Think of Italy and somewhere along the way images of food markets and colourful, sun-ripened ingredients are bound to conjure up. The Italians take food seriously and sitting down to eat it together is a daily ritual, so it’s not surprising to find that the birth of the Slow Food movement began here in the 1980′s. I wouldn’t call myself a “foodie” (in fact I’m still not quite sure what that phrase even means), but on a recent trip to Puglia, it wasn’t long before I started to look at eating in a whole new light…
The Slow Food Movement
“The fundamental right to the pleasure of good food”
The concept of Slow Food began life in 1986 as a wine and food association in Northern Italy, headed by Carlo Petrini, and was created to support and defend the enjoyment of eating good food at a slow pace. As fast food culture began to take root in Italy, the need for a counter-culture movement became more acute (Petrini unsuccessfully protested against the opening of a McDonalds in Rome in the late ’80s) and it wasn’t long before the association spawned a wider movement throughout Italy. Today this includes thousands of members around the world and has led to the creation of the world’s leading food fair Salone de Gusto; the annual slow food conference Terra Madre and the opening of the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.
The global economic crisis has resulted in both advantages and setbacks for the movement but Petrini is determined that good quality food does not become solely the preserve of the rich. In an interview with Leo Hickman in The Guardian in 2009, he commented that:
“Quality food has become a status symbol. The perception is that organic is for rich people and is a niche product. But I hate niches. That’s where you put corpses. Poor people always end up with poorer quality food and yet there’s this 4,000 tonnes of food being thrown out everyday.”
It is not an easy battle but Petrini’s visions for a healthier future involve farmers’ markets in every neighbourhood, and the involvement of the community and small local producers in the production of food (something which he feels would also divert power away from what he feels has become the fetishisation of food by the media).
The Slow Food movement is very much about reconnecting the individual with food, so they are empowered to make choices about the food they are eating, know where the ingredients have come from and that they are of the highest possible quality.
Market places and squares are central to many European towns and villages and Puglia is no exception. Each town has its own speciality dishes (with a focus on fish or meat or vegetables) and ingredients are brought to town fresh on market day, where local farmers and artisans come to sell their produce on a weekly basis. Supermarkets are looked down upon here (if you want bread you got to the Paneterria, pastries the Pasticceria, wine the Enoteca etc.) and the ones that do exist on the peripheries of towns are often deathly quiet and more expensive than the local shops. If you are in Puglia and want to cook for yourself the markets are the place to go - Perfect Puglia is a really useful site and tells you which towns are hosting markets are on each day of the week.
Puglia is known for a number of delicious regional dishes and is also Italy’s prime hotbed of pasta and olive oil production (around 80% of Europe’s pasta comes from here).
Pasta – the most notorious variety is Orecchiette which look like little nut shells and is made without eggs. It is usually served simply with olive oil, garlic and tomatoes to let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. other pastas include: Strozzapreti, Rotelle and Straccetti
Cheese – Mozzarella (usually cows milk) is a staple and is found in a variety of shapes, with Nodini (little knots) and Fior de Latte (small balls) being the most popular. Stracciatella di bufala is a fresh buffalo milk cheese which is made all year-round, and is best eaten fresh due to its softness. Burrata – mozzarella filled with soft, ripe mozzarella which has been soaked in cream – is also very popular and is much in demand in the city deli’s and restaurants of other European cities. Mozzarella aside, you can’t go to Puglia and not try some Ricotta, especially Ricotta Forte (literally ‘strong’ ricotta) or Cacioricotta (aged ricotta) which is extremely popular and often grated onto pasta in place of Parmesan.
Breads – Puglia is known as the breadbasket of Italy so you can’t go far without encountering a bread-based food item. Panzarotti (fried dough pockets) are particularly popular and comes in both sweet and savory varieties. Look out for Panzarotti alla barese, stuffed with tomatoes and ricotta or the honey/hazelnut or chocolate filled varieties served hot from market stalls. Puccia (pronounced ‘poocha’) is a delicious fire-griddled flat bread which is stuffed with olives or a variety of other ingredients. Other breads are baked with olive flesh and nuts while day old bread is often dried, baked and fired to create delicious Friselle or smaller biscuits which are sometimes strongly flavoured with olive oil, almonds or cinnamon.
Wines – If you visit Puglia in September the roads will be full of vehicles transporting grapes from fields to wineries. Pugliese wines are increasing in popularity and the Antinori family’s Tormaresca seems to be the local label of choice. I don’t usually go for Chardonays but Pietra Blanca, based just south of Brindisi, has a wonderfully oaky flavour and their Calafuria (Negroamaro Salento) is a very good rosé, but the one to really keep an eye out for is the Torcicoda 2011.
Olive oil – Pugliesi people know that producing good olive oil takes work. Everything from the variety of olive to the weather, the date it is harvested and the way it is processed can thoroughly influence the way an olive oil tastes. Industrial harvesting and processing can significantly degrade the oil’s antioxident and anti-inflamatory properties and so in Puglia there has been a return to traditional, smaller scale, organic production. Organic olive oil (olio di oliva biologico) has a delicious peppery taste and a good reputation here; to find the best quality oil it is worth visiting a Frontoio (olive press) directly. The Frantoio Fratelli Sisto on the via Ceglie (approx 8-9 km on the road from Martina Franca to Ceglie) is a family run press with very approachable owners who will happily show you around and sell you some olive oil if you drive up. Slightly more commercial but also creating a good organic olive oil is the Frantolio D’Amico near Cisternino (towards Casalini). You can’t miss the signs but they also have a shop in Cisternino itself if you don’t have a car.
Other regional specialities include broad bean or fava puree (Puré di Fave), zucchini flowers, pumpkin, bombette, turcinieddi and polpette.
To cook up your own Pugliese feast see here for some fantastic recipes.
Recommended Restaurants (all with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients)
La Cantina – Alberobello. This is in the ‘new’ part of town slightly away from the touristy Trulli streets and is a family run favourite with around 9 tables. The kitchen is open plan at the back of the restaurant so you can smell the delicious sizzlings of the kitchen and watch the dishes as they fly out of the kitchen.
Osteria Del Tempo Perso – Ostuni. This is a slow food accredited restaurant set in a cave near the peak of Ostoni’s beautiful old town serving up delicious seasonal dishes paired with reasonably priced recommended wines.
Cibus – Ceglie Messapica. The owner and head chef of this slow food restaurant has a close relationship with his suppliers and runs a laboratory for inventing new dishes from local ingredients.
Il Retrovo Degli Amici – Martina Franca
Dinner typically begins with a generous selection of Antipasti – this consists of around eight dishes followed by primi, secondi and a dessert. This is the menu we sampled on our visit:
Burrata with pumpkin purée
Salami with tied mozzarella balls
Pugliese breads and olive & almond biscuits
Tempura broad bean hot breads
Aubergine with tomato
Puccia with ham, cheese and zucchini flower
Roasted tomato and peppers
Bombetta (small balls of meat stuffed with cheese)
Pasta’s – typically Orecchiette with fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil
or pumpkin during September or October.
Roasted or Grilled meat. Here it was lamb.
Pasticciotto – pastry filled with a vanilla or chocolate cream. To make these at home see here for a recipe.
For more information on how to reach Puglia the slow but scenic way see here.
For advice on slow and chic places to stay, Charming Puglia has some characterful suggestions.
Last but not least a big thank you to Catherine Faris whose expert knowledge of the area put us in the direction of some wonderful Frantoi. You can read more about Catherine’s adventures in Puglia and of her fantastic company Pascarosa here