Porto Badisco, on the eastern coast of Salento and just south of Otranto, is certainly a place of beauty. Its cove is a haven for beach lovers. In the summer, the sandy shores along the inlet fill up with sun bathers, and swimmers and snorkelers dot its glimmering turquoise waters. This place is also one of myth and history. According to Virgil, Porto Badisco is the place where Italy's founder, Aeneas, first landed after fleeing Troy. Also nearby, a little past the cove, is the Grotta dei Cervi (Caves of the Deer) dating back to 4,000 B.C. In the caves are sketchings and drawings from the Neolithic Age and the first inhabitants of the area. Many of the sketches are of deer; hence the name. On a clear day looking out across the Adriatic Sea, one can see the shores of Greece and Albania.
As it was March and not yet beach weather, we made a short visit to Porto Badisco, specifically for one of its delicacies. What do you eat when you're at Porto Badisco? Sea Urchins! Freshly caught in and around the inlet, these ricci di mare (their name in Italian) are the pride of the area. Locals brag that the ricci here are the tastiest among all the others in Italy. Their flavor is due to the particular combination of elements surrounding the coastline and those within the waters and along the cove. In the summer, people eat the urchins by the hundreds, buying them at the local market just south of the cove or diving for them. The edible parts are the colorful strips that line one side of the shell. Often called the roe, this orange flesh is actually the organ that produces the eggs, its sex glands, or its gonads.
There are several traditional ways to eat them, with pasta, slathered on bread alone or with provolone cheese, or with a small spoon to lift out the flesh. Everyone assured me that the best way to eat them, however, is without any help, but instead to lap up the flesh with my tongue. At first, I was a little apprehensive and a little worried my aim might not be that good. I timidly placed my tongue inside the urchin, fearing I would miss and hit the outer spines.
All went well, and they were right. By extracting the flesh out with my tongue, the flavors instantly hit me - a creaminess combined with the fresh and salty sea water. The flesh has the texture of panna cotta. It is creamy and a little gelatinous, and acted as a conduit, transporting and coating my mouth and tongue with the flavors of the urchin, the sea and a little of Porto Badisco. Fresh, salty, tangy and intense, the tastes tingled inside me, and I immediately craved another. No wonder people order hundreds of these at a time.
Join me in Puglia in 2013! For this food lover's culinary tour, we'll be cooking with our beautiful Italian mamme (and professional chefs). We'll also be eating and exploring our way through the region. There are four tour dates available from which to choose! For tour details, check out this page: Culinary Tours in Puglia 2013!
***Early booking discount: Book and pay by check by January 31, 2013 and receive a $200 discount off the tour price.****
This post is part of Wanderfood Wednesdays, a group of food-loving travelers who blog.
The photo at the top and the one of the market are courtesy of Ylenia and used with her permission. All other photos are mine, All Rights Reserved.