea and the king of your Christmas Eve Vigilia. Best eaten raw with a little lemon, salt and Eleusi Oil. Otherwise, chopped very fine and added to the back end of a simple risotto with Acquerello Rice.
2. Marramiero Novello: After you ploughed your way through a mire of Barolo’s, Tiganello, Nero di Troia, Maglioco’s and all the other heavyweights slumped in the red corner of the wine ring, your body might thank you for the light, fruity Christmas overtones of a Novello. Chill it down, fetch yourself a straw and some left over panettone and wile Christmas afternoon away drifting in and out of consciousness while watching The Spy Who Loved Me for the trillionth time.
3. Berlucchi Franciacorta: Prosecco has become the Fergie of sparkling wine royalty; tart, tired and tawdry. Be THAT person this Christmas who when asked if they would like another glass of bubbling, acid death exclaims “I only drink Franciacorta these days!” Followed by a snorty little laugh.
4. Domenic the Donkey: I genuinely cannot think of a Christmas where this classic Louie Prima song has not trotted out the speakers of my record player. The harbinger of the yule and essential for ersatz Xmas morale. You don’t have to stop at there thought, mix up your antipasto plate with a few slices of salame d’asino and watch the mother-in-law balk
5. Tropea Onions: If you are struggling for gift ideas for anyone originating south of Napoli, watch their faces light up on Christmas morning when you present them with one of these regal little purple onions wrapped up in a bow
6. Torpedino tomatoes: Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t gorge on your favourite food. Do as I do at least one day over the holidays, defy convention, pass on the mince pies and quality streets to sneak off and make a plate of pasta pomodoro. There is only one tomato to use for this and thats Marianos Torpedinos, with a handful of basil, a little salt and good olive oil.
7. Maletti 1867 Truffle Mortadella: The thought of another slice of dry, saline rich danish pig cooked until its sharper than obsidian makes me want to spend Christmas with the Taliban while revising for a French oral exam. Swap your salty swine for a big pink bouncy Mortadella speckled with the best truffles of the autumn and enrich your life.
8. San Vincenzo Nduja. Not only is it red, which makes it incredibly festive, its also pure fat. This is essential for anyone living in the UK as temperatures in January and February can sometimes get below 5 degrees and a few inches of blubber will be vital to stave out the cold as you walk between your favourite bars in the new year.
9. Menabrea: Push those watery Peroni’s aside on the communal drinks table this New Years eve and get stuck into a bottle with bite.
10. Callipo Buzzonaglia: They call everyday, ordinary tuna “The Chicken of The Sea” so by my reckoning this fatty pastiche of belly meat, light and dark flakes held together under a film of oil is the “truffle pate stuffed Guinea Foul of the sea” Blow peoples minds by offering them this rich, umami tuna flesh on a piece of carasau, or added on a torpedino base pizza, hot out the oven with some slivers of tropea onion.

 

Novello – San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino…

novello, marramiero,

No light falls on the flagstone outside the little trattoria, or osteria, or restaurant or whatever the owner is currently referring to it as this week. The usually damp-flannel grey of the pavement, idly tanned by a rusty, brassy toffee-like attempt at lighting, tonight is powdered in the autumnal night’s lapis blue. The only light breaking this dark concrete sea up comes from the ubiquitous North London neon of The Gunners Fish Bar causing the slab, fringed with powder puff pink, to resemble the made up eye of a drag queen.

It’s cold, the coldest night at the end of the longest year. The first real night of Autumn; piles of rotting mulch in the street are being joyfully kicked in their rotting sides by buckled up Start Rites and Peppa Pig wellies. Piles of rotting pomegranates spritzed with the eau de London’s street smog in the plastic bowls of the Turkish corner-shop and piles of cold and flu germs awaking on every hand grip hand rails that London transport calls its own.

In the distance a firework erupts with the force of popping candy, the forlorn hope of bonfire night. Despite its damp popfffff, it’s still enough to send the contents of a rushed, russet cheeked mothers pram into a state of toddling apoplexy.

The great windows, designed to concertina open in the occasionally warmer months of summer, have been concertinaed closed tight in the darker, frequently colder Autumn months. Condensation has slaked its way across the vast paines of glass making the restaurant interior as oblique as a fat man painted battleship grey, holding a smoke machine in a sauna.

I’m hesitant to open the door. By now the restaurant is usually more active than legions of Mo Farrah clones engaging in endless marathons around Piccadilly Circus at rush hour. Yet the place is quieter than a mute librarian’s grave. Something is wrong.

I push the door open catching the thick, thistle rough doormat. Across the waist high plateau of blue and red gingham checked tables, illuminated by clusters of contrite little tea lights with enough energy to light a Borrower’s keyhole, I see the boss pushing oily vapour trails of blue smoke up into the rafters of a faux thatched roof at the back of the room. His usual partner in pre-match crime is sat there too, bereft of the usual insults which emanate in thick southern Italian dialect out of his thick southern Italian lips.

