Come autumn time here in the Salento, a number of fruits and vegetables start to turn up in the markets, just like old cherished friends that have moved away but then came back again.
Faces light up. There is lots of smiling, happy greetings.
‘We’ll have to have you around for dinner, now that you’re back and all’, folks seem to say, loading up their shopping baskets.
I planned to make la cotognata the first day I saw them at Pina’s little shop, the fruit in the cases still dusted with the faintest of fuzz, not unlike peaches.
Pina beamed like an 8-year old as we talked about the fruit and the famous preserve made from them, her enthusiasm completely contagious.
Such a sweetheart, Pina is.
You may never really know what your boss thinks of you, or even your spouse for that matter, but with your greengrocery in Italy, it couldn’t be more obvious.
Pina always selects each piece of fruit for me as carefully as she would a precious stone. She deliberates. She fusses. Her up-clenched hand goes up and down as she figures the relationship between size and weight. ‘This looks like a good one for Silvestruccio’, she’ll say, using the local diminutive for my name.
And you know that your greengrocery really loves you when they trim and cut away any bruised outer leaves before the produce ever even touches the scale, the tell-tale sign of genuine love, of anyone that is, that sells perishable goods, measured by their weight.
My little car’s back shocks squawked at the added weight as I drove home. Seventy-five kilos is a lot of fruit. It’s what I weigh.
One of my best friends came over to help out.
We cut and peeled for hours, the two of us singing along to torch songs from Mina, the Barbara Streisand of Italy.
It wasn’t nearly as girly as it sounds.
I mean, take the synchronized choreography numbers, for example….you could tell our hearts weren’t really in it.
A quince is virtually edible fruit when raw, and just getting a knife to pass through so many of them caused blisters within minutes, then broken blisters, bandages and rubber gloves within the first hour.
The doorbell rang: Sergio my local grocery was on his bicycle, 20 kilos of sugar on the cross bar.
As I figure it, I take it as a great sign of success that I can pick up a phone and have him at my doorstep with minutes with just about anything I need. Forget the eggs for a crostata? Sergio will be ringing the doorbell even before the phone is back in its cradle.
But the thing I like best about Sergio, is that he treats each phone call as though it were an white-knuckled adventure, the feverish collaboration between purveyor and cook.
His old rusty bicycle always comes to a rubber-skided halt in front of my door, a box of course salt under his arm, or a litre of milk stuck up under his coat.
Francesco needed to leave and as promised, I paid him off with massive mortadella sandwiches, something of a ritual of mine whenever I force myself into hard labour.
We took a half an hour lunch break, monitoring the browning of the fruit as it oxidized. As one of region’s best olive oil producers, Francesco had his own harvest beginning this week. He needed to get back to work.
From here on out I’d be alone.
And there were still four hours to go.
As I stirred and stirred, I thought about how I had discussed the recipe with many older local woman over the last few days, ever since spotting the quinces at Pina’s little shop.
I started asking around because of something that had been bouncing around my head a lot lately.
The great American food anthropologist Sidney Minz defines a cuisine as, When the people that cook it consider themselves experts at it.
And there are few foods in the Salento more Salentino than la cotognata.
Of course, as in just about any field, most true experts make horrible teachers: they are too close to their subject, and can’t imagine not knowing what they know. When I tried to pin down the specifics of la cotognata with the scores of ladies I’ve been speaking with lately, most treated my questions as flying pests, things to bat away during an otherwise pleasant conversation.
And like so many things here, there was the inevitable line, when folks under a certain age just returned blank stares when I asked them about the quince paste.
The thing is……
….that age keeps getting younger.
It’s widely reported on, but here in Italy the concept of QB in cookbooks is still very much alive. ‘Quanto basta’, or ‘as much as it takes’ finds its way into nearly every recipe. In English, ‘to taste’ isn’t used with the same fervor, especially regarding key ingredients, such as flour, acids, even leavening agents.
QB though, is not the road map to an unknown land that your average recipe in English means to be. QB can’t teach you,say, that new Afghani recipe, unless… you happen to be Afghani. QB is a baby-step, a memory-jarer for those already very familiar with the dish. As I stirred, I thought about how silly a recipe would be for this sort of food. And that my real question was not that I wanted a recipe, but that I wanted to see how many of the ladies still see themselves experts.
Uncle Sidney’s hammer landed squarely on the nail.
I portioned out la cotognata in batches, quite literally filling every baking tray in the house, 24 total.
I finished at around ten p.m., and just sat over-looking the trays, dazed from fatigue.
I’ve now lived long enough to see patterns in my life. I see ’success’ differently than most people I know, I think. For me, part of that is that I can take the time to prepare my own food, to be an expert at it. And that I can take the time to do that with the people I care about, to feed them, to connect to them through food, the cultural drops of super-glue that bind us together.
And so, come to Lecce early next November and you will find me, stirring a giant cauldron, listening to Mina, some local red in a jelly jar beside the stove. That will be me there before you, dirty, stinky, tired, feeling like the biggest success the world has ever known.