Rita’s cooking class was a great introduction to traditional Puglian cuisine, which is probably among the best in Italy (although that’s a tough call… food is good everywhere in this country). For a month, I had a lovely kitchen to hone my skills in, and was surrounded by lovely shops full of the freshest and tastiest ingredients. We did quite a lot of cooking, and when we didn’t feel like it, there were more than enough places to eat out (read more about that here).
Where does one start? I suppose the hallmark of Puglia is their cheese, which might look like mozzarella but has precious little to do with it really, except that it’s white, soft and round. Of course they do make standard mozzarella in a variety of shapes and sizes, but the REAL stuff is called burrata. It is a ball consisting of a mozzarella-like skin, but it contains a heart of pure cream and creamy stringy cheese.
It is best when carefully positioned on top of a salad (leaves and tomatoes), with a mere string of olive oil and dash of salt. Once you tear the skin open, the cream gushes out and covers the salad with a silky “dressing” – the definition of dairy bliss. You can also get just the creamy insides without the external part – this is then called stracciatella and comes in little containers, ready to put on top of pretty much anything.
Another staple of Puglian cuisine is orecchiette, which I learned to make but didn’t bother with, seeing as they are available for 1 EUR at the store, fresh and ready to throw in the pot. The classic of the region is with “cime di rapa”, which are turnip tops. Not my favourite, to be honest, so we most often went for the tastier option of tomatoes and stracciatella.
I livened the sauce up with a newly discovered ingredient, which I call “sea garlic” and which I collected along the coast. It is very delicate, somewhere between garlic and silver onion, and provided the perfect touch of flavour without overpowering any dish.
And of course, it wouldn’t be Puglia without seafood… there is an abundance of shellfish and octopus of all kinds, and smaller types of fish. The traditional way to eat seafood here is raw, with no condiments except a squirt of lemon and drop of olive oil. I have tried this with oysters, mussels and calamari, and I don’t love it. At the opposite end of the cooking scale is the classic frittura, where small fish, prawns, calamari and squid are tossed in flour and breadcrumbs and deep-fried. This stuff goes down like popcorn!
Another alternative is marinating seafood. At the market in Vieste (in Gargano – the spur of Italy’s heel) they had fantastic alici marinate – anchovies marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. When done right, they are delicate and most importantly, boneless.
The highlight for me, however, was the huge tub of marinated baby octopods. There plump little bodies were no larger than the tip of my pinkie and their tiny little tentacles curled up in the cutest possible way… and they were DELICIOUS!!!
Being by the seaside, you’d think going to the port to buy some fish from the fisherman coming home in the afternoon would be an easy affair. It was in Mola di Bari, but in Monopoli it was a bit different.
Most of the catch is already bought up by wholesalers, and if you want to buy the leftovers, you need some very special communication skills. Puglia has a whole dialect of its own, and fisherman have a dialect within that dialect, which has nothing at all to do with Italian. Through some negotiation, we managed to buy a large bag of gamberetti, which are tiny shrimp that are usually tossed whole into a frittura.
We, however, undertook the painstaking task of peeling every single one of the many hundreds in the bag, and were rewarded for our labour with a number of lovely dinners.
Sauted with fresh mussels, sea garlic, chilli and tomatoes and served over fresh linguine, these little critters were superb!
Fruit and vegetable markets in any town in Italy are a wonderful thing, and Puglia was particularly wealthy in terms of tomatoes, olives, an array of things “sotto olio” (under oil) and taralli, the popular rounded crackers of the region.
It was the height of cherry season, and Puglia boasts one of the finest varieties called Ferrovia (railway). We attended a cherry festival in the town of Turi, which in itself was not that special – but it was worth the trip because we stopped next to an unfenced orchard and in the space of 5 minutes “poached” about 2 kg of these huge, gorgeously red cherries. The best I’ve had all season!
One of our favourite ways to eat was a picnic on the beach. There is nothing easier than to step into a shop, any shop, buy a few grissini sticks, a few slices of ham, half a melon and a bottle of wine to create a fabulous meal outdoors. And when your destination is called Punta Prosciutto? Well what more could you want?
To finish on a sweet note – what would Italy be without gelato? While in the Czech Republic, the guys go out for a few beers after work, in Italy it is entirely normal for a group of grown men to stroll down to the gelateria and then stand on the square chatting while licking away on their ice cream cone. In Monopoli, we were lucky enough to have an ice cream parlour that boasts the world champion ice cream “chef” as their flavour master.
On weekends the place was packed, with people spilling onto the side streets, faces glowing with pleasure. Truly, the ice cream was nothing short of divine, and the sleek chocolate fountains, fresh home-made waffle cones and ice-cream bonbons made it the go-to place during an after-dinner stroll.
I’ve probably left out a thousand other delicacies and flavours of Puglia, but I have this book to help me, should I ever suffer cravings for something tasty.