A biblically beaming, alien abduction limelight chinks out the kitchen through the smoke, followed by the occasional muffled clunk of metal on metal. A slow “Calunk” signalling one hand is being used to fidget one of the old aluminium pans on top of the stove while the other stabs away at an old battered iPhone placing last minute bets on a Ladbrookes app.san martino

It’s lugubrious tonight. The usual blop, blop blopping of bubbling lamb ragu, the rustling tenements of carasau bread stacked in handmade wicker baskets and the howls of the owner for more crates of Ichnusa have been temporarily lobotomized.

Unusual for a place that lives, breathes and dies to the ever present hortator of screams, cursing, cheers, cries and shouts that inhabits all restaurants save vegan cafeterias and church hall canteens. No one moves, no one stirs.

The boss invites me to sit with him and partake of the ever present supper of free wine. There is a bottle in the middle of the table, white label with the orange, reds and ocre of the season slashed into the paper bearing the meaningless word, NOVELLO.

Marcello…MARCELLO

The table is gloomy and the cartoon moorish features of my nightly drinking companions are all but hidden from me. The candle does enough only to light their chins into stubbled promontories where the glass containing the ruby clear wine can occasionally be seen to pass above. Everything is being done slowly, almost conspiratorial. Speech is unusually laconic and, aside from the cocktail of candle and illicit cigarette smoke, a comfortable sense of nothingness lingers in the air.

The chef hasn’t solely been idling his time away at the controls of the betting app of his future poverty. He tips a pan of squealing hot chestnuts hotter than Hephaestus forge and, groaning out their crackling shells, onto a wooden board in the centre of table.

Hard calloused hands, numbed by anticipation, easily crush through the scalding brittle outer layer of the charred shell before the outside edge of the thumb scarifies the husk away onto the red and white debris field, now peppered with erratics of burnt shell. In most cases, even under such force, the chestnut remains whole; a light, toxic yellow cerebrum which we push into sea salt. This outer saline coating crunches and opens up the tastebuds to the pastoral sweetness of the flowery interior of the fruit, as fragile and crumbling as fresh yeast.

They are toasted, burnt, some hard, some soft. In the worst cases precision in the peel is exchanged for clumsy haste and the result is a chestnut sea mine of nutty pulp and sharp fragmented shell. This can engage with the throat in a similar way as barbed wire plays across fiddle strings.

The Novello strikes me. For a red, it’s cool and curranty, familiar of late summer homemade wine. The kind of thing Ratty from Wind in The Willows would have made and bottled for the Tombola at one of Toad’s ghastly Spring Fairs. It’s pleasant and clean. I feel it should be drunk out a pewter tankard and come with a hangover free guarantee for the next day. It’s refreshing, which is what I always want in a wine as wine really must be “neckable”. I appreciate that the chattering classes may like to linger over one or two thimbles of wine, savouring and tasting the ethereal merits of an amber pinot Beaujolais Margeaux 1066 or whatever. I’m not sure this wine suits that scene? Foods basic role is to fill and liquid is to refresh. I could drink this all night until it pours out my ears.

For a moment, I realise that the usual chaotic state of our little Italian restaurant has been becalmed by the wine. This is a moment they have all waited for throughout the year, the first young wine taken cold at three weeks old, alongside a new crop of chestnuts all hot, spiky, caramel and woodland fires. It’s the closest an Italian might get to that horribly cosy word “Hygge”, that insufferable Danish law of fluffy socks, open fires, candle light and enforced ennui. Barely a word has passed and this 20 minute moment has been savoured for a lifetime in every nip of the wine and broken shell.

This is “La Bella Vita” transformed, reinvented and soothed for the darker cold months and it’s what every Italian restaurant from Galashiels to Gloucester should be demanding their customers momentarily engage with from October to the end of November. The parasols and passageta are over, ask for Novello, fire, chestnut and Marlborough Lights.

The door swings open and my accomplices brace themselves for the teeth of a London draft. It’s a family, a family walk in at 17:55; buggies, babies, leaves stuck to the sole of a child’s shoe via the sticky medium of dog toffee. It’s everything the boss would turf out into the street on a normal night. If the Holy Trinity turned up in a simillar state, donkey of course subbed for a Silver Cross, I imagine they would receive the blunt end of a Sardinian curse. But strangely not tonight. The Novello and chestnut has calmed the savage beast and very shortly he is there, attending to their table with bowls of chestnuts and slightly chilled, complimentary Novello. I imagine they will be back, and come next Autumn, so will the wine.

