The region of Puglia is known by many different, yet strangely similar titles . . Citta del Pane (city of bread), Italy's granary and Italy's bread basket, to name a few. But as far as its cuisine is concerned Puglia is far from a one trick pony. Here, each year, some 800,000 tons of durum wheat, 600,000 tons of tomatoes, 500,000 tons of table grapes, 300,000 tons of olive oil and 200,000 tons of artichokes are produced (much of this for local consumption obviously with copious amounts of bread) each year.
The landscape of Puglia is flat, ideal for crop growing, and the climate is good, but unlike Campania, water s hopelessly short. Puglias oil and wine, even though produced in abundance, are often not considered the best quality, thirty-three percent of all Italy's olive oil is produced here and thirty per cent of the countries wine production is concentrated in Puglia. The regions flat landscape though is ideal for growing high-quality ingredients such as tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, peppers, potatoes, spinach, aubergine, cauliflower, fennel, chicory, kale, capers, figs, almonds, lettuce and beans and pulses such as fava, white beans and lentils.
Puglia also grows vast amounts of durum wheat, so it will come as no surprise to discover the pasta and bread at the forefront of Puglian cuisine. Sauces for pasta here can be meatless and meat based (mainly beef and horse), with goats cheese, tomatoes and various vegetables, even potatoes.
Puglia is a very agricultural region, it's landscape is littered with farm buildings everywhere you look, no matter how big a plot of land is a Puglian will farm it. This love of growing things to eat has led to the use of some wonderful ingredients rarely used in other regions and country's. A case in point here is Turnips, they are grown everywhere both agriculturally and domestically in family gardens. As delicious as the turnips are, Puglians love the sprouting green turnip tops (cime di rapa) which have not flowered, serving them with orecchiette pasta. The Puglian artichokes are rather special too, they grow with no thorns and taste very good too boiled and seasoned with vinegar and olive oil.
Puglian olive oil is much more fruity than is Ligurian and Tuscan cousins, it also has a higher acidity than other olive oils, which is why it is often considered to be a lesser quality oil. Fifteen per cent of the worlds olive oil is produced in Puglia and there are regional experts who can tell the subtle differences between Puglian oils from different provinces, such as Bari, Lecce, Brindisi and Taranto. The varieties of Puglian olive oil take their names not from the estates where the olives were grown, but from the cities in which they are produced - "oil of Trani", "oil of Barletta" etc . . The most famous Puglian oil cities are Giovinazzo, Molfetta, Bisceglie, Trani, Barletta, Canosa di Puglia, Andria, Castel del Monte, Ruvo di Puglia, Gioia del Colle and Bitetto.
The fourth staple of Puglian cuisine are the products of the sea. Puglia's coastal proximity to the Adriatic provides the Puglian table with fish and shellfish. The regions fishing is still carried out using the old methods, small fish caught by nets, large fish caught by harpoon and in the area around Taranto mussels and oysters are farmed.
Tourists to the region often make a point of visiting the ancient Trappeti (olive presses) that are dotted across Puglia. Many of these ancient presses are set beneath ground in an ancient attempt to protect the oil from the regions harmful temperature fluctuations. Some presses are sheltered in caves, some are protected by stone walls and some are built in purpose built mills. The olives would be poured through holes cut into the rock and the pressed oils would flow along natural grooves in the caves floor. The main varieties of Puglian olives are Cerignola and Coratine. Cerignola is grown mainly in the southern area around the province of Foggia. These olives have been cultivated here since they were introduced by the Spanish in the 1400's. Cerignola can be either green or black and provide a very substantial pulp, their weight varies from eleven to eighteen grams. The Coratine olives take their name from the town of Corato but their origin in the region is still unknown. Coratine are grown in the provinces of Bari and Foggia, but also in other regions outside Puglia.
Puglians prefer raw food too processed. Bypassing oil production, Puglian farmers and labourers eat their olives alone with bread. But not just any bread. In northern Italy they make small bread loaves, fresh one day but stale the next, but in Puglia they make enormous round loaves that a intended to last for around a month. This tendency towards unprocessed and raw food even extends to the regions fish dishes. In the fish markets of Puglia it is customary to set out plates of raw shrimp, cuttlefish and mussels for customers to sample while they wait, with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon juice. On the the Puglian table you will also find dishes such as raw mazzancolle (a type of prawn), octopus, herring, sea urchin, starfish and tellins (cockles) all usually served simply dressed. Larger fish, such as mullet, are grilled but to what some of us would consider under cooked, about four minutes on either side. Such eating habits show the Puglians confidence in the freshness and quality of their regional seafood.
The oysters of Taranto have been highly acclaimed since ancient Roman times. Emperor Trajan set quality standards regarding oyster breeding, farming and harvesting, but with the fall of the Roman empire and for around 1,500 years after breeding of oysters in the region was discontinued, until is re-establishment in 1784 by Ferdinand IV of Bourbon. Taranto oysters can be identified by their green shells and according to experts they are some of the finest oysters in Italy. Even today there are enormous oyster, and mussel, farms along the Puglian coastline, where they feed on the high-mineral waters of the Adriatic. They grow here for twelve to fourteen months before being removed from their nets, sold and consumed.
