Puglia, or Apulia as it is often called in English, is "the heel" of the Italian boot, including the steep and rocky spur of the Gargano peninsula projecting into the sea. It is the easternmost region of Italy, eight hundred kilometers of coastline stretching down the Adriatic and around the heel into the high arch of the lonian Sea and the Gulf of Taranto. This heel reaches out toward the Eastern Mediterranean, and at times the landscape looks and feels more like Greece than the softer, gentler Italy of Rome and the North. Especially under the harsh hrilliance of the summer sun - il solleone, the lion sun of August-you sense the connection with the Balkans and the East. Greeks were among the earliest settlers in this region, dominating the indigenous Messapicans, the Daunians, the Peucetians, as far back as Mycenaean times, perhaps even earlier. Taranto on the lonian was a Greek colony from the eighth century B.C., a flourishing capital of Magna Graecia, the great cosmopolitan Greek world beyond Greece itself; in Taranto's Museo Nazionale, you catch glimpses of the splendors of that lost world in the dazzling collection of antique vases illustrating in exquisitely painted detail the old stories of gods, heroes, and mortals, their lives so intimately entwined.
Puglia has known many conquerors since-the Romans, of course, and then the Byzantine Greeks, Lombards, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, and Spanish, the armies of the popes and of the German emperors, Bourbons who ruled from Naples, Turkish corsairs who harried the coasts, on and on, in a rich and mercilessly cruel history of conquest, betrayal, loss, and gain. Each incursion, each struggle, left its mark on this land, from the ancient dolmens scattered across the landscape to the baroque fantasies of cities like Lecce and Martina Franca. There are magnificent castles and citadels, like Castel del Monte, grand and enigmatic, an octagonal monument in alabaster-colored stone to what some say was the cabalistic vision of Frederick II, Puglia's greatest ruler. There are spectacular eleventh- and twelfth-century romanesque churches like the soaring seaside cathedrals of Trani and San Nicola at Bari, and rock-carved chapels and hidden grottoes, the walls of which were plastered by monks, saints, and hermits with feverish and apocalyptic visions. There are clusters of white-walled villages and fortified farms called masserie, set well back from a dangerous coast once beset by pirates and marauders. And of course there are the trulli, the characteristic vernacular architecture of the Murge, the high grassy plateau of central Puglia. Stone dwellings capped by corbel-vaulted roofs built of overlapping circles of flat stones called chiancarelle, the trulli are both disturbing and anachronistic, like the dwellings of a race of aliens set down in our midst. Traditionally, it is said, they were built of unmortared stone so they could be quickly torn down when the Bourbon tax-collector came around, then rebuilt just as quickly when he was gone from sight. Their roofs are often decorated with painted symbols whose meanings have long since been lost.
For all the richness of its history, however, Puglia is, has always been, a land of poverty, a land of emigration. Thousands of Pugliese left their villages for America in the early years of this century, many of them never to return. Almost everyone you meet in Puglia has cousins in America, and if you say you're from there, most people have a tale to tell.
"The California of Italy" is the phrase that chambers of commerce and tourist development agencies use to lure tourists to Puglia, but Puglia has something California lacks: a depth of history, a sense of the chiaroscuro of tragedy and loss, of the harsh side of life that counterpoints moments of joy and sweetness. There's a special poignancy to celebration when the ache of misfortune and sorrow underlies it: It seems significant that the pizzica, a woman's triumphal dance of seduction and conquest, is almost indistinguishable from the ritualistic rapture of the tarantella, the hypnotic trance-dance induced by the remorseless sting of a spider that lurks, one writer says, "in the labyrinths of a guilty conscience" and almost always attacks women, almost always those who have been unlucky in love or marriage.
THE FOOD OF PUGLIA
"La cucina pugliese nasce come cucina povera," says Paola Pettini who for twenty-five years has directed a cooking school in her native Bari: The cuisine of Puglia was born as the cuisine of poverty. What this means, she explains, is pasta made without eggs, bread made from the hard-grain durum wheat flour that flourishes locally, and a diet based on vegetables, including many wild vegetables like cicorielle, wild chicory, and lampascione, the bulb of a wild tassel hyacinth, foods that are foraged from stony fields and abandoned terraces. Meat is not much eaten and beef until a few years ago, was almost unknown on Pugliese tables, with horsemeat being preferred. For Christmas and Easter feasting, weddings and baptisms, Pugliese cooks look to what are called animale da cortile, farmyard animals, especially chickens and rabbits, although this rocky landscape being sheep country, lamb is the very symbol of feasting, as it is in most of the Mediterranean.
