Mostaccioli and Divino Amore have a special place in the heart of Neapolitans and southern Italians; for diaspora the scent of these ‘dolci’ conjures up sentiments of Christmas.
They are an essential part of our festive season and are found along side other traditional sweets and biscotti like Susamielli, Rococo and marzipan shapes, ‘pasta reale’.
My recipes reduce the amount of sugar usually called for. Mostaccioli are nutty chocolate biscuits which are as antique as they are loved. They remind us that Napoli has been touched by the East with their spiced scent. Divino Amore are baked marzipan dipped in blushing white chocolate, originally made by nuns for Neapolitan nobility. With floral notes and candied peel, they are an authentic taste of the Mediterranean.
They make for perfect gifts so parcel them up and spread the Christmas love. Merry Christmas and Buon Natale a tutti!
All Souls day, which falls on the 2nd November, is a significant event in the Catholic calendar which pays homage to the dead, especially those whose souls are stuck in purgatory.
In Napoli, a city enrobed by superstition, shrines and shadowy under layers of catacombs, All Saints day (1st Nov) and All Souls day present an opportunity to pay respects to deceased relatives by visiting graves. Older, alarmingly morbid practices are still carried out where church crypts are lit up and coffin lids are opened or removable glass panels taken out so that the relatives of the decaying can see their faces, caress the corpses and make the sign of the cross over their head. This of course, is no longer common practise and remains a ritual for the religiously devout.
In Napoli, every event calls for an edible homage. Around the time of All Saints & All Souls day, sugared skulls and skeletons appear and temp children for a pittance.
With such a great respect for the dead and in timely coinciding with Halloween (a Pagan celebration of the dead who’ve passed before us), I have made another sweet treat usually associated with festival.
Here I am some years ago in Cervantes bar, Napoli, about to tuck into a huge bowl of Pasta e Ceci. Every Friday, the dish is the star of the menu. Locals flock to this unassuming backstreet eatery for a bowl of simple, warming and delicious pasta with chickpeas. Whenever me and my family are in town we make sure to join them.
It seems there has been a return to both frugality and simplicity in the restaurant world, with dishes associated with hard times appearing on top eatery menus. ‘La Cucina Povera’ (the Pauper’s Kitchen) has become trendy! In the South of Italy where hardship has more or less always prevailed, dishes using stale bread or legumes such as Panzanella and Pasta e Fagioli have always been a necessity yet remained both loved and revered.
Click here for my Pasta e Ceci recipe. Using leftover handfuls of different types of pasta and chickpeas which are always readily available and highly economical, this dish is filling, tasty and inexpensive to make. It’s cousin of sorts to Pasta e Fagioli, another frugal dish of pasta with beans much-loved in Italy. You can make it to a thick soup consistency, or as a sauce slathered pasta dish – it depends how much water you use. As long as there is plenty of olive oil and garlic it will be tasty either way.
One thing I have always wanted to do was grow my own produce, especially the kind I know are only available in chaotic backstreet markets of the Med. It angered me when friends who grew courgettes threw the flowers away – my protests were met with confusion. ‘Why would you throw them away? It’s the best part of the plant!’ . Then I realised they’d probably never eaten them deep fried or wilted in tagliolini.
So with thanks to Seeds of Italy I will get to grow courgette flowers myself by means of a plant which produces only the flower and not the fruit; flowers known in Italy as fiore di zucca, or sciurilli in Napoletano. And thanks to Friends of Puglia and one of my oldest friends, Sarah (affectionately named Pepper), I have also acquired seeds of friarielli (peppery greens otherwise known as cime di rapa or turnip tops), Italian flat leaf parsley, wild fennel and peperoni verdi Napoletani.
Yesterday on returning home I pulled back the curtain and found that nature has breathed life into my tiny little seeds. To eat juicy deep-fried courgette flowers I wont be limited to the bancarelle of Pignasecca, Napoli, anymore. At the rate they’ve sprung up, I wont have to wait long at all to eat sciurilli because they’ll be growing from pots on my very own patio.
Here’s to new life and looking forward to a tasty summer table spread.
As a child I sometimes cowered on my visits to Napoli. For a naturally quiet soul from the leafy suburbs of West London, the city seemed chaotic and frightening. People hollered from pavement to balcony, vehicles honked furiously and yellow canaries in cramped cages sang their tiny hearts out in a futile bid for freedom. The only relief from the suffocating heat in our apartment were the cool tiles underfoot, tiles which although chipped and worn were beautiful never the less. The memory of being robbed never quite escaped me either. We had decided to travel to Palinuro in an attempt to escape the city’s sticky humidity and just as we set off several mopeds blocked our car. Suddenly there were hairy arms grabbing at our bags through the open passenger window, just millimeters from my sister’s little blonde head. My mother scratched the arms until her hands bled and my father’s only victory was to close the electric windows. Fortunately their mission failed: we managed to keep the bags. The bandits sped off leaving us shaken.
Yet even from the youngest age Napoli fascinated me. It’s a land of contrasts steeped in history and legend; Chaos and beauty, pain and joy, abundance and poverty, light and dark, generosity and injustice. As for the people they’re the best people you could ever meet (Please come in, eat, eat!!) but if you’re unlucky, also the worst.
“Napule è nu paese curioso: è nu teatro antico, sempre apierto.” Napoli is a curious land: it’s an ancient theatre, always open. That’s it: its like an opera.
The people of Napoli have a distinction in the university of life, for wherever you go in the city it is expressed with a huge degree of passion, both joyous and tragic. There is a wild air about the city, its essence is both beautiful and dark. A streak of danger looms behind backs and lurks in the shadows yet the sunlight reveals such blinding beauty.
Before I could really distinguish the difference between chicks and eggs, this dish stirred sentiments of dread in my impressionable 3 year old mind. Poor chicks! If I was bad I’d end up like them; a lost soul half-cooked in a perpetual state of limbo. I’ve only really started to appreciate Eggs in Purgatory in my adulthood as I learnt to remove the stigma of Catholic guilt and of course wised up to the fact that unfertilized eggs would not become chicks.
In my Nonna’s Neapolitan kitchen this dish was a staple. Cheap and quick to prepare, the dish makes for a nutritious meal in the absence of meat.
Its one of those dishes I adore because it illustrates my favorite saying ‘Una Faccia Una Razza.’ One face, One race.
The dish is found in many forms all over the Mediterranean from North Africa and Israel (Shakshuka) to Turkey (Menemen) and cities or regions in between, such as Napoli.
The festive period has always been a very Italian affair in my household… Sure we have Turkey, Stuffing and sprouts.. But we also have Nonna’s Peperonata, Southern Italian Almond Sweets and Struffoli too!
Check out these recipes 🙂 and have a GREAT NEW YEAR!