Bordello fare

Bordello fare

As a child, if anyone had asked me to describe tomato sauce, I’d have launched into the wonders of tomato ketchup, a life staple that went with everything and I couldn’t survive without. I might have mentioned my mother’s homemade pasta sauce, for which she used tins of tomatoes enhanced with multiple other ingredients in an attempt to give depth and taste. Fresh British tomatoes would have been inconceivable in the ’70’s, because they were bullet-hard, cotton-wool-fleshed and totally lacking in flavour.

However, I couldn’t help noticing that some of my friends at that time, children of Italian parents, would return from summer holidays in Italy recounting hilariously how they’d crammed their cars for the return journey with essential stocks of ripe, juicy pomodori. Once back in the UK it was all hands to the pump as everyone helped to chop, cook and sieve them, making jars and jars of tomato sauce that could be savoured and enjoyed in coming winter months – a true taste of home. It wasn’t until my first visit to Italy as an adult that I finally understood the love affair between Italians and their sugo di pomodoro.

Italian tomatoes are voluptuous, succulent, juicy and packed with flavour. You could have a banquet with them alone, using a different variety for each course: pomodorino del vesuvio on bruschetta and sliced pomodoro fiaschetto di Torre Guaceto with a succulent burrata. A spoonful of Roma plum tomato sauce transforms the humblest of pasta and for me no pizza is worth eating unless it’s covered with a slick of Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino sauce. The names roll off the tongue like fine wines, whereas our stereotypical version is called… a salad tomato. We have to remember that for centuries in England it was feared they caused a “chill” of the stomach, contributed to gout, cancer and even excessive sexual appetite.

But poke your nose into any Italian restaurant kitchen and you’ll be greeted with the sights, smells and sounds of a pot of tomato sauce gently blipping and bubbling away on the stove top. It’s always made to a family recipe, handed down by nonna or nonno, and usually containing a secret ingredient that makes theirs “the best”. Indeed they are: delicious, silken, the backbone of Italian life. In her book Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes (2006), Anna Del Conte includes six recipes alone for tomato sauce. And Antonio Latini, a chef to the Spanish viceroy in Naples, is believed to have written down the very first recipe for tomato sauce, in his mid-1660s cookbook, “Lo Scalco alla Moderna. (Interestingly, he didn’t serve it with pasta.)

Driving through Italy this summer, my family and I sampled lots of deliciously different versions. But it was in Naples, Italy’s third largest city, the birthplace of pizza and home to Vesuvius, that this humble dish attained a new level. We had an inkling when we arrived in the city alongside a fleet of lorries piled high with the delicious San Marzano plum variety, freshly picked. We knew Neapolitans were obsessed with tomato sauce, especially spaghetti puttanesca. Heading out for supper that night – the scariest taxi ride ever, down narrow cobbled streets with hairpin bends and on a terrifyingly steep gradient – we alighted on a perfect little trattoria, that didn’t disappoint.

There are conflicting explanations for the puttanesca name. According to Annarita Cuomo it was invented by Sandro Petti, a famous Ischian restaurant owner in the 1950s who, faced with a late influx of hungry customers and little left to offer them, combined tomatoes, olives and capers after they urged him: “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi!” (just throw something together).

My favourite story, however, from Francine Segan’s book Pasta Modern, New and Inspired Recipes from Italy (2013) is that during World War II there wasn’t enough work for Italian women in Naples, so with their men away and the Yanks in town they resorted to working the night shift in the bordellos in the Quartieri Spagnoli. Lacking time to make a good tomato sauce from scratch they added anchovies, capers and chilli to give it some pizzazz – and because puttana means prostitute, puttanesca was born.

Spaghetti Puttanesca
Serves 2

For the sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped
1tbsp chopped fresh basil
50g anchovies, drained
175g black olives, chopped
1 heaped tbsp capers, drained
450g skinned and chopped fresh tomatoes, or 400g tinned tomatoes

To serve
250g spaghetti
Chopped fresh basil
Freshly grated parmigiano reggiano to serve

In a large pan heat the oil with the garlic, chilli and basil, cook stirring for 1-2 mins, then stir in the remaining sauce ingredients. Bring to the boil and leave to simmer slowly uncovered for about 40 mins, stirring occasionally by which time it will have reduced and thickened.

Cook your pasta according to the packet instructions, drain and toss through the sauce. Serve immediately with lots of basil, parmesan and freshly ground black pepper.

Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at:lydiabrownlow.com

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Life, October 2022

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