Puglia is the longest region of Italy with over 50% covered by mountains and the other half bordering the Adriatic Sea. The southernmost part is considered the "Italian Jamaica" where reggae is very popular. Bob Marley actually founded a reggae festival there that still goes strong to this day. Originally populated by the Illyrians and Greeks, Puglia was economically prosperous due to being close to the Orient and Rome for trading and agriculture. From 1264-1435, Puglia suffered the spread of anarchy and a reduction in trades which actually resulted in the creation of the mafia. I know, right?!
In 1894, the Touring Club Italiano, a group of 57 cyclists, formed with the intent of spreading information on food and cycling around Italy. Hey Hoo-has, why don't we form a 2012 version of this in the US? We're good at eating and cycling so it makes sense to me. Out of this time, the first gastronomic guide of Italy was formed thus pushing the Michelin movement forward. In 1900, the Michelin Guide was formed as a means of giving truck drivers information on the best rest stops, fuel prices, and routes and was around for over 10 years before the office actually started getting paid. From 1921-1925, the travel office exploded going from 19,000 requests to 155,000. In 1926, the 'star' of a good table was created and in 1956, the actual Michelin Guide for restaurant rating was created. How cool is all that? I had no idea what the history was but you foodies out there will surely appreciate its notoriety and simplicity at the same time.
Despite vast exposure to the sea, cuisine in Puglia is devoted to farming and agriculture. It's the most popular place in all of Italy for olive oil and its main crop is durum wheat for pasta and bread. Nearly every town in Puglia has its own signature bread, in fact! Pane di altamura is the most famous and it's a sourdough bread made of natural yeast and salt then cooked in a wood fire oven. Another cool bread that John actually brought us back from his dad's town is called friselle. It's whole grain bread that's baked twice and it gets so hard that you have to soak it in water before it's edible. I absolutely loved it. It's got this hearty, whole grain flavor and texture but it's super light when you eat it. Focaccia is also native to Puglia and I loooove me some focaccia. I can eat, um, a lot of it. I saved the best for last, though…taralli! Allison, these are the olive oil crackers we had going to Sicily and I've eaten my weight in them during my time in Italy, no lie. They are so good.
Orecchiette, or "little ears" is Puglia's main pasta, usually served spicy with sausage and broccoli rabe. These little buggers are a pain in the beeee-hind to make from scratch, let me tell you. We had to do it once in New York and it was a disaster. I prayed not to go to Puglia for stage simply to avoid this pasta.
Due to Puglia's light and fresh cuisine, I looked forward to learning about more of the flavors from the lovely Chef Antonella Ricci. Chef Antonella comes from the restaurant, Al Fornello di Ricci, and she was just wonderful. She was spirited and sweet, much less aggressive than some of the other chefs we've had with an equal amount of passion. Out of the gate, I have to tell you that she whipped up the most incredible focaccia I've ever had. I'm not kidding or exaggerating:
People, this was slap your momma kind of good. I actually had to move the plate to the other end of our row so it wasn't near me. I think we all felt like we were in for a treat after trying that. She started with simple stuffed and fried zucchini flowers that were just gorgeous:
In the interim, she shared some regional peppers and eggplants with us that were fantastic:
Thennnn came the orecchiette. I KNEW that would be on the list but what I didn't realize was that she'd want us to help make them. Uh oh, heart starts beating fast and sweat beads on my forehead. Don't call on me, Michele, please! Of course he did. Since Michele isn't a chef, I decided to challenge him to an orecchiette dual as you can see by the awesome progression below:
I thought it best to not take closeups of my orecchiette outcome. Chef Antonella's, however, were scrumptious:
I realized I didn't have a photo of her on here so I had to at least put the only one in I managed to take so you can see how cute she is:
It was a fun day in the kitchen and I enjoyed Chef Antonella a lot. She reminded me of how I hope to be in my own kitchen one day and that was a really nice feeling.