When I travel I have always taken hundreds, if not thousands, of photos. Long before blogging I was taking photos of the food at my table while on even the smallest of adventures. There’s something so evocative to me about pictures of food and the power they have to vividly remind me of mouth-watering meals and moments that I’ve had on my travels. I can look at my culinary photos and remember exactly where I was, the scent of the dish placed in front of me, and the way the flavours opened up on my palate. In many cases the taste or smell of something in my past is capable of painting a picture with richer, deeper brush strokes than any snapshot in my photo album.
“Rest is not idleness,
and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day
listening to the murmur of water,
or watching the clouds float across the sky,
is hardly a waste of time.”
Sir John Lubbock
In the dreaming stages of my sojourn to Italy I had been talking to Cinzia of Cindystar a fantastic blogger I have known for many years and a native of Italy. She suggested I simply had to go to Nerano. Relaxing on a beach my first day in Italy appealed to me. It seemed the best way to get over jet lag and recover from my journey from Canada. When I arrived on that first afternoon Nerano felt like a sleepy fishing village unchanged by the world outside. Small, colourful fishing boats resting on the beach were reminders of the village’s humble past. Lined with a mix of quaint old buildings and more modern structures, the beachfront has maintained its old-fashioned charm. It was just what I was looking for to experience a slice of what I imagined to be the true Italy. I settled into a beach chair surrounded by sunbathing locals and families enjoying the 25C weather late in October. The sound of the sea gently stroking the pebbles on the sea shore, made it inevitable at this point to relax and give in to the charms of Italy.
After soaking in the atmosphere for most of the afternoon the question was what to do next. The beach was lined with restaurants nearly all offering outdoor terraces with lovely views of the harbour. The decision was made when I was drawn to the restaurant at the end of the rocky beach by the intriguing sounds of opera singing... and pangs of hunger. Il Cantuccio restaurant is kissed by warm sunshine for most of the year. I was greeted by a group of raucous men who had obviously spent most of the afternoon there celebrating an "unknown to me" event in their lives. It may have been a birthday, a company celebration, I don't know, but, Enrico and his boys were not only talented singers but were living in the moment as Italians do and celebrating through food...and perhaps too much wine. I settled in to a table overlooking the water, breathed in deeply, and soaked in my surroundings. The men of differing ages took an interest in me and sang and danced the rest of the afternoon away. I ordered my food and settled in also. Good food is one of the most beautiful things of life and the simple dishes I saw on the menu, prepared with fresh and genuine ingredients tickled my palate.
While you’re in Marina del Cantone, one of the local specialties you must try Cinzia had said is Spaghetti con Zucchine which is a traditional dish all over the Amalfi Coast. You won't want to leave Nerano without having first savoured Nerano's legendary spaghetti, served in a delicious zucchini, cheese and basil sauce. Many of the restaurants have this humble dish on their menu. In Nerano the dish takes on a richer and creamier flavour with the addition of caciocavallo or the Provolone del Monaco D.O.P cheese made exclusively on the Sorrento Peninsula. It is one of the cult cheeses of the last few years in great demand by gourmets and its taste is really unmistakable. Later in my trip I was fortunate to meet up with one of the producers of this infamous cheese, but more on that later. Of course I ordered this dish as well as an antipasto platter with flavours from the sea. As I savoured my first taste of Italy I was serenaded with Italian love longs, one singing and the other translating. Now don't get your hopes up since some of these men were in their 70's with weather beaten, time-worn faces and tough strong hands. It occurred to me that they were local fishermen with voices like angels. It truly was a special introduction to my time on vacation. My first day in Italy was filled with the sights and sounds of Italy I had dreamed of for years. I took Cinzia's advise and this pasta I discovered in a tiny fishing village on the Sorrentine Coast did more than satisfy my hunger, it rekindled a love affair I have with traditional Italian pasta dishes that I'd long forgotten. Throughout my stay in Italy I ordered different pasta dishes and found that each humble dish I ate was better than the last.
My travels to countries such as Italy, Greece and Mexico have fostered my love of different cuisines whose flavours have greatly influenced the kinds of dishes I cook and recipes I develop. Through travel I have evolved as a cook because I've been exposed to many different foods and cultures although the ingredients may not always be available close to home. Throughout my life I hope to continue to have the opportunity to spread my culinary wings and dive in full force.
Now that I am home and have had time to absorb all that I have experienced I have started sifting through all my memories to recreate these time-honoured dishes in my own kitchen. The flavour of this zucchini pasta has haunted me. Whether it was my first taste experience or whether it was the ambiance I wanted to recreate I found myself in the kitchen cooking up a storm. It is a simple dish with complex flavours. Savouring this pasta brought me back to the bay of Nerano with the dappled light falling on my face and the warm breezes gently caressing my hair...and of course being serenaded in Italian. It is curious that, while I struggle to remember my cell phone number or grapple helplessly to recall the closest of friends' names when I am required to introduce them to someone, the merest taste of a great sauce brings back memories with details more glowing than if I had eaten that dish two hours ago.
The humble zucchini is at the heart of this dish. But there are two risks according to the locals. One is the tendency to a sweet taste which is enhanced by the starch coming out from the dough. A good remedy is basil, the inevitable use of garlic and a sprinkling of Provolone del Monaco cheese which has a spicy flavour. Another risk is that the zucchini can get dry, colourless and the skin blackened after being fried. This can be avoided if you follow a few tricks. You have to cut the zucchini into round very thin slices in order to cook them evenly. I used a mandolin to achieve this. After frying the zucchini in extra virgin olive oil you have to dry them with paper towelling and then, this is Tonino Mellino’s secret, you have to put them in boiling water for a few seconds before adding them to the sauce and cooking them until they are creamy.
When recreated in my own kitchen this simple pasta dish was just as good now as it was that day I discovered it at the end of pebble beach on the Sorrentine peninsula. In Italy, they call it peasant food or "povera cucina", at home I call it comfort food that is now ingrained in my food memories forever. By any name it’s the perfect meal for chilly winter nights like these when you’re looking to be warmed by more than the temperature of the food you're eating. I wonder if like I do you remember a place by the food you have eaten, whether it is good or bad, and savour those food memories to bring solace at any given moment. I made plenty for leftovers since Ruth and I both agree leftover pasta makes the tastiest frittata. That recipe next time.
**Spaghetti Con Zucchine alla Nerano**
1-1/2 pounds zucchini, sliced into 1/8-inch-thick rounds with a mandolin
Extra virgin olive oil for frying
1 pound spaghetti
2 - 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced or minced
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup grated Provolone del Monaco, plus more for garnish
Put the sliced zucchini in a bowl and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Toss to coat.
Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a frying pan over moderately high heat until it sizzles when you insert the end of a wooden skewer or chopstick (about 365ºF). Add the zucchini in batches and fry, turning with a fork, until lightly colored in spots. Transfer them as they are done to paper towelling and pat dry.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. When almost cooked add 1/2 of the fried zucchini and continue to boil for 10-15 seconds. Drain saving 1 cup of the pasta water.
Just before the pasta is done, finish the sauce. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the frying oil and reduce the heat to moderately low. Add the garlic and cook briefly just to soften them; do not let them burn. Add the basil and remaining zucchini, toss gently, and cook briefly just to infuse the zucchini with the seasonings.
Add the sauce to the pasta in the warm pot. Add the cheese and toss well, adding reserved water as needed to moisten the pasta and make a creamy consistency. Serve immediately, topping each portion with a little more grated cheese, ground pepper and more basil.
Serves 4 to 6