A Peek at Puglia


For years Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"now, I’ve wanted to visit the region of Puglia. Geographically speaking, we’re talking about the heel of the Italian boot. Now that I’m back from a fairly relaxing 9 days down there, I’m writing to share my experience with all of you.

My impressions of Puglia:

Tourism in Puglia is not nearly as developed as it is in other parts of Italy. For my travel buddy and I, this meant that we encountered no lines, no wait times (except for trains), hardly any pesky tour groups, hardly any pesky English speakers (we both speak Italian), and lots of peaceful moments. For that, it was blissful.

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On the other hand, if you’re used to being shunted around on pre-organized tours from monument to church to museum to historic site, Puglia may not be the ideal place for you. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my 9 days down there. And we moved around, despite the very interesting (read: horrible) rail system. But if you’re not a lover of seafood and the seaside, it’s maybe best that you stick to the central and northern parts of the country.

The coastline and sea are beautiful, the people are friendly and helpful and the food is delicious. Would I go back to Puglia? Absolutely. Would I necessarily spend 9 days there again? Maybe not.

Practical notes:

  •  You can get around by train, but for us (two fairly seasoned Italy travellers), all the routes we took were a pain in the butt. On the roads, traffic seemed very light, so renting a car in Puglia is probably quite doable and desirable. Distances aren’t long, but three train switches in 40 kilometres makes even a quick jaunt to the seaside a daunting day-long task. Also, some trains don’t run on Sundays. At all. And when two lousy train engineers on the Maglie – Otranto route decided to fare sciopero on a Saturday (translation: strike meaning: extra day off) we ended up riding a bus with every sweaty, loud high school kid in the area:

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  • If you don’t do seafood, stay away. Seriously. I eat very little fish or seafood, apart from canned tuna and fresh Canadian salmon, but this trip introduced my tummy to some excellent new varieties of sea creatures. If you’re not willing to try, stay home. We encountered many restaurants that serve only seafood dishes. Kiss your spaghetti bolognese goodbye and opt for a plate of spigola (sea bass) or orata (sea bream).
  • If you’re looking to be occupied all the time, bring a book. Or a small child. I don’t want to say that there aren’t many things to do, but…there aren’t many things to do, depending on your interests. Our “city tour” of Lecce was a 2-hour jaunt from church to church. The guide was informative, but… Yes, the strolling, the eating, the beaching, the travelling all takes time, but when the entire region shuts down from 1 – 5 pm for the “pausa” or “siesta”, you’ve got nothing to do but bake on the beach or take a snooze yourself. (We did both.)

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  • We weren’t able to find too many reasonably priced organized tours to join, like wine tasting tours, olive oil tasting tours, etc. There were a few little things, but knowing how much you’d pay in Tuscany for a similar service, I couldn’t bear to part with 150E for a 4-hour cooking class.

Highlights of the trip:

Visiting the trulli houses of Alberobello and the Grotte di Castellana:

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A wonderful birthday dinner of spigola in the main piazza of Monopoli.

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Taking a dip in the beautiful Ionian sea at Gallipoli.

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Taking a dip in the spectacularly turquoise Adriatic sea at Otranto.

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Riding in the back of an Ape Calessino, then having to get out and push (yes push!) when it got stuck in the sand.

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The food. The wine. Da leccarsi i baffi! (Mouthwatering!)

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5 Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them)


Dinner Disasters

If I haven’t made it abundantly clear in my other posts on food, Italians are pretty particular about what they eat. And when they eat it. And what they eat it with, and what they drink it with, and how it’s prepared, the season, the ingredients, the temperature outside, the alignment of the stars…

You get the picture.

Recently I’ve run into a few people who have commented on the general unwillingness of Italians to compromise on anything food-related, even when it comes to getting business from turisti. I’ve written about this phenomenon before and some of the reasons behind it (click here and here to take a look) but I thought I might quickly run down a list of Italian Food Faux Pas (And How To Avoid Them) to make your mealtimes in Italy run smoothly.

