Today, I revisit the world of beautiful Italian simplicity, the Caprese Salad. Borne out of luscious hot summers that gift the Italian land with amazing tomatoes, they marry with thick wedges of traditional Mozzarella di Bufala Campana perfectly, creating a dish that deserves only the best ingredients, and nothing else will do. Along with it’s stablemate, the Tricolore Salad, the Caprese sits in the throne of elegant beauty amongst dishes, so often bastardised by those who don’t know better. On the other hand, you, my friend, do know better, or at least you will do, in about 730 words time.
Last year I published a rant about how Italian food is debased by people’s interpretations of it. Italian dishes often require just a few ingredients, which makes them incredibly accessible and simple, but they should be the most amazing examples of the ingredients that you can find.
Let me explain.
A few weeks after I wrote the aforementioned rant, I was delighted to be invited to a family meal being held at a traditional, English Italian restaurant. It was the kind of place that had a dessert display cabinet stocked with carbon copy cream cakes, delivered by the same wholesaler who supplied most English restaurants with desserts during my childhood in the 1980’s. You know the type.
As we sat down, a member of my family commented on my Italian food-rant blog post, before saying “I wonder what you’ll think of the food here…”. I felt a sense of foreboding creep through me.
Giving them a chance, I ordered the simplest thing on the menu to start, a Caprese salad. It has just three ingredients (well, four, or even six if you count olive oil, salt and pepper), that merely need to be sliced and presented on a plate. What could go wrong?
When it came out, my immediate reaction was disappointment. Insipid tomatoes languished amongst pre-formed vac-pac-plastic looking mozzarella. Eating with my eyes first had not met the grade. Perhaps, hidden amongst this disappointment, there would be great flavours to pirouette around my tastebuds and fulfil my gastronomic desires.
Perhaps not. The olive oil was average, at best. The tomatoes were a watery, limp mess and the mozzarella was clearly di mucca, sliced into plain, anodyne lifeless lumps of rubbery cheese which held no flavour. It was a disaster. Oh, the basil was OK.
My thoughts turned immediately to Gordon Ramsay in his Kitchen Nightmares series. I loved the programme when it came out in 2004, back in the days when I would spend my evenings slumped on the sofa, staring at the TV, wondering why amazing things were not happening to me in life. Duh, it’s because you’re hungover, drinking beer, watching TV, you bloody idiot. Anyway, if Ramsay visited this restaurant and ordered the Caprese, I imagined him turning to the camera whilst waiting to be served and saying “it’s the most simple dish, easy to make, with only a few ingredients. They’ll need to try really hard to fuck this one up”.
For the love of God, Italian food, your sanity and the beautiful experience of life, I recommend that you never plan to make this recipe. Don’t put it on the shopping list, don’t decide to do it as part of a buffet, or a picnic. Just remember these words, take them into your soul, deep into the roots of your mind, so that one day in the summer, when you’re visiting a farmer’s market and see the most perfect, beautiful, ripe tomatoes at the height of your native tomato growing season, you’ll think “ooohhhh, perfect tomatoes… mmmmm, Caprese salad”. From therein, you just need the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, basil and good quality extra virgin olive oil, which are all available at good supermarkets.
Let the tomatoes do the talking. One day, when they appear in your life saying “let’s do it, let’s make Caprese salad”, then just do it.
AddendumPesto, balsamic vinegar and a whole host of other methods of utterly debasing this recipe are available online. These modifications are used because people are starting with poor quality ingredients. A caprese salad made with cheap, winter tomatoes and rubbery mozzarella will simply be a disappointing experience, so understandably, a dollop of pesto will make it bearable. The pesto is a sticking plater, it’s not the answer. Amazing tomatoes are the answer.
By Gavin Wren
Serves 2 as a side
Uses a knife, chopping board and plate.
1 large fantastic tomato
1 ball of amazing mozzarella di bufala campana
A small bunch of garden fresh basil
A drizzle of beautiful extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground salt and pepper
Layer the tomato, mozzarella and basil leaves alternately on a plate, then drizzle with olive oil and grind fresh salt and pepper over the top.