In the fertile volcanic soil around Mount Vesuvius, near Naples, grows a plum tomato considered a treasure in this part of Campania.
Bright red with a pointed end and dimples on the sides, the oval pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio is harvested in July and August and stays fresh until the following spring, giving pasta a jolt of flavour in the middle of winter.
Their miraculous shelf life is partly due to the way they’re handled after harvesting — tied in bunches and hung in cool, dry rooms to be used as needed.
We climbed a muddy path in the rain to a grassy plateau to see a demonstration. According to a tradition nearly 200 years old, the producer patiently draped small clusters of two or three tomatoes, one by one, on a string suspended from a wooden pole, creating a cheery red bunch, the piennolo, weighing between 1.5 and 5 kg.
We’d seen our first piennolos at Antonio&Antonio Pizzeria in Naples a few nights before, tied on a square frame. Though they tasted rather bland, they did make a unique centrepiece.
Next stop, lunch! Giovanni Marino, head of Azienda Casa Barone and president of nearly a dozen producers, led us to his favourite osteria in Sant-Anastasia in the shadow of a massive cathedral named for this popular saint.
The regulars, all men, looked rather alarmed when 12 of us trooped into La Bettola, taking up half the plain room, but chef/owner Teresa was unfazed, and stepped outside for a quick smoke before returning to her kitchen to cook.
She had me at the pasta, an over-sized penne called pennacce from Naples, topped with a sauce of preserved piennoli, their thick skins still visible and their flavour strong and sweet.
After we’d wiped our empty bowls with thick slices of bread from a wood-burning oven, she brought out a battered roasting pan filled with squares of baked salt cod in another version of the piennolo sauce.
Production is so small, we may never find these curious tomatoes in Canada. But it does prove that the famed San Marzano (also from Campania) isn’t the only tomato in town.
Lunch ended with shots of Casa Barone’s locally-made limoncello and walnut liqueurs. Then Teresa brought out a big bottle of her potent homemade licorice liqueur. Needless to say we were hours late for our next appointment.