Introduction

Introduction

By
Luca Lorusso, Vivienne Polak
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742708775
Photographer
Alicia Taylor

Puglia lies in the ‘Tacco d’Italia’, the heel of Italy. Originally ruled by the Greeks and later the Romans, Lombards, Byzantines, Normans, Swabians, Turks, Venetians and the Spanish, all of these invaders have left indelible marks on the landscape, culture and, of course, the cuisine.

Cucina Pugliese (Pugliese cooking), which has been described by many food critics as resolutely peasant in nature and spirit, is acclaimed throughout Italy, and more recently the world, for its uncomplicated and deeply satisfying, nutritious tradition of eating. It uses simple, affordable ingredients, which are sustainable and local. Modernity, time and exposure to other cultures and ideas have slowly filtered through the cuisine, but the Pugliese people are fiercely proud of what they have and recognise the benefits of eating this way.

Pugliese cuisine is often referred to as cucina povera, or ‘cuisine of the poor‘. However, don’t be misled by this simple title. The cuisine of the poor may have been born out of necessity and practicality, but it has a richness and complexity that far exceeds the number of ingredients or the simple cooking methods used.

The food of Puglia is based on using the freshest and most locally sourced produce, allowing the natural elements of the products to shine. It is the quintessential Mediterranean diet – regularly using foods from seasonal and local plant sources, with olive oil as the principal fat. Cheese and yoghurt are eaten daily, fish and poultry twice weekly and there is a low consumption of red meat. The use of spices is minimal, herbs are used to flavour the dishes and cooking methods that help to get the most out of the ingredients are favoured. Although authentic home cooking has sustained the farming folk of Puglia from ancient times, today, people from all social standings revere this honest food – sourced and produced locally – and choose to eat this way.

In the northern regions of Italy, eggs are an integral ingredient in pasta-making. However, in Puglia the tradition of making bread and pasta using only flour and water is a testament to the ancient Pugliese cook’s ingenuity. The orecchiette-shaped pasta reigns supreme as the signature pasta shape and is arguably the emblem of Puglia. Local durum wheat and fine semolina are used to make the wonderful breads from Altamura, Monte Sant‘Angelo and Laterza.

The vegetable garden is present everywhere in Puglia, from the largest production of cime di rape (broccoli rabe) in the country to fennel, zucchini, artichokes, capsicums, cauliflower, eggplants, leaf chicory, broad beans, cardoncelli mushrooms, lampascioni (wild hyacinth bulbs), broccoli, olives and grapes. Dry-stone walls delineate the vast swathes of cultivated land. The long hot summers and fertile land produce vegetables with intense flavour, which are a strong feature of this cuisine.

Puglia is the land of olive oil and is a top producer in Italy both in quantity and quality. There is said to be upwards of 60 million olive trees in Puglia. Every corner of this region is filled with olive groves full of gnarly trees, some of which date back 3000 years. The olive tree is affectionately known as the ‘tree of life’. The extra-virgin olive oil produced using Coratina, Cellina di Nardò and Ogliarola olives, among others, is reputedly the best in the world. As a child I recall fetching cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil in a large bottle directly from the tap of the press. The potent smell of the just-crushed olives in the frantoio (the place where olives are pressed) is a memory that has stayed with me.

With its vast coastline it‘s no surprise that a great part of Puglia’s cuisine is also based on seafood. The Adriatic to the east and Ionian Sea to the west provide an abundance of fish and seafood varieties, such as sea bream, octopus, prawns, oysters, anchovies, mussels and clams. Raw fish is a greatly loved dish in Puglia, and the region has been nicknamed ‘the Japan of Italy‘.

Puglia is also the largest producer of wine in Italy. Since the first settlers in the area, viticulture has been an essential and vital tradition of the Pugliese people. The region has been producing strong grapes with high alcohol content and, for this reason, other regions in Italy and France have been using Pugliese grapes to add more fruit and substance to their own wines for many years.

In the last 20 years or so, Pugliese winemakers have taken their viticulture destiny into their own hands, taking more risks as well as using new and innovative winemaking techniques. This is beginning to pay off with some excellent wines being produced using indigenous grape varieties such as Negroamaro (literally meaning ‘black bitter‘), Bombino Bianco, Pampanuto, Verdeca, Bianco d‘Alessano and Susumaniello, to name a few. But the jewel in the crown still remains in the most internationally well-known variety, Primitivo di Manduria from the Taranto area, southwest of Puglia.

