That happiness is infectious we know. Mix happiness with bountiful treasures and life can only get better. Let me drive an Ape, and I am ‘appy. With an artisan as my guide, so I walked in sheer bliss through the large and busy street market in Brindisi’s Quartiere Commenda. This is no chichi Brindisi, but a run down district running parallel to the route of the Via Appia.
In its time around 300BC, the Via Appia was the longest, straightest road that had ever been built. It ends with optimism on the Brindisi waterfront leading onto the Adriatic with Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean as next ports of call. Two Roman columns mark the spot – one having been damaged some centuries ago.
Stand there for a while and one feels the rush those Romans most likely felt as they faced East and pondered the Empire.
My guide was Pietro Cerasino, an artisan baker (right of shot) whose family both grow and mill their own grano duro wheat for the flours that is the bread from from Lu Furnu a Petra much sought after across Brindisi – but more of the Cerasino’s family bakery soon. First we visit the remarkable fresh produce market of Quartiere Commenda.
Stall after stall of seasonal fruits and vegetables were ranged out ahead of us as we walked the three, close bunched lines of sellers that spread onto the road itself. If it was in season then it was there and of a quality rarely, if ever, seen in England. I try to soften my annoyance and dismay for the home side with the joy of the moment on the street amongst people I understand. I meet them everywhere, from Boulogne to Brindisi.
Artichokes grown in abundance in the flat fields of the Italian ‘Heel’ known as Salento carry IGP status – driving north or south of the Brindisi, never is one far from a field of silver-green, spikey leaved carciofi plants growing close to the ground along the coast blessed with salty winds off the Adriatic. Wind is discussed a good deal in Salento for here they experience the Bora, Mistral and Scirocco. Puntarelle is stacked high. So is fennel (Finocchio) as white as the November clouds above us that morning last week.
Cima di Rape is there in plentiful supply, as are fresh picked olives in both green and sweet options, wild funghi (alas no Porcini here – that’s in the other more central market off the Via Umberto where those with more money shop). Let’s take favourites each in turn.
Puntarelle is a bitter member of the cicoria family, just coming into season and close to impossible to find outside Italy. Freshness is essential, so tired Puntarelle is to be avoided even if Fortune smiles and you find some locally.
As good as the whole Puntarelle plant is edible bar the root base. Gently boiled or steamed with the leaves left long, it’s famously dressed with sauce of pounded salted anchovy, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. A food writer friend in Rome prefers to strip hers using a clever little tool from her market in or near Frascati – see www.myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com
We like ours served warm – tiède as it’s known in the French kitchen, this being the temperature when just about all foods taste at their very best. It was a marker from many past November’s in Venice, even though our preferred preparation is originally Roman.
Fennel has many preparations, but being served a plate of the freshest, aniseed-rich, ivory white bulb, with no more than it being cut into manageable pieces with the option of sea salt, was a delight of this recent journey to Salento. The simple dish came after the main plate as a digestive, much as one serves a salad of bitter leaves. The difference was simplicity – no dressing bar the sea salt. With over-priced fennel that doesn’t taste of fennel, it’s best to wait until you get down south to Salento so as to avoid disappointment from 2nd class supermarket bulbs.
Remember, those who stayed clear of Latin, ‘salat’ is the Latin root of what eventually becomes ‘salad’ via ‘salata’ and ‘salade’ – and it means ‘salt’. The Ancient Romans dressed their salads with no more than precious sea salt and being so close to the Via Appia, so were we.
Cardoons, natural and not bleached by tying and denying them sunshine, are there. All are fresh and firm – none have the hollow stems that are to be avoided. Stripped down to carefully remove the ‘strings’ on the outside of the stems, then blanched – cardoons and scampi are another Venetian speciality when made into a risotto. Always for me and mine, Italy is about simplicity of preparation of the finest ingredients. Cardoons would sum that up, much like artichokes, the two being closely related and coming from our ancient ancestors.
Tomatoes in this market come in all shades and shapes, from deep ripe red, to half and half, the to green. All have their place in the Pugliese kitchen, be they for a sugo, salsa crudo, roasting or eating raw. It’s not only Americans who eat fried green tomatoes.
