In the next few days I’ll be posting my notes on my recent vacation. As a start I’d like to cover some not very gourmet aspect of our stay there, but still incredibly satisfying ones for our taste buds. The part of Puglia we stayed in is the southern end of the region, called Salento. Our really simple country house (a few pics here) was in the middle of an olive garden, very close to Santa Maria di Leuca, the southernmost tip of Puglia. Apart the pleasure of walking around old, beautiful olive trees, we had a few treats in our front yard. After living for quite a few years in Northern Europe I had forgotten how great it is to have a fig tree available in September. Whenever we felt like we just had to stretch an arm and pick a ripe, plump and deliciously sweet fig. We also had a huge amount of prickly pear cactuses around, though we had to think for a while before coming up with a method for picking them without piercing or fingers.
Puglia in general, and this part of it in particular, are not exactly foodie destinations, although this is slowly changing. Tips for good eating spots and shops are scarce and you never really know what you’re going to get. As usual, the best way to taste worthy products is to ask a local. In a couple of days we had managed to find a great baker, a delicious fresh pasta shop and an equally good cheese maker. Shops like these will never appear on travel guides: they offer very few products, look rather unfashionable, and make absolutely no effort to get some publicity. Therefore, in case anyone reading this blog should be planning a trip to Salento, let me be your personal “good food” scout.
- Bread. Bakeries are not something hard to come by in Italy but a good thing is to look out for “Forno a Legna”, wood-burning ovens, signs. Using this principle we found the baker we bought our bread from almost every day from. Mr Vitali’s Forno a Legna, in the small town of Patu’ (via Giovanni XIII), makes only five kinds of bread but all excellent. Schiacciate are a pita-like pocket bread used to test the oven’s temperature, and as you can expect they’re great for stuffing and carrying with you on the beach. Two great breads to snack on are Puccia and Pane condito, both with tomato and onion pieces added to the dough, and differing only for the olives (with tooth breaking seeds left in) in the Puccia and the squash in the Pane condito. Friselle, hard bagel sized rings made with either wheat or whole grain barley flour, were one of the most sold items: softened in water they’re great to serve a tomato salad on. Even the simple bread, made like the other breads from semolina flour, was fantastic, crunchy crust, nice irregular crumb, with the pleasant smoky aroma of the wood noticeable but not too strong.
- Fresh Pasta. Salento’s fresh pasta is not of the egg noodle type, rather fresh semolina based kinds. We bought some once at the local Sidis supermarket but our landlord soon convinced us to give a local shop a try. L’Orecchietta (Corso Italia 169, Morciano di Leuca) prepares the classic local pasta shapes, all hand made and of great quality, plus a few stuffed pastas, OK but not really that special. I had a little chat with the owner who kindly explained to me the difference between orecchiette (the ones you see above), cavatelli (orecchiette that have not been “turned around), minchiarieddi (short maccheroni like pasta shaped using a knitting needle) and also the use of preparing pasta maritata, married pasta, i.e. orecchiette and cavatelli (or minchiarieddi) together, so called because it unites the female to the male (just think of the pasta shapes… I don’t have to draw you a picture do I?)
- Cheese. As for bread and pasta you won’t find incredible choice of local cheeses simply because there’s only a limited number of traditional ones. Which is far from saying they’re boring. There’s many mozzarella like cheeses, made with cow instead of buffalo milk, tasty Pecorino of different ripening stages, but the two gems of Salento’s cheeses are cacioricotta and ricotta skant (aka ricotta forte). Cacioricotta is an ewe’s milk cheese (sometimes ewe and goat) made with a particular procedure that collects both the clotted cheese proteins normally used for cheese and the lactoalbumin, which would end up in ricotta. The cheese has a fresh, creamy and slightly acidic taste and can be either eaten in slices or grated on pasta. Ricotta forte is a special fermented ricotta, with a very strong taste, and is often used in pasta dishes, for example together with orecchiette and tomato sauce. Some find the smell too strong, I just love it. A very good brand for all these cheeses is Aia Vecchia, which can be found in quite a few local supermarkets. We also tried the nice cheeses made from a small producer in Salve (Rocco Caldo, Via Roma 4).
I wouldn’t know where to start on greengrocers, every single one of them had great local produce and I still dream of those fantastic cherry tomatoes for 1 euro a kilo. I hound interesting that one particular item seemed to be sold only in these shops: snails.
As far as I understand these, smaller than the French ones, are snails that have “hibernated” because of the summer’s heat, sealing their shells with those white discs called locally panna. For this reason they don’t need to be treated beforehand and they can be cooked straightaway after washing and removing the seal.
Next: Fish market galore…