Puglia: Frugality & Abundance
Puglia, at the heel, highlights the desirable qualities of Italian life that draws us all to this amazing country. It is scattered with Baroque architecture, pristine wilderness and wonderful beaches, charming villages, olive and citrus groves, underground caves and Roman ruins.
Puglia’s agricultural heritage and enviable coasts make it the perfect place for great food. Ironically, this is “cucina povera,” though rich in produce and ingredients. Here there is a straightforward and practical attitude towards food. Its cooks are creative and have an enormous capacity of making something out of nothing.
Puglia, at the heel, highlights the desirable qualities of Italian life that draws us all to this amazing country. I just didn’t think I was going to spend my honeymoon there!
In 1975, much of Europe was divided by conflict between extreme neo-fascist groups and the strong Communist party. The morning after our Florentine wedding, in September of ’75, we woke to news that Spanish radicals were targeting Italian tourists on the Costa del Sol, exactly where we had planned to go. Change of plans…take our new Mini Minor and travel the length of the boot to the ferry from Brindisi to the Greek island of Corfu. It turned out to be a wonderful trip as we explored the peninsula, stopping for a few days in Puglia.
Since my grandfather had emigrated from neighboring Basilicata and sailed for America from the Apulian port of Bari, I was delighted to learn something about this relatively unknown (at the time) region. Now, Puglia has been described as the “new Tuscany,” attracting film stars, royals and new age wine makers.
Puglia’s history is complex and varied. For thousands of years it has seen an endless procession of invaders and has been influenced by numerous culinary cultures. Wheat, olive oil and wine have been the sacred “trinita” for centuries. “Ubi panis, ibi patris” – “Where there is bread there is homeland,” was the Roman’s motto. And a 17th century legend has it that the reigning Spanish invaders imposed a tax on flour to prevent the Apulians from making pasta. They were so incensed and revolted with such fervor, the Spaniards had to lift the tax. Puglia remains predominantly agricultural, producing 40% of Italy’s olive oil and is considered one of its most important wine producing regions. With its arable land and 500 miles of seacoast, it is known for vast varieties of produce, cheeses, wheat and seafood.
If you are lucky enough to be in Puglia this month, you certainly wouldn’t want to miss “Marangiane in Festa,” the Eggplant Festival in Castri di Lecce. Thousands of locals and tourists fill long tables in the main square to enjoy dozens of dishes highlighting Puglia’s most popular vegetable. Of course our menu this week absolutely had to showcase the festival’s most popular eggplant parmesan.
The first course, Cialledda, is a summer bread and tomato salad. It’s interesting that the frugal idea of mixing day-old bread and chopped tomatoes, with a few subtle changes in ingredients and techniques will produce different results. For example, in Tuscany, Panzanella, calls for soaking its unsalted bread in water before sprinkling it with vinegar. A similar salad from Naples, Caponata, is made with the addition of olives and mozzarella. Puglian tomato and bread salad is vinegarless with a touch of sliced onion and fresh oregano.
Orechiette Pugliese is probably the region’s most popular pasta dish made with broccoli rabe and sausage. This ear-shaped pasta is made simply with semolina, water and salt. It is cooked in the same water as the rabe and then quickly tossed with the browned sausage, olive oil and garlic. Parmesan is not added though on occasion I have seen it finished with a dusting of crunchy bread crumbs. This is good rustic food at its best – showcasing complex flavors, but with simple preparation.
Parmigiana di Melanzane – star of Lecce’s Sagra (festival) – this dish can be found throughout all of southern Italy. This version is flavorful yet a lighter rendition than most Americans know. Sliced eggplant is dipped in flour and egg (no breadcrumbs), quickly fried then layered with flavorful tomato sauce and sliced mozzarella.
Bread is very important here with more than 90 traditional versions made from the region’s wheat. The most well-known is made in Altamura, and is considered to be the best bread in Italy. Taralli are savory crackers made from durum wheat flour, white wine, fennel and plenty of olive oil. They are boiled and then baked much like mini bagels.
Sporcamuss or ‘sporca muso’ in Italian translates to ‘dirty face.’ It is a popular Puglian pastry made with baked puff pastry, Chantilly cream and a generous sprinkle of powdered sugar. Bet you can’t eat one without dirtying your face with cream and sugar!
Puglia’s agricultural heritage and enviable coasts make it the perfect place for great food. Ironically, this is “cucina povera,” though rich in produce and ingredients. Here there is a straightforward and practical attitude towards food. Its cooks are creative and have an enormous capacity for making something out of nothing.
Il tavolo unisce/the table unites,