Naples is a great city to celebrate Christmas. There is the street San Gregorio di Armenia, which sells nativity scenes or ‘presepes’ . These miniature but extensive village scenes, with stables and even electric lights, featuring the birth of Jesus, can be very expensive, ranging from 500 euros to 5000. Every year Neapolitans add something to the scene: a new figurine, be it traditional or a modern celebrity, or an animatronic market stall seller or pizza maker. When I visited in June, the most popular royal family figure was the Queen; now King Charles dominates alongside a naked Prince Harry in Vegas.
Seasonal treats abound, from the mela anurca apple, known in dialect as ‘mel’anurca’, a winter apple. After harvesting in September, the apple is laid on the ground and hand-turned each day, where it turns from a yellowy-green to a deep Wicked Witch red. It’s grown in Campania, between the mountains and the sea. I will make baked apples.
Boxed pannetones of every flavour including the traditional sultana, white chocolate and pear, marrons glacé, pistachio, candied orange or caramel, pile up in pastel stacks in shops, bakeries and delis. You also find the ‘Struffoli’, a typical Neapolitan Christmas treat, of multiple honey drenched dough ‘marbles’, sprinkled with silvered and candied fruits and seeds, sometimes in a wreath shape.
I travelled this time to find out more about the Christmas tomato or piennolo di Vesuvio. In November and December these tomatoes are braided, using the vines, by local women into bundles, who tie them into 1.5 kilo bunches. Piennolo hang everywhere: outside grocers, on balconies and in kitchens. The boxed bunches, costing 15 euros usually, are given as gifts. I brought home two boxes; half I hung up, the other half I roasted with olive oil and garlic. Some for sauce and some for a soup.
In the summer I visited a farmer growing these tomatoes. The trick is not to water them, and to ruthlessly trim the vines down to a metre off the ground. This variety has thick skins and will last a long time fresh, up to a year. This is why they are known as the Christmas tomato as this is a local cultivar that will be good to use in festive recipes requiring fresh rather than tinned tomatoes.