This one is for Antonio who apparently had ‘one of the worst Caprese ever’ in New York a couple of nights ago. How can you mess it up? he asked. In their book Two Greedy Italians, Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo speak of it being ‘one of the most famous of Italian dishes’ but warn that it ‘can be done very badly’. The answer to its quality, of course, lies in the ingredients. One of the things I most love about Italian cooking is the use of the freshest and best ingredients possible and then allowing them to shine. Little or no embellishment is needed. And Insalata Caprese is a perfect example of this.
The salad comes from the island of Capri, which lies just off the coast of Naples in Campania. It literally means ‘salad of Capri’. In this sunny part of Italy beefsteak tomatoes ripen sweet and rich in flavour and the local basil is deeply fragrant. Mozzarella cheese originates in Campania and is traditionally made from buffalo’s milk. The real stuff, produced in a designated area, has been awarded the status Demoninazione di origine controllata (DOC – controlled designation of origin). When you stand before the cheese counter at your local supermarket, this type of mozzarella is going to cost more than the cheap, rubbery kind. But really there is no comparison.
So, the secret to the Insalata Caprese is using the very best tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. It then needs just a drizzle of the finest extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt over the tomatoes. That’s it. Finito! And one might even add, basta! Stop! That’s it. Don’t add anything else. Don’t add balsamic vinegar. Since the rise in popularity of balsamic vinegar cooks are always drizzling it over anything but sometimes it’s just not the right kind of vinegar. And Insalata Caprese doesn’t want or need vinegar at all.
The making may be easy but sourcing the best ingredients were going to take a little more time. I bought a fresh basil plant in Waitrose and some large, ripe vine tomatoes.
The tomatoes need to be room at temperature; don’t use them straight from the fridge. My mainstay extra virgin olive oil is an excellent Sicilian one from Tesco.
The buffalo mozzarella could only come from one place – my favourite local Italian deli, Corto. The quality of their goods is excellent. Here was the place to buy genuine – DOC – buffalo mozzarella.
And to go with the salad, I bought some of their focaccia; my favourite and the simplest kind with just sea salt and rosemary on top.
Now I had all the ingredients for a perfect lunch. Insalata Caprese is typically an antipasto – starter – dish in Italy. It would never be served as a side dish. My favourite time to eat it is at lunchtime – or maybe for a light supper if I’ve had a large lunch. You need to put it together at the last minute. I like to cut out the base of the stem from the top of large tomatoes before slicing them.
Cut into medium-sized slices and lay on a serving plate. Now slice the mozzarella into similar thickness slices.
I like to keep things simple and just lay the slices pretty much side by side. It’s not a time to get artistic and try to do something fancy. It’s not meant to be like that. Now drizzle over a little olive oil (don’t drown the ingredients); sprinkle the sea salt over the tomatoes. Add a little freshly grated black pepper if you like, but don’t overdo it. Now lay some fresh basil leaves on top. All done!
What could be simpler? What could be more delicious? Ripe sweet tomatoes; fragrant basil. Mozzarella with a touch of creaminess and a good flavour. Just a little fruity olive oil to add flavour it all. And some delicious bread. A perfect lunch. And a taste of Italy.