As summer draws to a close – the days shorter and chillier with that whisper of Autumn about them – we found ourselves longing for summertime to linger, just so we could say farewell proper. So, Anthony and I set out in search of sunshine (and good food, of course). We planned a short holiday, a mini-break you might call it, and settled on Puglia for our destination – that part of Italy where the seas are crystal clear and olive trees grow for further than the eye can see.
We were there for almost a week and stayed in the old town of Lecce. All sandstone buildings, rococo sculpture and soft, soft light. We had no fixed plans – the days just filled themselves, in that way that they have of doing when you’re on holiday. We ambled around Lecce, stopping off for endless granita – oh, how well the South of Italy does granita! – rich coffee, prickly pear, sour cherry and thick almond milk. And then so many more flavours, that I won’t bore you with by listing here. We poked our noses into churches, each one more rococo and extravagant than the next, and strolled through the grandest of piazzas with not a single other soul in them. We happened upon the quaintest of antique markets where signora Anna – a nonna to six grandchildren, as we were to find out – sold vintage linens, all made by hand in the old way and all beautifully embroidered. Sheets with lace trims, tablecloths embroidered with white rosebuds, pillow covers, hand towels and bedspreads. Things – as Signora Anna remarked, somewhat disapprovingly – from a time when people cared about their linens. Needless to say, we left with more than we could easily carry.
We drove to Otranto for the day and sat nibbling on taralli, sipping our evening aperitivo by the waterside. As the sun began to set, the whole town – from le nonne to the littlest of babies and every other generation in between – made their way in the water, socialising and chatting and all round having fabulous time. I regretted not bringing my swimsuit. We spent another day, wandering around Gallipoli, entranced by the faded buildings and the sound of the sea. There we stopped off for lunch in a charming trattoria, recommended to us by a dear friend. We sat alone at our table for two, perched on the rocks looking out on to the open water, and ate the most exquisite of seafood: ricci di mare – sea urchin, a local delicacy; orecchiette with cime di rape and vongole – pasta with turnip greens and baby clams; spaghetti con astice – spaghetti with lobster; and goodness knows what else. The setting was so stunning that I couldn’t help but feel we were living out a part in a romantic film – let’s call it ‘Apulian Holiday’, if for no other reason than because I can never resist a good pun.
As I find is often the case when we travel, the overriding theme of the holiday was food. Eating, more eating – and then, reliving each meal by discussing it in the minutiae. Anthony comparing every dish to how we eat in Venice – better, creamier, lighter, just different. Me rather more defensive – ‘well yes, this is good, but at home we pan fry it’. There is a gentle rivalry, you see, among Italian regional cuisines, and, as much as I love to explore and discover, I declared my allegiance to Venice a long time ago.
That’s the funny thing about ‘Italian’ food: it’s a chimera of sorts. Though you might search, you’re unlikely to find it. In its place, though, you will unearth a colourful collage of regional cuisines. Ask a Roman about Italian food and he’ll tell you tales of carcioffi alla giudea (which, by the way, are as much worth travelling to Rome for as the Coliseum). Ask a Milanese and they’ll speak of risotto cooked with saffron. There are of course, unifying themes. There’s a chorus that we sing throughout Italy, the food is local and seasonal pretty much anywhere you go. Just, somehow, it’s so very local and so very seasonal that what you eat in the east will be a whole other story from what you might dine on in the west. That, of course, is all part of the charm.
Now that we’re back home, we’re still talking about the food in Puglia. About the fava bean purée that we ate with the chargrilled octopus, the rum baba filled with custard and the petit fours topped with marzipan. I, for one, have been telling anyone who will listen about the sheer delights of the rustico: a puff pastry parcel of sorts filled with béchamel sauce, bubbling mozzarella and chopped tomatoes. It is a local delicacy in the Salento region, kind of like a tiny little pizza. But then kind of not like pizza really at all. Creamier and richer – and wonderfully buttery. I have baked rustici several times in the past few weeks. I’ve tried making them different ways and to different recipes – but my favourite is the recipe that I am sharing with you below. I use a dollop of crème fraiche in place of the béchamel sauce – this gives the rustico a lighter taste, which I find I prefer. Though, of course, you might just as well disagree.
