Warning: In our previous installments we have described brief moments in which we eat. Today’s installment is all about the food. Most people would probably save one culinary adventure per day. We have (wisely or unwisely) attempted to cram many into a single day. Such is life in Puglia, a bountiful region with hundreds of miles of coastline surrounding this peninsula which accounts for its wealth of seafood, greater olive, grape and wheat production than any other region in Italy, and a host of indigenous pastas, cheeses and meats. For travelers such as we it is both a blessing and a curse. A visit here awakens the culinary imagination and quickens the gastronomic pulse. Unfortunately it also threatens to expand the corporeal waistline. Perhaps a three day visit is not just what the doctor ordered, but at least it is something the doctor can object to.
We awake to the gentle lapping of the ocean against the cliffs below our window, but today the sun is not so bright. The skies are gray and rain clouds dart in and out. But the temperature is mild, perhaps 50 degrees, a veritable heatwave compared to the freezing, snowy weather we encountered here last February.
We drive to Gioia del Colle to meet Angelo, who will be our guide for the entire day, retracing the route by which we left him the night before. On the map the road from Gioia to Polignano looks simple enough. One heads east to the coast through the towns of Putignano (a town renowned throughout Italy for its production of wedding dresses), Castellana Grotte and then to Polignano a Mare. The previous evening we had not trouble finding Putignano, even in the dark. We smartly made our way from Putignano to Castellana Grotte without incident. However, it is a massive understatement to say that you simply drive from Castellana Grotte to Polignano to complete your trip. Somewhere along the way you slip into a parallel universe, a bizzaro world if you will, where your vehicle is powerless to drive in a straight line, uncontrollably turning right and then left, then right again, spiraling in ever tighter circles until the center cannot hold. You have entered the Castellana Grotte zone and although this town cannot possibly boast of a population of more than 20,000, you spend easily half an hour zigging and zagging to navigate through it. Entering the town from the northwest, you emerge an eternity later what seems like 50 yards away from your starting point, happily leaving this breaker of men’s spirits in the rearview mirror. If there was ever an argument for a beltway or bypass spur, certainly Castellana Grotte is the posterchild for it. Fifty years from now Castellana Grotte will have its own chapter in urban planning textbooks used at the finest institutions of public policy.
We meet Angelo in Gioia , kissing the ground as we pile into his car and begin our drive toward Santeramo, where we will meet the aunt of Filippo Mancino, our supplier of extravirgin olive oil. Filippo and Angelo have been kid enough to arrange for us to watch fresh mozzarella being made and Filippo’s aunt, who runs a farm just outside of Santeramo, has been making this signature cheese her entire lifetime. The drive is beautiful, with olive trees stretching into infinity and small stone fences lining the road. As we descend from the Murge, the plateau on which Gioia del Colle is situated, onto the plain that stretches into neighboring Basilicata, the terrain becomes rocky and then lush. The rain has given up and bits of sun occasionally stream through the gray sky.
We are greeted warmly by Filippo’s aunt a farm woman in her fifties and her eighty year old mother who moves with ease and who sports soft, ageless skin (it must be the mozzarella!). We are led into their kitchen which is connected to the cheese making area, a small sanitary area with some sterile metal cans and other devices for making various cheeses. Our mozzarella today, however, is a decidedly low tech affair. A simple plastic tub, filled with briny water is sitting on a stool and next to it, on a wooden table is a thick white mass the consistency of cottage cheese but smooth rather than lumpy. This mass will in a few moments become mozzarella, and has been made from a mixture of the previous evening’s milk and this morning’s milk from the farm’s cows. The milks have been heated to a temperature of 40 degrees celsius and rennet has been added. (When we ask about rennet we are told it is not a very “nice” ingredient. It comes only from the stomach of baby calves who are still drinking their mother’s milk. We are not quite clear how it is extracted from the cow, but we really don’t want to know.) The heated milk has been left to drain and has now settled into the light paste that is before us. The Aunt uses a knife to cut through the paste, mixing it up by cutting it (we are told that the word mozzarella comes from the old Italian mozzare which means to cut) and then placing it in a large bowl where her mother pours hot water over it. Using a long, flat, wooden paddle the cheese is rolled and pressed, moving it in and out of the water and over the paddle. The texture begins to change from a paste and becomes light and elastic, like a bright white wad of Silly Putty. The aunt shapes the cheese into a long flattened tube, tying a knot and using a knife to cut off the little tied pieces which she puts into a bowl of cold water. Alternately she rolls the mass into a small ball the size of an egg, gathering the edges together and tucking them away from view inside the ball. Asked if we want salted or unsalted cheese the mozzarella is transferred to a bowl of salted water and then we are each served a plate of cheese. A small glass of red wine and a piece of bread accompany the most delicious (and definitely the freshest) cheese we have ever had. The cheese has a mild taste, slightly salty but creamy and smooth. We finish our plates and are rewarded with another knot of cheese, Bill consuming six balls and braids of mozzarella so as not to be rude, dreams of Metamucil dancing in his mind.
