Cooking in Italy has a peculiar quality which I adore. It’s as if I’m possessed by the spirit of a long lost and greatly missed nonna, who spends hour upon hour in the kitchen, creating, tasting, serving and enjoying. In this magical place, food tastes richer and more satisfying. Cooking seems to have a more time honoured, ritualistic role in daily life. And the somewhat regimented timetabling of meals mean they are not just a passing moment to re-fuel, rather, they define the very structure of everyone’s day. When in Italy, I sense a deep respect for food and a delight in it’s enjoyment.
In late December I spent two weeks in a particularly joyful kitchen, in a villa in Galatina, a small town in the area of Salento, better known perhaps as the heel of Italy‘s boot and the southern most part of the region of Puglia. The ancient stone walled exterior of the aptly named Giardino Segreto disguises an enclosed garden, with lemon, lime, orange and pomegranate trees and beds of rosemary, sage, parsley and bay. The sunny roof terrace, no doubt wonderful in summer, was still enjoyable in the relatively mild Puglian winter. Most of all, I was obsessed with the kitchen. Perhaps the best equipped holiday rental kitchen I’ve ever seen. I was in foodie heaven.
But living in this ancient town for a few weeks unlocked more treasures. The day after we arrived we went exploring, locating the necessities: a bakery, a supermarket and a local bar for coffee and pastries. By surprise we happened upon a string of men in trucks delivering fresh local veg to housewife occupied doorsteps throughout the town. We cornered one in an alleyway and were entertained and consumed as the local trader loaded us up with tomatoes, onions and fruits, and greens from the familiar (fennel, long stemmed brocolli) to the downright bizarre (more on that later). Laden with bags, and with a wallet that was only €10 lighter, we took our haul back to our villa.
We quite literally chased him down
I set about cooking. Not before a photo opportunity, of course.
The obligatory fresh veg spread.
The keen eyed amongst you might see we bought a load of bitter, over ripe orange tomatoes. Our grocer man had explained that these ought be cooked. Happy to oblige I set about roasting them in oil, salt and pepper, while I prepared the first of my many veg stocks for the trip. The tomatoes were to prove a valuable base for a tomato sauce which tasted quite unlike anything I’ve made from supermarket bought tomatoes. The bitterness was rounded out by the roasting, intensifying an intense fruitiness which underscored the other flavours in the sauce.
Roasting tomatoes and caramelising onions.
At the same time I blackened some brown onions in a pan, then roast them alongside the tomatoes. I’ve got into the habit of preparing base flavour ingredients such as these, as well as a good veggie stock as soon as I arrive in a holiday kitchen. It speeds up later food preparation and gives “thrown together” meals a deeper flavour.
Everywhere you go there’s a new dish to try, often uniquely local and deeply connected to the land.
Collecting inspiration for dishes in Italy is easy. Everywhere you go there’s a new dish to try, often uniquely local and deeply connected to the land. Puglia is perhaps the finest example of this connection I’ve yet found in Italy. The food reflects the terrain. This sun-kissed, fertile region produce most of Italy’s olives and much of it’s pasta. Goats are ideally suited to the rocky farmlands hence many of the cheese are of goats milk. On cheese: Puglia’s pecorinos and ricottas are excellent and ubiquitous. As is the Burrata.
The Burrata in Puglia is second to none.
The dishes of the south are heavily influenced by the omnipresent sea. Seafood is pervasive, squid and prawns are on most menu’s. Often served simply crumbed and fried or in a risotto or pasta. But I was most impressed with the more earthy dishes, evidence of a practical and connected agricultural culture which toiled the rocky fields. One which avoids waste: turnip greens or wild chicory stewed down to go with pasta. And one which makes use of dried and preserved ingredients like cheeses, olives and dried beans. A local classic is a fava bean pureé served with olive oil and steamed greens. Our local restaurant Anima e Cuore made a similar earthy dish from pumpkin pureé with the occasional salty black olive dolloped along the way.
Pumpkin purée with steamed greens and black olives.
We found it somewhat difficult to find a lot of restaurants which catered to the vegetarians in our midst, but did discover a number of dishes which were tasty and meat free, and to my delight, which I could copy at home.
Panzerotti: Mint and Potato Croquettes
Panzerotti is a mint and potato fritter, rolled lengthways, covered in bread crumbs and fried. This dish is as Salento classic, served as antipasto or as a snack with drinks. I could imagine it came into being when potatoes needed to be used up, flavoured with local cheese and ubiquitous mint. We first tried them at our local restaurant…
But I decided to make my own for New Years eve.
500g potatoes, peeled, boiled and mashed (with a potato ricer, ideally)
50g plain flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
salt & pepper
good handful of mint, chopped finely
100g grated sharp cheese (we used pecorino, parmesan would do)
Olive oil for frying
- Mix mash potato, flour, eggs, mint and cheese, use your hands if you like.
