Surrealism is a near daily overly used and, worse, largely misunderstood term. When you walk into London’s Queen’s Club, past three shiny patent leather black Maybach’s into a simple dining room overlooking immaculate tennis courts to meet Peppe Zullo – that’s surreal.
Maybach’s stand for vulgar luxury. Zullo stands for one foot on the soil, the other in the kitchen reality. A perfect surreal contrast. In 5 minutes of arriving I knew I was in for a treat – along with his colleague from Apulia (Puglia), Rosario Didonna (email@example.com) , their passion for their region sprang into action.
I told Zullo about my own passion for what I have named Blue Collar Gastronomy and, in a flash, he got the concept and exclaimed “Simple food for intelligent people”. A near perfect descriptor and one I’ll credit him with well into the future.
Like my workshops, Peppe Zullo likes interaction – he wants us to leave the comfort zone of our seats and get our hands into the sfoglia. But this sfoglia (the base mixture of all pasta) is very different. It’s dark grey and made from ‘burnt flour’.
As if Puglia wasn’t poor enough, like most of southern Italy between the two world wars and before, down there the people would go out into the fields to pick out wheat grains. Some say this hardship dates back further into the 18th century.
The hard wheat had been harvested and sent off to the mills and the straw had been burnt off – the needy discovered that with patience and a strong back, they could pick a kilo or so of burnt wheat grains to take home and grind for their pasta. This is farina brucciato - made from the grano arso – meaning literally ‘burnt wheat’. The colour is a dark grey/brown and yet the flavour is delicate, nutty and smoky - and no heavier than pasta made well with regular ‘Tipo OO’ durum flour.
Peppe Zullo (www.peppezullo.it) wants to bring farina brucciato back into Pugliese cooking and has plans for a pasta range under his name, made at a flour mill which effectively replicates the burning of the fields with fresh wheat grains. Sadly, don’t expect to find this in your local supermarket anytime soon – or indeed ever. Few in the UK even offer high grade, slow dried pasta.
We made orcchiette (‘little ears’) by rolling out the sflogia, cutting a 1 cm piece and delicately pressing out the shape with our thumb. Then Peppe had me rolling the same fresh sfoglia lightly and away from me around a strand of dried spaghetti to make cavatelli (like casarecce or strozzapretti shapes).
Leave to dry naturally for 1-2 hours and cook for just a few minutes depending on shape. I predict this pasta will sell on taste not only on historical novelty. My correspondent in Rome, Elizabeth Minchilli, writes of orcchiette made with grano arso in her blog: www.elizabethminchilliinrome.com. She rightly says in two decades of visiting Apulia, she’s found pasta made with burnt flour in only a handful of places and all within a tiny area around Bari.
We talked about olive oil – we all know that Puglia is Italy’s largest volume producer. They estimate that they have some 60m trees in the region – some anything between 2-3,000 years old. Just stop and consider that for a moment – these ancient trees which I have seen and touched for myself a few years ago on a road trip through the area are still fecund. The oldest can be an amazing 30 metres in diameter at the gnarled and historic base – imagine if we could encourage them to tell us about Greek and Moorish invaders, the Roman Empire and more recent centuries too.
I love the delicate and floral olive oils of Liguria and yet, by comparison, that beautiful region produces no more than 1% of Italy’s genuine olive oil.
All this and more about some of the fine wines of Puglia, were the domain of Rosario Didonna. Like all genuine foodista’s, Rosario can talk and cook – taste and talk. A day later we were talking together about octopus and a salsa of hot red pimentoes (photo below) - served with another local speciality which really took gold, if we have to use Olympic speak.
Crema di Fava – a simple ‘cream’ of sun-dried fava beans soaked for around 3 hours and then cooked in plain water, 3:1 water to beans. In passing I mentioned I’d recently met Peppe Zullo to English food writer, Christine Smallwood – she had too and rightly afforded him a chunky section in her magical ‘An Appetite for Puglia’ (www.appetiteforpuglia.com). Seeing the shots of him in his restaurant and cook school in Orsara di Puglia, as well as his extensive gardens, brings all he talks of into sharp focus.
Another of Zullo’s comments which specially resonates with me is “Flavours are killed with gadgets…………………….our hands are our treasures – le nostre mani sono un tesoro“.
A Japanese engineer once told me that for all the advances with robotics, nothing yet could be made to perfectly replicate our hands in the kitchen.
Another old trick, learned from my gastronomic late brother-in-law, Agustin Casanova, is to ‘frighten’ the beans, meaning throwing in a little cold water three times as the pan comes back up to the boil. It works every time and I’m yet to read of the technique.
Zullo rightly calls legumes ‘the meat of poor people’ – high in protein and without fat or any other downsides linked to animal proteins – and I write this as a confirmed carnivore who loves both routes to flavour.
When the water is absorbed and the beans cooked through – always taste and follow your palate – this is no exact science – leave to cool before liquidising with EV olive oil – Pugliese of course. We buy ours inexpensively from the barrel in 1 litre returnable bottles from our local Pugliese, Antonio Nigro at Gennaro’s Delicatessen (Lewisham SE13 6BG – now on www.italianfoodexpress.co.uk).
Serve the Crema di Fava with thin sour dough toasts and wild rocket – Peppe had brought over wild chicory which was another treat, not dissimilar to dandelion leaf. Remember too, the Pugliese are regarded as Italy’s best bread makers.
Another treat from Zullo’s province was a goat’s milk ricotta – Cialilicotto, or Cacioricotta - served with the ripest cherry tomatoes (sometimes called pomodorini di colline) and the wild chicory in place of the basil. This was Peppe Zullo’s typically tongue-in-cheeky Apulian take on the more famous Insalata Caprese(tomato, mozzarella and basil -tricolore like the national flag and at one time called ‘Insalata di Frank Sinatra’ as it was reckoned to be one of Old Blue Eyes’ favourite dishes).
The wines were numerous and all expressed their long sunshine hours – the longest 360° sunshine hours in all Italy – meaning the rays come from every direction. I should have already said, the whole splendid learning was made possible by one Rome-born, Perugia educated Antonio Tomassini who directs Wine & Food Promotions.
Perhaps one of the most ancient grape varieties of the region is Primitivo di Salento - said to have been brought there by the Greeks, but with origins going back further into Persia and the Ancient World that brought to Europe what we delight in as gastronomy. Some vines are so old they produce just a half kilo of grapes per season.
A slice of Cacioricotta, finely drizzled with Zullo’s home made Mosto Cotto ( sometimes called Vincotto) has one spending a few moments in Apulian Heaven. I said so and he immediately wrapped the jar in a napkin and stuffed into my case.