We are told that the family raises cows only for the production of milk and also have a small stable of a special breed of donkeys. As we are preparing to leave, two donkeys are brought out for milking. The milk of these donkeys is very close to mother’s milk, we are told, and the family sells it to families whose children cannot drink cow’s milk.
We are feeling comfortably full, and it is time to head to Altamura to taste the famous bread from this city. The bread of Altamura is registered DOP and shipped all over Italy and around the world. Gianni Zullo, our friend at the nearby Viglione vineyard has asked one of his customers to show us around his bakery. It is late morning and the baking is finished for the day, but the shop is full of customers stopping in for a loaf of bread or a piece of foccaccia. We are led back from the shop to the bakery where bins of the famous bread are cooling and awaiting sale. The pane di Altamura is made in two shapes, one resembling a cardinal’s hat and the other a simple square. Some of the bread has been baked in the gas ovens in the bakery and others have the telltale marks of being cooked in the wood burning oven down the street. What makes this bread so special? Just the local ingredients and the regulated procedure for baking the bread. The ingredients are local durum wheat flour, salt, water and yeast. Extra yeast is used to help the bread maintain its freshness and one of the signatures of bread from Altamura is that it reputedly can stay fresh for 10 days after it is made.
The dough is mixed and kneaded in a huge mixer that makes Suzy envious and then set to rest for 90 minutes. Then it is formed and set to rest for an additional 45 minutes. The dough is finally reformed and set to rest for 5 minutes and then put into the ovens to bake with the doors open for 15 minutes and then closed for an additional 30 minutes. A very specific procedure, but with excellent results. We eat slices of the bread and begin to understand why restaurants in Rome would have the bread shipped up every day and why the baking is often timed to make sure it can meet planes departing for New York for distribution to restaurants there.
The bakery also makes a variety of delicious cookies and taralli. We go upstairs and tour the cookie facilities and are surrounded by bins and trays of cookies and crackers. Of course we are allowed to help ourselves and start snacking on simple biscuits, taralli with sugar and taralli with fennel. The taralli are a traditional cracker of Puglia, resembling tiny circular pretzels. The dough is made from flour, olive oil, white wine and salt and formed into little circles which are boiled and then baked until crispy. Fennel, rosemary or chili peppers can be added. Our tour has ended and we leave with bags of bread, crackers and cookies.
Angelo leads us on a stroll through the historic center of Altamura. We pass the Cathedral San Nicola and arrive at the Duomo which is much smaller than the cathedral in Lecce, but with an intricately detailed frieze over the doorway. We recognize the front arch depicting the last supper from the plaster reproductions we saw in Bari two days earlier. We walk a few more streets and out of nowhere Angelo opens a door and we enter a small osteria for lunch. Antica Osteria, Corso Umberto I, 58, Altamura, 080.311.8313. The Osteria is another customer of Gianni and he has recommended it to us for lunch. We are seated in a crowded room downstairs next to a couple who have brought their dog to lunch. We shift our chairs carefully so as not to disturb the dog but he is a bit grouchy and circles the table, finding a spot on the floor that is not so busy. The waitress is young and speaks in a delightful mix of English and Italian. We guess she doesn’t trust Angelo to translate properly. We were full when we walked in, but seated downstairs next to the kitchen the aromas have aroused our taste buds. We order orechiette with greens to start. When she offers the second courses we have a tough time choosing between the mixed grill of horse meat, pork and sausages and the bracciole (rolled meat) of horse meat cooked in a tomato sauce. We ask for a small portion of both and a salad. Once again we have way too much food – but we faithfully sample everything and decide just this once it is okay to leave a few bites behind. We skip the grappa but order a local specialty – padre peppe, a strong, thick, brownish liqueur made from walnuts. We return to the car and decide to go directly to Gioia del Colle and visit Filippo at the Mancino olive estate.
