Just a few days after installing myself in Monopoli, my home base for in Puglia for the next month, we attended a cooking class organised by Rita at her Cucina in Masseria. Unlike a typical cooking class for an evening, this one lasted all day, and what a day it was.
We started bright and early with a visit to Mola di Bari, which is completely devoid of tourists, but overflowing with good food. The way the “farmer’s market” works here is that each farmer (most of whom live in the town but have their fields in the country side) puts a chair outside their door or on the nearest frequented street corner, and on their chair they present a few samples of the goods currently available at their “shop” – which is usually a room on the ground floor of their building.
So one can spot chairs with a handful of cherries, a bunch of chicory and some fava beans… or apricots and zucchini flowers. The prices are more than fair and it’s the real deal, straight from the source.
Also straight from the source is the cheese, which we bought directly from a small local factory. Unlike Campania, buffalo milk is used very rarely in Puglia, but in my personal opinion the mozzarella is better (more about that in a different post). Here they had the whole range, from bite-size bocconcini to single-serving burratine to creamy ricotta and large balls of smoked fresh provola. Paradise!
On the seaboard in Mola is one of the best fish markets in the area. The ships come to harbour in the late afternoon laden with fish. What doesn’t get spirited away by wholesalers is then brought into the market hall, with fishermen shouting their offers and people crowding around to get their hands on the best catch of the day.
There is none of the huge tuna or swordfish one might find in deeper waters, but plenty of seafood, octopus and smaller fish to fry.
We, however, had bigger fish to fry (although the menu did not actually feature any fish), because we along with another guest and a range of Rita’s helpers would be cooking a meal for a dinner party of 10 later in the evening. Considering the 15 items that were to be served, it was high time to get started.
Rita’s kitchen is no average home kitchen. I would call it more or less professional, but what goes on in the kitchen is definite home cooking. It is difficult to get into the details of all the things we cooked, but there were many. I barely had time to write down recipes, which in many cases have been handed down through generations. In fact, there are copies of old family recipes dating as far back as 1820 on the walls.
To name just a few, we made octopus and potato salad, aubergine caponata with sweet-and-sour sauce, aubergine parmigiana and several variations of a highly traditional “tiella”, which is in fact the Puglian variation of paella with rice and potatoes, seafood, chicory, and other ingredients, whatever happens to be in season. Instead of a huge pan, it’s baked in the oven in a terracotta dish. It seemed strange during the preparation but tasted fantastic.
We made an array of dough-based things like focaccia, onion and olive tart and delicious tomato-and-mozzarella panzerotti (fried pizza dough pockets), all drenched in olive oil. The quantity of panzerotti was enough to feed an army!
We also made the most classic of Puglian pasta, orrechiete (small ears), guided through the process by Giacomina. I think I actually mastered the procedure quite well and although I wasn’t producing them as quickly as an Italian nonna, it was one of my favourite parts of the class. These were later topped with bell pepper sauce.
And the most curious item on the menu for me was “Pesche da Giacomina”. I still get confused by the Italian words pesca/pesche (peaches) and pesce/pesci (fish), so I initially thought this was going to be a fish dish. It’s not. In fact, it’s not even a peach dish. It is a rather complex dessert that involves pressing small pieces of dough over empty nutshells. These are then baked and the shells removed, leaving an indent that really looked like a pitted peach half. Two halves are then joined together with thick pudding cream, bathed in bright red liqueur and rolled in sugar.
The final touch is a sprig of leaves, and they really do look like peaches. I have to admit, I am fonder of the fruit itself.
By the time the dinner guests had arrived, I was completely exhausted and more than happy to sit down. The whole array of dishes we had made was paraded across the table, but despite the delicious aromas, I was so tired I could barely eat a bite.
At the end of the evening, having been complimented by the guests for our great cooking, we finally made it home and I came to one definite conclusion: I love cooking, but I don’t ever want to be a cook!!!