Pugliese tiella is an oven-baked dish that combines mussels with rice and potatoes and takes its name, as do so many of the Mediterranean’s most venerable recipes, from the implement in which it’s traditionally cooked. This vessel, created in a region that still has a lively terracotta industry, is a round, straight-sided earthenware pot about two hand-spans deep and glazed on the inside only. Once properly tempered, the unglazed exterior will accept the direct heat of the fire, provided the heat source is charcoal rather than the fierce heat of a flame.
The simplest way to achieve a well-tempered pot is to fill it to the brim with cold water, set it in a high oven and leave it there till the water evaporates completely. Once this is done, it’s very unlikely the pot will crack.
The diagnostic ingredient of the recipe, apart from the unusual combination of rice and potatoes, is rope-grown mussels from the sheltered waters of the Bay of Taranto off the Italian coast. These are available fresh in the markets of Puglia’s upland villages even when the fishing fleets of the coast are kept in port by winter storms. All the bivalves — oysters, clams and scallops as well as mussels — are able to stay alive as long as they can keep water in their shells, which made them transportable over considerable time and distance in the days before refrigerated transport was available.
Mussels look after themselves. All the fisherman has to do is choose a bay where the waters are clean and wild mussels are already in residence. A raft is then tethered offshore and thick ropes attached to the underside. The ropes provide a convenient perch for the tiny seed-like spat released by the population of adult mussels as soon as the water warms up in spring. Once attached to their new home, the infant mussels lose their ability to roam, form protective shells and grow to maturity feeding on passing plankton and other microscopic edibles (which is one good reason for choosing clean waters far from human settlement). Thereafter the mussels need no further attention till they attain marketable size in three to four years, when the fisherman hauls the crop to the surface still attached to their perch.
The mussel beds of Taranto have been in production since antiquity, but the trade did not develop commercially until medieval times, when it became a cheap alternative to imported salt-cod at a time when more than half the Catholic year was designated meatless. Abstinence, of course, was particularly important throughout the 40 days of Lent, which begins in mid-February and continues until Easter, the most important festival of the Christian calendar. Although such dietary restrictions are no longer strictly observed even by the most devout, tiella, a dish best made in quantity, remains a popular Puglian Sunday lunch for all the family, particularly throughout the Lenten fast.
This, no doubt, was why this time last year in Ostuni, a beautiful hilltop town in the vicinity of Bari, big blue-black mussels cut directly from the rope were selling like hot cakes in the Saturday market.
In the Lecce area and the flatlands of the southern Puglia, both the cooking implement and its contents are known as a tiella, but in the hill-villages of the interior such as Ostuni, whence comes this recipe, the cooking-pot is called a tegame. Cooking containers used in the area instead of the traditional tegame or tiella (mostly relegated these days to antique shops) include the large metal baking trays of the kind used for lasagne, so feel free to use your favorite gratin dish or casserole provided it’s of sufficient size to accommodate the layers. If fresh mussels are not available, make a “blind” tiella by replacing the shellfish with a layer of sliced mushrooms or shredded greens tossed briefly in a hot pan with a little oil.
- Mix the rice with the onion, tomato, garlic, parsley, oregano and 3-4 tablespoons olive oil, season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper or a pinch of chile powder, and reserve.
- Open the mussels with a knife or steam them open in a little water in a closed pot. Save the juices and remove and discard the shell to which the mussels are not attached.
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Spread half the potato slices in a single layer in the base of a roomy earthenware casserole or roasting-tin. Sprinkle lightly with salt and spread with half the rice mixture. Top with the mussels on the half-shell, trickle with half the reserved juices, top with the remaining potato slices and finish with the rest of the rice. Trickle with remaining mussel juice and add enough boiling water to come halfway up the layers. Finish with another trickle of olive oil.
- Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Test with knife pushed through the layers: It’s ready when the potatoes are nearly tender and the rice is still a little al dente. Remove the foil and bake for a further 10 minutes to brown the top.
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.
Image: Fresh mussels rendered in watercolor. Credit: Elisabeth Luard