Two weeks ago now I returned from one of the most wonderful holidays I’ve had for a long time – we spent a week in beautiful Puglia.
Located in the high heel of Italy’s rather sexy boot, Puglia is a region renowned for its Italian produce – the region supports a rather impressive 65 million olive trees! We loved Puglia and we loved Puglian food too.
Staying in trulli, the traditional drystone constructions typical of the area, we based ourselves near to Ceglie Messapica in a small town called Carpari, as well as spending a night in Lecce and a few more in the quiet, traditional village of Carpignano Salentino. Our final B&B was perhaps the most charming, as we were treated to the most lavish supper courtesy of Giuseppe and his partner Susanna in their ancient courtyard, under the starry skies with only an open fire and candlelight for company. It was truly breathtaking, and excellent value. I’m sure Giuseppe won’t mind me linking to his B&B here – and I certainly suggest staying with him if you want to explore the area.
Whilst in Lecce, of course we had to try a cookery lesson at The Awaiting Table, masterminded by local food celeb Silvestro Silvestori. Raised in the US by Puglian parents, Silvestro moved back at 16. He’s a proud Puglian who wants to shout from the rooftops about the simplicity and tradition involved in this area’s cuisine.
You can see Silvestro on the right, above.
We visited the fruit and veg market and the fish market, where the fish were so fresh they were still curled like commas, before heading back to his school to cook (and eat!) a lovely lunch and dinner. We made orecchiette and minchiareddhi pastas (collectively known as Il Maritato because of the two shapes’ slight resemblance to genitalia – trust those Italians!) and fresh fish stews, mussels in white wine, chilli flakes and parsley, chicken cooked in grape must (vincotto – an absolute must-try for that Italian agrodolce experience) and sweet and soft peaches baked with a sprinkling of vanilla sugar and sweetened ricotta. It was charming.
We were also MASSIVE fans of the rosé Negroamaro wine which is very popularly available across the Salento region. I’m not usually a rosé fan (it certainly has a bad rep in England, which it is doing its utmost to shake) but this bottle (Saturnino) was the perfect foil to the dish full of mussels, octopus, langoustines, prawns and squid in the steaming, chilli-hot wine sauce we ate for lunch with lashings of crusty bread. What a dream.
Whilst in Puglia make sure to binge on mussels (cozze in Italian). As the peasant food of this area, you’ll find them on most restaurant menus and very reasonably priced. If you’re used to eating them in England, where we can only get them from the Shetlands due to contamination, you’ll be astounded by the sweet freshness of some plump mussels in a white wine sauce (probably stirred through with some fresh tomatoes, parsley and chilli flakes). If you’d like to get some recipes for some of the Puglian fare we cooked and sampled, let me know in comments and I can get some recipes up
Make sure also to eat lots of taralli with your aperitivi – simple savoury biscuits which are a perfect nibble. Arrive in the centre of a small town or village at 6pm-ish and you will see the streets lined with young and old alike, sipping an aperitivo (possibly chilled white wine, or the ever more popular Aperol Spritz) and nibbling taralli and olives in street-side bars. This social time of the evening, when the day begins to cool, is where Italians socialise and maintain that impressive sense of community which seems to thrive across most of Italy (besides going to church, that is!) It’s this desire to meet your neighbours and discuss your day, and your community, which I think makes Italy feel generally so much more social and integrated than most towns and villages in the UK are today. Being able to sit outside and do your chores with your neighbour, in the sunshine, must definitely have something to do with it!
To satisfy your sweet tooth, make sure to sample some pasticciotti (sort of like a sweet, warm pasty filled with creme patissiére – rather charming!) and iced coffee with almond “milk” (caffé ghiacciatto con latte di mandorla) when you need that coffee kick in the morning but just can’t stand the idea of something hot. Most cafés also seem to have charming little homemade mini icecreams, a bit like tiny magnums, behind the counter – I sampled a little pistachio one and felt I had died and gone to heaven! You might be able to tell from the childish grin on my face!
The course at The Awaiting Table was not very challenging for someone who already enjoys cookery; it was much more about enjoyment than serious culinary education. I did, however, pick up a few definitive tips along the way to help you recreate Puglian food in all its joy and simplicity at home –
– try not to cook with olive oil, or cook with it for as short a period as possible (adding it in the last few minutes of cooking). Puglians use it sparingly in cooking (a searingly hot pan often needs no fat at all), and lavishly at the table.
– don’t use egg in your pasta if you want to make authentic Puglian varieties such as orrecchiette – simply use hard durum and mix in some barley flour for a denser “bite”.
– Always choose the best ingredients and cook them simply.
Okay, we knew that last one. Nevertheless, it’s fundamental to Italian cookery. Cook with the best you can afford, simply, and with love. x