Citrus there knows nothing of hideous petroleum-based waxing – the artificial sheen that cannot be removed from the peel however hard one scrubs. Oranges and lemons – agrumi – in their real skin colour are beauty again.
Those on the tree are worlds away from the fruits of dubious age in nasty nets in a supermarket near you. Always hunt down unwaxed citrus where you can – and celebrate the trove. In London, Jamaican oranges are to be celebrated.
Chestnuts are now a celebration across all of Italy – they symbolise Autumn, specially where there are no wild funghi. Roasted (‘Caldarroste‘) and served warm with sea salt is best – but as an accompaniment to game is not to be ignored. Look at the find below – a variety of bitter cucumber special to Salento.
The largest chestnuts are prepared with sugar syrup for Christmas where they become Marroni Canditi (Marron Glacé in French made from what’s called ‘sweet chestnuts’ in English). The largest are so precious, they are sold individually in the smartest confectionery shops in the Italian cities. Somehow this jewel status makes them even more desirable.
Artichokes symbolise Puglia and the Italian south – they do other regions. The Italian palate loves amaro – bitter tasting foods and drinks. They arrive to market in great bundles of leaf and stalk, to be trimmed only in batches when trade begins.
Peppers are everywhere and all are grown outdoors on soil unlike the bells imported from Holland we are offered in England at around 90p a piece. Also here are the tiny red ripe peperoncini sold in bouquets and used to flavour pasta dishes across the south.
Cima di Rape is a mainstay green of Puglia – the unofficially annointed national dish when served with Orecchiette pasta, traditionally rolled out and shaped with the thumb. Roll it again and it becomes Cavatelli.
Pugliese friends, absent from home, become tearful at the sight of a well presented plate of Cima di Rape as their mother would make them. It also loses in translation - ‘turnip greens’ conveys none of the magic that is fresh Cima di Rape.
Walking this market, a block away from the Ancient Roman’s Via Appia, I was struck at the high level of joy and happiness as traders traded and shoppers shopped.
As I photographed all we see here, nobody fussed and many quips were exchanged, with Pietro my guide paving the way. These were people going about what they most like to do – finding food for their families, chatting and joking all the way.
We joked of Christmas fruits that rattle in their skins, such is the time from harvesting to being offered for sale. Check first when buying any Christmas citrus – any that are baggy are best left alone. Better still tell the store manager.
Zucchini are virtually an Italian invention – they figure more in the Italian kitchen than the courgette would be found in France outside Provence. Earlier in the summer we find zucchini flowers about which I had an amusing exchange with the late Marcella Hazan only this year. I said I abhored the trend for stuffing the flowers, preferring them in the classic way, dipped in a yolk-rich batter made with acqua frizzante. When I next prepare them, memories of Marcella will flood in.
More joy as we find haricot beans – long and crisp to the snap. All in the UK are air-freighted from Africa and come ready trimmed as if to shorten their life still further. Here they are as they come off the plant. This is why in Liguria, the classic Pesto dish of Trofie pasta served with new potatoes and green beans is only ever served in season – Kenyan beans are just not an option.
Other fish was offered fresh, salted or dried – ready for the meatless Friday preparations for baccalà.
So too were eggs and fresh made cheeses. Everything was special except the prices. All was affordable even in these stretched times. The mood was 100% happy. So, why we are denied such food in England.
My journey through Quartiere Commenda lasted a long hour. “Is OK?” asked Pietro. What’s to say beyond “Si, si – va bene”?
The market was startling for its quality, variety and freshness. The one I visited the following day was the same. We are denied so much and the Blue Collar Gastronomy campaign for ‘No Compromise Shopping’ needs to get underway inspired by people driven by other than profit.
Moments later we were nearby at Pietro Cerasino’s family bakery at Via B Cellini 36. A fresh baked bread filled with tomato and local mozzarella was put still warm in our hands. His sister Ciara cut slices of foccacia to go. Cars pulled up and people started arriving at the window to buy bread for lunch.
The fire in one of the two stone ovens was lit and was like a metaphor for how I was alight from my morning in Eden. C’mon, enough compromising on our food. With the will in situ, we can make it better and bring the bounty of Brindisi to the UK. The Romans have already built the straight roads, the trucking is in place – so now let’s load those trailers with excitement at prices all can afford. Alla prossima!