The Baladin Epiphany

Hunter S Thompsons daily routine was a drug interlaced merry go round of glasses of Chivas regal, chartreuse, cigarettes, pornographic movies and fettuccine Alfredo. Yet, the man would condemn me for drinking what he supposed as “bad beer” The author and heavy drug user reputedly believed in a Celtic quote that claimed good people drank good beer, bad people drank bad beer. I have, on numerous occasions been accused of the latter, not directly by the now not surprisingly deceased author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but by most of the online world.

I grew up in a rough, northern working class town where “Real Ale” came from a tap depicting a hunts master sporting a monocle and raising a cheery pint. As I got older, a pint of Tetleys Smooth, only ever around Autumn and Winter, was seen as a sign of a considered beer drinker. Other than that we would habitually trip the light fantastic on everything from Carling, to Carlsberg Special. Corona was fancy, the kind of beer lads from the only public school in town would drink and your dad drank Becks or maybe Budweiser.

Its a bad habit that has definitely lingered into my thirties. I was living in London at the beginning of the microbrewery boom, but would still find myself regressing to my usual amber disciples; Fosters, Carling, Kronenbourg and when times were at there hardest, Skol. I know.  I had to pacify myself and others, repeating a mantra passed on to me by Antonio Carluccio to combat the more prevalent wine snobs of the world “the wine you like to drink, is good wine” But rewording it to “beer” instead of “wine”

However recently, Ive decided that I should expand, enhance and encourage my taste in beers. Maybe drink less, but drink better, which led me to Baladin

Naturally when it comes to matters of taste I start at Italy. Previously Dreher and Ichnusa were about as advanced as I had got, however I needed something  that didn’t come out of a generic Heineken tap and then relabelled for the sake of a long distant provenance. 

Out of the artisan beers available, Baladin caught my eye first. Its name sounds like it could have been created by Tolkien, maybe another brother of Boromir or the great grandfather of Gimli? Apparently the word means Storyteller in ancient French, which as you drink the beers becomes apt as each one really has a different story.  The bottle has enough attitude for me without ending up being like so many artisan beers, labels full of viking, snarling beasties, cradle of filth artwork. Drinking beer should be cool, but some of this real ale things are a bit Warhammer for my hand. Baladin branding is bold, confident, little bit of edge and each beer standing out quite unique which makes trying them all a bit more enticing. I like the size and shape too. 33cl is, if you cant be bothered with a pint, the perfect amount. The bottles curve also mean they may find themselves being shanghaied into olive oil and vinegar dispensing once their insides have been sucked clean.

I start with the Green Power ranger (All the Baladins have a different colour theme) called “Isaac” again, not particularly Italian sounding and when I get that first smack of coriander, not particularly Italian tasting but chilled down, very refreshing, a little sour tang (which I love in a beer) Its a White beer but isn’t as overly perfumed as some of the more commercial ones are. Its citrus and zesty, perfect for the baking heat outside.  Like I said, at the end I keep getting coriander which really works for me. I move on to the blue labelled Wayan. It doesn’t touch the sides, straight down the hatch. I have another, guilty that I treated it like so many throw away lagers of my past but on the tongue it was clean, crisp, and fresh as dew soaked rosemary and thyme. The second isnt chilled and the flavour is more complex, still refreshing, flowery and a bit of pepper going on. I let my girlfriend try this, and for someone who is a Budweiser fan, she thinks its beautiful. Yellow Nora comes next, this one made with Kamut and is spicy, honeyed and a bit resin like. Personally I am probably taking this flavour profile more around Autumn Winter but my girlfriend likes it, saying its a bit Vin Jaune in its flavour, which I get.

