The little hilltop town of Ostuni, in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, overlooks the Adriatic Sea midway between Bari and Brindisi. Completed in 312 BCE, it’s the last outpost of the Appian Way, which once joined the southern provinces to Rome.
A retreat for Italians
Puglia is known for the excellence of its bread (the artisan durum-wheat bread of Altamura, in particular), the venerableness of its olive trees and the quantity rather than the quality of its wines. Tourism in the region is mostly from within Italy itself. The sophisticates of Milan and Rome know a good thing when they find it and like to keep it to themselves. The attraction lies not only in the fishing ports with their inshore fleets and fortified hilltop villages with their olive groves, or even in tourist attractions such as the curious beehive dwellings of Alberobello and the baroque churches of Lecce, but in the quality of the cooking.
You’ll find plenty of good restaurants, some which might be ranked as great, but home cooking is the standard by which excellence is judged, a culinary tradition maintained through the absolute conviction that no one cooks like your mama cooks — and if anyone says otherwise, they’re wrong.
And if we’re talking pasta or vegetables or cheese, as we certainly are in Ostuni, nothing beats what’s in season in the Saturday market. So when I accepted the task of interpreting — I wouldn’t go so far as to instruct on such a delicate subject — the cooking of Puglia for some 20 U.K.-based readers of my cookery column in The Oldie Magazine, I was well aware that recipes prepared in Ostuni would not be the same as those prepared 20 miles away, or even next door. Which, it seemed to me, must lead to rival recipes when marriages are made.
“What happens if mother does this and daughter-in-law does that?” I inquire of our instructors, Ottavio Tamborrino, restaurateur and man-about-Ostuni, and the tranquil woman known simply as Mimma, pasta-maker and teacher of local culinary traditions to the children of the town. “The mother wins,” says Ottavio firmly. Mimma just nods and smiles. Later she tells me she learned her kitchen skills from her grandmother since her mother worked outside the home and had little interest in anything domestic. But then, she adds, it’s not unusual for family traditions to skip a generation, which is why she makes it her business to hand on her skills to those who cannot otherwise come by the knowledge.
The excess of market day
Saturday is market day in Ostuni, providing my group of culinary enthusiasts with a chance to inspect the produce and shop for what we’ll cook next day in class. The vegetables are remarkable for their diversity and quality. When I join the queue for cicoria catalogna, a juicy chicory-type vegetable eaten both raw and cooked, I ask the local ladies for culinary advice. Discussion centers on whether the water in which any locally-grown vegetable is cooked should be salted, and the conclusion is that no salt is necessary owing to the effect of the salt wind on the flavor of vegetables grown in the claggy red earth of the coastal plain below the town, and the effect of the salty artisanal well-water used for irrigation on the upper terraces.
Coastal-dwellers eat fish and they eat it raw, sashimi-style. Those who live inland treat their cheeses with the same respect: Ostuni’s dairy — there are several round the town — makes cow’s milk mozzarella fresh daily and specializes in burrata, a hollow bubble of mozzarella filled with a glorious dollop of creamy curds.
Pasta and bread, the staple foods of the region, are made with hard durum wheat flour, semola di grano duro. The flour (harder even than double-zero) is pale gold in color, dry and a little chalky when rubbed between the fingers, and, when made into a dough, tastes of sunshine. Meat is eaten sparingly, with horsemeat traditional in the region — possibly because milk animals were far too valuable to be sent to slaughter without good reason. For the daily dinner, both coastal-dwellers and inlanders rely on vegetables and legumes, particularly the fava. You’ll find handfuls of fresh favas on the table in April and early May, along with fresh peas, to be eaten raw as a dessert before the first strawberries appear.
Among familiar and unfamiliar things on sale in Ostuni market on this particular Saturday in early May is cime di rape, a broccoli-like brassica which looks like a fat-stemmed mustard plant (the blooms are mustard-yellow) but has a mild flavor and a texture like tender stemmed broccoli (it’s commonly known as broccoli rabe in the U.S.). Causing most excitement among the shoppers is cicoria, both red and green varieties. The red is slender-stalked and eaten cooked with fresh fava beans (though, like asparagus, the stalks can be nibbled raw). Another favorite is Cicoria catalogna — Catalan chicory, an acknowledgement of the Catalan presence in the area. It’s bulky rather than slender, with a well-formed heart that is eaten raw while the surrounding leaves are cooked. Equally intriguing was a melon/cucumber called cocomero (the name for a watermelon) which is peeled, de-seeded and sliced to be eaten raw.
Since May is not the season for wild fungi, cultivated mushrooms on sale include a variety of oyster mushroom, cardoncello, a brown capped specimen with firm ivory-colored flesh which cooks rather like porcini. It has the delicate flavor of hazelnuts and takes its name from its host, Cardus eringe, the wild artichoke. Most unusual is the asparagus-like sporchia. Botanists know it as orobanche or broomrape, a species which lacks chlorophyll and is parasitic on the fava bean; opinion in Ostuni market is that sporchia is eaten in Bari, where they throw away the beans and eat the infestation, which goes to prove — well, Bari never did know what was good.
Some evidence of the historical presence of the Greeks in the region (or possible proof that the Greeks took culinary advice from the Pugliese) might be found in a shared taste for lampascioni, the onion-like bulbs of Muscari comosum, which is sold fresh before the flower bud begins to form. The fresh bulbs, I was told by enthusiastic members of the queue, must be cooked in several changes of water to leach out the bitterness, then pickled in vinegar and preserved under oil to be eaten mashed as a dip for bread; alternatively — as happened in the old days before anyone planted potatoes — the bulbs, once boiled to reduce the bitterness, could be set to roast round the Easter feast of milk-fed lamb.
In short, the basic Puglian culinary habit is cucina povere — poor-man’s cooking — and thus perfectly suited to our fiscally-challenged times. Further information on all good things Pugliese can be found in Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ masterly “Flavors of Puglia.”
Three eggless pastas shaped by hand
Mimma’s Basic Dough
Serves about 20
- Make a mound of the flour on a large board or clean countertop, then slowly knead the water into the flour, first with your fingers, then with your palm directly onto the table. Once the dough is formed, work it with the heel and palm of both your hands till perfectly smooth. It’s not necessary for the dough to rest before shaping into pasta.
For orechiette: Cut off a thick slice of the dough, roll it into a rope as thick as your finger, then chop off a finger’s width. Pushing the dough cube against the near-side of a blunt knife blade, hold it on the other side with the tip of your index finger. Now pull the knife towards you on a gentle slope to make a saucer-shape, roll the shape over onto your thumb to expose the underside and flip it into a little hat on the smooth side, leaving the rough side uppermost. To cook, drop into lots of boiling salted water, wait until it comes back to a boil, then drain. This shape is good with cime de rape stufato, broccoli rabe or mustard-greens cooked in its own juices with olive oil, an anchovy or two, garlic and pepperonicini. Or serve with a sugo (tomato sauce with oil and garlic) and very small meatballs made with or without meat (meatless is trad in the region).
For cavatelli: Proceed as for orchiette but this time, push the dough cube away from you with knife sloped in same way, but don’t use the index finger to hold it back. Good with chickpeas cooked till tender with the juices emulsified with olive oil and served juicy rather than dry (such dishes are known as dry soups, sopa seca).
For cicatelli: Roll the slice of dough into a thinner rope — just a bit thinner than your little finger, then cut into short lengths, mark with three fingers and pull to roll into an open-topped cylinder (sausage-shape). Serve this all’arrabbiata or with a simple tomato sauce.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Photos: Two original watercolors depicting produce found in Pugliese markets. Credits: Elisabeth Luard.