£25 single is the going rate for a London to Brindisi flight right now and landing there is the gateway to a place for all who are passionate about ingredients. No bonus points needed for witnessing artisan ways being taking forward by young heads and hands. Cheering stuff for this hungry traveller as 18 year old Orazio Semeraro here makes me knots of fresh mozzarella with fiori di latte. This is not buffalo country after all.
Take the twice weekly market in Martina Franca in the Valle d’Itria, a town rich in Baroque achitecture and narrow streets with a population just short of 50,000. The locals might treat the market as their right – that’s not to say they don’t appreciate how good it is.
Like other markets I know in Puglia, the shoppers often fail to realise there are places where no such abundance exists. Last year a friend in food who lives in Brindisi showed complete amazement that I found the small central market there to be anything special – that I can’t buy artichokes, fennel, peppers, cime di rapa and wild leaves in a city the size of London was beyond her ken.
Down there in Puglia the markets rely almost entirely on local produce – ‘Locali‘. Any goods from afar come from as close as a short haul by ferry and road from Sicily. Who needs to eat out of season when this much is on offer regardless of time of year.
Seeing strawberries from Policoro (Basilicata) – a small town probably little more than two hours away by truck – was as if they’d been imported from the Southern Hemisphere. I swear I even heard some tut-tutting behind me. Thanks be, seasons stay pure in most of mainland Europe – as long as we stay clear of supermarkets which seem to be on a mission to promote air miles and unripe produce. In passing, I noted bagged watercress from the USA in London only last week.
This is my 5th time in Puglia and it’s getting under my skin.
Waiting for my local contact, I take a caffè – I choose espressino, meaning a tiny, yet perfectly formed cappuccino. It costs 80 cents with a glass of chilled sparkling water on the side. Another €1,80 buys me a two hour parking ticket from a uniformed attendant who also has time to smile and joke.
Then to the market. This is a damp morning at the end of a February that has seen rain most days. The fields have standing water and yet pickers were out at 06h00 as I drove slowly by en-route from Monopoli up to Martina Franca.
I was like a man with his hands in chains. I couldn’t buy as I’d nowhere to cook and wouldn’t return to No 19 for three days. I console myself with the promise of the market in central Brindisi on my day of departure. I have made space in my case for as much as 8 kgs of fresh produce – given my case in the hold costs the same as me in the cabin on Ryanair.
First walking the market – how every market visit should begin – we find stall after stall laden with the freshest of Senape Salvagio (wild mustard greens), Lampascioni (edible hyacinth bulbs – here labelled as ‘Muscari’),
Of course – that Pugliese stalwart and all time speciality, Cime di Rapa.
Cime di Rapa – translated as ‘turnip tops’ in English – is at the heart of Pugliese home cooking. It’s best kept simple and cooked in with the orecchiette – ‘little ears’ pasta – and then dressed with anchovy, garlic and olive oil.
Friends from the region now living in London tell me of their Mamma’s Orecciette alla Cime di Rapa is compulsory eating when back home down south. Canned cime di rapa – labelled Friarelli (Neapolitan) is just about acceptable when the craving kicks in – it’s long cooked after all with the pasta. English broccoli or broccoli tops, cut thin are another alternative, but all fall short of genuine, fresh Pugliese Cime di Rapa. Avoid any that’s maybe travelled too long and has a yellow tinge to the flowers.
Fresh vegetables not immediately eaten are preserved at home, or by small artisan producers, as Sott‘ olio – literally ‘under oil’ – the old way of naturally preserving essential freshness with minimal cooking, sometimes charing and then covering with good olive oil.
Adding bay, peperoncino, rosemary, garlic, etc is then a matter of personal taste. Rarely a day goes by in South Italy without Verdure Sott‘ Olio being set before you. Artichokes would be my favourite every time, but courgette, peppers, aubergine, baby onions, mushrooms (wild and cultivated) come close up behind. Then there’s the short season local Lampascioni which is luxury indeed.
We are in a region famous for olive oil – at least it was until last autumn’s frightful disease brought about by a highly contagious insect-borne blight known as Xylella Fastidiosa. I’ve read of +75,000 acres of olive trees being affected across Puglia – that’s millions of trees, many 600 to ++1000 years old and still bearing fruit until last year. Scientists appear cautious not to apportion blame, but farmers say imported plants and root stock could the cause. The future is uncertain but young, old and ancient trees I photographed through the region looked in good leaf.
Since Noah, the olive branch has symbolised hope, then centuries on, hope is what we must do. If I dare have a favourite tree, then it would be the olive for sure. My guide through the Martina Franca market has olive trees and makes her own Pancarosa EVOO – she says she’ll be buying in olive oil for the kitchen this year as not one drop will come from her beloved trees growing close-by to Martina Franca. Luckily she has supplies enough of Pancarosa for the table.
Markets are about smells as well as sounds. Where fresh fennel were trimmed of their root and tops, the air around that stall was heavy with aniseed scent. I dipped my head into a skip where the trimmings had been dumped and mused for a second that it would have been permissible to charge for the experience.
Lemon aromas were proof evident of fresh picked lemons. Much of the citrus was handsomely marked (urban supermarket buyers would say ‘pock-marked’) as indicators of coming from the outer edge of their tree.
This is no more than my typical experience of markets I visit across Italy – north and south. Most sellers are passionate, want to engage and know how to strut their stuff. They know how to sell. Encouragingly, many of the stall holders are young, so suggesting a good future for local food.
Watching locals pick, point and banter with the traders I am minded of Philip Crosby (1926-2001) – the American management guru of the 1980s who gave us ‘Zero Defects’ and ‘Total Quality’. It was Crosby who brought to our attention ‘Expert Customers’ and ‘Expert Suppliers’ – a position when all goes swimmingly because both seller and buyer know precisely what they want, how to ask for it and how to deliver it. All shifts south fast when either customer or supplier becomes ‘Inexpert’, so opening the door for misunderstanding the brief, or how to best request their purchase. You get the drift. Here in the market all knew their call and were precise with their request
I checked the time and I was 20′ late for my car. I was told not to worry, all would be well. We walked back to the square to find a neatly folded ticket under the wiper next to the one already paid. It asked for 80 cents to cover the new hour. This is what I call playing for the same team.
Another story on another time as I move on through the Valle d’Itria to find out more about the famed Capocollo di Martina Franca – known as one of the very best capocollo’s – made on a hillside in nearby Cisternino. They even pipe in the local air to assist the curing.
That’s attention to finite detail – pure Blue Collar Gastronomy, pure Slow Food Presidium.
NOTE: My guide around Martina Franca was local food writer and cook Catherine Faris who also works with Southern Visions Travel – a small but special bespoke travel company, set up by Antonello Losito, who will fashion any trip you want in Puglia – www.southernvisionstravel.com. These are people who know their onions and all else. I know them as friends and nothing more.