We move on to the Birra Natzionale with its neck collared with the red, white and green of the Italian flag and faded into a cornflower Azzuri. This is probably closer to my usual taste in beer. Its immediately refreshing, a bit lighter than the others, but still herbaceous with a maltiness too it thats not super aggressive. Its also Italys first 100% home made beer, which adds a wonderful tang of holism to the beer. The final beer I have is the one which, aesthetically I like most, but eyeing up the percentage on the back, know will be the biggest challenge to my palate thats more accustomed to a 4.5% lager. The Rock’n Roll is a, in my opinion, whopping 7.5%, its an American Pale Ale, a style Ive seen in countless bars and pubs in the UK but never tried. First thoughts, this isnt one to neck. Its again, quite peppery, warm and grainy in taste. From a taste perspective its eclectic, sweet, strong a bit like a loaf of bread in its toasted, warm yeasty taste, but also in the way it fills you up suddenly.  I think drinking this alone for someone like me, is difficult, however my gut feeling is it would be incredible with some gorgonzola or something fatty and spicy, like a pork belly vindaloo

I also got alongside this little coterie of brews, a bottle of Cedrata and something called “Ginger” Both soft drinks to counter a potential hangover I reasoned. I love Cedrata in Italy, its like a sophisticated/natural mountain dew. Its sweet and wonderfully sour with an electric yellow colour. Its not too sweet though, the Baladin version, which is ideal during this period of my life when I am sugar phobic. The “Ginger” turns out to be that familiar flavour of soda I remember from my childhood going back to Italy. There is no Ginger in this, its more bitter orange, a gentle herby sweetness, the kind of thing as a kid I would have found a little difficult, but as an adult who doesn’t like sweet pop, can totally get into. Would be great with some whisky

Im left, surprisingly a little bit torn now. I had imagined I would try the beers, enjoy them but kind of end up back to old habits, however I find myself re ordering. The Wayan and Isaac are perfect for the anticipated hot weather and will make a refreshing change for something that comes out of a silo close to the train lines in Burton Upon Trent. The Nora and Rock N’ Roll probably for Halloween, shorter days and that last weekend in November when we put the Christmas decorations and end up eating a kilo of stilton. I am by no means converted, but I feel a bit more enlightened and possibly in the eyes of Hunter s Thompson, maybe somewhere on the road to redemption.



Maletti: A True Positive In A World Gone Mad.

salsiccia di secondegliano

Maletti Products Now Available In Pre Sliced Packs for Home Delivery

Over the last 8 weeks of lockdown, Ive been constantly reciting a litany of positives that have come about through our national incarceration. There are obvious things that leap to mind; Watching my baby daughter grow and change, spending more time with my girlfriend, granted its usually huddled over a soiled nappy or in the small hours of the morning trying to fit a pipette full of gripe water into a screaming child’s mouth. However aside from the obvious domestic positives, its been a time to linger a bit more over the hob, finish work on a few different recipes that had lingered in my notebooks and start playing around with a few different ingredients that previous to all this malarky, hadn’t been so easy to get, especially in the little red neck paradise I live in. Thankfully though, with Delitalia now delivering to thousands of little homes across the UK, this isn’t so much of an issue, especially when it comes to top quality meats that were previously only really available in restaurants. I am of course talking about Maletti, and most notably, their mortadella…

My girlfriends sister recently told me that the lockdown had caused a problem to their grocery supply lines. She said between her, her husband and the three kids they drink 24 pints of milk a week. I was visibly astonished. She couldn’t believe my surprise, busy families need cups of tea, cereal, bottles, draughts of  milky night time soporific. Milk fuels most families. Of course, the question was bounced back to me; what do we get through more than anything else in a week? Answer, embarrassingly and strangely, Mortadella.

Mortadella powers my little family. Ok clearly the baby isn’t on it, but without it her parents morale wouldn’t be as high, bottles and feeds would be less enthusiastic and story time wouldn’t be such a vaudevillian wheeze. We use mortadella in sandwiches, I drizzle it with a little honey and thyme as part of antipasti, fry it and cut it into cubes to eat with a cocktail stick, chop it into a frittata, mince it and toss it through thick pici pasta or It gets pulped and passed through rich fillings for toretllini and ravioli. Pass the most obvious barrier to employing it, its gnarly fat mottled barbie pink hue, and you have a product exploding with flavour and versatility.