Orecchiette, we have been eating every which way. With tomato sauce and aubergine, with black olives and with ricotta forte. But here with broccoli and creamy ricotta – a simple recipe, but none the less exquisite for it. And then biancomangiare. Oh, the sheer delight of biancomangiare! We sampled a small bowl of almond pudding (and I call it pudding for lack of an English word that better captures this heavenly sweet) in a tiny coffee shop in Lecce. By sheer chance: we had already eaten so very much that we would have declined dessert, had the waiter not insisted with such enthusiasm and charm. I am so happy that he did. So silky and creamy to eat, and somehow evocative of a world that has the charm and grandeur of that described in Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
There is something special about recipes gathered on holiday: however simple the dishes might be, they remain bathed in that golden light of memories and lazy days. They embody happy times like little else – it is a special kind of pleasure to cook them. And, for me, it is a very special kind of pleasure to relive those last days of summer on the Apulian coast.
(Miniature Mozzarella and Tomato Puff Pastry Pies)
Prep Time: 20 mins
Cook Time: 25-30 mins
2 x 230g packets of ready rolled puff pastry
75g crème fraiche
300g tinned plum tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees centigrade and line a baking tray. Roll out the pastry and use a cookie cutter (approx. 10cm in diameter) to cut six circles out of the pastry. Lay them on the baking tray. Crack the egg into a small bowl and lightly beat with a fork, then use a pastry brush to glaze the top of the pastry circles with egg. Cut six more circles of pastry and lay them on top of the first set. This will make sure that the pastries rise up nicely when they cook. Then spoon a little crème fraiche on to each pastry round. Drain the tinned tomatoes, roughly chop and add them on top of crème fraiche. Roughly chop the mozzarella and add that too, being careful to leave a 1-2cm wide clear margin around the edges of the pastry. Brush the edges with a little egg, and carefully lay a circle on top, press down the edges to seal the pie (I do this with the prongs of a fork to help seal it really well, and it also adds a decorative pattern). Glaze the top of the pies with egg and set in the oven to bake for 25-30 mins or until golden brown. Best served while still piping hot from the oven.
Orecchiette con Broccoli, Ricotta e un Pizzico di Peperoncino
(Orecchiette with Broccoli, Ricotta and Chilli)
Orecchiette with cime di rapa (turnip tops) is a very popular dish in Puglia. Turnip tops can be tricky to source elsewhere and broccoli makes for a lovely (slightly less bitter) alternative. I’ve added a generous dollop of ricotta cheese too – mostly because my son adores ricotta, but also I find that it gives a creaminess to the pasta which is kind of irresistible. But you could just as well make this dish without the cheese. Likewise, if you can get your hands on some turnip tops – do try making the pasta that way too.
350g broccoli, roughly one medium to large sized head of broccoli
2 tbsps olive oil
2 salted anchovy fillets
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
350g orecchiette pasta
To make the sauce, lower the broccoli head into a large saucepan of boiling salted water and blanche for 3 minutes, so that it softens slightly and becomes a verdant shade of green. Roughly chop the cooked broccoli, toss it in a frying pan along with the olive oil, anchovies and chilli, and pan fry on a medium heat for 5 minutes or so, just so that the greens absorb the flavours of the chilli and the fish. Toss the contents of the pan into a blender and blitz roughly so that you have a thick creamy sauce. Now stir in the ricotta and set to one side.
Cook the pasta as per the packet’s instructions. When you drain the pasta in the colander, keep some of the salted pasta water to one side (roughly half a cup), and mix it in with the broccoli sauce. Then toss the pasta in the sauce, drizzle with a little extra olive oil and serve straight away.
Biancomangiare alla Mandorla e Cannella
(Almond and Cinnamon Cream Pudding)
This recipe is very lightly adapted from the recipe for pistachio biancomangiare in Angela Frenda’s beautiful book Racconti di Cucina – one of my favourite books to cook from.
1l almond milk
50g ground almonds
250g caster sugar
a handful of blanched almonds
ground cinnamon, to taste
Pour the milk and the ground almonds into a medium sized saucepan, and set on a gentle heat. Warm the milk for a few minutes, stirring regularly and being careful not to let it come to the boil; then add the sugar and the cornflour. Stir constantly for 5 minutes or so, until the milk begins to turn into a thick custard. Pour the custard into serving dishes and leave in the fridge for a few hours to allow the pudding to set and chill. Just before serving, roughly chop the blanched almonds and sprinkle over the pudding with a little cinnamon.