Motor City and Mort… followed by Picci

Italian Americans are responsible for all manner of minor, cross-cultural disgraces; Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmigaaan and most of the cast of Jersey Shore. However their early experiences in the new world and its seemingly never ending supply of meats, cheese, sweets and booze, left a few hybrid diaspora dishes that could never have happened in the relative poverty of the old country

A couple of years ago I was asked to come up with a dish for BBC Children in Need’s Carfest Festival. It was, I assumed, a simple enough brief; two recipes to fit a 45 minute slot, that was until my PA told me they were looking for some kind of car/automobile twist. Now I like cars; I like how you can wedge yourself firmly into the passengers seat off a Golf and catch a good hours kip, the little illuminated horse that appears on the pavement when you open the door of a mustang, or how a Fiat Punto retains its street cred even when its spent a lifetime taking more of a battering than a sub average boxer. I am not the kind of person however who knows what “Torque” is and always lament the fact that there are no horses actually involved in horsepower. If you show me a top of the range Ferrari, Im most likely to compliment the choice of magic tree.  I had to turn to history to find the perfect dish.

I began with Enzo Ferrari as the man was from Emilia-Romagna and to date, I haven’t met a single sole from the region, who didn’t have anything short of a Paolo and Francesca style love affair for food. Alas, it seemed he lived of Prosciutto and torta fritta whilst he wiled away the hours in his workshop tinkering with carburettors and exhaust pipes . As much as I find the idea of frying square after square of enriched bread dough in hot pig fat about as joyful as waking up to find that my metabolism has  advanced to the pace of a teenage race horse, I didn’t think it would make for much of a show.

In vain I scoured the internet, googling F1 drivers and their favourite foods despite my knowledge of the sport probably being classed as “Junior Scaletrix Level” It turned out that a lot of the icons of the 1970s lived off a heady mixture of booze, late nights and the occasional hit of narcotics, whereas today’s drivers followed a diet similar to that of a Scandinavian racing sardine. Eventually I hit upon the idea of the people who actually build the cars..

Italian car workers were every employers dream in Detroit during the 1920’s. They worked hard, caused little fuss and instead of high wages, safe working environments and discounts on Ford Model T’s, all they demanded was a little macaroni and meat for lunch. Mortadella, that wonderful cylindrical Roman invention of Peppa-pig pink meat, lipid white islands of belly fat and acrid bursts of black pepper corns was cheap to produce and cheap to supply, so became the natural choice to accompany the lunchtime macaroni.

This dish is a simple plate of hand made Pici pasta, a little butter, thyme, finely chopped mortadella, pecorino and a little honey to cut through this thick, fatty mantle that coats the fresh pasta. Pici may seem like a weird choice for the sauce as the mortadella has very little chance of getting a firm hold onto the dough, but the rather nice thing is that each strand is coated in a delicate emulsion of butter infused with the earthy mortadella and accompanying flavours.  What you are left with at the end is a satisfying little pile of buttery meat that slaps you round the face for a slice of bread to make an ad hoc mortadella roley.

Good Appetite

Serves 2.

For the dead simple pasta part:

150g 00 flour, we love to use Molino Quaglia

150g fine semola (optional, but will give your pasta more bite) again Molino Quaglia

180g egg yolk (save the whites for meringues or Rocky style gym fuel)

 

 

For the sauce/emulsion

20 Pistachio, shelled and crushed as fine as you can be bothered (30 to make up for the 10 you will invariably eat)

2 Sprigs of fresh thyme

1 Tablespoon of honey

30g good breadcrumbs (avoid the day glow fish finger kind)

10g of butter, use burro di bufala

Half and onion

Evoo, Eleusi is great and its from Calabria

1/3rd of a block of pecorino cheese (or any hard Italian cheese)

 

 

Method

  • Today we are making PICCI. Think relatively long, slightly fat/thin mis-shapen spaghetti you do by hand. It rocks. Start by combining the flour and semolina in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the egg yolks. Use a fork and bring the flour into the egg and mix well. If the mix is too dry add a tiny bit of water just until it comes together.

YOU WANT TO MAKE A DOUGH SIMILAR IN LOOK AND FEEL TO PLAYDOUGH

  • Once this is done, form into a nice square or round and dust with flour. Cling film and leave in the fridge for minimum half an hour.
  • When the dough is rested, tear grape sized balls off (keep the dough covered) and roll onto a clean surface (if you dust them or your hands in more flour, it wont work) You want to create long, knobbly worms (think like a long spaghetti Nick-Nack)
  • Once all the dough is done, let these dry a little while you do the sauce
  • Very finely mince the onion and sweat it in the butter and olive oil until translucent. add half the leaves of the thyme and half the thinly sliced/fine chopped mortadella and cook on a low heat.
  • Bring water to the boil in a sauce pan, remember to salt the water well, and add your pasta for 5-6 minutes.
  • Remove the pasta and pop straight into the pan, retaining one cup of that pasta water elixir.
  • Keep the pasta moving, add half the pistachio and grate as much cheese as you fancy, add some of the pasta water to form a sauce and a little black pepper.
  • Using a fork, twist the picci into a tight ball and place in a bowl, finish with more fresh mortadella, thyme, pistachio and the breadcrumbs, drizzle of olive oil,
  • Now you are done.

 

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