I knew little about the Salento region of Puglia when I planned my trip last winter. I knew it was at the bottom tip of Italy's heel. I had heard it's known as the "California of Italy" and that the sea, surrounding three sides of Salento, was rumored to be one the most beautiful in Italy.
During my five-day visit, I learned so much more, thanks to the people I met while there. My friend, Laura put me in contact with several Leccese ladies who know their way around the kitchen and about the food scene in Lecce and the rest of Puglia. Thinking they would meet me for a drink and give me a few pointers on where to and eat, I was shocked and delighted over how they took me in and showed me around, filling my head with a wealth of information about the food, culture, history and more. Not only that, but they also welcomed me into their homes and kitchens, so much so, I felt like family. The last day of my visit I looked over my notes and couldn't believe all that I had seen, done, learned, and eaten in such a short time.
Leccese stone, menhir, dolmen, muretti a secco, masseria, frantoio ipogeo, friselle, sagne ncannulate, i maritati, pasticciotto, Albanegra, giuncata, cacioricotta, rustico, The Tables of San Giuseppe, Grecia Salentina, Otranto, Gallipoli. Only a month ago, most of these words meant nothing to me.
These words were only letters strung together on a page. Some having unclear textbook definitions; others not a bit of meaning. Now the words have meanings and images attached to them, of specific places and events and with people I will never forget. The words are as clear in meaning as the first words I ever spoke. They are a part of me, and I am a part of them. I hope to bring these and more Salentino words to life for you as I recount my adventures and introduce you to the people I met during my time with these ladies.
Pina, personal chef and culinary instructor, cooked for us a Salentino lunch at Cantine Menhir. I had met her two days earlier, and we bonded over food, of course. She told me much about the Salento cuisine, which leans heavily on vegetables, cheese, and seafood. A cuisine born of farmers and peasants, it's light on meat. We exchanged cooking ideas and methods. I shared an American recipe with her, and Claudia, my cheesecake recipe. One evening we popped into Pina's mother's home to warm up with some tea. Mamma sent me back to my B&B with a shopping bag filled with pasta, two bottles of tomato sauce, two types of bread and jam. ALL of it homemade!
The day at the cantina, Pina cooked five dishes. Vegetables were the shining star in each dish. I joined her in the kitchen. I would like to say that I helped, but that wasn't the case. Pina and Claudia cooked. I listened. Hopefully I listened well as Pina explained, in sometimes rapid-fire Italian, how to prepare each dish. Whenever a lost look of panic appeared on my face, Claudia translated.
Here's what Pina cooked:
Frittura Salentina - A sort of tempura, Salento style. The batter was flour and sparkling water. Pina tossed vegetables, broccoli rape and fennel to name two, along with apples into the batter. She flavored the frying oil with lemon and orange zest and bay leaves. Crunchy outside and soft inside, these fried treats were devoured almost faster than I could snap a photo.
Lampascioni - Pronounced (lam-pah-show-nee) - On the way home from lunch, they laughed because I kept talking about the lampascioni, verifying and reverifying the recipe. This dish is agrodolce (sweet & sour) sauce at its best. Lampascioni are hyancith bulbs that grow wild in the region. They resemble small onions, but are pinkish in color and have a much stronger and bitter taste. The sweet sauce balances out the bitterness. In a little olive oil, lampascioni and scallions are cooked, with garlic and bay leaves, until they are soft. A few cherry tomatoes and vincotto are added and cooked down until it's the right consistency and flavor. Vincotto is cooked grape must. The must is slowly reduced to produce a dense, more sweet but also sour, syrup-like liquid. The dish was To. Die. For. (Dopo l'ho mangiato, potrei morire.)
Verdure al forno - Pina boiled greens, chicory, broccoli rape, sliced artichokes, to start. She said you could use any vegetables you'd like or have in the house. Once they were cooked, she drained them and then sauteed them, the traditional way, in only a little olive oil. Nowadays people will saute a little pancetta with the vegetables. It tastes better, but is not necessary. Then the vegetables get layered into a casserole dish. In between the vegetable layers are a layer of grated grano padano cheese. To the top layer she also added bread crumbs, and baked it until the top was golden brown.
Pasta schiattariciati - Pasta with a sauce of squished (schiattariciati) cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes are "squished" while exploding in a covered pan of hot olive oil, and then basil leaves are added. After dressing the pasta with the squished tomato sauce, add finely grated cacioricotta (cheese and ricotta combined). The cacioricotta melts and gives each strand of pasta a creamy coating.
We finished with a colorful salad of roasted beets, blood oranges, tomatoes, and fennel that was tossed in a lemon and olive oil dressing. Clearly, I was busy eating at this point, as I have no photo of it.
Cantine Menhir provided their dining area, the food and their wines. The cantina, surrounded by an infinite stretch of olive groves, symbolic of the Salento area, has the appearance of a cozy stone cottage. Behind the dining area, is a lounge area open during the evenings with live entertainment.
Gaetano, the owner of Cantine Menhir, is pouring wines in the photo above. (Menhir is the name of the prehistoric structures found in the area, but that's for another post.) All of us worked casually in the kitchen, taking a few wine tasting breaks along the way. Our tasting started with a white wine, Pass-o Fiano Minutolo. Someone made mention of a Chardonnay while we were drinking it, but I think mainly to give a nod to my home region. For me the wine was fruitier than a Chardonnay, I tasted peaches, and was perfect before a meal. From there we moved on to the reds of Puglia, Primitivo and Negroamaro. With lunch we had another red, Albanegra. It was a blend of Aleatico, Primitivo e Malvasia grapes. It was lighter than the Primitivo and went well with our lunch. I adored it almost as much as the lampascioni.
Lingering at the table - sure sign of a much enjoyed meal (photo courtesy of Ylenia)
Claudia, Pina and I still chatting about the meal
An idealic afternoon in the kitchen and a delicious and leisurely meal. Grazie di cuore al tutto!
***You can meet and cook with many of these fabulous people from Puglia! Read all the details on the page: Food Lover's Culinary Tour in Puglia***