Even though nowadays modern fishing techniques are used throughout Italy, some Puglian fisherman still practice the ancient method of Trabucco. Trabucco was used by Saracen fisherman hundreds of years ago. The Trabucchi are vertical nets with rocks tied to the bottom, which are lowered from ships, moored in the shallow waters of the Adriatic. Fisherman row out on rafts and use a special tube to look under the water for a school of fish to swim toward the shallow waters the nets are quickly hoisted and the fish swim inland, then the nets are dropped and the large fish are caught when they swim back out to sea. Most of the fish caught this way will be baked in a sea salt crust, using the regions own sea salt obviously. Salt harvesting has been carried out in Puglia since the fourth century B.C. At Margherita di Savoia, there is a five kilometre strip allocated to the production of sea salt, extends for more than twenty kilometres along the coastal plain, making this area one of the largest salt marshes in Europe. Seawater is collected in enormous basins and made to evaporate, using natural and non-polluting methods which have been developed in the region over many centuries, separating out carbonates on the one hand and iron, calcium sulphate and virtually pure sodium chloride on the other.
As well as mussels and oysters, a regional speciality called murexes (trumpet shells) are farmed all along the coastal region of Puglia. The Romans used murexes, well the substance secreted from their hypobranchial gland, to die their togas. The purple die from these mollusks was so expensive that most Roman state officials could only afford to dye a strip of their toga, rather than the whole thing. When Christianity began to use purple cloth to adorn their alters and shrines Pope Sylvester I began to use this precious dye. The high cost is due to the amount of labour required to obtain the dye, it takes around 10,000 mollusks to get 1.2 grams of dye.
Puglia also has a rich variety of street food. Puccia (soft bread stuffed with black olives), puddica (focaccia with chopped tomato and garlic) and taralli, a savoury ring shaped biscuit created especially for travellers can be found for sale throughout the streets of Puglia. Bakers in Puglia have always been master craftsmen, but unfortunately these great talents have not always been supported by Puglian authorities. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Puglian authorities decided to impose stiff taxes on anyone who owned an oven. The ingenious Puglian's got around this by building houses without stoves, using small homemade kilns to cook everyday food and then built communal outdoor hearths, for baking bread. If these hearths were discovered by the tax inspectors, mysteriously nobody seemed to know who had built them or how used them. The authorities countered by imposing taxes on windows, but the stubborn Puglians just bricked them all up, then the authorities gave up on the idea of trying to over tax the Puglians.
The typical pasta dishes of Puglia are the world renowned orecchiette (little ears), which are known locally as chiancarelle and poiacche. Much f the regions orecchiette is made by hand, even today, by pinching small disks of pasta between the thumb and forefinger. Other provincial pastas from Puglia include troccoli (from Foggia), turcinelli (Lecce), staggiota, like lasagne (Brindisi) and fenescecchei and mignuicchie, small semolina gnocchi (Brindisi). Many of these pasta are served with cauliflowers and anchovies, squid with mussels and basil or even with sea urchin.
The Wines Of Puglia
The ancient Roman's looked upon Puglia as a "Garden of Eden", it was a major supplier of agricultural produce and wines to the ancient army. Historically though, the southern part of Puglia is more heavily influenced by it's ancient Greek inhabitants, so much so even today the Puglian dialect is littered with ancient Greek words and it is this Greek influence that gives Puglia its love of grapes, not just for the production of wine but also as a dessert. Today Puglian dessert grapes are cultivated in fields covering almost twice the total area of all the vineyards in Germany combined (click here for more information on the Wines Of Puglia ).
Typical Dishes Of Puglia
Muersi - toasted slices of white bread with broccoli and peas, seasoned with oil and chilli.
Coze arracanate (covered) - mussels covered with breadcrumbs flavoured with garlicrgine , mint, capers, oregano and olive oil then baked.
Calzone - folded pizza stuffed with onion, tomato, garlic, olives and anchovies, fried in oil rather than baked.
Capella - a timbale stuffed with aubergine, fried zucchini, sliced meat, hard-boiled eggs and cheese.
Cieri e tria - pasta with chickpeas.
Cime di rapa - turnip top greens cooked with orecchiette pasta and seasoned with oils and chilli.
Minestra maritata - "marriage soup" combining meat and vegetables in one soup.
Bombetta (little bomb) - pork meatloaf stuffed with cheese.
Quagghiarebbe - lamb intestines filled with cheese then wrapped in telatta ( the thin mesh that covers a pigs stomach) and then boiled.
Verdure e pinzimonio - vegetable cut and eaten raw with a dip made from olive oil.
Caciuni - pastry ravioli stuffed with chocolate, chickpeas, vincotto and cinnamon then fried in oil and honey.
Susamelli - cookies with orange peel, tangerine and lemon juice, cinnamon, chopped almonds, vanilla and must wine then sprinkled with sugar.