I feel a little guilty for having hardly blogged about my trip to Italy. So I wish to present to you a little story of me cooking in Napoli. It is one of my favourite anecdotes from the trip.
I left Rome on an overnight train to the city of Napoli. It was the city that ended up being cast in the leading role for my memories of the trip. Why? Maybe because I felt most at home there, maybe because of the people I shared the experience with, or perhaps because I had Florence and the Machine in my earballs for the entire time; it could of been Pompeii that had me gawking like a 12 year old at his first naked woman; the reckless drivers; pizza as, I guess, it should be; the day trip to hot springs on an island once used by the Romans; the poverty, the rubbish, the spliff; drinking cheap wine with the locals on a piazza after nearly everything else had closed; Luca with his belief that shorts and socks can’t mix; Carla who the phrase ‘mischievous glint in her eye’ was written for, or Harriet who cut through the crowds of locals to get us into restaurants I wouldn’t even have bothered with; maybe it was the dancing chef with a thong on his head, or sharing in the journey of a well travelled teddy bear; or simply making it a mission to see all the Caravaggio’s in the city. It was all of this of course, but what I want to tell you about is the day I did South Africa proud in the kitchen.
It was my third day, I had eaten at a mediocre restaurant or two, found some excellent pizzas in the old town, but it was time for a trip to the market. It was time for a home-cooked, well no, obviously not home cooked, let us call it the home-away-from-home-cooked meal.
I was staying in an incredible hostel, Hostel of the Sun, I have no higher praise for it than being able to say that if I walked back in there tomorrow I know it would feel like home.
After deciding I wanted to cook I approached Carla to ask where I should go to buy fresh produce. I don’t think anyone who visits Hostel of the Sun fails to love Carla, with her mouth that produces a smile as often as a quip, and sounds a hearty laugh after both; she makes everyone feel at home not just by be being welcoming, but also by giving you shit.
“Where is the best place to buy fresh fish and vegetables?”
“Why you wanna buy this?”
“Well, because I’ve had enough of eating out and thought it would be nice to cook a meal with some people tomorrow night.”
“Aari, that is-a Bullashit Aari!”l
“Why you wanna cook? You canno cook Aari, it is-a bullashit”
*Hearty maniacal laughter*
“I didn’t say I could cook, I just said I was going to cook.”
“But you a from South Africa. You canno cook. Maybe you can play rugby, but you canno cook.”
With steely resolve I told her whether I could or not was not the issue. I would be cooking and I needed the directions to the market. Giggling, Carla drew the route to the market area in my already much crumpled and drawn upon map of Napoli. While showing me the way Carla kept announcing to all in the hostel that the South African would be cooking; her tone suggested that it would be a somewhat ridiculous endeavour.
That was the afternoon before the night of the dinner. We went out on the town that evening. By we I mean the groups that form in backpackers. Young travellers banding together for a few nights of revelry, interspersed with visits to well known landmarks, cheap wine and endless picnics. There was a thoughtful Irishman, John; a delightfully excitable Japanese fellow, Tatsuya; a sweetly naive American couple; a pom, Katie; an environmentally conscious weed-growing Austrian, Andy; and the straggle of American one nighters to whom everything was authentic Italian, even the overpriced restaurants flogging the almost turned fish and left over pasta to tourists that are too dumbstruck at being outside their own borders to complain.
We headed out to one of the piazzas where the local youths congregate buying cheap wine and strong beer from hole in the wall operations, and sit idly chatting on benches and fountains smoking hash joints until the bars closed, and the bottles emptied.
A night out on the streets of Napoli
Our crowd from the hostel had joined in the fun with robust enthusiasm as usual. Luca, the owner of the hostel, joined us for this night out. When he heard that I was planning on cooking the next day he thought it wonderful, though reacted in a similar way to Carla; that no one from outside Napoli could really cook, and someone from outside Italy, well that was just a joke.
But being a sport, he fully endorsed the dinner and went about inviting the whole group. In the end I had 10 confirmed bookings, including Luca who said he would be the judge. If I could cook, he said, he would be able to tell.
I had planned on a trip to the Amalfi Coast the next day, but cancelled it as I saw that I needed to give an entire day to this dinner, after all it was not just my reputation that was at stake, but that of South Africa; I would not let my country be thought of as a bunch of beer swilling rugby louts.
So map in hand I set off the next morning. I left early so it gave me time to finish a little side quest that I had taken up in Napoli. Namely, to visit all three of the Caravaggio’s located in Napoli. My trip to the market would take me past the Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano where the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula was held. As usual when seeing a Caravaggio I marvelled at the denseness of his paintings, the anguish and the unknown, coupled with the softness of light. So much suggestion.
I left the gallery with a sense of purpose, there was one Caravaggio left to complete the quest, the The Seven Works of Mercy housed at the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia , it was my favourite of the three but would have to wait as I had shopping to do.