The olive harvest, which began in October was mostly finished in November (exclusively through the labor of Filippo, his brother and father and two other men) and the entire year’s production of Gravestelli oil, Mancino’s flagship oil made exclusively from the prized coratina olive, has been pressed and stored. A small portion of the crop has remained on the trees until now and these olives are to be pressed into Svevo oil, a blended oil with a slightly different character than the Gravestelli. We are fortunate enough to be at the oleificio at the moment when the Svevo oil is being produced and watch a vast array of machinery dedicated to extracting the prized oil from these tiny fruits. Crates of olives are poured into a chute and conveyed past an air blower which removes most of the leaves and twigs before sending the olives for a thorough rinsing and washing. The olives are then carried upward by a device resembling Archimedes screw, through a crusher which renders them to a goopy green paste. This paste then goes into an agitator where the olives recover from the stress and are churned for an hour then sent through the cold water where a centrifuge separates the oil from the water and the vegetable water. The new oil trickles out in a steady stream and the waste water is pumped to a holding tank outside, where it, and the composted stems, leaves and olive paste residue, are used to nourish the olive trees. Filippo is very proud of his production and talks often about the care and development of producing high quality foods and olive oils. He grabs a couple of plastic cups and pours us a taste of the new oil. There is no bread dipping here, just a quick slurp to make sure we get all the nuances of the taste. This Svevo is a great oil, with a strong, peppery taste. We look forward to its arrival at Bella Italia in the coming weeks! We taste a few of Filippo’s new products and review the list of pastas he supplies us we take a few samples of cookies and flavored oils and agree to meet for dinner in two hours, just enough time for us to drive back to our hotel and take a quick nap – hopefully just enough to refresh us for dinner.
Dinner promises to be an adventure. Angelo, Gianni and Filippo have become good friends and we enjoy tagging along with them and listening to their boisterous conversations and friendly arguments. No one can agree where to go for dinner and Gianni finally takes the lead, calls a friend and tells us to follow him. Unfortunately he is not sure where we are going and despite asking for directions several times we make several u-turns and finally end up at the Transatlantico Restaurant. Trav. Via Resta 1/3, Torre a Mare (BA), tel. 080.543.2486, closed Mondays. The waiter comes to the table and there is much disagreement over which wine to order and what food to order. It is unclear who won; perhaps the waiter simply brought everything mentioned. We start with a simple plate of stuffed fried dough and tomato mozzarella bruschetta. A platter of grilled octopus salad, pureed fava beans with baby octopus, fried fish in tomato sauce and octopus with potatoes in sauce follow. Our plates are replaced with clean plates every time we put down our forks and even more food arrives -- farro with shrimp, fried shrimps with raspberry sauce, broiled mussels with garlic and breadcrumbs and more fresh mozzarella. Just when we think we have arrived at the end of the antipasti course, our plates are replaced and a tray of sea urchins is put before us. Now this is a treat we have yet had the pleasure of enjoying and Filippo’s eyes roll back in his head as he describes with gusto how much of a delicacy these are considered. The spiny shells have been sliced in half like a soft boiled egg, exposing an orange cream inside which is scooped out with bread or eaten with a spoon. Both work for us and we enjoy the briny treat which is best described as tasting like the sea. A platter of raw seafood – clams, mussels, oysters and shrimp is delivered to the table. Raw mussels and shrimp are a new treat for us, but with a little lemon juice they taste great. A bowl of raw calamari does not tempt us, but we try a piece, which gets worse with every passing chew, its chewy, creamy texture expanding and filling our mouths in a most undelectible manner. One bite is enough. The boys are great company and we enjoy getting to know them all a little better. They haven’t been able to agree on a pasta course so we enjoy a bowl of pasta with shrimp in a light tomato cream sauce followed by a bowl of linguine with seafood. Will this never end? Nope. The waiter arrives with a three foot tray brimming with grilled calamari, shrimp and octopus. No matter how full we are we have to have just a bite – it is wonderful. All we have room for is coffee and grappa until the waiter brings a plate of hot, fried dough filled with pudding. We can always diet tomorrow.
So we say good bye to our friends and tell them that we will not return until we have time to recover from this food orgy. But we make many plans for travel together next time and the business we will continue to do with each other.