As we were preparing for this month in Italy, friends at home often said, “eat a lot of pasta and drink a lot of wine for me.” And while we have done our best to fulfill any outstanding obligations on that part, our week in Lecce has provided an introduction to a cuisine that is new to Pat and me, and it is to a degree related to the overall theme of this trip and blog: slowing down without becoming slow-witted, living in the moment and not always thinking about the next job or assignment. OK – that may be asking a lot, but let me see if I can make the point.
While Lecce is famous for its architecture, we have spent the past few days exploring the cuisine and agriculture of the area. We started by booking a market tour and cooking class with a group called ciao laura (www.ciaolaura.com), which offers classes throughout Italy. In Lecce, our guide/cook/mentor was a force of nature named Ylenia Sambati.
Here is her website: www.yltourcongressi.com
Ylena is a fount of wisdom about all things in the area. While our tour began with a visit to the local market and cheese store, she was able to fill us in on the local industries – which include alternative energy, aerospace and furniture in addition to agriculture – and specifically about the local cuisine called “cucina povera” – the poor people’s food. It is a first cousin of the “Slow Food” movement which we first encountered in Tuscany some time ago. It essentially consists of using local, natural ingredients, which in this case include – among other things – fava beans (often pureed,) rabe leaves (which seem to be related to kale in some way,) local cheeses such as mozzarela and burrata, tomatoes, the locally produced olive oil and wines. You go to a restaurant and ask if the house wine is good and they kind of jump out of their Italian shoes: “Negroromano!” (that’s the local grape and cause celebre. You can find wines from this region – Puglia – at home under the appellation Salice Salentino.
They have their own pasta – orecchiette, or an ear shape – which they claim holds more sauce.
We began our day with Ylenia, whose picture you can see here and as you may notice is a dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian beauty who might be in an Italian film or a Prada ad if she weren’t busy promoting this area. Ylenia worked for a while in corporate conferences, tourism and logistics before focusing her career on promoting Puglia.
We began by watching mozzarella being made at a family-owned shop, left with a tray of fresh cheese, and left for the market.
Everyone there knew Ylenia, of course, and we tagged along and learned the names of some things no American had ever laid eyes on before: two kinds of cichory; several types of both fresh and dried tomatoes, the rabe greens I mentioned, local bread.
We went for our cooking class in a nearby masseria, which is the local term for an old farmhouse. It is becoming quite the rage here to renovate old farmhouses and turn them into agriturismos. This one is used to offer cooking classes both to professionals and to tour groups. The person who appeared to be in charge is called Mama Julia. She doesn’t speak English, and has quite a gentle manner, but was forced to step in when she was dissatisfied with the quality of the homemade orecchiette I was trying to form, and when my meatballs – polpette – were a little too large.
In addition to our own pasta, we made a beautiful braided loaf of herb bread with sesame seeds and poppy seeds, a dish with peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, two kinds of zucchini dishes. There were small amounts of sausage or ham in the pastas and zucchini, but meat isn’t the big deal here that the vegetables are.
As we got closer to lunchtime, people whom we couldn’t identify kept showing up. One of them, Michael, works with Ylenia and helped fix the meal; another one didn’t do much of anything other than argue with Mama Julia; another one was either an engineer or naturopath – I am not sure which – but combined the self-assurance in his own beliefs that is common to both professions. After lunch – and before cleanup – they all disappeared.
It really was an amazing experience because of the ability to talk to the local folks, share their enthusiasm for what they are doing, and their love of their local area.
OK. That was one day.
Then, based on a tip and a little name-dropping from Ylenia, we made arrangements to tour a local olive-oil producer at their masseria-factory, Azienda Taurino. (www.agricolataurino.it or firstname.lastname@example.org)
Olive harvest was about to being this week, and the equipment was cleaned and ready as Valentino Valzano took us through the process, explained the difference between virgin olive oil and extra virgin, and persuaded us that only olive oil from Italy is even worth considering.
In both these cases, we had wonderful experiences because we were able to talk to the local folks about what they were doing, and we were very taken by their dedication to the local area and its products. Valentino decided at age 12, he said, that he wanted to be involved in agriculture. It is the one growth industry in Italy, he says. Ylenia forsook the world of corporate planning and logistics. The quality of the products and of their work really struck me as I continue to think about how at and I will live our lives from now on. Of course the “poor people’s food” is a definite possibility for us.