For the meal I decided on seafood. The starter would be an attempt to recreate a dish I had on the Cinque Terre; a peasants dish, layers of baked anchovies, potatoes and tomatoes with generous dollops of olive oil, garlic and herbs. For the main course a pasta with shrimp, mussels, calamari, baby squid and cherry tomatoes. Simple, clean, fresh.
In my eagerness to go shopping I had not found out the Italian words for all the ingredients, and my Italian was only at the level of generous greetings and farewells, confident orders of coffee, beer and wine, but little else. So I bumbled around the market pointing at vegetables, prodding and smelling them with purpose to let the shopkeepers know I was serious, if mute. I found anchovies easily enough, and bought a few kilos of mussels, calamari, whole baby squids and shrimp. All was well. The vegetables were fine when I could see them, the potatoes however were out of sight. And though the words are quite similar, di patate and potato, it took me nearly 20mins and three vegetable sellers before I secure some of those earthy little balls, that Irish gold.
I sought out top quality pasta, fresh bread, good olive oil, spices and herbs, and a bit of pecorino. Laden with the fruits of my mornings shopping I made my way through the thick crowds on Via Toledo humming to Florence and the Machine, quite proud of myself on completing what really is an everyday chore. That, I think, is one of the joys of travelling. Simple tasks performed in foreign lands seem to transform themselves into mysterious rituals. “Look at me,” says the traveller, “I am becoming like them, I am assimilating, I’m just like a local.”
Of course this is ridiculous, I stood out more on that shopping day than at any other time. You are far more conspicuous when you try to blend in (and don’t), than if you simply act like a tourist.
But I was chuffed with myself and I arrived at the hostel with piles of shopping and started to cook. I had not thought through the amount of preparation time a meal like this would entail. I had to take the heads off the anchovies, running my finger down the middle, splaying the little fish open with my thumb and plucking out the tiny string of bones. Those bastards are tiny, and I needed enough to cover the top a a casserole dish for ten. The mussels had to be cleaned, the shrimps shelled, and obviously wine had to be drunk. I take a very Floydian approach to cooking: to cook without wine in glass is akin to dancing to music with earplugs in.
Thankfully Carla was at hand and she joined in to help; I think though, it was more to be on hand to witness the ‘inevitable’ disaster. But my thorough planning and prep work mollified her somewhat and I think she began to look forward to the dinner.
The guests started arriving back to the hostel from their various sightseeing trips, some back from the Amalfi coast, others Pompeii. More wine was opened and they all crowded around the kitchen to ‘help’ in the final stretch of the meal’s creation.
Luca on hand to mop my brow.
Everything ready, I layered the par-boiled potato slices into the casserole dish, drizzled olive oil over them and liberally sprinkled chopped garlic, salt and pepper; over this went the tomatoes, big juicy ripe ones (although I would recommend sun-dried instead), more oil and seasoning, and then the anchovies laid on top, skin up. This was popped in the oven.
Next was the calamari, fried up with some garlic and chilli and set aside; then the shrimp and the little squids met the same fate. The mussels I had steamed earlier and set aside keeping the left over water. All ready to go.
The group now hungry and excitable helped set the table. I sliced thick pieces of bread and laid them out. Water boiling the pasta went on; I had to be careful , overcooked pasta could of been my downfall.
The baked dish was ready and it was set down to appreciative oohs and awws. It was dished up and they all tucked in. I disappeared back into the kitchen to attend to the second course. The pasta was taken off just before it was al dente the seafood was added to it along with the roasted cherry tomatoes. This mixture was then transferred onto a big piece of tinfoil along with some of the saved mussel ‘stock’ and a splash of wine, then put in the oven for 5-10 minutes.
I came back to the table. Luca shook my hand. So far, so good. The rugby label was starting to disappear, the South African, it seemed could cook after all.
A quick gulp of wine and a mouthful or two of the anchovy bake. It was good, but the tomatoes should of been sun-dried, better concentration of flavour I thought. But it was honest, hearty fare, with fish, tomato, oil and potato happily working together.
The tin-foil parcel was carefully retrieved from the oven, and made its way to the table. The stock had done its job infusing all the flavours, getting the dish to stand to attention. It was served and was eaten with gusto, every plate cleaned. There were some curious guests at the hostel who had not secured a seat, and once everyone had had their full they joined in, hoovering up the remains of the pasta.
A second hand shake from Luca, two for two, the South African had managed to impress the Napolitans. Luca said, “OK Aari, you can cook, but you still shouldn’t wear socks with shorts.”
I sat back with a post dinner glass of wine and cigarette. I had missed the Amalfi Coast, but it was worth it. I had held a dinner party 1000’s of miles away from home, with guests from four different continents, and the conversation at the table taking place in a variety of languages. The actual success of a dinner is not really the food, or the wine – although the increased quality of them will make your end goal far easier – it is the amount of joeie de vivre inspired in your guests. And the Hostel of the Sun on that balmy Napolitan evening was full of it.
That’s Carla on the right, and Harriet on the left. I live on in the hostel as the reception computer’s wallpaper.