Thursday, July 12, 2007
Bread and Water in Apulia
As a waiter set the plates of antipasto in front of us, I felt the happy curiosity of discovering a new dish. We had ordered a regional specialty called friselle pugliesi. It is a round, rock hard bread a little bigger than an English muffin. Each serving comes with side dishes of toppings of grilled and fresh vegetables, and with an individual bowl of water, and metal tongs.
Spotting the last two, my eagerness ebbed an inch or so. I ignored this inner advisory, however, and resumed my adoring gaze at this unlikely culinary hero as if it were Hercules rescuing me from a burning house.
As the waiter turned to go, Franco, mildly perplexed, asked if we could have some how-to tips.
The young man pointed at the bread and the tongs and the bowl of water and suggested we use the middle item to put the first object into the latter.
“But only leave the bread in for about half a minute or it will become too wet and fall apart,” he added, with a suspiciously low level of enthusiasm. He moved away quickly.
Just then, a waiter arrived at the table of four next to us. He was carrying dishes piled high with succulent looking, small, freshly baked balls of something. “What's that?” I asked Franco, my nose twitching. He shrugged, “I don't know.”
I turned back to the granite like object on my own plate.
Where and when
We were sitting on the covered terrace of a seaside restaurant in southeast Apulia at a table in a front corner. It was the end of a summer-perfect, late June day. The sun had just vanished over the horizon. Waves were lapping, breeze was blowing, cucina italiana aromas were wafting. All seemed blissfully promising on this night out one evening during our recent vacation in the southern Italian region Italians call Puglia (pronounced puhl-yah).
I placed the bread in the bowl of water and mentally counted off thirty seconds. Putting it back on my plate, I heard a clear clunk. I dunked it back in the water. I waited another another thirty seconds, then another. A rock would have been more porous. I surrendered and piled the veggies on top of the concrete ring and began to saw away with my knife. On rest breaks inbetween, I munched on the grilled eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini and fresh chopped tomatoes. They were delicious.
Some time later, an elegant and charming woman came along with the waiter to our table. She had the air of solicitude and authority of a maitre d' or management. Seeing the ragged-edged chunks of bread littering my antipasto plate, she smiled down at me with a kind of pitying wisdom.
“I think it takes some experience,” I said meekly.
“Yes,” she nodded, picking up the plate. I heard her laughing softly as she walked away.
What it is
Friselle, also known as frise, are made from an old Apulian recipe using wheat flour that is only partially refined, according to Wikipedia Italia. They are baked in the oven, then cut in half horizontally and baked again. The bread's strong point is that it keeps for ages. It was a practical sack lunch for workers and sailors, and sometimes the only bread available to the poor during those times in the past when flour was scarce. You can find a recipe here, and one here (in Italian) with a photo.
Another local bread
A few days later, exploring the town of Ostuni, we discovered la frisella's opposite in the Apulia bread kingdom. It is also a regional specialty, la sfogliata. For this bread, the dough is folded over a filling, and then fried or baked, as described by ItalianMade.com. More importantly, when you bite into it, you don't crack any molars.
We bought our first one at a local bakery where the irresistible aromas lured us inside. The baker had just pulled a tray full of sfogliate from the oven. The filling was a creamy spinach concoction. This bread has a moist, flaky texture, and tastes rich and almost sweet. It literally melts on your tongue.
We ate these sfogliate two more times – they seem to be a staple in coffee bars and bakeries – once again with the creamy spinach filling and, on a third occasion, some that were filled with ricotta and tomato sauce.
Apulians eat well
To escape being tarred and feathered by any passing Pugliesi, as Apulians are called in Italian, for my opening assault on the proud and stony frisella, I must add this tribute to the food of Apulia. The region is renown, like its southern neighbors Napoli and Sicily, for the taste, preparation and quality of its food. Typical dishes are often described as humble and poor but highly nutritious and flavorful. Enveloped on two sides by Mediterranean coastline, Apulia also is known for its fish, especially shellfish.
As is noted in this description on LA CUCINA ITALIANA On Line, the Apulia region is Italy's largest producer of wine and olive oil. In recent years, Apulia has been gaining a reputation for producing good wines, as the website points out. Another website with information about Italian wines is WineCountry.IT. It offers a listing of some of the area's best products.
In researching Apulia, I came across this interesting website, Stone Pages, that has a section devoted to the region's megalithic monuments. The site is the creation of two Italian natives now living in the UK. It's worth a long visit if you like rocks, or even if you don't.
But I hesitate to recommend that other Apulian rock star, la frisella. At least not unless you are doing penance. Or teething.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato