Sunday, 16 April 2017

Maturazione not lievitazione

It was great to get back to some proper English bread at the Heron Corn Mill's Good Friday baking event this week, after a holiday in Puglia. That's not to say Puglia didn't have its moments, but the focus was more on the pasta than the bread, it has to be said.

Brindisi and Bari airports both serve Puglia, but Bari has the advantage of flying from Liverpool so it's about as easy as it gets if you are in the North-West. It didn't feel too easy at 4 a.m. on the day we flew, but we took the easy option of staying at the airport hotel, which is not too expensive if you book well in advance.


Bari has a bit of a reputation for pick pockets, so we were well covered up from the start of our trip. We took the 1 euro bus into town (number 16 from outside the arrivals area, tickets on sale upstairs in the library). This is quite an experience, and I can highly recommend it. We must have broken every speeding law in the book on our very roundabout route into town. You can see that after about 10 minutes of road racing, we were back at the airport again, having picked people up at a couple of out-lying places.

Eventually we hit town, having had a great fun 30 minute white knuckle ride. I'd done my homework and found a back street trattoria for lunch. The bread was real, though a bit light on the inside. Nice and fresh and crunchy anyway.

The high spot of lunch, however, was the buffet of vegetable antipasti.

And the local wine at 4 euros a litre, pro rata, was pretty good too! But we did steer clear of the "typical horse gravy" option -

After lunch and a little wander round the old harbour at Bari, we took another rambling transport option, the FSE (Ferrovie del Sud Est) railway to Alberobello. This is like stepping back into the first half of the last century. The FSE platforms tend to be hidden away behind the mainline ones, and there are separate booking offices and (if you are lucky) timetables. The prices also seem to be in old money - the two hour trip to Alberobello cost less than 5 euros. The network round Puglia is amazing, with junctions and side lines all over the place. And because it's all single track except at the stations, you are guaranteed that your connection will wait for you.


Famous for its trulli, Alberobello must be a bit like Blackpool in high season. But when it's relatively quiet, it's quite an astonishing little place. All the trulli are full of trullo-related bits and pieces, but just wandering round the streets feels a bit like stumbling into a film set for the Hobbit.

There wasn't a lot happening here breadwise. They seem to be more interested in wine jars than bannetons.

We did manage to fit in another nice meal with a mushroom-rich antipasti selection while we were in Alberobello -

And then it was off to bed in a trullo - quite an interesting experience!

Next morning we hit the railway again and headed off to Lecce, the baroque highspot of the region. We didn't need to change at St Pancras -

It was just a case of relaxing and watching all the olives, vines and cactus-lined, poppy-strewn meadows passing slowly by.


Lecce is quite an amazing place. There are more baroque churches than  you can shake a stick at. In fact after a while you can get a bit punch drunk with all the excesses of the carved stone work. And inside, there is scarcely a column that is not over-worked with flowery adornments. This is the inside of the Chiesa di Sant' Irene, which was just next to where we were staying -

As luck would have it the most OTT of them all, Santa Croce, was covered in scaffolding when we were there -

But you get the general idea.

Much more down to earth was the market at the other end of the road, with a couple of vegetable stalls, a bread stall, a butcher and a cheese stall. All nice produce though. The bread man was pleased to tell us what was in each of his breads, in a pleasingly high level of detail.

There are not a lot of what we might think of as ordinary shops in Lecce. It's all eating places, cafes, clothes and so on. There is almost no presence for bread. The main thing even remotely like bread is little cheesy biscuits, a bit like cheesy bread sticks made into circles.

Casarecci means home made, and is a pretty reliable indicator that you are looking at the real thing. There seemed to be more of this "premium" sliced stuff than honest to goodness bread.

The preferred pasta locally is orecchiette - little ears. Occasionally you see big ears (orecchiotte) too -

Our host at the B&B provided pretty good bread, which seemed to be fresh from the market each morning.

The honeycomb slash appears all over town, and is presumably applied with a sharp-edged bread cutter. It's clearly produced in some quantity, but you can see it is lively enough to split spontaneously on occasion. The inside is quite moist, but has a lot of substance to it, so it is not mass-produced in the way we would expect rolls to be in the UK. The little pie at the top of the picture is a sweet pastry casing, with what the locals call "crema" inside. This is roughly equivalent to our confectioner's custard. Very nice for breakfast, with a couple of shots of very strong coffee.