The food of Puglia is in essence a home-based cuisine, not marked by the influence of great chefs or restaurants. Pasta manufacturer Benedetto Cavalieri says that even twenty years ago, in his home town of Lecce, there were only a handful of restaurants, mostly patronized by commercial travelers and others who had no home to go to - or, Benedetto adds with a discreet smile, were dining with ladies they could not bring home. Restaurants like Concetta Cantoro's home-style Cucina Casareccia are newcomers to Lecce, even more so because of the chef-owner's rigorous insistence on serving that very home-based cuisine that is the glory of Pugliese kitchens.
Because it is based on home cooking, this is a cucina delle donne, created by women cooking at home rather than male chefs in professional kitchens. It is a cuisine without rules and regulations, based solely on what's in the family larder, which is then stretched and expanded to feed those who may show up al improviso, at the unplanned last minute. Thus, a recipe becomes a manner of speaking rather than a rule. "How much flour do I need for orecchiette for six people?" asks Adriana Bozzi-Colonna in a kitchen in Lecce. And her assistant Silvana Camisa replies with a gesture: Using her hands as a cup she scoops up a double handful of semola. "That's for one," she says, and proceeds to add five more scoops to the pile.
It also means that a recipe changes from one village to another, even from one household to another, without the cooks themselves always being aware of it. It's almost impossible to speak of authenticity when a word like ciambotta describes two entirely different dishes-a mixture of vegetables in Monopoli, a mixture of fish in Bari, just thirty kilometers to the north. And while some cooks insist that the only way to make a puree of dried fava beans is with a cooked potato mixed in to give it smoothness, others raise their eyebrows in shocked consternation at the very thought.
Such individualism means there are no culinary canons, yet there are certain givens: You know what something isn't, if not precisely what it is. You know it when you see it, or more exactly, when you put it in your mouth. "Did she use onions in the stuffing?" asks Nonna Rosa when I tell her about a scalcione, a double-crusted savory pie, made for me in a town outside Bari. "Ah, then she did it the right way. She knew what she was doing."
Pugliese cuisine is based on olive oil, one of the great products of the region. In any given year, Puglia produces as much as two-thirds of all the olive oil in Italy, and while much of it is shipped north, more of it stays right here to be used in Pugliese kitchens. Cooks in Puglia even deep-fry with extra virgin oil, something that comes as a surprise to Americans but is routine in many parts of the Mediterranean (Sicily, Andalucia in southern Spain).
Butter is rarely used in the traditional cuisine, and even some sweets are made with olive oil and often fried. And sweets, moreover, are not an everyday occurrence but associated only with holidays, whether major ones like Christmas and Easter, or minor ones like the Feast of the Dead (All Saints) or Shrove Tuesday, or locally celebrated ones like the feasts of St. Anthony Abbot and St. Joseph.
In this culture of sparsity, nothing is wasted. Stale bread is cut into cubes or crumbled and toasted in oil to make a garnish for pasta and vegetable dishes. Vegetables themselves, at the height of their season, are dried, pickled, or preserved in oil to eke out the larder in the lean months of the year. Figs are dried or boiled down to make a syrup, and grape juice, after the first pressing, is boiled to make a thick molasses called mosto cotto, to be served at Christmas poured over the fried sweets called cartellate.
Wild greens in great variety are still harvested, especially during the brief Pugliese winter when gardens are less productive and the wildings are at their best, tender and sweet. On misty days, when the damp soil yields wild roots more easily, you'll see elderly foragers, men and women alike, stoop~shouldered as they course intently over abandoned fields, often accompanied by grandchildren who are learning to tell good from bad. Lampascioni are so precious that in recent years, it's rumored, they've been brought in from North Africa to fill Pugliese market demand. Even the green shoots of the vine, pruned in the springtime in order to concentrate the plant's energy on the developing fruit, are soaked for a few days in vinegar and water, then heated with oil and garlic, mixed with the ever-present puree of fava beans, and served with crusts of fried bread.
Three dishes come to mind when I think of this cuisine, three dishes that Pugliese cooks have prepared for me over and over again, dishes that they themselves select as exemplary, and dishes, moreover, that are linked in their ingredients as much as in their deep roots in the culinary culture of Puglia. They are:
1. 'Ncapriata or fave e cicoria: A puree made from dried peeled fava beans (with or without a potato added), dressed with a thread of olive oil and eaten with steamed bitter greens, preferably wild chicory. The presentation becomes more elaborate with the addition of chopped red onions marinated in vinegar, fried or pickled green peppers, steamed lampascioni, fried black or green olives, and other condiments.
