Sometime between our World Wars, the caprese salad was born. This is not to say that since forever mozzarella, tomato and basil have not come together on a plate but they were never given an official name until sometime in mid 20th century.
The dilemma is: who gets to claim the fame?
A) King Farouk of Egypt
B) a builder from the Isle of Capri or
C) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Italian art theorist and poet?
Undoubtedly the salad is a dish coming from the famous Isle ('caprese' translates as 'of Capri') and potentially equally as famous. It is served all over Italy in restaurants, osterie and on lunch tables as a starter and while this popular dish screams 'Italia!' not only because of the red, green and white colours of her flag il tricolore, but also for the most quintessential of Italian ingredients, there’s nothing more simple and delicious than these four right here:
'Cuore di Bue' Tomatoes,
Fresh Basil Leaves
Extra-virgin Olive Oil
Who knew the King of Egypt, a builder from Capri and futurist movement founder Marinetti would have an oddly important conundrum in common?
First was Marinetti. In the early 1920s the 'Caprese Salad' was added to Hotel Quisisana's avant-garde menu for a special get-together of 'artistic futurists' in Capri. Aware of Marinetti's gluten intolerance, the hotel graciously created a patriotic dish with ingredients from the territory that didn't involve pasta. I'm sure Marinetti was duly delighted.
Second, came the builder from Capri who made a fresh and light sandwich for his lunchtime break most likely grabbing what he found in the fridge along with a few leaves plucked from some windowsill plants on the way out the door. A kiss to his wife and "ciao amore" perhaps it was in fact her who invented the caprese? And how did that builder's lunch go on to become worldly famous?
Thirdly, when King Farouk of Egypt visited the beauteous Isle in 1951, the 'Salad of Capri' was presented to him as a quick and tasty snack which allegedly he absolutely adored. He would have tagged the caprese in a selfie boosting it to international fame in seconds, but this was 70 years ago, the wi-fi is still pretty shabby on Capri.
Caprese the Cake
Where the origins of the salad seem hazy, the caprese cake has a well-defined foodie legend to its name:
'In 1920, pastry chef Carmine di Fiore set about to bake a chocolate cake… dark chocolate, almonds, walnuts and eggs all in the mixing bowl, but one ingredient was forgotten - the flour! We all make mistakes but funnily enough, this one omitted ingredient created a local gluten-free dolce which proved an immense success in Amalfi and Naples! Crunchy on the outside and dense in the middle, it's now a beloved delicacy of the region, don’t worry if you say, "I’d like caprese please," everyone assumes it’s the salad. But just so you know, it’s pronounced ca-preh-zeh, not ca-preh-zi.
Caprese the Sandwich
Take the salad and place it in crusty bread, just like the builder did.
We always talk about Italian foods being regional and seasonal, here's another which changes from region to region. In Sicily where capers grow wild and anchovies are in abundance, the caprese salad often features a few local add-ons.
In Puglia, olives may be tossed on top, in Naples, sundried tomatoes used instead of fresh ones.
Grilled, sliced zucchine are a favourite in summer, as are grilled slices of aubergine placed between layers.
We love a drizzle of Balsamic Vinegar from Modena to balance the flavours while a summer staple in our house is pasta fredda with chopped up caprese ingredients and additional olives, all mixed together into cold, al-dente pasta corta.
It's not vital that the mozzarella is buffalo or the tomatoes are beefsteak but one ingredient cannot falter on regional quality and that's the olive oil. Good extra-virgin olive is a must in this humble salad - the bolder, the better.
Your basil must be fresh or a sprinkle of oregano will do (but mind it won't be called caprese anymore if we're going to get technical).
Cuore di Bue tomatoes are the chosen ones, prized for their size and flesh. Cuore di bue translates as 'beef heart', we know the large and oddly-shaped tomatoes as 'beefsteak'. What makes them so special? The flavour.
They have few pips and a firm flesh with an aromatic flavour which lends to soft, creamy mozzarella just perfectly. If beefsteak tomatoes aren't in season, find any large, ripe Italian tomato.
TOP TIP: Always take your mozzarella out of the fridge an hour before serving, Italians traditionally keep tomatoes in a bowl on the kitchen counter so these are room temperature too because the flavour intensifies ten fold.
Next time you are on the Amalfi Coast or visiting Naples for a Day order 'insalata caprese' just to taste the difference - the tomatoes are sun-ripened, the mozzarella is out of this world and nobody messes around with olive oil here. There's something to be said for eating regional and seasonal, especially in the taste department.
If you're back home and not in Italy, you may close your eyes and reminisce with one of our antipasti boards where at Mangia Mangia, the caprese salad always takes centre place.
And if you'd like to have a crack at this gluten-free Amalfitana cake, here's the recipe:
(Note: Italians often cook with fecola di patate, which essentially is potato starch, it helps to maintain a dense but moist crumb.)
Torta Caprese Recipe
Dark chocolate 170g (grated)
Icing sugar 170g
Butter 170g at room temperature
Potato starch 25g
Bitter Cocoa powder 14g
Egg whites 148g at room temperature
Egg yolks 148g at room temperature
Baking powder 4g
Vanilla (half a pod/one teaspoon)
A pinch of salt
Toast the walnuts and almonds the day before, cool and powder in a mixer until fine. Spread out onto baking paper and leave overnight to dry out.
Cream the butter and sugar.
Beat the egg whites until stiff and set aside.
Add the yolks to the butter with the vanilla and beat until pale in colour.
Add the rest of the ingredients and mix slowly by hand.
Fold in the egg whites.
Dust a 22cm diameter baking tin with potato starch and bake at 170° for 45 minutes.
Let the cake cool in the tin and then turn out on a rack to cool completely.
Dust with icing sugar and slice up with un buon caffè!