Oil, Wine, Farm Produce and Dairy Products: the secret of healthy, simple and tasty cuisine

The typical products of Terra d’Arneo are those with close links to its rural culture: oil, wine, baked goods, farm produce, and exquisite cheeses and dairy products.The extra virgin olive oil has a full, clean taste, with a strong yellow/green colour: its special fruitiness enhances the most simple dishes in poor and popular cuisine, such as legumes and vegetables. The olive tree also provides wood for oven bak- ing. In fact, there are dozens and dozens of bakeries that still have stone ovens for producing taralli (savoury biscuits), focaccia, biscuits, durum wheat bread and pucce (tomato and olive bread rolls). The king of these products is frisa, which is friseddhra in the local dialect: it looks similar to a tarallo, but is first baked slowly in a stone oven, then sliced in half lengthwise using a metal wire and baked again in a slow oven. Its surface is porous and hard.
Normally, friseddhra is soaked with water and then dressed with fresh tomato, oregano, oil and salt, although there are innumerable ways to garnish it, depending on your taste and imagination. This special bread may be made from durum wheat or barley flour. You definitely must not leave Arneo without trying a friseddhra! There is wine with every meal; and the growing of grapes is fundamental to the agricultural production of the Arneo region. The wine’s intense taste comes from the good, dry local soil, the sun and wind that make for healthy grapes rich in sugars and plenty of substances that make the wine a perfect dietary complement. The best known native vines are without doubt Negroamaro, Malvasia and Primitivo; but recently these have been joined by some new varieties.

The many agricultural products, such as wheat, tomatoes and vegetables, also include the best cheeses and other dairy products of Salento, especially those from Veglie and Nardò. From ricotta to ricotta forte (strong ricotta cheese) and junket, you can always find an exclusive, strictly home-made product, such as fresh pasta made from durum wheat. The extreme poverty of the local population and, at the same time, the wealth of wild herb species and fresh, genuine ingredients, has allowed the people of Arneo to devise simple, healthy and nutritional dishes. Legumes, vegetables and extra virgin olive oil are the basis of the culinary tradition here. What is special about the Arneo region, like the whole of Salento, is that an enormous number of traditional dishes are still eaten every day.

This is not so in many places, where traditional local dishes can only be eaten in refined restaurants and trattorias. Constant features of Salento home cooking are ciciri e tria (chick pea and pasta soup), fave cu le foje (broad beans with vegetables), horse meat stew, fish soup, pasta with Taranto black mussels, ricchitelle li pizzarieddhri cu la ricotta scante (pasta likeorecchiette with spicy ricotta) or turcinieddhri all brace (barbecued roulade of lamb offal). Foods preserved in oil are particularly tasty: these are the famous preserves, which were made by peasants as winter provisions. Also well worth tasting are the tomatoes sun-dried on cannizzi (palm leaves) and preserved with mint and local spices; aubergines, roast peppers and small artichokes in oil, tomato pureé; and, for dessert, dried figs stuffed with almonds, mostarda (sweet fruit pickles) and cotognata (grape and quince jams) and cupeta, almond and sugar brittle. The peasants once worked te sule a sule (from sunrise to sunset) and early in the morning would putna mangiata te fiche cu le mendule (a handful of figs with almonds) in their pockets. With its high protein content and low cost, this would last them through the day, replacing lunch and snacks and staving off hunger.

The Arneo region’s other great gastronomic delight is the excellent fish of Porto Cesareo. Along the long road dotted with fish shops and their attached trattorias, or fish shops by themselves, you can findsome of the freshest and best fish in Italy (the typical red mullet of Porto Cesareo, sea bream, scorpion fish, sargo, octopus, swordfish, sea urchins, mussels, oysters, cockles and much else besides). The particular wisdom of fishermen, supported by comprehensive regional legislation, have guaranteed that the sea along the Ionic coast of Apulia conserves some of the most plentiful and various stocks of fish and shellfish.

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