So what brings a southern Italian man to write a book about his homeland with a loud, opinionated Australian girl with a Czech heritage? It‘s thanks to Carol, another loud, opinionated Aussie girl from a Polish background, who was Vivienne‘s best friend and travel buddy.

I come from a family of restaurateurs and was introduced to coffee-making at the tender age of ten at my sister’s restaurant in Verona. The smell of the coffee, the frenzy of the kitchen and the buzz of the busy restaurant lured me from a very young age into the intriguing culinary world. After many years working in various positions in restaurants all around Italy, in 1983 I finished a summer holiday contract in Rimini and took a crowded train back to my hometown in Puglia. I noticed a beautiful young woman across the carriage who approached me and asked, ‘Do you speak English?‘ I responded promptly, ‘Yes, a little bit‘ – which was the sum total of my English at the time! She asked me where she could get a coffee. I hopped off the train and frantically looked for some coffee to bring back to her. I returned triumphantly and produced two espressos and she was very impressed. Several hours later, after Carol and I had managed to somehow communicate through broken English and poorly spoken Italian, I decided to accompany her all the way to Brindisi port, where she was going to catch a ferry to Greece. In the end, I went to Greece too and the rest is history! Fast-forward to January 1985 – one of the coldest European winters on record – and I arrived fully clothed for a European winter in Melbourne, Australia, on a very hot, steamy summer‘s day. I was greeted at the airport by Carol and Vivienne holding homemade signs, welcoming me to my new life in Australia with Carol.

Carol and I worked for many years in the hospitality field in Melbourne and eventually decided to establish a cafe that served the simple food of Puglia. Cafe Latte opened its doors in 1991 and was an instant success. We continued to flourish, taking many trips back home to Corato ensuring that I maintained my close connection to my large family (I am the youngest of nine). Over the years my love and appreciation for all things Pugliese never waned, in fact quite the opposite.

I have always been compelled to write a book about Pugliese food and have shared my passion with everyone. My love for the food and culture of my birthplace eventually rubbed off on Vivienne, and the idea for this book came one evening after Vivienne and I had indulged in a gastronomic spread, shared with our family and friends. (The ‘dynamic duo’ was a term often used when Vivienne and I got together in the kitchen to cook.) We discussed how people need food to survive but, somehow in Italy, food, or the act of eating and ‘sharing’, is sacred. We decided that we should write a book about the Pugliese food we love to share with our family and friends and we set about doing just that. Vivienne began researching and delving into the history of Pugliese cuisine, recording ancient recipes and compiling my family stories and secret recipes.

We started out on this project in search of recipes from Puglia, and quickly realised that in doing so we would be able to preserve family traditions and reveal the strong connection between food and the Pugliese identity. We visited Puglia and, once people heard about our project, they jumped on board willingly and wholeheartedly – like Silvestro Silvestori from the Awaiting Table cooking school in Lecce, (where Vivienne and I ended up being guests on local Salento television), and Ylenia Sambati from YL Tours who graciously introduced us to some wonderful cooks and food producers in the Salento region.

We found that the traditional recipes varied from person to person and town to town. We zigzagged across the region from Gargano to Polignano a Mare, from Alberobello to Lecce and Ceglie Messapica to Otranto and Santa Maria di Leuca in search of wonderful produce, the creamiest cheeses and the sweetest fruit. The people welcomed us into their kitchens and sometimes revealed their prized culinary secrets. Sure, there are many restaurants with talented and creative chefs, but the real food history in Puglia is held by the mammas, who have been feeding their families with few ingredients and simple cooking methods and techniques and have created dishes that reflect the generosity of spirit and close-knit nature of the country.

Sharing Puglia encapsulates Vivienne‘s and my food philosophy of the importance of cooking for the pure pleasure and satisfaction of sharing something of yourself with loved ones. Of course cooking is not always only for pleasure but also a necessity. The recipes in this book are designed for people who are time-poor, yet still interested in serving wholesome food to the family, food which is both economical and delicious. We don’t believe in slaving over the stove for hours on end, but rather keeping things simple and approachable.

We are delighted to share these recipes with you – they come straight from the heart of Puglia, from the ordinary folk who live and breathe this cuisine. Our wish is that this personal collection of traditional recipes inspires you to share this little piece of Puglia with your family and friends.

Buon appetito!

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