Driving out of the solid wrought iron gates of the blinding white masseria, our tiny fiat was surrounded by dry stone walls marking out the twisting road. Beyond the drystone walls, was a sea of grape vines, the tallest I have ever seen with their fading autumn colours and shimmering, grey, gnarled olive trees. So ancient that they would have been silent witnesses to ancient Greek philosphers, Roman nobles, bishops and Popes passing by. I’m in Puglia. I'm in heaven.
Puglia has a realness, a wild beauty. Like Greece, it is stripped back. It is all about simple things, done to perfection. At the centre of it all, is wheat, wine and oil. It is said that the cuisine of Puglia was born as the cuisine of poverty. One look at the olive groves, with their ancient trees, surrounded - to every inch of available land, with lush fronds of fennel, cime de rapa, chicory, cauliflowers and every other type of green leafy vegetable - it is abundantly clear that while it may have been poor, with simple ingredients, Puglia has created culinary perfection from such humbleness.
Pasta is made without eggs and bread is made from the incredible Puglian durum wheat flour. This region of Italy produces most of Europe's pasta and a large majority Italy's olive oil. It is also one of the biggest wine making regions in the world. As well as being seafood rich, Puglia is also abundant in beautiful wild vegetables like cime di rapa, chicory, fennel and lampascioni (a wildflower hyacinth bulb).
The richness of Puglian produce and it's cuisine could not have been more evident at the weekly market in Alberobello. This Puglian town is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was given this status due to the clever and unique architecture of the 'trullis' which dominate the town. These houses have a very real fairytale like quality. While many of the trulli now house small tourist shops etc, in the area of Aia Piccola, many local people still live out their everyday life in these beautiful, cone-shaped creations.
The market in Alberobello is held every Thursday, from around 8am until 12 noon. The market is scattered through the centre of the town, around Largo Martellotta. At one end of the market there is clothing and household goods such as hancrafted warm coloured terracotta pottery and rustic, hand woven wicker baskets. At the other end of the market, there is the artfully displayed local produce, which I had seen filling the fields. The produce stalls of the markets were overflowing with eggplants, tomatoes, zucchinis - proof that the sun shines right the way through Autumn in Puglia.
There were also lots of regional specialties such as cime di rapa and the intriguing lampascioni. I was tempted to buy some lampascioni, but advice that I needed to soak them and change their water for three days (with very limited kitchen facilities available) swayed me into purchasing the cime di rapa instead. The lampascioni would have to wait for another visit. In Australia, cime di rapa is known as broccoli rabe. Its best season is Autumn, and if you have not tried it before, its has the taste of bitter greens but with sweet tasting, broccoli-like flower heads. Selecting some lovely creamy coloured handmade orecchiette from a nearby stall, along with some fleshy anchovies resting in olive oil, I decided to make one of Puglia's signature dishes - orecchiette con le cime di rapa. For purists, you can leave out the tomatoes I have added. They are not traditional, but they looked so good at the market, I just had to add some.
3 medium tomatoes, diced
1kg carefully washed cime di rapa green leaves, woody stems removed
Garlic (to taste - we added about 8 peeled cloves, whole)
3 anchovy fillets
1 small dried chili
Heat a large frying pan, add a little olive oil and the garlic and allow to become slightly transparent and fragrant - do not brown. Add the chili. Then add the anchovy fillets and with a wooden spoon, help them along to gentley dissolve into the oil, chili and garlic. Then add the tomatoes and reduce the heat to a simmer.
In another pan, bring water (slightly salted) to the boil and then add the turnip greens and then the orecchiette, until the orecchiette is al dente. Drain, but reserve about an espresso cup of the cooking liquid. Add the liquid to frying pan and mix well for a couple of minutes. Then toss through the greens and orecchiette. Serve with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs.
The tall vines of Puglia produce some amazing wine. To accompany our orecchiette, we were seduced by a handwritten paper sign on a stall announcing "nuovo vini" or new wine. We were intrigued and purchased a small bottle. The wine we purchased is probably better described as “young wine”, it was very light, fruity and a little bubbly. Similar to French Beaujolais Nouveau. The winemaker explained to us that the "Vino Novello" had only just gone on sale, for the feast of San Martino, the grapes being harvested and crushed just a few weeks earlier. The wine had undergone an accelerated fermentation process and was tannin-free. It was to be comsumed immediatley - otherwise it would turn. This wine was so light and refreshingly different - a perfect match for the orecchiette. Eaten under the olive trees at the Masseria we were staying at, this simple dish and the new wine was a perfect introduction to the simple, clean, delicious flavours of Puglia.