In this post, we’ll look into some foods from the regions of Puglia and Calabria. Like all of our posts, some meals were eaten at establishments, but most were made by us, from original ideas or recipes in our little van kitchen – likely though, with twists to the traditional methods.
You’ll find a lot of Italian food will be similar across multiple regions, sometimes with merely a different spelling, although there are certain dishes that are unique to regions. It’s tricky to sum up a region’s cuisine in a sentence, so we’ll look at some popular and traditional dishes and foods from these two areas.
You’ll also soon discover that there are as many pasta shapes as stars in the universe. We are not going to look into this, but I will link Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta in. It’s rather fascinating!
Our introduction to discovering some traditional Puglian food, in Puglia, was at a restaurant in Ostuni. We ate;
Parmigiana di melanzane tradizionale – an aubergine parmigiana. Needless to say, this dish is very much a Puglian dish. Made with layers of fried aubergine, mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce it is then baked.
Polpette di Podolica al sugo di pomodoro – meatballs (from a local cattle breed, podolica) in a tomato sauce. Very simple, but tasty! We were told this is a typical dish of the region, although we imagine this has only to do with the breed of cattle used for the meatballs…
Strascinate integrali con cime di rape, acciuga e mollica di pane tostata – a pasta of the strascinate shape (similar to orecchiette, just a little flatter) made with cime di rapa, anchovy and toasted breadcrumbs. All nicely matched with a bottle of locally produced Primitivo, recommended by our server.
We’d talked a bit about trying to sell some simple food from our van as we travelled, to help support our travels. This hadn’t really kicked off yet, still being early season and being in places that were either very remote, or that we felt didn’t have the right clientele. When we were recommended a butcher to visit, we thought this might be a good time to try it. We dropped by the Ostuni butcher and got a 1kg chunk of absolutely stunning Ostuni pork ribeye. We also got a chicken as we thought 1kg of pork wouldn’t go too far. Our idea was to serve ciabatta buns with a choice of BBQ’d pork or chicken, a puntarelle salsa verde and aioli. Simple, right.
We then set off to find a bakery we could get some nice buns from and a spot to set the BBQ up. We found a great little bakery in Lecce, and in broken Italian, ordered 20 buns to be collected the following morning, before searching for a spot. As we reached the coast, we came to a spot we thought would be ideal. It was a car park, tucked off the main road, with a path to the beach. And full of people! We stayed there the night to suss it out. Awesome we thought! We’re on to something. Early the following morning we collected the buns and headed back for the carpark, fired up the BBQ, wrote on our blackboard and then sat back to enjoy the sun.
We seemed to be getting a load of attention; people were curious, loving the smell and continued to try and communicate with us. It made it very hard, as our Italian is incredibly limited and we didn’t understand much of what the people were saying. We were getting good vibes from it, but still couldn’t be sure that what was being said was all positive. All was going grand – although we didn’t sell anything – until the police turned up. The worst part about it was they’d turned up, not to tell us to shut the BBQ off, but to give a car a ticket for parking in the wrong place! Unfortunately they also asked us to put the fire out. Very upsetting!
With slightly dimmed spirits, we indulged in some Aperol spritzes and began our travels south again, eating pork and chicken for the next fortnight.
The next couple of dishes we’ll look at involve the very traditional pasta shape of Puglia, known as ‘orecchiette’. It is in the shape of an ear with a little hollow formed with the thumb on one side, for all the sauce to gather in. It is usually served with an oily sauce, but we had a lovely lamb ragù already made so we thought we’d give the two a go together. As we were trying very hard to learn some Italian, we started naming the dishes in Italian for fun. This one we called ‘orecchiette con ragù di agnello e cicoria’.
We thought it was the perfect dish to serve alongside the wine that’s made from the most well known grape variety you can find in Puglia: primitivo. As we walked the streets of Ostuni we spotted an ‘Enoteca’ (wine shop), where we had the best chance to find our dinner-companion. We chose a fairly priced, 100% primitivo, (you can’t really get not OK primitivo in Puglia, let’s be honest!) Juicy, concentrated, full-on with blackberry and violet notes, as well as a good amount of spice for a real, grown-up profile.
The second orecchiette pasta we made was with an emulsified sauce of olive oil and white wine, confit onions, garlic and raw courgettes with a dollop of the Hungarian chilli paste (erős pista) on top.
As always, we try and shop from the road side stalls where we can, exploring what the local farmers have to offer. It was at one of these we got ahold of the Calabrian specialty ‘nduja. A spreadable sausage that is made with pork, roasted peppers, chilli and spices. Fantastic as is or even better served with fresh bread and olive oil.
Then we set our sights on discovering Tropea and the onions from this area. The onions grow on the clay cliffs surrounding the area and have a beautiful sweetness to them. Amazing, even (especially we thought) when eaten raw. Introduced by the Greeks, their cultivation was perfected by the Arabs while they occupied the land and the Italians have continued to grow these gorgeous onions, known as ‘cipolla rossa di Tropea’ or simply ‘cipolla rossa’ in Italian. Keep your eyes peeled for these gems if you find yourself in the area.
While in Tropea we made ciambotta – the perfect example of a dish that is known across Italy, but each region uses a slightly different name. It is a summer vegetable stew with not too many rules on what goes into it. Ours was made with tomato, aubergine, courgette, onion, peppers, garlic and basil. And olive oil of course.