Learning Southern Italy Cooking in Lecce
Learning about food in Italy was a favourite part of travelling in Italy! We were off for a day of Southern Italy cooking lessons with Silvestro at The Awaiting Table in Lecce. Worried about drinking and driving, we called a cab from the hotel and paid the fixed price of 13€ for a 3 minute ride into the old town. We would walk later in the day, needing some exercise after our amazing food discovery day!
Silvestro met us in the main square in Lecce. After the obligatory stop at the bar for a caffe italiano with Antonio, the next stop was the oldest market in Lecce. The market had multiple independent stalls under one roof, allowing us to get all the fresh ingredients we needed to cook local this day for both lunch and dinner. We wandered from stall to stall and it was clear that Silvestro was a frequent customer, his students trailing with cameras in hand.
Wandering back through Lecce we arrived at the house and we were all settled into the kitchen with our colourful aprons.
The first lesson was about making home made pasta. Unlike pasta from the north of Italy, pasta in this Southern region is made without egg – just water and flour.
The flour was mixed (this one being a blend of barley and semolina flour), poured on the wooden board and hollowed out like a volcano to put water in the inside.
We then continued to knead the dough, adding fresh dry flour if the dough was still too wet. Pieces of the dough were regularly shared between us to ensure we all worked to the same end consistency. It was easier to create pasta dough with two simple ingredients than I would have thought possible. Pasta was then set aside to dry a bit. We would find out later that the pasta for our dinner would be better with just a little bit more drying.
We created two types of pasta:
1) Cappelletti Messicani (Mexican hats) – Use a glass to cut a circle of pasta, cut the circle in half and then make a cone from half a circle of pasta. Put the cone of pasta over a bottle top and hit it with your hand to make it go down over the edge (this makes the hat brim).
2) Orecchiette (small ears) – Roll a tube of pasta about a finger width. Then cut off a small slice and roll with a knife to create a cup. Turn the cup inside out (should have a slight scalloped look with a narrow edge).
Throughout the morning, we chopped and diced vegetables for the pasta sauce and for use in sautéing the rabbit for lunch. We would be having the Mexican hat pasta for lunch.
Dessert was simple candied almonds. White sugar was stirred and melted until it reached a light colour (no butter used) and kept on the heat until it thinned. This was then poured over a plate of raw almonds and smoothed down with a half a lemon before it was let to stand and harden. When it was hard, it was broken into smaller pieces. It was interesting to taste – with an absolute taste of lemon on top of the sugar sweetness. Unfortunately the sticky, hard candy broke a piece of David’s tooth off!
We had lunch with a local red wine Salice Salentino made from Negromare grapes. After our discussion on local wines, we were not surprised by the herby smell or it being a bit on the bitter side. Over lunch, we continued to probe for more information on cooking and wines and the customs that varied from region to region. Silvestro had probably heard most of the questions that we all asked before but he did not constrain our curiosity.
Sitting in the kitchen, with the garden doors open, we all squeezed around the kitchen table for lunch and ate course after course in true Italian fashion – pasta, then rabbit, finished with dessert.
Finally sated, sat back from the table. We would get a 3 hour break before we would return to cook dinner. Silvestro suggested we meet and explore a wine market when we returned to further our education. We were game for that!
On our way back out to the hotel for our break, we came across the roving judges who were considering Lecce for the cultural city for 2019. They hopped off the little tourist train at the opera and went in. It would have been a great boost for Lecce to be selected. Although later we saw a group of protesters, closely watched by the police, who didn’t agree! We would learn later in our trip that Lecce had lost out this time to Matera!
Returning into the town centre after our break, we got a good overview at the wine store of the good red and rosé wines from the Puglia area (white wine represents only about 5% of the wine produced in this the area). That would not be true when we hit Sorrento for our next stop. Silvestro also gave us some suggestions for Sicilian wine, something dear to his heart at that time with a pending wine course he was giving in Sicily. Of particular note were wines from the Mt. Etna area.
Back at the school, we sous chefs set about chopping vegetables and coring and peeling pears for desert. David began sautéing the onions and pancetta for the tomato sauce for the pasta while the chicken was browned. The fresh in season mushrooms were grilled as the chicken side dish.
The chicken would be finished with Il vincotto (a kind of grape musk) that Silvestro had made the previous week. This was reminiscent of Aceto Balsimica in taste and was sweet enough to be used as the garnish for our sweet ricotta pears for dinner.
The last thing we cooked was the Orecchiette pasta we had made that morning. Since this pasta had sat out for several hours to dry, we could see the change in colour and texture and it was noted that this pasta would take much longer to cook than the morning’s freshly created pasta. The water liberally salted came to a boil and in went our pasta. Trying it after about 6 minutes we still found the pasta still tasting doughy, a good sign that the pasta still needed more cooking.
With dinner all ready we sat down to three courses – pasta, then chicken with mushrooms and finally sweet ricotta pears.
Silvestro continued to provide additional insight into Southern Italy cooking and wines of the region and even gave us some tips on places to visit for our week in the Puglia region, especially the most southern Salento area. We headed out to walk the trip to the hotel for the third time that day – needing to work off a little of out great dinner.
We got a full day of education on eating and drinking in the Salento region. Sylvestro was peppered with questions through the day and he readily shared his love for food and for this region of Italy.
Southern Italian Cooking Tips
A few things we came away with after learning Southern Italy cooking in Lecce:
- Food varies from region to region and it is generally not enjoyed outside a region – the ultimate in fresh to the table
- Foods in the south are more bitter and less sweet due to the heat
- There are few pigs or cows in this region – at the market we chose rabbit and chicken
- Breads are often from darker, older grains such as kamut – our pasta would be made fro a 2:1 mix of barley flour and Semolina flour
- You typically at vegetables that were in season – at this time, the fresh local greens were a type of mustard greens and we also bought parsley (for the pasta sauce) and fennel (for a salad)
- Parmesan was still regularly used (although not from this region) and but the local Burrata (mozzarella type wet cheese from cow milk) was the local favourite cheese
- When making pasta, salt the water – I had given up salting pasta water as a way to reduce salt intake. But after liberally salting the pasta water, you could taste the amazing difference this made in the taste of the pasta!
- If you wanted to buy pre-made packaged pasta (and Italians do) – look for “bronze extruded” on the package. The pasta should have the same rough surface we created when it is homemade.
- Different kinds of pasta require different types of sauce! In the past, I tended to pick pasta based on how “heavy” a meal I wanted and the sauce was based on what I felt like eating that day. In all of the discussions we had in Italy about pasta, a key point that was made in both the north and the south of Italy was that the pasta should be matched to the sauce!
We walked away understanding much more about the “why” of Southern Italy cooking and drink that gave us more insight into the culture and the lifestyle. So much different when we looked at the food of Bologna! We would certainly try Silvestro’s seafood course if he added it to the curriculum!
What have you learned about Southern Italy cooking in Lecce? Any other tips to share? Did you love the food of Puglia?