New year's Day and Christmas in Apulia, Puglia, or Apulia as it is often called in English, is "the heel" of the Italian boot, including the steep and rocky spur of the Gargano peninsula projecting into the sea
Christmas Apulian Cooking and Recipes
Christmas Sfogliata, or Sfogliata di Natale: This is a dish from the town of Cerignola that the authors of Altamura Antichi Sapori liked enough to include in their book dedicated to the cooking of Altamura, a town in northwestern Puglia.
For the dough:
5 cups (500 g) flour)
3/8 cup olive oil
For the filling
1 pound 2 ounces (500 g) toasted almonds
2 cups (500 g) sugar
12 ounces (300 g) raisins
12 ounces (300 g) grape marmalade
A handful pine nuts
A handful diced candied fruit
3/8 cup vincotto (cooked down grape must; replace with honey if need be)
3/8 cup extravirgin olive oil
The grated zest of a lemon
The cuisine of Puglia was born as the cuisine of poverty. What this means, she explains, is pasta made without eggs, bread made from the hard-grain durum wheat flour that flourishes locally, and a diet based on vegetables, including many wild vegetables like cicorielle, wild chicory, and lampascione, the bulb of a wild tassel hyacinth, foods that are foraged from stony fields and abandoned terraces. Meat is not much eaten and beef until a few years ago, was almost unknown on Pugliese tables, with horsemeat being preferred. For Christmas and Easter feasting, weddings and baptisms, Pugliese cooks look to what are called animale da cortile, farmyard animals, especially chickens and rabbits, although this rocky landscape being sheep country, lamb is the very symbol of feasting, as it is in most of the Mediterranean.
The food of Puglia is in essence a home-based cuisine, not marked by the influence of great chefs or restaurants. Pasta manufacturer Benedetto Cavalieri says that even twenty years ago, in his home town of Lecce, there were only a handful of restaurants, mostly patronized by commercial travelers and others who had no home to go to - or, Benedetto adds with a discreet smile, were dining with ladies they could not bring home. Restaurants like Concetta Cantoro's home-style Cucina Casareccia are newcomers to Lecce, even more so because of the chef-owner's rigorous insistence on serving that very home-based cuisine that is the glory of Pugliese kitchens.
Because it is based on home cooking, this is a cucina delle donne, created by women cooking at home rather than male chefs in professional kitchens. It is a cuisine without rules and regulations, based solely on what's in the family larder, which is then stretched and expanded to feed those who may show up al improviso, at the unplanned last minute. Thus, a recipe becomes a manner of speaking rather than a rule. "How much flour do I need for orecchiette for six people?" asks Adriana Bozzi-Colonna in a kitchen in Lecce. And her assistant Silvana Camisa replies with a gesture: Using her hands as a cup she scoops up a double handful of semola. "That's for one," she says, and proceeds to add five more scoops to the pile.
It also means that a recipe changes from one village to another, even from one household to another, without the cooks themselves always being aware of it. It's almost impossible to speak of authenticity when a word like ciambotta describes two entirely different dishes-a mixture of vegetables in Monopoli, a mixture of fish in Bari, just thirty kilometers to the north. And while some cooks insist that the only way to make a puree of dried fava beans is with a cooked potato mixed in to give it smoothness, others raise their eyebrows in shocked consternation at the very thought.
Such individualism means there are no culinary canons, yet there are certain givens: You know what something isn't, if not precisely what it is. You know it when you see it, or more exactly, when you put it in your mouth. "Did she use onions in the stuffing?" asks Nonna Rosa when I tell her about a scalcione, a double-crusted savory pie, made for me in a town outside Bari. "Ah, then she did it the right way. She knew what she was doing."
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