The new range of pre sliced of Maletti meats, which include Bresaola di Punta d’Anca (the really tasty salmon fillet) hot Spianta, prosciutto crudo Italiano, Salame Milano, also has two much overlooked stalwarts of the Italian kitchen; prosciuto cotto (cooked ham) and my beloved mortadella. Not only do these two products sit perfectly on an antipasti board, but unlike the other meats in the range, work widely over a number of dishes. Now that Delitalia are selling the pre sliced packs of Maletti through the home delivery service, my family and yours now have a huge range of dishes that can be cooked out these products. So at the weekend, when I am sat on the astro turf patch I call my lawn, and I am thinking about all the things I have the lockdown to be thankful for, I will look to that pack of mortadella in the fridge, think on the dishes I can make with it and raise my eyes and hands to the sky in thanks.

Here are my top mortadella/prosciutto cotto inspired recipe ideas


Tortellini is not nearly as difficult as people suppose. The tricky bit is probably the fold, however there are so many simple ways to do this, unless you are looking for the true Venus navel fold, you don’t have much to worry about. Filling wise, id say as long as you have ricotta or some other soft cheese, parmesan and mortadella you can make pretty much anything. The flavour of mortadella, the fattiness, that hint of myrtle, pepper, cinnamon means its a total flavour booster. All you need to do is blitz it and fold it through

Gatto di Patate:

Simply put, this is a Neapolitan dish comprised of some kind of cheese (provalone, mozzarella, scarmoza, fontina, all good) layered with mashed potato, occasionally peas and chopped pieces of mortadella or prosciutto cotto. Top comfort food but also not out of place in fine dining

Pici Mortadella:

I basically roll out some pici using a simple pasta dough recipes; heat a pan with a little butter and honey, throw in a handful of finely chopped mortadella and some thyme. Cook this very slowly and then after 3-4 minutes of cooking the pici in boiling water, tossed through. Its sweet, its meaty, fragrant, fatty and very good for what ails you


I am going through a meatloaf phase. After living with a vegetarian for two months I cant think of a better way to get a huge dose of mince. I basically make a meatball recipe (pork, beef, fennel, chilli, bread crumbs, parsley, milk, parmesan) and add lots of chopped mortadella, not too fine though as its quite the humble joy to run into a huge berg of fatty mortadella. The mortadella goes through the meat perfectly, flavouring everything

Pizza Fritta:

If you happen to be staggering around Napoli in the early hours of the morning after sampling some of the local plastic cup wine, you are likely to end up face first in a scalding hot deep fried pizza, full of ricotta, fior di latter and some kind of chopped meat. You can recreate this at home really simply with our simple pizza dough recipe, a deep fryer, some ricotta and mortadella

Mortadella Mousse:

I have noticed our good friend Danilo Cortellini, exec chef at the embassy do this as a canape a few times. I don’t have the exact recipe, but I am assuming its probably a heady mix of mortadella,  cream, parmesan etc. Piped onto a crostini with some ground pistachio sprinkled over , Im sure your post lockdown guests will love it.

Risotto with Beer and Mortadella:

I would never usually order risotto in a restaurant, however when I found myself in the home of Menabrea Beer in Biella, I felt compelled to order this. Biella makes great beer and isnt too far from the Riso Acquerello operation, and the two go together well, especially with lots of mortadella cooked into it


Pizzaiolo Beginners Guide

When I was a kid, pizza was my nonna’s heavy, cardboard like crust with a scraping of leftover sugo from a previous nights dinner and if I was lucky, that blocky mozzarella you feel is better suited to as a buoyancy aide rather than something to be cooked with. In my teens, pizza either came from the freezer or was the perennial and purportedly “thin and crispy” roman style crust, all flimsy wet base, chewy crust, danish mozzarella and dried oregano. Then at some point between my 20’s and 30’s the UK got really serious about pizza, like tambourine banging, self flagellation sermon on the mounts serious. All of a sudden consumers were thrust into an arena of sourdough bases, 48 hour levitations, leoparding, hole structure and my least favourite one “lo-mo” (low moisture mozzarella cheese…) In nearly every way, this was an incredible moment in the rapidly moving love affair the British have with Italian food, a new epoch of pizza. From Aberdeen to Brighton, if you looked carefully you could find a pizza that wouldn’t be a million miles away from what you could be eating on the Via Tribunalli in Naples. The caveat to this however, was everything behind making a pizza, became really complex, really quickly.