The best real bread we got in Lecce was at a little cafe, or enogastronomia according to TripAdvisor, which seemed to be doing only cold food. This was the real McCoy - clearly using a sponge, and with really good spongey body and open texture. The crust was good - clearly not baked in a wood fired oven, but crisp and tasty.


The other bread option in Lecce is pizza, of course. There are a few wood fired ovens around, and one very good pizza shop called Pizza and Co. He is using an electric oven, and a dough hook. In fact, quite a lot of appropriate technology. The pizza goes in on a tray at one end and rolls out at the other end when its time is up. So this is not really the casareccia way of making pizza, but it is made to order, very skillfully, and it is mighty tasty. The man running the show is great fun too. He is as cheerful as the day is long, and busy busy busy. We came back two days after we first went, and when we started to place the same order, the joined in half way through, repeating back to us what we had ordered the first time. Then he threw his arms up in the air and shouted "Yes! I win the championship!" That's what I call valuing your customers.

He was delighted when I showed him a picture of my bread, and he told me all about how he makes his dough. He uses a mixture of 3 flours, from soft and hard wheat, one low protein, one strong and one very strong. He's using fast acting dried yeast, although he referred to it as the "madre". And most interesting of all, he was mixing up dough for the next day when we were waiting for our pizza to cook. So he is definitely on a 24 hour dough cycle.

Here he is taking out a pre-weighed piece of dough, enough for one large pizza which will be cut into 6 slices when cooked. He is happy to mix and match topping on the slices in the same pizza. He is about to put the dough into a high-tech squasher which flattens it out into a large circle.

Once it's flattened out, he applies the toppings which generally started with a couple of spoons of a surprisingly wet tomato mix. Here he's rapidly dressing the pizza for the oven, all the while holding a loud conversation with anyone who wants a chat.

Any herbs are applied after the pizza is cooked, to avoid burning them, and the finished pizza gets a lavish drizzling with olive oil before being cut up and handed round the drooling customers. A slice costs between 1 euro 50 and 3 euros, depending on whether it includes any buffalo mozzarella or similar expensive items. No shortcuts on ingredients here. There may be practical compromises in the way this is prepared and cooked, but he is definitely not losing sight of what the pizza must taste like if it is going to be satisfactory.

When I said I approved of his "lenta lievitazione", he replied that it was more about "maturazione" than "lievitazione". How true, when you come to think of it. The Chorleywood process can make bread rise in barely an hour, but the real flavour comes when the dough is allowed a long time to mature. As Hamlet put it - "the (b)readiness is all". Desperately good pizza!


My book said Galatina would make a nice day out from Lecce, and it has one church that is covered in frescoes from floor to ceiling. That was me hooked. We needed a break from baroque excess, and this sounded just the thing. I used Google Maps (an absolute godsend when it comes to planning holidays) to see what there was between the train station to the north of Galatina and the cathedral to the south east.

It didn't take me long to home in on Tana del Lupo as the place I wanted to go for lunch. It doesn't have a website, which is sometimes a bad sign, but equally can be a very good indicator that a place either only cares about food, or relies on word of mouth, or both. Well, I'm passing it on to you by word of mouth!

The dining room is just the living room, with the kitchen off to the side. The waiter is the husband, the wife does the cooking. When we rolled up at 12 noon, the husband was unloading the home made wine from the back of the car. Eating doesn't seem to start before 1 p.m. in Puglia, so we arranged to come back then, and had a little walk round the market. The main things on sale were nuts of various kinds, and a very specific fish and rice dish, which was being dispensed from big barrels.

The rice was yellow, presumably from turmeric, and layered in among it were whole thumb-sized fish. Two stalls were selling this at 15 euros a kilo, and a third stall holder, who was doing as much business as the others, was holding out for 16 euros. I like a man who knows the worth of his goods!

Back at Tano del Lupo, we posed for a quick selfy among the signs the owners thought important enough to put on the wall outside the osteria -

Lunch with the family

You know those days when everything is just right? We had one of those in Galatina, and in particular at Tano del Lupo. The lady of the house could really cook. It didn't matter what she was going to put in front of us - we knew it was going to be great. That's just as well really, because we had no say in the matter. None of this menu nonsense: we had come to eat, and she was cooking. I think she probably put everything in the cupboard onto the table. It just kept coming. There were fava beans pureed with lashings of olive oil; black-eyed beans with tuna crumbled on top; Roman-style sweet and sour onions in oil; various mushrooms; a sort of Spanish omelette; grilled aubergines and courgettes, a whole ricotta to cut; and on and on. The wine was in a litre bottle - at lunch time!

