Forgotten Flavours of Puglia
Somewhere between neat, tall rows of grape vines and the sea of shimmering olive trees with their ancient, disfigured and twisted trunks, I found myself in heaven. An intense blue sky and picturesque white-stoned towns only added to the already blissful atmosphere. I’m in Puglia. And more precisely, I’m slowly eating myself to death in Puglia. Not on purpose, but that’s just the way it’s done here. Food is taken seriously. When they say “antipasto” they actually mean twenty portions of the most exquisite, yet simple, fresh ingredients that will leave you with nowhere near enough space to fit in that plate of orecchiette you have coming up next. Not to mention the main.
The problem is that I want to be able to eat everything; it’s all so good. I know that it’s one of the cardinal rules here – finish everything on your plate and you’ll earn a place in the hearts of the locals, but I physically just can’t eat another bite. Well, okay, maybe just a taste of that marinated zucchini with mint. A bit of homemade sausage. A forkful of cavatelli with a hit of caciocavallo.
Then somehow they manage to convince me that I do have that extra space for dessert, a bowl of the freshest fruit you could ever imagine, plus of course a homemade amaro – this is the key to digesting everything you’ve just stuffed your face with – such as the fresh bay leaf digestif at our last meal, poured out of a frosted glass vase, deep green like freshly mowed grass.
This has gone beyond over-eating. It’s like a sport. I’m wondering if I stay long enough, could I train myself to eat as much as my generous hosts are offering? Last night I had to forego the dinner plans and went to bed with just a glass of water. This morning, I skipped breakfast (okay, I ate a fioroni, a local fig – the most luscious, jammy, fat fig I have ever had the pleasure of eating). This was all in preparation for our lunch: I had to be in top form, I had to feel hungry. The worst thing that could happen was to feel too full at the antipasto. We were going to Antichi Sapori, in between Andria and the mysterious Castel del Monte, to fulfill a much-anticipated visit to the restaurant of my dreams.
Recommended to me by my wonderful foodie friend Giulia, as well as my trusty Slow Food guide, Antichi Sapori has a beautiful philosophy behind it, or literally very close to it: a garden. The menu is prepared with the freshest vegetables you could ever ask for from the neighbouring garden looked after by chef and owner Pietro Zito and his father. The menu is carefully and genuinely reproduced from the ancient traditions of this region of Puglia in the High Murgia, respecting the products that were once the only thing between the people of this land and starvation – such as wild herbs and weeds collected by hand, grano arso, the left-over grains found in the fields, burnt by the hot engines of the harvesting machines but certainly more accessible than regular grains for flour. The restaurant gets bonus points from me for also using solar power and recycling the heat from their stoves to create hot water.
But on to the food… We start with an antipasto. I take a deep breath, expecting as assault of dishes, but instead the waiter brings out timely, well-portioned tastings of the best the rich soil and sun this corner of Puglia has to offer. A puree of fava beans, focaccia made with the smoky-tasting grano arso, delicately grilled sweet onions, baby artichokes cooked in ashes and another version delicately vinegared and scattered with mint, the best ricotta I have ever tasted accompanied with delightful candied celery, zucchini flowers stuffed with capocollo and ricotta then ever so slightly melted in the oven and finally, aquasala, similar to Tuscan panzanella but without vinegar and served with sweet, crunchy, round local cucumbers and the ripest tomatoes.
Every single vegetable burst with flavour and freshness, absolutely singing out in their respective dishes. I have never had such pleasure eating and tasting each single mouthful or morsel. That was just the antipasto.
To follow we had a puree of artichokes with thyme and ricotta salata, a salty, aged version of the fresh ricotta most people know. It was a beautiful dish of the freshest artichokes, undisguised by any other flavours until you caught a playful bite of ricotta. Then of course there was the orecchiette, the staple pasta in Puglia – little “ear” shaped rounds of pasta made with quick hands – made of that ancient, smoky grano arso, with a sublime sauce of tender zucchini shoots and explosive little chunks of grilled ricotta salata.
I never made it to the mains, which consisted mainly of mouth-watering mounds of grilled meat, including donkey, one of the specialities of the area. The waiter was terribly disappointed with me, but I did manage to find room in the second stomach I save for dessert. The quasi-cassata (almost cassata) is Antichi Sapori’s version of a famous Sicilian dessert. Theirs is made with ricotta and a delicate sponge cake base, flavoured with specks of candied fruit and toasted almonds and topped with a thin veil of chocolate-backed marzipan, it sent me over the edge. To finish were the on-house local – and extremely addictive – sugared almonds.
I was more than full. But it was all worth every single bite. No doubt the house digestif, a handmade alcoholic delight flavoured with torroncino (an Italian nougat), liquorice and coffee, will set things straight. That, and the very civilised ritual of sleeping the rest of the afternoon off – the heat, the empty streets and closed shutters means that you have no choice either but to go home, have a lie down and wait for the cooling breezes of the evening and the magical powers of the digestivo to be able to embark on your next meal.