The Historical Regional Cuisines Of Italy - Campania: Part I
The region of Campania faces the Tyrrhenian Sea with a coastal zone that is dominated by the famous Gulf of Naples, a panorama immediately identifiable to virtually everyone on Earth. The geography is generally flat, but interspersed with mountains of volcanic origin (Campi Flegrei and Somma Vesuvius). It is interesting to note that much of the Campi Flegrei area of Naples is a seething active volcanic zone, riddled with plenty of sulphuric vents which spew out toxic gases 24 hours a day... which does not seem to affect the millions of people living right on top of them as the air quality of the urbanized area is even worse than the sulphuric vents!
The area of greatest importance from an agricultural and urban standpoint is the section of the Campana lowland coastal area, which is extraordinarily fertile due to its rich volcanic soils and has since pre-Roman times been known as the vegetable garden of Italy to the point that the Romans called this province Campania Felix which translates to Happy Countryside. Since the fall of the Empire, the Felix has been dropped as the countryside is anything but happy these days: the area suffers under the highest levels of crime, urban blight, and pollution in the entire European Union.
That statistic leads to the fundamental dichotomy of Naples: The vast sprawling urban nightmare built in the shadow of the same volcano which destroyed Pompei is a city of dizzying gastronomical delights which are served in the militarized atmosphere of a Baghdad... except that the Iraqi capital is much cleaner and more ordered. It is an inescapable fact that the majority of Neapolitans must be crazy, as the inhabitants of any other city in Europe would never tolerate the mountains of rotting garbage; the profoundly corrupt public administration; the bombed-out infrastructure; and the outrageous traffic chaos which sees lane markings, one way signs, red lights, and even pedestrians' rights to sidewalks completely ignored.
I recently had the opportunity to escort a Canadian through the city on her first overseas trip. Within a few minutes of descending into the typical Neapolitan streets she was crying and begging to leave. She was blind to the traditional picture postcard views of the sweeping bay. All she saw were rats scurrying between overflowing trash containers, grimy street beggars, screaming wild-eyed boors gesticulating like maniacs, suicidal 11 year olds piloting Vespas at breakneck speed through endless traffic jams, and graffiti covered buildings that literally crumbled before her eyes.
Could I blame her? Absolutely not. To call Naples a sewer is an understatement. I've seen many sewers that were more hygenic and nicer than most of the city.
Not all of Campania is a filthy, crime-ridden, urban hell, as there are several storied islands bordering the coast, some volcanic (Ischia and Procida), and other limestone, such as Capri. Due to their astounding geography, these islands are unique in the world and have been the subject of awed tourism since the earliest days of the Roman Empire. The overall relief of the region is mountainous with the Apennine Hills in middle of this section of the peninsula and features a number of plains interspersed with hollows as in the case of the area around Benevento. This inland region has very different climatic conditions: while the coastal area enjoys a very mild Mediterranean climate with an annual average of 16C or 61F, the Apennine regions have much lower averages and can be classified as borderline Continental in climate. Rainfall varies significantly around the area, with a relatively high rainfall amount in the coastal areas of Campi Flegrei and in the basin of Benevento, while just a few miles away the precipitation amounts are effectively semi arid and the landscape resembles Arizona. It is not at all unusual to have snow cover in the Benevento area while the coastal zone is experiencing sunny shirtsleeve weather.
The vegetation, in accordance with the geographical and climatic conditions of the region, is quite diverse: from the Mediterranean coastal zone that reaches up to 400 meters or 1,310 feet, the forest of oak and chestnut (up to 1,000 meters or 3,280 feet), the beech forest (up to 1,600 meters or 5,250 feet), beyond which lies the mountain pastureland. The population of this region is distributed unequally as only a low percentage (approximately 15%) live in rural areas. The balance of the population live in the centers distributed around the Gulf of Naples and the Sorrento Peninsula, on the fertile slopes of Vesuvius, and on the heights that surround the Campana plain.
Continued in Campania Part II
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