This is the English version of an article by my husband Manoocher (photos) and me published in the Spring Edition 2019 of the National Geographic Traveler Magazine Italy.
Between low dry-stone walls, among the majestically twisted centenarian and even millenarian trees of the all-surrounding olive groves, we are meandering along the bent roads from the Apulian coastal plains, ascending towards the altopiano of the Valle d’Itria. This gem of central Apulia – the area roughly between the towns of Martina Franca, Cisternino, Locorotondo, Alberobello and Ceglie Messapica – is famous not only for its extraordinary beehive-shapedtrullo architecture, but likewise for its high quality food, wine and olive oil. Its cuisine is deeply rooted in its soil and sun; the ingredients used are whatever the land produces: vegetables, fruits, cereals, legumes, herbs, wine, olive oil, and the products of livestock. Zero food miles is the true philosophy of the region’s kitchens. Whenever asking a cook what especially defines the cuisine of the Valle d’Itria, the answer surely includes the keywords authenticity, seasonality, simplicity and passion. The typical pasta, for example, is usually eaten fresh, strictly consists of durum wheat semola only, never eggs, and is laboriously handmade at home, a skill which is passed on from generation to generation: orecchiette, strascinati, cavatelli, fricelli…
Normally there are only few ingredients required for one dish, but they are of impeccable quality and freshness, their flavours enhanced by the age-old knowledge of how to make the very best out of the available. With influences from all over the Mediterranean and beyond – Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Longobards, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards, who all have left something of their tradition, language, architecture, way of life, and likewise cuisine – this region is the heart, the essence of the Mediterranean.
All photos © Manoocher Deghati
The perfect dish to prove this interaction between a profound appreciation for the fruits of the earth and the history of the place is also the signature dish of the Valle d’Itria: Purè di fave – fava bean purée. But what is so special about a simple bean dish? I will explain. Above all, it combines one of the hardiest, most sustainable and most ancient crops – the fava bean – with the overall goodness of abundant olive oil and fresh vegetables. Fried peppers are a popular option but even more original are the sautéed leaves of wild herbs: wild chicory, sonchus, and other plants that bear a different name in each village. Resourcefulness, tenability and savour – all in one dish. As a reminiscence to the modern palate potatoes are commonly added to the purée, which gives it a smoother texture and milder taste. But what about the history I mentioned earlier? Well, purè di fave is recorded to have been one of the favourite dishes of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, King of Sicily, Rome and Jerusalem and Duke of Swabia, crowned in Germany, Italy and the Holy Land, a man who spoke fluently Latin, Sicilian, German, French, Greek and Arabic, hence the essence of the Mediterranean and beyond, just like Apulia. And so, unsurprisingly, his very own favourite version of purè di fave includes Oriental flavours and spices, like saffron, and is topped with onions caramelized in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon.
And this is only the first course. Before that we have had some antipasti of local products: burrata (a type of stretched-curd cheese, similar to mozzarella, but filled with cream), capocollo martinese (dry-cured neck ham typical for Martina Franca), taralli (round savoury crackers), caciocavallo (a matured stretched-curd cheese), olives, ricotta forte (a very strong, spicy soft cheese)…
While watching life slowing down in these whitewashed little alleys we are having a nice glass of wine. We could have chosen a white wine, because the Valle d’Itria is predominantly a white wine area – with DOC wines from Locorotondo (“the city of white wine”) and Martina Franca – and home to the Verdeca, Fiano, and Bianco d’Alessano varieties: dry and crisp, yet fruity. But we just had to try a Susumaniello: an ancient variety of red wine that only recently has been rediscovered, re-cultivated from the last surviving plants, and is currently making its spectacular comeback. And red it is indeed, no, purple actually, reminiscent of red fruits with a peppery note. Fantastic!
And now we are waiting for our second course of grilled meats: There are cheese-stuffed bombette brought to our table, crispy grilled gnummeredde which use every edible part of a lamb’s intestines, and juicy sausages. I don’t think I could manage to eat a dessert after all this. Or maybe I should try? Frederick II would surely approve. And the poor man hadn’t even heard yet of coffee at his time. The knowledge about alcohol distillation had only just been imported from the Middle East. Frederick II would have been one of the first to hear about it, wouldn’t he? So, I’ll take a digestif, please. I think I’ll try the Centerbe liquor made with the whopping number of 160 herbs.
The all-defining feature of the landscape of the Valle d’Itria is, for a change, inedible: stones. For hundreds of years, farmers have wrested their crops from the stony ground, collecting the rocks to construct dry-stone walls, since 2018 a Unesco World Cultural Heritage, and the famous cone-shaped trulli. Trulli are, apart from the ones in Alberobello, a merely rural form of architecture, the huts of the simple farmer, and a place to make wine for everyday use. Nowadays, of course, their popularity has grown immensely; many have been restored and converted to countryside houses and Bed & Breakfasts. The feudal landowners of the past would have never set their foot into such a simple dwelling. They resided in the masserie, big estate houses, fortified strongholds and farms at the same time, with several storeys to reflect the occupants’ status. The masserie are attached to huge estates with acres of wine and olive groves, sometimes in combination with their own underground oil mills hewn into the rock. It is a mutual relationship between the landscape and its people: the stone shapes culture, and culture shapes the stone into distinctive landmarks.
Already the Messapians, in pre-Roman times, produced olive oil here. One of the most common olive varieties is the Coratina olive, high in polyphenols, which results in a strong tasting oil, a little astringent to the palate and peppery to the throat, slightly herbaceous, with a rich green colour. Many families still produce their own olive oil for the year from their family groves.
The passing on of traditions and skills, together with an emphasis on zero food miles but maximum quality is the true secret of the tables of the Valle d’Itria. And before I forget it, one last advise: the portions here are abundant. Come hungry!
Recipe: Purè di fave
500 g (17,5 oz) dried fava or broad beans
1 kg (35 oz) chicory
Extra virgin olive oil
1-2 garlic cloves
Soak the dried beans in water and let them sit for at least 12 hours. Rinse the beans and put them in a pan with the potatoes on top, covering them with water. Cook until they are soft, which might take a couple of hourse. Meanwhile, sautée the chicory with chopped garlic in olive oil.
Once the fave beans are soft, the traditional method will ask the cook to hold the pot between his or her legs and, with a wooden spoon, vigorously beat the beans with while working a good amount of olive oil into them. (We’re talking cups here, not drops.) Alternatively one can also use a whisk or a potato masher, although some people would strictly disagree.
Season with salt and serve the mashed beans with the chicory and some drizzles of olive oil on top.
Or, for the Medieval version of Frederick II, omit the potatoes, add some saffron to the purée, and replace the chicory with onion slices caramelised in honey, and, if you wish, sprinkled with a little cinnamon.