‘Sorry Mr Gareth, I been back in Brindisi to eat orecchiette della Mamma‘ came a mail this week just as I thought about eating around Brindisi. It came from my new friend Vincenzo of whom more later.
Mamma’s food is the best food, like the man who told me recently that his mother’s Pesto was better than Pesto Rossi’s from Genoa – the one made by Roberto Panizza, Italy’s crowned King of Pesto.
“But of course it is,” I willingly agreed. “Your mother’s Pesto will always be the best there is.” He looked confounded as if saying “how does this guy know about my mother’s pesto recipe, the one she makes in Sheffield, England – and she not even hailing from Liguria?”
But sometimes even Italians have to dine out and that’s what a bunch of us did recently in the south of Puglia, in and around Brindisi. Rather than review each table in turn, let me talk of the dishes, the cooking and where we all talked up the most. A list of all appears at the end.
We’d flown in via Rome with Alitalia – ah, the delight of flying on a real airline again. A two hour wait between flights at Fiumicino was a delight gilded with that first Espressino one takes on landing, as if to remind yourself how special is this place called Italy. It was still early, so milk was in order, even in a tiny, rich roasted espresso.
Eire O’Leary (aka Ryanair) flies direct to Brindisi and the return fares out of season are affordable for a quick visit to Brindisi – that is barring half-terms, school holidays and all other scam-days when fares are spiked,
On arrival, an early meal must be Orecchiette Cime di Rape. See this as a rite of passage. You have arrived in Puglia. A glass of the rare indigenous red Susumaniella or the more available Negroamaro goes to confirm the contract like old time stamping your passport at the airport.
Cime di Rape (turnip greens) is a favourite at No 19 and local Italian Food Express imports the fresh greens by the box load in season. Other times too have come an allotment regalo gratis from our ebullient Pugliese baker turned grocer (droghiere), Anto’ Nigro. Like all brassica’s, the darker their leaf and more bitter the flavour, and so greater the health benefit.
Making brassica’s less bitter is a modern day plant breeder’s crime against humanity – like retailers insisting on selling ‘sweeter’ sprouts, or Tenderstem® broccoli – a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale. Why and who wants branded greens, devoid of natural characteristics ? A big thumbs down from Blue Collar Gastronomy for such pointless fiddling with Nature.
Italians value bitter (amaro) more than most other European cuisines. Since my first taste of the white and bitter Belgian endive (witloof). Those grown on English soil, like radicchio, lack any semblance to those grown where they’re valued. Radicchio appearing as raw leaves in pre-prepared supermarket mixed salads is just plain silly. Doesn’t everyone know that cutting a leaf bleeds it of any nutrition and flavour. Fresh is always best and most times entirely possible.
When I say made, our hostess started by milling the grano duro and tenero then sieving the flour before mixing with water. I’ve had pasta made for me many times, but never starting with the actual freshly harvested grains.
A masseria is a fortified farm and this one was established by the Salamina family – fortified because in the early days such estates were often raided by pirates from across the Adriatic.
Masseria is the Pugliese word for a fortress-like house and estate. Turreted with high look-outs, walled and sturdy was Masseria Salamina. Today it is residential as an up-scale Agriturismo with most of the restaurants food grown and reared on their land or locally.
In more roustabout times, food and people would be taken unless the Masseria could put up a good fight with the pirates and brigands.
Spaghetti alla chitarra was made by the lady of the house (left in photo above). A favourite of mine for its angular shape and mouth feel – made by rolling the sfoglia (a sheet of pasta or pastry) over a stringed box not unlike an oblong guitar (chitarra).
Visual clues to Venice were here and there – including the magnificent near-white basilica of the Madonna della Salute. We were only days off November 21st, the feast day for this church when thanks are traditionally given by those who were spared the plague that near wiped out Venice in the late 1500′s. A wide wooden foot bridge is built across the Grand Canal just for the day. Venice in November is Venice at her Serenissima-best, not least because we married there on a November 20th one year.
No Castradina for us at the Masseria - the traditional celebratory mutton stew for the Salute feast day.
Instead came Anti-Pasti and Primi plates of home grown vegetables, beans, pasta and meats. Special for me – unusual too – was blanched Savoy cabbage leaves wrapped around fresh cacioricotta cheese and finished under the grill with more local cheese, this time a little capocavallo. One piece every few months would be sufficient. I could imagine eating this after a morning out with gun and dog.
Another special meal took us into the hills at Ceglie Messapica and to the Michelin starred (2) ‘Al Fornello da Ricci’ where chef Antonella Ricci and her Mauritius-born husband, Vinod Sookar are at the stoves.
Coming from Wales, mountain lamb is a speciality to me.
All were skewered – spiedo – and set to roast in the wood oven. Sad for me and some of my pals at table, they like to cook their meat a few notches beyond à point – 2-3 minutes less in the oven would have been our choice.
All was good eating, including a evening visit to the hilltop town, La Città Bianca, better known as Ostuni. One walks up and up, from one enoteca to the next tiny restaurant, tasting as one goes. Everywhere is live music. The mood is party.