Now, pay close attention. Note that these faux pas are not in any specific order. They’re all probably equally heinous mistakes to make where the average Italian is concerned. I’ll explain the reasoning behind them (where I can) to keep you from being baffled further by the food-loving Italiani and to try to help you keep your tourist status under the radar.

Le Regole (The Rules)

1. Niente cappuccino after 10:30am. None. Whatsoever. Never. Don’t bother to order one. Especially if it’s hot out. Why? All the Italians I’ve met practically classify milk (the cappuccino topper) as a meal on its own, almost as filling as eating a solid food. Milk is a breakfast thing and needs to be consumed before 10:30 so as not to badly interact with other foods in your stomach, which brings me to the next point…

2. No latte (milk) with a meal. Milk is not a drink that accompanies anything other than cookies or coffee. Breakfast is the best time to drink it, then don’t think about it again until the next morning. It doesn’t go with pasta or steak or pizza or risotto or a panino – that’s what wine was invented for. (Obviously.) Milk just does not get consumed at lunchtime or aperitivo time or dinner time. All this relates nicely to the next rule…

3. No latte (milk) or formaggio (cheese) with any species of pesce (fish) or pasta containing fish. One summer in Siena, my  60-something-year-old landlady Tina moved faster than I’ve ever seen her move just to swat the cheese container out of my hand before I had the chance to ruin my penne con tonno (penne with tuna in tomato sauce) with a sprinkle of Parmigiano grattugiato (grated Parmesan). “Sarah!” she all but barked. “Non si mangia il pesce con il formaggio. Non si mangia!” she admonished. (Sarah! You don’t eat fish with cheese. You don’t eat it!) I learned my lesson and have never done it since.

4. Dinner isn’t served before 7pm. (And even if you manage to stave off your hunger until that late hour, it’s only the tourists who eat at 7). Get used to eating later, especially in the summertime. In Siena, we sat down to dinner anywhere between 8:00 – 9:30pm. Now, note that I didn’t say that’s when we started eating, because we probably had an aperitivo beforehand, sometime around 7:00 – 8:00 pm. (My housemate Alex once remarked that he could set his watch by my leaving the apartment for aperitivo. I left around 7. Every evening.) Seriously though, restaurants don’t serve cena (dinner) before 7pm. One of the best restaurants in Siena takes reservations for 2 dinner seatings: at 7pm to eat with the tourists, they told me, or 9pm to eat with the locals! Bump up your other mealtimes accordingly.

5. Walking and eating is vietato (forbidden). So is walking and drinking. Unless it’s a gelato, or a drink drink, which are perfectly acceptable to enjoy during a passeggiata. A piece of pizza, however, is not. You’ll get strange looks if you walk down the street and eat pizza. Believe me, I’ve done it, but only once. (I’m a quick learner). You can stand and eat pizza, sure. But just don’t move, and for heaven’s sake don’t scarf it down. Italians think it’s unhealthy to eat quickly or anywhere that’s not a table or bar counter. My coworker once told me that the reason for her (practically non-existant) belly was that she ate sandwiches quickly while at work. Fa ingrassare, sai. (It makes you fat, you know!)

So there they are, laid out for all to read and hopefully internalize before a trip to Italy. Why are these little, trivial things so important? Well, remember the phrase “When in Rome, do as the Romans”? It’s like this: wherever I go, I try to fit in as much as I can, out of respect and interest of the host culture. People respond better to me that way, and I don’t come across like the ugly tourist, demanding that everything be the same as I left it at home. If all I want is for everything to be like it is at home, then why travel?

