Several thousand years ago, or so the story goes in Naples, Lucifer and Jesus had a massive showdown in the rarified kingdom of heaven. After a raging session fueled by sibling rivalries, and which likely included satanic petulance and the occasional errant lightening bolt, God, as any parent of battling children can grasp, had had enough of the celestial brawling.
One can almost imagine Jesus yelping, “He started it!” as Lucifer tosses a fireball in his direction. So God cast Lucifer into the depths of hell – consigning him to an eternity of fire, brimstone and heat. (In the original pagan legend, this quarrel was between Bacchus and Pluto; after Christianity swept across the region, Neapolitans changed the names of the main characters, but the story remained the same.)
Jesus, perhaps slightly regretting the finality of this eternal judgment cast upon his heavenly brother, descended upon the gateway of hell, which now hosted Lucifer and his emerging kingdom. Immediately Jesus noted the majestic beauty of the region surrounding the mouth of hell. Realizing this strip of heaven on earth was now Satan’s territory, he erupted into spontaneous sobbing. His tears sluiced down the side of the active volcano perched atop the entrance to hell, cutting deep fertile ravines into its slopes.
Today these slopes are home to some of the most sought after produce in the world including the San Marzano tomato. The volcano in question is Mount Vesuvius, and the view that supposedly brought Jesus to tears looks out over the Bay of Naples and the Gulf of Sorrento. The internationally renowned wine Lacryma Christi, meaning Christ’s tears, grows exclusively on these lands and is a fitting homage to Christ’s powerful reaction to the earth surrounding the Bay of Naples.
The earth in the Region of Campania – home to the San Marzano and Corbara tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella cheese, Lacryma Christi, Falanghina and Aglianico wines – is among the most biodiverse in all of Italy. Ancient Greeks and native Oscans, an Italic people who lived in Campania, prized the slopes of Vesuvius for their fertility. At the height of the Roman Empire, Pompeii and its environs were the breadbasket of not only the region, but also the entire Western Roman Empire. This was before the fateful arrival of the tomato 1,500 years later – but the historic record tends to suggest that legumes, pulses and grains thrived in the iconic shadow of Vesuvius and her sister caldera the Campi Flegrei that lies on the opposite side of the Bay of Naples.
Naples sits right between these two powerfully active volcanoes and is one of the most densely populated volcanic regions in the world. To understand the city, her people and her cuisine, it is important to consider the duality of this volcanic fate. On the one hand, as Matteo Lorito, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Federico II University observes, “Volcanoes are earth modifiers and they increase biodiversity.” On the other hand Vesuvius could blow at any time, in which case the people living on its slopes would have an advance warning time of roughly seven minutes, barely enough time to flee this zona rossa. “If the volcano erupts we won’t make to safety in time so we’ll just go to our wine cellar and drink Christ’s tears,” jokes Esther Grosso, owner of Cantina del Vesuvio, which sits prominently in the middle of this red zone. There are worse ways to go.
Repeatedly throughout human history, we see how volcanoes and the earth surrounding them both nourish and destroy civilizations. For the first 500 years of its existence, Pompeii prospered as a grain capital, until one day in 79 AD, Vesuvius exploded covering the entire region with ash that would then become pumice-rich soil, ideal for growing grape varietals and San Marzano tomatoes.
In the 1850s, when the Phylloxera pest devastated vineyards across Europe, the grapes on the slopes of Vesuvius and atop the Campi Flegrei remained unaffected largely due to the sulfuric, pumice-rich sandy earth in which the vines thrives. Where the legendary vines of Bourdeaux, Burgundy and Chianti all received grafts from American vineyards (many native grape species in the U.S. are resistant to phylloxera), the volcanic regional wines of Campania retained their original character and remained un-grafted with American vines, thanks in large part to the protective earth of Vesuvius.
More recently, in the summer of 2017, a heat wave struck all of Italy, causing many vintners across Europe to harvest their grapes as early as July. Not so in Campania. The hardscrabble grapes growing on the slopes of Vesuvius are well suited to heat and extreme elements. More strikingly, the soil here seems to promote assertive, mineral forward wines that are more texturally interesting than, say, your standard, crowd-pleasing Chianti.
Early agronomists skeptically noted that the tomato was “an interesting plant of little commercial value.”
When the tomato arrived in Italy from the Americas in the late 16th century, most natives had no idea what to make of it. The harsh climate of northern Italy was inhospitable to the tomato. Later, the Bourbons ruling the southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were eager to experiment with this little red fruit even if early agronomists skeptically noted that the tomato was “an interesting plant of little commercial value.” As it turned out, the tomato thrived in the fertile slopes of Vesuvius and gave rise to a booming international industry. Italians abandoned the original word tomato, originating from the Aztec word for the fruit, xitomatl, in favor of the more poetic term pom d’oro or golden apple – a reflection of the distinctly globular form and golden hew of their new regional cash crop.
The San Marzano tomato initially grew in stature as a tomato for preserving. When the Spanish conquistadors brought the fruit back from the Americas, the Spanish rulers of Naples introduced it to local markers. Merchants and farmers later noted that the elongated tomato with a slight nipple at the bottom thrived in the agrarian towns surrounding the foothills of Vesuvius, particularly in the town of San Marzano. And thus, the San Marzano tomato was born. It is likely the most famous tomato in the world, and perhaps even one of the most famous Italian exports internationally.
While southern Italian cuisine is more complex than the facile red sauces we see served in Italian restaurants around the globe, it is undeniable that the arrival of the tomato on the slopes of Vesuvius radically changed the Neapolitan diet for good. Where grains thrived on these lands in Greco-Roman times, today this is unmistakably tomato territory.
Dried pasta was also invented here in the nearby town of Gragnano. The grains that thrived in the region leading up to the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius continued to grow in the areas of Nocera, Nola and outside of Gragnano. The Bourbon commercial classes were eager to invent a kind of pasta that could be dried, stored and eventually exported. Gragnano, with easy access to both sea and land commercial routes and an abundance of nearby fertile land, began drying long strands of maccheroni. The pasta factories in the region, including Di Martino, Afeltra and Garofalo, continue in this tradition today, and while the techniques for manufacturing dried pasta have become increasingly automated, the original recipes remain largely unaltered.
Outside of Italy, the most iconic Italian dishes are predominately of southern Italian and Neapolitan extraction. While red sauce stereotypes mask the complex culinary traditions of this region, it is hard to conceive of a Neapolitan cuisine without dried pasta, San Marzano tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. All of these iconic ingredients have risen to prominence because of the volcanic lands that nourish their cultivation.
With industrial farming, militant agribusiness and rampant use of toxic pesticides on the rise internationally, Neapolitans delight in a dirty little secret: while Vesuvius may blow at anytime, we certainly won’t die hungry or thirsty.
Editor’s note: Our recurring Building Blocks feature focuses on foods and ingredients that are fundamental to the cuisines we write about.