2. Ciceri e tria: Homemade durum wheat pasta (no eggs) in the form of flat tagliatelle or noodles (tria), cooked with chick-peas (ciceri) and mixed
with about a third of the pasta that has been kept apart and fried in olive oil until it is crisp and brown, with a surprisingly meatlike flavor.
3. Orecchiette con cime di rape: Again, homemade durum wheat pasta, shaped in the form of "little ears," cooked with the bittersweet vegetable we know as broccoli rabe or rapini, and dressed with oil, garlic, an-chovies, and perhaps a little hot peperoncino.
Grains and greens or grains and beans, what these dishes seem to me to have in common, apart from their antiquity, is their strict reliance on familiar, everyday, domestic products of the Pugliese countryside. Pure and authentic, they are what poor home cooks have relied on to sustain their families through the centuries. Neithem are they disdained by the rich, for Puglia remains one of those rare places in the world where rich and poor eat pretty much alike, except that the rich eat more of it. Fave (or broad beans) are throughout the Mediterranean la carne dei pover4 the meat of the poor. Along with chick-peas, they are among the oldest legumes known in Mediterranean cooking. Wild chicories and similar greens have sprung up in this dry, bleached landscape presumably since the beginning of time. Olives have been cultivated at least since the earliest Greeks brought trees to southern Italy. And hard durum wheat, while its origins are more speculative, has been one of the great products of Pugl ia's upland plains for centuries.
It's altogether likely that even five hundred years ago, the dishes on Pugliese tables were not all that different from what they are today, with one great exception the tomato. There are no early cookbooks to tell us when tomatoes were first introduced to Puglia, but whenever it was, probably sometime during the long Spanish hegemony, they took to the country's arid climate and bony geography as if God had always intended them to be there. Puglia's tomatoes are sweet and acid, dense with flesh and bursting with juice. They are available year-round, fresh from the garden, sun-dried and packed in oil, put up simply in jars, whether whole or in a sauce, or strung in brilliant red clusters that, astonishingly, if hung in a cool, dry place, will keep from harvest until well into the following spring.
I could add a fourth dish to the list above, although it doesn't fit quite so neatly into this tidy scheme. It is called tiella or taieddha or teglia, depending on where you are in Puglia and what dialect is being spoken. Into the tiella goes a mixture, a carefully structured layering of several ingredients that may or may not contain rice (this is the problematic part, as we shall see) but will almost always contain potatoes. Another element will be a vegetable, such as artichokes, zucchini, or mushrooms, depending on the season, and the final ingredient is sometimes bits of salt cod or more usually mussels, the Mediterranean black mussels that have been cultured for centuries in the Mar Piccolo, Taranto's inner sea. Food historians and writers, in Puglia and elsewhere, often suggest that this is a Pugliese version of Spanish paella, derived from the Spanish in the centuries when they occupied Puglia along with much of the Italian south. But tiella is really very different from paella paella is quickly cooked on top of the fire, while tiella is baked in the oven for quite a long time. Moreover, paella is a dish that was associated, until quite recently, only with the rice-growing area around Valencia and not with other parts of Spain at all. Rice is not grown in Puglia, and is not essential to the Pugliese dish. Still, spell and call it what you will, teglia, tiella, taieddha, tiedde, or something else, and put in it what you will (as long as you include potatoes), it's a dish that is confidently and unembarrassedly Pugliese, and I've included several recipes for different versions.
Late one night toward the end of my stay in Puglia, I was sitting at the supper table with my landlord Pino Marchese while his wife Anna put little Tot6 to bed. We were finishing up a platter of fave e cicoria, rubbing crusts of bread in what remained of the fava bean puree, and musing, as we often did, about Puglia and America and the differences, and the whys of those differences. Pino is a deeply philosophical man, though his life right now leaves him little time for contemplation. Still, when he speaks he's worth paying attention to. Moreover, he's traveled widely in Europe and the Mideast. "I think," he said, with neither pride nor exaggeration, but exactly like a philosopher ruminating on the business at hand, "I think this is without question the best food in the world." He meant not just what we were eating but the whole range of Pugliese cuisine, and he meant what he said.
Flavors of Puglia
Nancy Harmon Jenkins