I spent the past week in the Salento area of Puglia. Salento is the heel of Italy’s boot. I’ll be posting a lot about my trip over the next little while. But for the moment, let’s start with food (Oh really, Ruth? What a shocker!). Before I went on this little vacation I quizzed my (much beloved) personal trainer — who’s from Lecce — about what I should eat. That information was supplemented by Dear Friend Layla, who just bought a house in Capilungo overlooking the Ionian sea. Jane, the Upstairs Vegetarian and I rented a little place just two doors from her and used that as our base of operations.
The MBPT (Much Beloved Personal Trainer) said we must try the puccia, frisa, pasticiotto, and caffe in ghiacccio con latte di mandorla while we were there. Layla steered us towards the rustico. Let’s get started, shall we?
Puccia is a dense round savoury bread roll of about 20-30 cm in diameter, usually stuffed with black olives, which by the way are often left unpitted, a great shock if you’re not expecting it. There are shops around Lecce where you can get sandwiches made from puccia stuffed with all kinds of meats, cheeses, tuna, whatever. A variant is Puccia to tajedda (Puccia in a pan), which is filled with onions, olives, capers, anchovies, tomatoes and peppers. Kyle Puccia (otherwise known as Epic Mullet Guy) is a recording artist, songwriter, composer, celebrity vocal coach, music-director and producer, whose cover of Rebecca Black’s viral horror, “Friday,” is kinda wonderful. See how much useless stuff I know, thanks to the Internet? Don’t even get me started on TomKat.
Frisa (also known as frisella or friseddha) is a bread roll that is taken out of the oven halfway through the cooking process, cut in half and then baked again until it is hard. To eat it, you cover the bread with enough water to get it damp and then douse it with tomatoes, EVOO, salt, pepper and oregano. Apparently this recipe dates back to the 9th century BCE when Phoenician sailors used to dunk their stale old bread in salt water to soften it up. The Tuscan bread salad panzanella is based on a similar concept (i.e. stale bread), although the former was based on onions rather than tomatoes until the 20th century.
Pasticiotta is a pastry filled with cream and sometimes other stuff as well (the one in the picture includes sour cherries). It’s like a little coffin-shaped box filled with custardy yumminess. We enjoyed ours with caffe in ghiacccio con latte di mandorla – coffee over ice with almond milk (Puglia is a major almond producer and has been since the 1st century ACE. Also, by the way, the region is Italy’s most important producer of olive oil. About 75% of Italian oil comes from Puglia, which boasts over 50 million olive trees). I cannot even begin to tell you how delicious this stuff is. Normally, they pour the sweet almond milk in first and then the coffee so it forms this pretty little two-tone brown and tan drink.
Finally, the best for last: the rustico. This is a little round snack made with lard-based puff pastry (yay lard!) filled with béchamel sauce, chopped tomatoes, mozzarella and lots of black pepper. It’s served piping hot and I suffered from molten béchamel-induced burnt tongue for most of my stay in Salento. The story has it that the rustico was invented by the chef of a noble Leccese family to mimic the fancy pants French vol-au-vent. A brilliant example of food democracy in action, the rustico is now ubiquitous, one of the few Pugliese street foods that’s not based on cucina povera (food of the poor), e.g. stale bread.