The Frazzled Chef Gets a Helper


Frazzled Chef

Not long ago, I acquired an apprentice to help me around the kitchen: my cousin. He’s about three feet tall, a whopping four years old, and just about the cutest little kid you’ve ever seen. Our first joint endeavor in the cucina (kitchen)? The quintessential Italian dish and worldwide favourite:

Pizza

Now, growing up with an Italian Nonna and a Mamma who loves Italian food, I started to learn the craft of pizza-making at an early age. Over the years, I made pizza with my Mom and Nonna for family dinners, with friends when we had sleepovers at my place and as a late night snack for my housemates and I during our university days. I couldn’t believe it when people would tell me that they didn’t know how to make pizza. Wasn’t it a skill we all learned as children??!!? It was something so simple for me, so natural. (That is, as natural as any cooking activity can be for me…)

Anyways, pizza-making was a skill that my aunt wanted to instill in little Christopher. (I don’t know that he’s ever even made a peanut butter sandwich, but really, why bother starting small?) So, she gave me a call and we set up an evening when the Frazzled Chef would introduce her eager little blue-eyed apprentice to the art of pizza making.

I bet you’re all busting to know how it went, right? Did I spill cheese on the floor? Did I drop the dough? Did the apprentice and the chef end up in a sauce-flinging contest? Did one of us end up in Time-Out?

I can assure you, readers, that the whole ordeal went in the usual Frazzled Chef style. The dough didn’t rise properly, the onions made me turn into a blubbery, red-eyed disaster, and we made a pretty good mess of the kitchen while my aunt grimly surveyed the scene. My apprentice, I’m happy to report, attacked his tasks with furious gusto (which, naturally, he learned from yours truly).

Pizza Dough

Spreading the dough.

Spreading the sauce

Spreading the sauce

Adding the cheese.

Adding the cheese.

We greased the pan with a bit of butter (“I get to use my fing-ers?”), spread the dough, used a spoon to cover it in sauce (“Can’t I use my fingers for this toooo?) and made funky designs with all of our pizza toppings. Somehow, to the music of a little voice saying ever so loudly, “I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I’ll do it!”, and eagerly asking “Can I try? Can I try?” Chris and I managed to concoct two perfectly passable pizzas complete with cheese, olives, pepperoni, mushrooms and yes, some onions.

The oven was hot, the pizzas were ready and Chris, proud of his accomplishments as a little pizzaiolo (pizza maker), was busy admiring our work.

“Stand back now, Christopher. I’m going to put these pizzas in the oven, ok?” I said slowly, motioning for him to move away from where I was about to open the oven door. Quarters were a bit tight in the kitchen, and obviously I didn’t want him to get hurt. (One of my childhood pizza-making experiences with Nonna resulted in me burning my wrists on a hot oven rack. Nonna’s solution? Give me a drink of water and slather some butter on the wounds. Needless to say, she’s no longer practicing medicine).

“Ok!” He chirped, bobbing up and down with excitement and watching me with big eyes.

I opened the oven and was bending down to put the first pizza in, when I felt my posterior brush against something behind me, and that something begin to head towards the floor. It landed with a crash and I quickly shoved the pizza in the oven, closed the door, and stood up praying to the kitchen gods that it hadn’t been anything valuable.

Before I could even turn around to see what I had done, Christopher was shouting it from the rooftops.

“YOUR BIG BUM KNOCKED MY DRAWINGS OFF THE FRIDGE!” His tone was accusatory as he pointed at the pile of papers now strewn all over the floor in front of the oven.

And as if one transgression wasn’t enough, he was sure to add, “AND MY MAGNETS TOO!”

The kitchen gods came through, and nothing ended up being ripped or broken. I helped Chris put his artwork back on the fridge in the same chaotic disarray it had been hanging before and he seemed to forgive me, although he was sure to warn me to “be careful of your bum!”, when, 25 minutes later I once again bent down to retrieve the pizzas from the oven.

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

“So, Chris, do you think you and I could make pizzas again some night? You could help me out?” I asked.

“Yeeeeeahhhh! It was coo-oool!” Chris responded between mouthfuls.

Another Frazzled Chef success!

UPDATE – The next time my little helper was around, I asked him if he was going to come into the kitchen and help me with the pizza for dinner? He responded so angelically in his little voice, “But why, Sarah? Don’t you know how to do it yourself?”

Kids!