When we eventually reached the primi, we were presented with orecchiette e rape. Our host in Bari told us this was the season for turnip tops, and we should get them while they were here.

Like most vegetables that came our way in Puglia, these are basically cooked until they drop, and then made into a sauce with lots of olive oil. I can see lots of mileage in using up (lightly cooked) vegetables this way.

This business of primi and secondi - what's that all about, really? We must have been eating for about 40 minutes before we reached the primi. It all reminds me, like so many things, of Ulysses. Chapter 16, which is well past the point where most readers have given up in despair of ever reaching the end, starts like this -

"Preparatory to anything else..." 

Fortunately we were spared secondi, or I might well have exploded. But we did get an armful of fresh fava beans - they are also in season at the moment, and perfect for eating straight from the pod, with a chunk of pecorino.

"And to follow" as Beckett's headwaiter puts it in Molloy, just a wafer-thin dessert, which was something like fruit compote with ricotta mixed in, and a little bit of magic on top. The limoncello was homemade, as the cook proudly told us. It was, naturally, lovely!

By the time the fresh beans were out, the husband was getting into his stride. His friend at the next table to us got out his guitar, and we were treated to an impromptu sing song. Many of the classics were there, including the Beatles and Elvis, all with really rather good support from the guitar. Although Elvis had left the building, the man with the white hair did bear a surprising resemblance to my late father in law.

After that protracted and thoroughly joyous lunch, I was feeling pretty much like this -

It was just about time to waddle down to Santa Caterina, which opened at 4 p.m. This was a really breathtaking place to walk round, and was the perfect end to a fantastic visit to beautiful Galatina.

Google kindly summarised this day for us with this little film -


Otranto is another lovely train ride out from Lecce. There is a beautiful harbour with really blue sea, and eating places looking right out onto the water. We had a classy seafood risotto here by the water -

Apart from the sea, Otranto's other claim to fame is the cathedral, which has an amazing 12th century mosaic floor, seen here from above, which is still in normal uncovered daily use.

The mosaic has all sorts of unexpected things in it.

And there is an ornate roof to match -

The rather gruesome chapel at the side is full of the bones of 800 people slaughtered  in 1480 by the invading Turks, possibly because they refused to convert to Islam.

Back in Lecce

Our B&B in Lecce was palatial - literally. It was one of several old palaces now functioning in new roles. Our room was about 30 feet across, and the ceiling was about 15 feet high. It was very well equipped, right down to the grand piano -

Lecce is home to a rising star in the piano world - Beatrice Rana. But apart from Angie's daily playing, the only music we got on this holiday was on Palm Sunday when the priests and choir from Santa Irene walked down our road to the cathedral, singing as they went.

The amazing cathedral, which sits at the side of a large piazza, is unusual in having two facades.

The side door is a particularly striking modern statement.

Surprise discovery in Lecce

On our last afternoon in Lecce, we stumbled upon the Museo Faggiano. That was an appropriate way to find this place, because it is in an "ordinary" house, whose owner was investigating his drains when he discovered the first of many ancient remains hidden away in the fabric of his house. It turns out there are remains dating back to the Romans and possibly beyond. And these are not just coins and bowls. We're talking about whole rooms and a sophisticated domestic water supply. Altogether this was a most exciting place to look round. There were even bread related things to see. This was the grain store, with lines up the side just like a measuring jug, to show how much grain was left.

Down below the current floor at street level, several huge rooms have been discovered. This one looks like it has an oven built into the wall.

And I started to get excited when I came across this which looks like it has to be connected with milling.

This looks familiar from the Heron Corn Mill as a hand quern.

The pit below started out as a burial area, but later housed a pair of mill stones. Eventually it was covered over with an altar, the whole space being used as a chapel.

This Lecce bread roll was interesting, because the underneath clearly shows that it has been shaped by hand. Little bits of dough have been tucked under all the way round as the roll was turned round on the table.

And then a quick stamp on the top with the cutter, and it's ready for the oven. Probably about 3 seconds' work, but it makes all the difference between proper hand made bread and factory pap.

As a last resort, Lecce had one more bread option.

Something for everyone, in fact!