Market crazy you may call me, but before writing about other bounty from Brindisi, here’s more of what and how we are denied in our food, as if it requires a logistical miracle to bring fresh produce to England.
The Corso Umberto runs through the middle of Brindisi, the main shopping street linking the train station to the port – 15 minutes walk takes you from one to the other. Instead of boarding a ferry to Albania or Greece, stop a while, savour and stay.
Each block boasts at least two caffès, so a caffè is as you hunt down the central market – espressino for me. A favourite would be the Knights Templar Bar – if only one cannot believe a place could be named as such. Hosted by Sevi’, a man with a history of starting his cooking life in 1970′s St Tropez – think the making of ‘Exile on Main Street’ and you get to Sevi’s heart.
I’m no exile on main street, so I turn up left past the Nuovo Teatro Guiseppe Verdi to find Piazza Mercato – Brindisi’s central market in the old Schiavoni district. Stopping to marvel at the remains of the Roman villa open to view under the theatre, thoughts turn to beauty and form. Moments later I arrive on the tiny piazza which is home to the daily market known locally as ’Chiazza’ says Tony D’Amore, Promo-Brindisi’s energetic president.
Absence of pre-packs and the unseasonal are the first thrills in circling a good market. Happy traders is another. This is a farmers’ market in the true sense of the word, not the ersatz versions that criss-cross London, for the most part offering poor quality coupled with poor choice and visited in the main by those who can only look at food whilst consuming food. You must have seen them with ‘tall skinny latte’ in one hand and venison ‘burger in the other, as they trawl these markets in an ever depressing cycle wondering what’s to do with black cabbage or white beetroot.
Somehow quality and variety edges towards being a given in these markets because the shopping cooks will expect nothing less and will make known their acute noisy, gesticulating displeasure with no more a prompt than an apple picked too early, an unripe apricot, or a cabbage that doesn’t squeak loud enough.
Watch Italian, French or Spanish ladies (and menfolk too) at market for a short hour and you will learn to shop for a lifetime. Mine is no romantic vision, but one observed in hundreds of markets from Boulogne to Brindisi via Bourg-en-Bresse, on to Genoa and Valencia, Llanes and Étrètat, Castelnaudary, Cahors and then back up to Hamburg on a mid-winter early Sunday morning for the fabulous Fischmarkt.
We buy broccoli near daily in London for Junior and what a struggle that is to find undamaged heads with leaves that shout out “I’m fresh, feel me”. Savoy cabbage and cauliflowers are special down south – lightly cooked and served as ‘primo’ – we ate Savoy leaves wrapped around Cacioricotta and finished with a gratinée under a searing grill earlier in the week. Lost to come on eating around Salento where vegetables dominate the cooking style.
Artichokes are daily bread in much of Italy, the south included where a local carciofi variety has IGP status.
Puntarelle was love at first bite when we ate it Venice using only part understood instructions from a shopkeeper on Guidecca, a trader in Rialto and an unfamiliar recipe book found in the rented apartment – no Google back then, just talking to people and finding answers. Savvy helped too.
Happy coincidence has the Teatro G Verdi staging the opera ‘Il Mercante di Venezia’ on December 5, 2013 – so still time to book a seat and visit the markets.
Basil became part of my life since my harsh, yet truthful criticism of ‘industrial’ pesto sold in England led me to being invited to Genoa to judge at the World Championships of Pesto al Mortaio. Finding fresh basil on just one stall in Brindisi came as a surprise and I paid my respects.
More typical of the south is the wild origano (oregano) Forget dried oregano sold in alphabetically labelled jars and boxes from profiteering spice traders and find yourself sun-dried wild origano – most Italian grocers in England sell it and you may find it in Greek Cypriot shops too (there called ‘rigani’). One day it will surely appear in wider distribution and credit will unduly go to a TV ‘sleb chef (doubtless, as night follows day).
Sprinkle the tiny flowers, neither too sparingly nor generously, over grilled fish, or meat, game and poultry in final 10-15 minutes of roasting, or onto fresh cheese that’s first been drizzled with oil or clear honey – even grilled fruits like peaches and apricots take their lift from this wild plant and so the list goes on without even obvious mention of pizza and pasta, foccacia and soups.
Soups in the Italian autumn means legumi – dried ‘pulses’ (an unattractive descriptor for a delicious, nutritious food). Puglia and its next door neighbour Basilicata are famed for dried beans – ‘the meat of the poor peoples’ is how they are described by cooks, chefs and diners alike.
Potatoes are a treat. Across Italy they are served diced for roasting and they must they barely change colour in the cooking. Plenty fresh rosemary stirred through half way through roasting certifies the potatoes as ‘Italian’.
A dish of mussels, rice and potatoes was a treat at Brindisi’s highly rated Enoteca & Ristorante ‘Penny’ down near the ferry port on Via Francesco – more of which to come on Mario Schina’s fully starred restaurant without stars – because, it seems, he doesn’t want any.
Monkfish – Coda di Rospo – come with their livers exposed. In France the ‘Foie de Lotte’ is a speciality to hold itself up against fresh foie gras (I wrote about it from Le Tréport’s Municipal Fish Market where it comes as cheap as chips).
Red mullet (Triglie) is probably my favourite of all sea fish and one which carries so many memories of markets and fishing people – best for me, they are eaten like holiday sardines – fresh landed, small, whole, grilled and splashed with oil and lemon. Good bread helps any bone mishaps and compliments this little fish in a way probably enjoyed around the Mediterranean for thousands of years. Vermentino and Fiano also have their part to play with these little red fish.
Finally into a side street for meat. Vitellone – another meat we are denied. This is young beef where the beast is fully grown, but yet to mature and have the flesh turn a deeper red. It is mid-way between veal (vitello) and beef, hence the name ‘vitellone’. So-called ‘rosé veal’ found in English butchers, most now reared in Wales and Yorkshire, is not the same thing – neither better or worse, eat it and see.
Vitellone is to be celebrated, the meat being special to Italy’s livestock farmers and butchers – and not a marketing opportunity to appease animal welfarists who ask to stay clear of calf meat. London now has an Italian butcher specialising in this – again, another story for another time.
Like all good ingredients, take note from Nonna and make your preparation and cooking as simple as you dare. This typifies the real Italian kitchen – regardless of region, commune or province. Simple cooking is enlightenment. Why else do they smile so much down south. So many images from the Chiazza.
PS: Not a strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, now a bag of asparagus, pre-shelled peas or broad beans to be found.
Food miles see.