Every evening around seven o’clock the people of Puglia put on their glad rags and take a leisurely stroll through town. This ritual is known as la passeggiata, and here, on the heel of the boot of Italy, it’s as languid as the setting of the sun itself. It’s a time when everyone comes out to indulge in each other’s company as well as some local fare. Never mind its just before dinnertime, restaurant and café patios are packed with passersby who have stopped for a bite of antipasto and a glass of primitivo red wine; a basket of taralli (a pretzel-like snack) washed down with Birrozza craft beer; or a custard-filled pasticcioto with caffe in ghiacco, iced coffee laced with almond milk. Even the steps of ancient churches are lined with gelato junkies and pizza buffs.
“Food is so much more part of the culture here than it is in North America. Not only do people have a closer relationship to the food itself, but also to building relationships with other people around food,” says Robert Collins, who along with Lili Okuyama, owns Espressino Travel, a boutique tour company offering weeklong culinary-centric treks through the region during the warm weather months. The couple splits their residency between Vancouver in the winter, and Lecce, a major city in the south of Puglia, in the summer.
With soil and climes ideal for agriculture, and 800 km of coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, the cuisine of Puglia reflects the bounty of the land and sea. Think groves of olives and rows of olive oil, fields of durum wheat for pastas and breads. Think chickpeas and fava beans, artichokes and aubergine, broccoli rabe, peppers, zucchini, and arguably the most succulent tomatoes on the planet. Think fish, fish, and more fish particularly in seaside towns such as Gallipoli and Otranto where everything from roasted octopus and swordfish rolls to grilled red tuna and plateau di frutti di mare crudi (raw seafood) jumps off the menus.
Do not think meat. Although yes, you can get a steak here, historically Puglia has always been a poor region and just because a bit of wealth has moved in, doesn’t mean la cucina povera has moved out.
“The people of Puglia are sticklers for tradition,” Collins laughs.
Gianna Greco makes no apologies. A lifelong resident of Lecce, with roots that go far back, Greco owns Cooking Experience, a culinary school situated in one of the city’s historic palazzos. There, beneath a vaulted stone ceiling and surrounded by ancient stone walls, I, along with a handful of Espressino Travel tour mates, learned how to make orecchiette (“little ears”) pasta from scratch, as well as traditional dishes such as cicero e tria (chickpea sauce with half-boiled, half fried pasta); parmigiani di melanzane (eggplant parmesan); finocchi gratinati (fennel gratin); and pesche al negroamara (peaches in wine sauce). Through a translator, Greco conveyed detailed instruction, regional rules such as never use garlic and onion in the same sauce or you’ll cover the sweetness of the tomato, and as importantly passion and pride.
“My region’s cuisine is simple and authentic like its people. The magic of our extra virgin olive oil transforms a simple plate of bread and tomatoes into a flavourful and nutritious meal. Our bold wines accompany our days filling them with joy. And our pasta is formed with the hands of grandmothers that prepare it with great care and love.”
But can you taste love? The people of Puglia think so. And, after wining and dining my way through their region, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day, love is recognized as the sixth taste.
Rebecca Field Jager was a guest of Espressino Travel.
CÌCERI E TRÌA (pasta with chickpeas)
Origin of the fried tria: Tria is the pasta shape – wide strips, between tagliatelle and pappardelle, but shorter in length. For this recipe, two thirds of the pasta is boiled, while one third of the pasta is deep fried to mimic crispy pancetta.
For the pasta:
- 500 g of mixed flour (400 g of wheat flour and 100 g of barley flour (if available)
- Warm water
- 1 pinch of salt
- Extra virgin olive oil, for frying
For the chickpea sauce:
- 300 g of dried chickpeas
- 2-3 tomatoes, halved
- 1 celery stick, chopped
- Handful of chopped parsley
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 dry hot pepper
- extra virgin olive oil
For pasta: put flour on the worktop. Create a well and slowly add warm water. Start to pinch flour with water to bring dough together. Mix dough pressing it under the palm until soft and elastic (about 5 to 10 minutes of kneading).
Flour worktop and flatten dough with rolling pin until 2-3 mL thick. Trim edges to obtain square or rectangle. Cut dough into strips about 1.5 cm wide and 7 to 15 cm long. Place strips on clean dishcloth sprinkled with flour. Cover with more flour to make sure the pasta doesn’t stick together, and let dry for a few hours.
For chickpeas: Soak chickpeas overnight or for at least 12 hours. Drain and return to pan. Add tomatoes, parsley and celery. Cover with water 2 cm above chickpeas, and cook on low 3 hours. Add salt to taste.
In a separate pan, add an inch or two of extra virgin olive oil – enough to fry pasta (it can be quite a shallow fry). Add garlic and pepper and cook on medium-high until garlic is light brown. Remove garlic, and add about a third of pasta (70-80g). Cook until crispy, place on paper towel to drain.
Cook remaining pasta until el dente. Drain and add to chickpeas. Add fried pasta, reserving some for topping. Let everything cook together for a minute and then add the olive oil used for deep-frying the fried pasta. Stir together, top with the reserved fried pasta and serve immediately.
Serves 4-6 people