Sunday, July 26, 2009

A trip to the heel of Italy - Eating in Apulia

Orecchiette (the ear shaped pasta), burrata (cream stuffed mozzarella), taralli (salty circle shaped snack) are the products the Italian Region Puglia (Apulia) is best known for outside of Italy. But these three yummy treats are just the tip of the iceberg! During a brief two-day visit I ate my way through the area –
Apulia is the “heel” of Italy: it borders on the sea, looking towards Croatia and Albania. Which means fish and seafood in abundance, and the most curious varieties.
As I stayed by the seaside, I jumped on the opportunity to indulge in the rich offerings of the sea every dinner. Raw fish, just briefly steamed prawns, marinated octopus – it all was delicious and so fresh, you could taste the sea! A local raw fish specialty is the octopus. Although there was a slice of lemon on my plate, my Apulian friends (aka food consultants) voted against “diluting” the taste with it.

This story showed me: Apulians are purists when it comes to food. They like the unadulterated taste of the ingredients. “Wait a moment”, you think right now, “Is it not the Italian style of cooking in general to use only a few ingredients of the best quality and have their tastes stand out?” And you are right. Italians are purists, but Apulians are the ueberpurists. Let me give you another example: there was not a drop of olive oil on the foods that were served. Not the raw fish, not the grilled one, not the cheeses. All were served plain. Tuscans would have, well, maybe not exactly drowned their food in olive oil, but they would have used is as a finishing touch. Not so in Puglia, where they shake their heads in disbelief at the Tuscans and their weird tastes. What I found interesting, as Puglia is well known for its olive oil. But in contrast to Tuscany, they use their olive oil for texture, not for taste. They quite frankly admitted that they found the pungent taste of Tuscan oils unbearable. They want their oil slightly fruity, but in no way dominant in its taste. An oil for every occasion, blending perfectly with the dishes it is used to prepare.

While driving through Puglia, with olive trees steched till the horizon, I wondered if this demand for a more basic taste profile of oil results from the fact that Apulian agriculture is not set up for individual, small scale quality production. Those were literally forests of olive trees, which are impossible to pick by hand, no matter how much cheap labour is available. Talking to some elders in a village, I was told that most of the times the olives are picked off the ground once they have fallen off the tree. Which would mean that the olives are harvested in a state of deteriorate – not the most promising start for great olive oil.

But Puglia is vast, and agriculture is the predominant sector. Most of the farms are focused on quantity production, not quality. Organic agriculture is mostly unheard of. When I asked a sales veteran for Apulian food about where could I find small quality focused organic farms, he just looked at me in disbelief. Some farms are slowly moving towards this new “lifestyle” (cause it is more than a production method, it is a different approach to agriculture and how we see nature as such), but it will take years, until we will see a substantial shift from quantity to quality production in Apulian agriculture.

The main crops in Apulia are table grapes, grain (hence also famous for its pasta, such as the one made with the grain of Gargano), artichoke, and grapes for winemaking. Then there is the lifestock, which lays the ground for the fabulous cheesemaking Apulia is famed for: fior di latte (mozzarella made of cow’s milk), burrata (think fior di latte stuffed with little pieces of mozzarella and heavy cream), ricotta, scamorza, caciaricotta (of sheep’s milk)… and so much more!
Every little, better: tiny, town has there “Caseificio”: cheesemaker.Cheeses are produced in the morning, around 10 am, and – as I had to find out the hard way - are usually sold out by 12am… It took me three stops at three Caseificios in the small town of Noicattero (Bari Province) to finally get my hands on a burrata. I assure you, it was worth the wait! Ohho… how the heavy cream slowly pouring out of the burrata was glittering in the summer sun, when I finally was in my B&B and digged my fork into the shiny white ball shaped goodness… I was an Apulian that moment: burrata, just burrata and nothing to go with it. Pure and simple deliciousness.

If you feel hungry by now, I brought you a souvenir: the recipe of
Grano alla marinara (Whole grain with seafood)
1lb. whole durum wheat
11 oz. mussels (cleaned)
11 oz. shrimp
11 oz. clams (cleaned)
1 lb. peeled tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (yes, you can use Cosimo’s!)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Black pepper
2 chopped garlic cloves

Bring to boil five quarts of water. Add the wheat and cook for 30 minutes without stirring.

In the meantime, in a big frying pan, sauté the garlic and the parsley briefly in the olive oil until slightly browned. Add the shrimp and fry for another couple of minutes. Add tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook for 20 minutes. Add clams and mussels and let simmer for another 10 minutes.
Drain the wheat and put in a big serving bowl. Put two mussels aside for decoration. Add the sauce and mix briefly. Finish with some fresh parsley and some black pepper sprinkled on top. Add mussels on top and serve.

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