There has never been a period in the history of pizza where when making your own at home you can get so lost, bamboozled or suffer from extreme feelings of inferiority because that piece of dough you lovingly worked from a handful of flour, 48 hours later fails to achieve leoparding on the crust and you are looking at 3 likes on instagram. I am sure I will invite criticism by saying this from the more evangelical members of the cult of pizza, but don’t panic. Don’t seek a session on the couch with Enzo Coccia or waste hours watching youtube videos hoping in vain that you might find that holy grail-like tip. Pizza is simple. It was really simple and basic in Napoli 300 years ago when Carlo Collodi described it as a burnt piece of dough, a black toasted bit of bread covered in sickly garlic, a right “patchwork of greasy filthy”

There is lots of really simple recipes out there to get you started in the world of pizza making. Its probably best to find one which you feel comfortable with and going from there. If you havent made bread before, just a simple loaf, Id recommend you do this first before attempting a pizza. Pizza isnt difficult once you understand how dough feels, moves and acts. Once you have done this, then you can start to think about pizza, but like I said start small and then start experimenting

Top 10 Pizza Kit Essentials

1. Dough scraper

It will bring your dough together, keep your bowls clean, your hands clean and your work surfaces clean.

2. Electronic scales

A good quality electric scales will be the difference between calamity and absolute victory.

3. Pyrex bowls

Its not a necessity but it does help if you want to watch your dough proving and avoid the fear of over proving.

4. A Pizza stone

I personally don’t use them in the home oven as I like the nostalgia of a baking tray, however if you do want to get as close to the real thing and don’t have the money for a pizza oven in your kitchen, they can give you a similar effect of a true stone baked pizza.

5. Some clear plastic bin liners or big plastic bags

No, its not because you will need extra bin liners to accommodate all the dough and failed pizza crusts you end up throwing away. I use these to cover my dough when its proving. The clear ones are good as you can still see the dough and know just the right time to stop and proving. Plus, they are reusable and in the long term, much cheaper than cling film.

6. A rolling pin

Just in case your dough isn’t playing ball

7. An oven safe frying pan

Again, a strange one, but frying pans are great if you are making a pizza in your home oven. You can place your base in the pan, top and place on the hob to start the base off, before putting into a hot oven to finish. Clean and simple, even better if you have a detachable handle

8. A measuring jug

Accuracy again, is key to creating a decent pizza.

9. A stand mixer

– if you can afford it, is a very worthwhile piece of kit and will save you a lot of time and muscle wastage.

10. A picture of either The Virgin Mary or Maradonna to hang close to the oven

It will make you feel like you are a true Neapolitan pizzaiolo and in turn build your confidence more than any 3 day intensive course in Naples itself could.

The first recipe is unashamedly, a basic bread recipe, id say this is your baby step into making pizza and forming, feeling and experimenting with this dough is going to be integral to progressing to more difficult, complex doughs that require a bit more tomfoolery and experience. This dough doesn’t require long proving times and is not going to coat you and every exposed part of your kitchen in a chewing gum-like dough that makes the blob moving into your a more preferable option than making dinner.

  • 500g 00 flour
  • 3g fresh yeast/10g dried yeast
  • 300ml lukewarm Water
  • 10g salt


– Mix the salt and flour together (you don’t want the yeast and salt to come into contact, so mix the salt really well and it will give it a little forcefield of flour to protect it)

– Mix the yeast and water together and let sit until the water develops a little bit of foam/surface bubbles

– Slowly add the water/yeast to the flour. Remember that flour has a tremendous capacity to suck up liquid so the more you mix the better.

– Once your dough is smooth and pliable and is no longer mottled, place it in a bowl, cover and leave for around 4 hours. I use a clear glass pyrex bowl so I can watch it and usually write the details of the dough on the bowl or cling film. Try and make sure the dough is left in a warm place, away from drafts.

