Throwback Thursday: Caprese salad with a touch of the Karoo

Throwback Thursday: Caprese salad with a touch of the Karoo
Caprese Insalata with a Karoo twist, as made by Tony Jackman, Heyla Meyer and The Cowboy. The simplicity of the dish belies the fact that, to eat, it was out of this world. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Insalata Caprese, or Caprese salad, is all about colour, but that’s not to say it is not also about texture and flavour. It’s all of those things.

This edition of Throwback Thursday is a partial retake of an earlier version published in January 2023. But the recipe differs, a consequence of a recent dinner party given by the Foodie’s Wife, myself and our friends Heyla Meyer and the ever mysterious The Cowboy, who prefers to remain anonymous.

We’re called The Three Chefs (you can book us to cook for you when you visit Cradock) and we gave Insalata Caprese a bit of a Karoo twist. But first, let’s recap that earlier column.

Caprese literally means “of Capri”. The salad we call Caprese, or Insalata Caprese in Italian, originates on the Isle of Capri on the Tyrrhenian Sea where the Mediterranean meets the Bay of Naples, and where, once upon a time, a dish was served ostensibly to please a poet, futurist and co-author of the Fascist Manifesto, founded by Benito Mussollini, Il Duce himself.

Fitting, then, that just a glance at any Caprese salad brings to mind the country’s very flag, with its red for tomato, green for fresh basil, and white for mozzarella. It is thought to have been invented as a sandwich filling by an unnamed mason who, after the end of World War I hostilities in 1918, enclosed tomato, basil and mozzarella in bread, although the ever-cautious Wikipedia does not go there.

The Italy Heritage website does, however, saying it appeared on the menu at the Hotel Quisisana in the town of Capri in the early 1920s and where in 1924 (the website claims) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, “raged against pasta, calling it outdated”. In short, he wanted pasta abolished. Which makes me want to rush out and order a large plate of pasta which, of course, quickly faded into ignominy and has scarcely been heard of since.

But the La Cucina Italiana website offers a different perspective: “In 1932 Marinetti published a cookbook titled The Futurist Cookbook, which criticised much of Italy’s food traditions, particularly taking a swipe at pasta. so it’s said the hotel (Quisisana) created Caprese salad, a pasta-less dish in honour of these contrarians.” Since Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook only appeared in 1932, the Italy Heritage date seems suspect.

Then again, Marinetti was a proponent of futuristic vegetarian cooking of lighter flavours without flour, and one theory has it that it was invented in honour of his “manifesto” of this approach to food; and in that, of course, his futurism was wildly on the mark. Except for vegans who, I’m sure, will have issues with that cheese right there. Anyway, he tried.

In the 1950s, so the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, King Farouk of Egypt and the Sudan apparently demanded something light after a day on the beach and was served some mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, ensuring the future worldwide popularity of a dish that could easily have remained in obscurity.

There are rules, as befits anything of fascist origin. The website offers clear direction as to how a Caprese salad is expected to be made on the Isle of Capri.

The mozzarella must be large, weighing “at least half a kilo”, and small mozzarelle “are therefore not suited”. Quite what calamity will befall the offending chef who fluffs it up is not explained (and we are all watching our backs right now, not having used very large mozzarelle), but one imagines the consequences would possibly involve barbed wire and lots of manual labour, perhaps hefting very large mozzarelle around from dawn till dusk.

The second factor likely to get you into trouble is choosing tomatoes that are neither unripe or overripe. The colour of the tomatoes should be “ramato”, a sort of copper red.

The key is that the tomatoes should have some juice in them, and this juice is to be mixed with olive oil to dress the salad on the plate. Underripe and there’s not enough juice and it’s not sweet enough, whereas overripe and it’s going to be dessert.

Basil leaves must be torn by hand, but most of us know that anyway.

Finally, if it’s a good quality mozzarella, the cheese will squeeze out a little milk, and this also helps to moisturise the salad on the plate.

The other day, and a week before that (there were two consecutive pop-up restaurant dinners), we fiddled with it considerably, including slices of ripe fig for the first dinner, while for the second (figs had become scarce in just one week) we switched to red fig jam that Heyla had made.

We did of course include tomato and fresh basil, but we dressed (second time around) the Karoo Caprese with basil pesto (as well as fresh), red fig syrup, olive oil, and lovely creamy lumps of bocconcini, the smaller rounds of buffalo mozzarella. We had used pearl mozzarella, tiny balls of mozzarella, the previous week.

We also included a drizzling of balsamic reduction, this being a relatively recent addition to many Caprese salads. Strictly traditionally, though, it would only need those tomato juices and extra virgin olive oil (and some purists don’t even want that), and not too much of it.

Once assembled, the Caprese Insalata should be left to rest for 15 minutes, and only then consumed.

(Quantities adaptable to your needs)


Tomato slices

Buffalo mozzarella, or bocconcini, or pearl mozzarella

Red fig preserve

Basil pesto sans cheese (use the pesto part of this recipe but leave out the Parmesan)

Red prickly pear syrup

Olive oil

Balsamic reduction

Fresh basil garnish


In a small bowl or jug, mix some red prickly pear syrup with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar reduction, in equal quantities, but enough for the number of portions you need it to dress.

Lay out tomato slices attractively with the form of mozzarella you’re using, basil leaves (either inter-layer them or arrange bits of the leaves here and there), and drop blobs of red figs around. Dab teaspoon tips of basil pesto on the mozzarella. Drizzle the dressing over.

This was one of four courses, and when the three chefs tasted it in the kitchen after service (we had accidentally made too much), we all agreed it was surprisingly delicious. The various elements came together smashingly on the palate.

Come back here next week for the lamb ravioli and the beef shin stew (osso buco but with beef shin rather than veal) we also made that night, and which we had also somehow made too much of. (Chefs have to eat too.) DM

Ask The Three Chefs to cook for you when you visit Cradock. Ts&Cs apply. Email [email protected]

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

This dish is photographed on a plate by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.


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