A TALE, A MEAL
Sun and a landscape made up of an unimaginable range of golden tones: here we are in Apulia, in the south-east of Italy, among the honest lanes perched on promontories or in the farmhouses set among the golden wheat fields. These millions of spiky shafts represent the true wealth of this ancient land, in which the orecchietta reigns supreme.
Cuisine can be seen as the historical memory of an entire country and its biodiversity. Apulia, the heel of the boot, is the most obvious representation of this: there has not been one moment in the long, bitter and lively history of this region in which its cuisine has not grown hand in hand with civilization; for if it is true that the Italian culinary patrimony is a relatively recent discovery in the context of international gastronomic trends, it’s also true that it has existed for centuries. Pugliese women are quite aware of this, as they are the transmitters of a method that defies the natural course of time, capable of generating a precious treasure called the orecchietta from just hard durum wheat flour mixed with water and salt. An emblem—not just gastronomic—of Apulia worldwide, orecchiette are made with a gesture that is quick and simple, but difficult to replicate: they are literally dragged across the surface of a rolling board with the tip of a knife, rendering them rough on the outside but smooth inside, and looking like little ears (hence the name). It takes just a few steps to obtain a smooth and soft dough that is rolled into tubes, then cut into disks to be bent with a round-edged knife that will give them a shape similar to that of a shell. That’s it: a few, simple steps. However, Italians know that behind every dish there is always much more. Among the brawny ancient olive trees in Apulia, the
orecchietta is an inalienable right that has survived in tandem with the thousands of generations it has nourished. This tasty dough carries within itself all the wealth of millenary traditions, as well as ancient superstitions.
They were used by expectant mothers to predict the gender of their unborn babies, using a simple ritual in which they were thrown into a pot of water together with a pennetta (a piece of quill-shaped pasta), and, depending on which one first rose to the surface at the moment of ebullition, they could determine whether the baby would be a boy (in the case of the phallic pennetta) or a girl (the archetypically feminine orecchietta). They also served as a symbol of protection, when a bit of dough was used to make a cross that would then be stuck onto the door of the house.
Freed from superstition, the orecchietta continues to live on in infinite variations, from the classic combination with turnip greens—a plant that grows abundantly in this area—enlivened by garlic and anchovy, to the überauthentic and traditional orecchiette made with grano arso, or the toasted (“burnt”) discarded wheat from the harvest, to the modern American interpretations from Martha Stewart, the queen of glamorous homemaking. They involve patience, rigorously manual labor, and above all an innate passion for the conviviality of the meal, which is not just about gathering around a table but is in fact the culmination of so many fundamental moments such as the preparation, the ritual, the seasonality and the atmosphere. Because it’s not just the product that is important, not just the ingredients (which are nevertheless fundamental), but the entire world of taste, composed of odors, colors and other sensations.
To live the landscape in a dish, inhale the reinvigorating sea air, perhaps on the seaside itself, in a restaurant on one of the trabucchi (wooden structures made for fishing but reconverted over the years) that line the coast of the lower Adriatic on the Gargano promontory, nicknamed the spur of Italy. Domenico Ottaviano, an upcoming young chef from Apulia, manages the restaurant “Al Trabucco di Mimì,” unique in its genre, born from the passion of one of the oldest families who built the Gargano trabucchi. Here, inebriated by the smell of oregano, lulled by the cadenced song of the crickets and embraced by the warmth of the sunset, one falls forever in love with this land, this life.
The pasta, fresh and rigorously homemade, is a great classic of the Italian table that contains the secrets of millenary traditions and of an often-tormented history.