An extraordinary adventure began 17 years ago when I first met my friend Maria. I had been planning to go and work in Italy and learn the language but, instead, Italy – or rather Naples – came to me.
Introduced by a colleague at work, Maria and I hit on a plan to improve our knowledge of each other’s languages. We would meet for lunch, dividing the time into two equal sessions; one for English, the other Italian.
It worked perfectly. It also introduced Maria to some of the idiosyncrasies of the English language. For instance, the use of the word ‘Sorry’ when no apology is intended. In the highly-respected department store in Tunbridge Wells where we met for lunch, ‘Sorry’” was often employed by old ladies who elbowed their way to the front of the self-service queue with the determination of an invading army.
‘Sorry’ also came into play when these affluent and elderly shoppers were upbraided by traffic wardens for parking their Rolls Royces on double-yellow lines. The traffic wardens never got the better of these engagements and, strangely cowed, would skulk away in search of more compliant victims.
As our conversation lessons took place at meal times, it seemed natural to talk about food. This led to stories of family and the places in which we had grown up.
I began to get a flavour of Naples: ancient, vibrant, noisy and colourful; a place with a rich culture and its own distinctive dialect where daily life had a piquancy of danger, both from the criminal underworld and the constant threat of volcanic eruption.
Soon our conversations were transferred from the coffee shop to Maria’s home, at that time a flat above the shops in Monson Crescent – a place which I had associated with food since childhood. I had once visited the shop of a family friend there. It was a grocery shop but, being in Tunbridge Wells, it was no mere purveyor of baked beans but an Aladdin’s cave filled with exotic food products. These included coffee roasted on the premises – a rarity for those days. I never forgot the crunching sound of the coffee-grinder or the wonderful aroma of freshly-ground beans.
Coffee also played a special part in Maria’s meals: the finale to wonderful dishes of home-made pasta, it was always introduced as a joke – the punch-line to one of her husband Franco’s witty stories that always caught me unawares.
These tales covered a diverse range of topics, ranging from Nelson and Lady Hamilton to Moses but they always had a single punch-line “… and Maria made the coffee!” These stories were the Italian equivalent of the Mornington Crescent game on Radio 4’s “I Haven’t a Clue”, equally addictive and always hilarious.
The coffee was made on top of the stove in one of the two-part metallic coffee-pots favoured by Italians which funnel water up from the bottom container through a small drum of coffee above. In the hands of the uninitiated, these vessels can quickly run dry and the coffee evaporate. I am always terrified that they will explode. However, in expert hands, they produce a coffee of rich, Arabic blackness and dark intensity.
I was introduced to some of the traditions of a Neapolitan Christmas, one of which has earned the city world-wide renown. This is the Cult of the Crib (Il Presepe). Since the 17th century, Neapolitan artisans, located in the city’s Via San Gregorio Armeno, have been famed for creating life-like figurines and intricate nativity scenes. A spectacular 18thc example of one of these crib scenes is now located in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. (Click here ).
Naples’ cult of the crib has also been celebrated by one of the City’s most famous writers, Luciano de Crescenzo who wrote: “Suppose that one day, you take a walk in Naples down the street called San Gregorio Armeno. That day you will end up thinking that Jesus was born around here. There is enough atmosphere to suggest that the Crib and the Nativity cult had their origins here.”
In Maria’s home, I also learned some of the culinary aspects of an Italian Christmas. I learned the difference between Panettone and Pan d’Oro and was introduced to Torrone, a type of nougat particularly popular at New Year when the streets of Naples are filled with the sound of fireworks sold – sometimes illicitly – on street corners.
Although Maria’s children, Alessandro and Barbara, are now adults living away from home, they always return at Christmas when Barbara makes another seasonal dish: Struffoli. These small balls of deep-fried pastry are sweetened with honey, piled high on plates and may be dressed with coloured sugar sprinkles, cinnamon, orange rind and candied fruits. (Click here for a sample Struffoli recipe).
Since those early days of shared conversations in Tunbridge Wells, Maria and her family have brought the Neapolitan experience to a wider – and highly appreciative – audience. They opened their first restaurant Il Vesuvio in Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells five years ago. This was followed by a second restaurant in Maidstone run by Barbara and Alessandro.
My experience of Christmas has been hugely enriched by my wonderful Italian friends. All that remains is to wish them – and you – Un Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo.