The first exposure to the charming and delicious flavour of Puglianese cuisine was a simple snack prepared by the wife of Salvatore Mero, one of the partners of Accademia dei Racemi- some type of fritters with ham, cheese, aubergine and zucchini to go with the red Primitivo we tasted after visiting the vineyards and winery of Racemi.
Local Cuisine at Consorzio Produttori Vini Manduria
Next up was a set of dishes prepared by the Chef at Consorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, where we were treated to a sumptuous multi-course lunch-simple yet charming. Imagine simple wheat (grano) washed and boiled and lightly sautéed with salt, black pepper and onions! Very simple and yet everyone in our group took second helpings and more! Boiled and mashed white Fava beans looked like mashed potatoes but with a fried toast, they tasted delicious. Then there were sweet green, long peppers shallow fried in olive oil- very fresh and common in Puglia. Simply fried lightly in olive oil, they were very enticing at this lunch the first day and every other day. I could eat them like Lay’s potato chips!
Orecchiette are a distinctive Puglian type of pasta shaped roughly like small ears and hence the name, Orecchiette (Italian forlittle ears). They are slightly domed with an interesting texture, soft in the middle but chewier outside. The dough is rolled normally in water but here, the pasta was made with dough mixed with a small quantity of Primitivo wine, giving it a slightly purple colour and a different flavour. With a local sauce and a sprinkling of cheese and crushed ground bread crumbs it was a different, enjoyable experience. The fish as the main course was followed by stewed apple and the rather uncommon serving of loquat, the yellow, juicy, almost exotic fruit from India (actually from China originally) was another a great experience of simple, yet tasty Pugliese cuisine.
Apulia Opera Food
The novelty at this summer edition of Apulia Wine Identity was the gastronomic experience through Apulia Opera Food, which brought together 19 of the region’s best restaurateurs to serve one or more of their dishes at dinners –three of which were organised at Lecce’s popular restaurant I Vinceré. For 3 nights one could enjoy a 4-course meal with each course from a Chef from one of these restaurants, the objective being to showcase the local cuisine and the expertise and dexterity of the chefs from the region.
Giovanni Lorusso to Angelo Sabatelli, from Teresa Buongiorno to Ippazio Turco, from Angelo Silibello (Lillino) to Giuseppe Greo, Mario Schina and Agostino Bartoli, Apulia Opera Food showcased these chefs very well known in Puglia, and others. They had the visitors experience the diversified gastronomic expressions of Puglia; it was interesting to note many similarities with North Indian foods in a few of their dishes.
Each dish at the signature dinners was showcased through an audio-visual that had a few glitches in communications and it took a couple of days to keep the attention and interest of most of the diners. Apart from stretching the dinners, not everyone seemed to be interested in learning about the deconstructing of dishes. However, the importance of freshness of ingredients and presentation was well stressed. Wines were there to support the dishes though. (See the Gallery for each night at the end).
The dinner on the last night of the programme took us to the west coast on the small beach town of Porto Cesareo on the Ionian sea where the Cosimino Restaurant dished out the local sea food and once again plenty of wine to help enjoy the ambience, outdoors and bonhomie in the presence of several producers.
Open air Lunches
The outdoor lunches in a courtyard of the Santa Chiara Historical Complex that also houses an interesting Museum, were a mixed bag. Plenty of wines and local food to taste, the consistent hot and sunny days were not conducive to stand in the long lines, waiting for every dish, especially when it meant you ran the risk of some dish running out. The teething troubles would have been noticed by the organizers hopefully and they must have already gone to the black drawing board to make the interesting idea work better for most people.
The artisanal pasta from Cavalieri di Lecce, which is the darling of several Michelin starred and other high quality restaurants in Puglia and in fact the rest of Italy, did prove to be a hit. The cheeses of Aia Vecchia dairy farm may not be too popular internationally yet but are an essential part of Puglia food culture. Cold cuts, meats, olives and olive oils, the delicious fried fritters from the Gervasio family’s Spirito Contadino vegetable garden all saw varying lengths of queues on all days- even for second or third helpings, reflecting partly their popularity with the visitors of varying nationalities.
“The happy marriage between Apulia’s restaurants and wine industry epitomizes the core value of eno-gastronomic culture and of our business philosophy” remarked Luigi Rubino, the President of Puglia Best Wine, organizers of the complete event, who was present at each and every event. Denying that teaming up with the Apulia Opera Food was to decrease the average sponsoring cost for wine producers, he said , ‘we don’t want people to come to Puglia only to enjoy the beautiful monuments and edifices we have, but also to enjoy the gastronomical experience which is a combination of wines with our cuisine’.
The whole programme left a long and complex after-taste on the palate and the memory cells of the visiting journalists, some of whom were not hot on the ‘slow food’ at most times. They were critical of the non-punctuality on such events too. But once you accepted that as part of the culture of South Italy-and we from India surely relate to it and are even comfortable with it - the event was a lot of fun and a learning experience. For others, the organizers could well croon a popular song of yesteryears:
I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden,
Along with the sunshine there's gotta be a little rain sometime
….even though we were fortunate to have missed the rain during the whole trip and were welcomed by the temperature being in the 30s and soaring, but with a cool breeze blowing frequently.
List of Participants
Gallery : Lunch at Manduria on June 12, 2012
Gallery: Dinner at Masseria Bagnara on June 12, 2012
Gallery: Dinner at I Viceré on June 13, 2012
Gallery: Dinner at I Viceré on June 14, 2012
Gallery: Dinner at I Viceré on June 15, 2012
Gallery: Open Air Lunches 13-16 June