Rich aromas of baking bread drifted towards me as I meandered around the streets of Lecce last week. Just in the shadow of an old amphitheatre in Piazza San Oronzo was what could be described as a farmer’s market, thronging with visitors. It was intoxicating, the musical sound of the Italian language, the hues and scent of the food.
Part of a multi-national delegation, I was representing the UK with two of my Embrace colleagues. There were Brazilians, Italians, Latvians, Spanish, Turkish, French and Romanians. One way or another all of these people present had taken positive action for their communities by volunteering, raising money or teaching. Vita and Francesco were our guides, very knowledgeable and friendly too.
The European Commission’s Grundtvig Project aims to bring life-long learning to all age groups and funds a range of activities including exchanges, study visits and networking opportunities. The project is aimed not only at learners but also teachers and anyone involved in education and training.
And so it was that the following morning, after meeting at the door of Instituto Antonacci (an institute for the blind which also doubles as a B & B), we embarked on what can only be described as culinary heaven.
Gianni Delana, proprietor and chef of Il Ristoro Dei Templari Pizzeria ( Via Ascanio Grandi, Lecce), stood proudly in front of us in his whites. Luigi was on call to help him with any prep. The restaurant had vaulted ceilings, very common in this region and the walls were a lovely mellow ochre. Will, our lovely US ex-pat interpreted in style.
Italian cookery is admired worldwide, the most well known dish being pasta of course. Originally dishes were made without tomatoes until the 1500’s when they were imported from the Americas. There is an abundance of vegetables in the cooking which is connected to the Jewish tradition. Catholic, Jewish and Islamic cookery came together with the introduction of legumes (pulses) such as chick peas. Chicoria (Chicory) and Augergines are very common being used in the delicious Melanzana Parmiggiana. (Mala – Insana : Not healthy!)
This is a deliciously simple Middle Eastern dish using boiled pasta, fried pasta and ceci (chickpea) soup: pure flavours, full of protein and yet no animal product at all. If you do fry the pasta, make sure the olive oil is not past its smoking point of 190 degrees, as this damages the molecular structure of the oil and ruins its health benefits as well as spoiling the taste. The pasta should be golden brown and crunchy when done. The soup can be made simply by frying chopped onions, adding vegetables and stock, spices, salt and chick peas.
Garlic versus Onions
While I was in Lecce, I noticed an absence of garlic in many dishes. Will explained that onion is used towards the Ionian Sea while in Northerly climbs, the use of garlic is more common: down to personal choice really.
Puglia, Campagna and Graniano regions are all famous for pasta making. The yellower the pasta, the richer it is in protein. Combined with lamb is common because it is not connected to religious rites and sheep were easier to raise on the local terrain. Salsiccia salentina o di Lecce, a local sausage is made from offal and comes from the need to use all of the animal.
To make pasta according to this region’s traditions, couldn’t be simpler. Make a well in the middle of a heap of local hard flour made from Durum wheat, pour in some water little by little and knead until the dough is elastic and pliable. Then make a ball and lay to rest for 30 minutes. Make your shapes (Oriechetta – Little Ears or Maritata – conjoined pasta), leave for a further 20 minutes to harden, boil in salted water…. There you go!
The use of locally grown olives in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, high in anti-oxidants, gives the food unique flavour and is used both in savoury and sweet dishes. Production started in 200BC when it was introduced by the Greeks via Sicily. Jewish culture forbids pork fat so olive oil was a convenient substitute. Surprisingly, the oils from this versatile plant were also used for lighting! Will explained that the further North in Italy you travel, the more batter and animal fat is present in dishes.
With Columbus visiting the Americas, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes became an important addition and changed the direction of Mediterranean cooking. The potato, which had just been an ornamental house plant before, was used to feed the starving during famine. Pasta and tomatoes became loved in Italy and were exported wherever Italians went. (Mac-Eroni: Noodles and Tomatoes.)
The origins of White Pizza are less well known. Its roots are from the Middle East/ or Egypt where people wanted a flat vehicle to carry food, such as ‘Pitta’ or ‘Piadina” which means flat bread. After the discovery of yeast, it was possible to create a light bread. Around this time humans evolved from hunters into farmers. This bread could be cooked on stone similar to Tortillas in South America.
Rumour has it that when Queen Margherita visited Naples in the 1860’s, the Neapolitans developed the idea of serving the national colours on a plate. This became Pizza Margherita and the National dish.
Green, white and red on the European table….Green for basil, red for tomatoes, white for Mozzarella!