With its distinctive red, white and green tricolore ingredients Insalata Caprese literally flies the flag for all Italian salads. Purists would say that it should only be eaten in the summer as the tomatoes should ripened on the vine so that they are not too soft but juicy and full of flavour from the mineral rich volcanic soil found near the Vesuvius. The basil should be young, tender and also grown in the earth and the mozzarella preferably the best “mozzarella di bufala”, made from buffalo milk, from the Campania region around Naples. And don’t even think about dousing the salad in any olive oil. Only genuine extra-virgin will do. Of course there are many variations on the theme and many confuse the Caprese with the Insalata Tricolore, which is a salad made up with the colours of the Italian flag, mozzarella and tomato combined with any other green ingredient, commonly arugula. I, however, was hoping for the real deal when I visited the island of Capri, birthplace of Insalata Caprese.
The island is synonymous with glamour and has appealed to the wealthy and the famous for centuries right back when it was the private playground of the Roman Emperor Augustus in the 1st century A.D. and later home to Tiberius, his successor. In latter years, Capri attracted writers such as D.H.Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw and Graham Greene, and film stars such as Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor. It still attracts a jet set crowd but also a steady trail of day-trippers. If you want to experience a little of the old Capri glamour it’s best to stay on the island as the island is truly at its best once the last ferry departs going back to the mainland at around 5pm.
I whiled away an afternoon wandering through the wisteria-covered alleyways of Capri town and up to the ruins of Tiberius’s Villa Jovis, a crumbling complex of imperial quarters, baths and servants rooms including the Salto di Tiberio, a balcony over the sea from which Tiberius is said to have hurled insolent servants. Maybe they hadn’t served him a perfect Insalata Caprese for his supper because according to legend it was Tiberius who first came up with the recipe sometime around the end of the I century A.D.. Some say it was Constantino Moffa, a native of Capri, who first took the recipe off the island when he worked as a Maitre d’ in a Swiss hotel. The chef liked the look of Constantino’s lunch so much he put it on the menu. There’s still a lively debate on where and when the dish actually originated but there’s no doubt that its popularity soared after it was served up to the jet-setting playboy King Farouk of Egypt in the 1950s. Suddenly it appeared on the menus of the most fashionable restaurants all over the world.
En route back to town I took a detour to the Arco Naturale, an immense rock that has been formed into an arch by the constant pounding of the sea. Capri is idyllically peaceful at dusk and I sat in the Giardini di Augusto (gardens of Augustus) and watched the sun disappear behind the Faraglioni rock stacks. I hadd worked up an appetite exploring the island so headed for Restaurant Villa Verde, where I had heard the Insalata Caprese was “to die for”. I didn’t even peruse the menu before placing my order with Franco, Villa Verde’s ebullient host. Even though the Caprese is called an “Insalata” it is normally served as an antipasto (starter) rather than a contorno (side dish) and I ordered mine as such. It came traditionally served in sumptuous layered circles of moist Mozzarella and deep red tomatoes, topped with delicate baby basil. I love the sweet pungent aroma of this delicious herb. I was left to dress it myself with the extra virgin olive oil, which I drizzled generously until the scarlet tomatoes glistened. It was simply delicious, especially washed down with a good vintage of Capri Bianco. I raised a glass to Tiberius. What ever people say about his temper he had excellent taste in food.