– Once the dough has really doubled up youn need to knock it back to stop the levitation otherwise the dough will over prove .

– Punch the dough down and form into balls of equal weight, I usually go for about 200g

– Form the balls and cover with a little more flour and make sure again, they are covered with either a tea towel or clingfilm. You don’t want any air to get to the dough

– Once the dough balls have doubled up, you want to open them out. Its quite hard to describe how to do this so either watch the video, find a video or use a rolling pin. All I would say is that you want to push the dough out from the centre to form a crust, rotating and moving the dough as you go along to create the base.

– Once the dough is opened up into the pizza base, you need to top it and put it in the oven as high as possible. I leave the cheese off and put it on once the base is baked so it doesn’t get too brown or burnt.


I am loathed to do much more than get a really good passata or can of whole tomatoes, crush them down, add a good pinch of salt, lots of torn basil, extra virgin olive oil and a twist of pepper.

When you start cooking a tomato sauce, you concentrate it, it becomes a bit jammy and I like my pizza sauce to be light and still quite fresh tasting so again, I wouldn’t really recommend cooking out a sauce. The time the pizza will have in the oven will give it exactly the right amount of cooking time it needs and leave that sparky, fresh taste of the tomatoes one of the main stars of the show

In a few of the restaurants I worked in, the pizzaiolo’s would add different additions depending on their own locality, but it was really nothing more than maybe a pinch of good quality dried oregano, very finely sliced garlic, a little chopped anchovy or a pinch of chilli. Remember less is more with a pizza.

All I would say is that don’t go over the top, keep it light, simple and don’t think that a ragu is the best way to layer that ground work of flavour for a pizza.

Other vegetables make great bases, not just the tomato. One of my favourites is to make a Genovese finto. This is basically a load of onions, sweated down for about 40 minutes with some salt, olive oil, a bay leaf and a few peppercorns. You need to add a bit of water and sugar too. You get this really moorish, sweet sauce that works brilliantly with some fiore di latte and fresh chive.

Recipe 2:

This recipe is a little more advanced and should give you a lighter crust. You will need some fridge space or somewhere cool for this to rest over night. I sometimes cover this dough and leave it by the back door or in the porch where it will stay a little colder and the reaction will take longer. You can do this recipe by hand, but I would really recommend doing it in a stand mixer. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you will probably need to have a dough scraper to work with the dough as it will be quite wet.

  • 500g 00 flour
  • 350ml water
  • 2g fresh yeast
  • 10g salt

– Mix the water and the yeast together, and as before, wait for the yeast to start producing bubbles

– Mix the flour and the salt together

– Slowly add the water and integrate well into the flour.

– The dough is going to be wet, so id advise working on the kitchen table on a wipe clean tablecloth, the type you would probably bring back from a trip to Italy. You know the type, plastic and adorned with lemons.

– Work the dough for a good 20-30 minutes, cover and leave over night. When you come down in the morning it should be a flat surface, but nearly reaching the top of the bowl.

– I knock this back again, and add a little extra flour before forming into balls and letting rest until I need to cook. You want to make sure that the dough has half an hour out of the fridge before you start to form the base as it will be too tight to open out.

Worth Remembering:

I wish someone had told me when I first started making bread, that sometimes things go wrong that are totally out of your control. Ovens may have dodgy seals, yeast may have died, the wind may be blowing in the wrong direction, the temperature may plunge or soar, humidity etc etc. Lots of things can affect your dough, so do not despair if things don’t turn out perfect.

When I decided I really wanted to learn how to make bread, I just would buy some cheap flour and yeast and put aside a day now and again to get a real feel for it all. Id weigh out everything, even water, and make notes. Id experiment with different temperatures and moisture levels until I started to understand what was happening a bit more. So to reiterate, when you are making your pizza don’t despair if it doesn’t look like the experts you follow on social media or have seen in a cook book. It is a skill to make bread, and like all skills it requires a little time, patience and investing in. Remember, whatever you do will more than likely be edible so its not all bad and you will have fun getting there.

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.

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