- Season to taste with salt & pepper.
- Roll into strips on a board dusted in a little extra flour. You can cut them into 10cm or 5cm lengths, depending on preference. Coat well with breadcrumbs.
- Heat a small saucepan half filled with olive oil until hot.
- Add your panzerotti, 2 or 3 at a time and fry until brown.
- Drain on kitchen paper. Serve hot.
Tips: Don’t be tempted to overdo the cheese as it can mean you’ve explosive pockets close to the surface which can pop while frying and ruin the finish. A potato ricer is a must if you want a good consistency of potato mash. Make sure the oil is hot enough before you add your panzerotti. Test with an off-cut.
I don’t deep fry that often, but on holiday it seems right.
These Panzerotti made a great antipasto on New Years Eve. I was too heavy handed with the cheese so some exploded.
It’s not often that a foodie is blown away at the site of an ingredient. I’d never seen anything like this massive veg. At first I thought it was a more lettuce like chicory, but upon closer inspection the base contained what looked like a family of alien sea creatures. These pods are what the locals focus on, so I removed the leaves and began to separate them. The classic dish is a salad, where the pods are sliced finely and served with a creamy dressing and anchoivies. I didn’t have the ingredients for this, so decided to improvise.
Galatina Chicory: anti-clockwise from bottom left: the alien like base, removing the pods, sliced lengthways.
After a little quiet contemplation and plenty of tasting, I decided to char grill the halved pods. Some I marinated in olive oil and garlic to serve as antipasto. Some I stirred through with lentils to make a pasta sauce.
Chargrilled Galatina Chicory and Lentil Pasta
Another favourite dish for which Puglia is known is Orecchiette. An ear shaped pasta which many restaurants claims as home made, occasionally by the “hands of maidens”. The texture is somewhat rough, as they’re rolled on breadboards with no flour. The shape of the pasta makes for a slightly denser bite while the convex shape ensures the accompanying sauce is well collected. Orecchiette comes with many sauces….
Orecchiette alle cime di rapa – orecchiette with turnip greens
Capturing the local tendency for practical food, turnip greens are used for a soupy, earthy sauce….
Oricchette with Spinach and Ricotta
Or for a lighter taste, with Ricotta and spinach.
Oricchette with Wild Chicory, Chilli, Garlic
A classic, punchy dish calls for it to be served it with wild chicory and that’s been sautéed in chilli and garlic. Extra chilli and breadcrumbs for added texture.
Oricchette with Brocolli
As it was winter when we visited it felt like a soupy, warming sauce was the perfect accompaniment for our Oricchette. I had a large bunch of Brocolli from our grocer man and plenty of tasty veg stock. Although it took a few hours to fully simmer down, it was worth the wait.
2 medium sized white onions, finely diced
1kg Longstem Brocolli, washed and chopped into 1cm pieces. Include any leaves.
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup white wine
salt and pepper
1 litre vegetable stock
Chopped fresh flat leaf parsley and parmesan to finish
- Heat a large saucepan or skillet with lid to a medium temperature
- Add a good splash of olive oil and the onion and a pinch of salt and caramelise the onion by reducing to a low heat and covering. Let this step take up to 20 minutes, ensuring you’ve a translucent onion and very minimal browning.
- Mince the garlic putting through a press and stir through the onion. Increase the heat slightly and deglaze the pan with the wine.
- Add the chopped brocolli and stir through for a few minutes, then add the stock. Season with salt and pepper.
- Bring to the boil then reduce the heat, place a lid on the pan and simmer.
- After 20 minutes check the brocolli: if your lid is not well sealed you may need to add more stock.
- Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Add the Oricchette, stirring occassionally.
- Boil for approx 12-15 minutes until al dente. Drain, but reserve the water in case you need to add to the brocolli.
- Bring the heat up on the brocolli, when bubbling rapidly add the Oricchette and stir through, adding some of the reserved salted water if necessary to return to a slightly soupy consistency.
- Serve, dress with parmesan and flat leaf parsley, plus a little extra virgin olive oil.
Orecchiette with Brocolli
Pasticciotto from Bar Leonardo
You can’t visit any town in Solento without trying the famous local pastry. Pasticciotto is like a custard pie; the best we found was at Bar Leonardo on Via di Solento, just a few minutes walk from the old town. They are served so piping hot that it’s best to bring them home to eat, giving them some time to cool down. These Pasticciotto are just delicious, filled with egg custard and a perfectly short pastry.
Baked fresh every morning, these delicious Pasticciotto are pure contentment. Short crust pastry with delicious crema filling.
In the months since our Galatina escape I’ve often thought back to the villa. The garden, the terrace and especially the kitchen. I feel blessed to have spent a delicious two weeks there and I can’t wait to return.
We stayed as the guest of Giardino Segreto. Available year round and sleeping up to 6 adults in a three bedroom, two bathroom villa. More information at http://www.homeaway.co.uk/.