A local told me their 30-32,000 population rises to around 100,000 in summer, so popular is this lime white assembly of narrow lanes, cottages and churches. First established in 700BC, the Greek influences stay to this day.
Visiting with locals to meet only locals made Ostuni special and a World Heritage site. I can’t imagine her tiny lanes coping any too well with camera totting, be-shorted tourists complete with their unwieldly back-packs bumping into one and all.
Here we are at the end of the Via Appia where near hourly ferries are arriving and departing daily for ports across the Adriatic.
Five star ‘Penny’ was just plain cool. It was Friday and that meant fish. The story goes that the chef-owner has eschewed Michelin stars and other awards so he can focus on running his restaurant his way, not driven crazy by inspectors.
We see more and more establishments do this across Europe and I personally applaud the lack of ego. Some places just feel right and such a place is ‘Penny’ – said to be a joke on the fact no dish costs more than a few pennies. Time may have moved on, but running down the menu nobody could yelp ‘ouch!’ I cannot imagine a trip to Brindisi without a meal at ‘Penny’.
It was Friday and as we all craved fish, so the kitchen obliged. I was sitting with my new pal, Vincenzo Erroi who sent me the mail which starts this article. ‘Enzo is a local boy (left below) who is now sommelier at one of London Mayfair’s most exclusive clubs.
This is the man who has probably opened, tasted and poured more bottles of Petrus, Cheval Blanc, and Palmer than most in his trade. Champagnes like Dom Pérignon, Krug and Crystal, confides Enzo, are only served when ladies are present – otherwise big Bordeaux’s dominate choice with little call on Burgundies.
This passionate Pugliese likes to recommend big Italian wines when he can and so he takes me for a lightening quick tour of the bottles lined up behind us at table - French, Californian, Spanish and, pride of place, the big Northern Italians. We’d already been shown a câche of 40 year old Amarone – that was two nights earlier. Still we were impressed with Enoteca ‘Penny’.
“You always know you’re onto something really special in Italy when they import it from another region,” said Malcolm Gilmour – half of the Gallucci & Gilmour team that specialise in sourcing and importing foods from the Italian South.
This time it was the famous IGP red onions from Tropea, across in Calabria on the Mediterranean Sea down towards Italy’s ‘toe’. The Cipolla di Tropea are prized and celebrated with a Sagre each August. I read that one gelateria in Tropea has a Tropea Onion ice cream – I can imagine that being more special than shocking – much like the richly flavoured Camenbert recipe in Étrètat’s new glacèrie.
Next were fried, doughy panzarotti with baccalà, then an intriguing soup of white beans, with tomato and bread – bread comes with soups, pasta, salads for nothing is wasted. In Robert Freson’s ‘Savouring Italy’, it’s written “Those who waste bread will be condemned to as many years in purgatory as the number of crumbs wasted and will have to pick those crumbs up, one by one, with the eyelids.”
“Even placing a loaf upside down is not allowed. It would be like turning one’s face away from Christ,” said a widow dressed in black interviewed by Paola Pettini for the section oo Puglia and Basilicata where Italy’s baking traditions are strongest.
Back at the ‘Penny’ table came more mussels, in a dish with rice and potatoes as a Primi plate – another Brindisiana speciality where the potato ranks as high as already noted from my two Brindisi market reports. The rich fish broth used to poach both rice and potatoes was an idea to bring back to No 19 – remember this is rice in stock, not a risotto. Across Italy, serving starch with starch happens.
Salt to encrust fresh fish is special because today the salt can cost more than the fish. Firm, white fleshed sea bream (Orata), the most common fish to be cooked in a salt crust, was our Secondi plate.
Another time at ‘Penny’ and I’ll turn the page of their menu to order Il Crudo – fish fresh from market and served raw. As a break with traditions and a nod to travel, ‘Penny’ has a page of Sushi too.
In a land where citrus is blessed, so comes Sorbetto made fresh each morning at this restaurant set in a 12th century palazzo on the Via San Francesco. Over caffè came stories of Christmas approaching and one is for sharing in the best possible taste – what else from a Brindisiani table.
“Then he thinks about and realises that 1 month is too long, rips the letter up and writes: for 2 weeks. Too long! One week? Still too long! So he takes baby Jesus from the manger locks him up in the drawer and writes: if you want to see the kid alive get me a new bike.”
In all my visits, I have yet to go to a farm, house, factory or restaurant where there is genuine love for this linking that is so essential to life itself. With a land so bountiful and clean of the ravages of industrial back practice, why wouldn’t one give thanks.
Eating in and around Brindisi is pure joy. No meals are heavy and rarely does one leave the table feeling anything but satisfied. Slow Food talks wisely of Convivium. Such conviviality is found across the region.
I resist saying it’s all Greek to me. Instead I say ‘Torno’.
CREDIT: First photograph (para 3) by Robert Freson from ‘Savouring Italy’ – ISBN 1-85793-580-2
1) www.masseriasalamina.it – tel: +39 080 4897 307
2) firstname.lastname@example.org – tel: +39 0831 377 104
3) www.entecaristorantepenny.it – tel: +39 0831 563 013