Chickpeas and Greens
In kitchens in the heel of Italy’s boot necessity has long been the mother of invention.
In a rural and traditionally hard-up part of Italy, Puglia’s cuisine is classic cucina povera (cuisine of poverty). This term might sound bleak and austere, but the spirit of cucina povera is improvising and making the best of what you’ve got from season to season. This limited palate gives rise to wonderful creativity in the kitchen. In summer the emphasis is on greens and fish, while in winter homemade pasta is preferred.
It also helps that the region’s staples like olive oil, vegetables, bread, pasta, seafood and lamb are of impeccable quality, which shines through in simple dishes.
Often flat and stark, Puglia is perhaps the most fertile agricultural region in the country. Here, through fierce summers and soft winters, olive groves, vines and durum wheat crops thrive.
Puglia contributes a hefty proportion of Italy’s wine and pasta, and also produces fantastic seasonal vegetables. As a rare Italian haven for vegetarians, a hallmark of the cuisine in Puglia is the unusual combination of fresh greens with pasta.
But the true symbol of Puglia’s food culture is the olive tree. Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. Olive groves cover vast swathes of the landscape—there are 240,000 farms and 60 million individual trees—and if you wander through one of these farms you’ll see wizened and twisted old trees with thick and knobbly trunks that give you an idea of just how old this industry is.
Olive tree cultivation in Puglia dates back to the start of the region’s colonization by the ancient Greeks, some 5,000 years ago. But the industry really took shape in the 1700s when tax breaks were handed down by Charles of Bourbon to any landowners who made space for olive trees. There are four EU Denomination of Origin of Production areas (DOPs): Collina di Brindisi, Dauno, Terra D’Otranto and Terra di Bari.
What’s exciting is the way the flavor of the oil changes from place to place. Collina di Brindisi oil is often a pale yellow hue and has a slightly fruity taste, while Terra d’Otranto’s product is a darker green and has a herby bouquet.
When it comes to pasta, the most popular variety in Puglia is orecchiette. It is shaped like a small ear, hence the name, and is great at holding sauce. Traditionally, orecchiette pasta is served with anything from horsemeat sauce to turnip greens. Strascinati has the shape of dry curled up leaves and once only furnished the tables of poor families, but is now served at the top restaurants. It goes best with a broccoli and chili pepper sauce.
On the coast, of course, the cuisine draws from the Ionian and Adriatic seas. In Bari for instance the local specialty is a baked rice dish with mussels and potatoes.
In the interior, where the land is rockier and less arable, herds of sheep are a common sight. Here in winter, warming lamb stews are served with crusty bread such as the the DOP Altamura, which comes in rustic circular loaves.