You can always tell where you are in Italy by how sweet the sweets are: really, really sweet, and at some point invading Muslims played a part in the culinary heritage (Hemingway was fond of saying, Dessert is for those that don’t drink enough). But it’s true, all of it, that most of Italy doesn’t eat sweet sweets all that often, the big exceptions being mostly parts of Sicily and Campania, where non-alcohol-consuming Muslims controlled things long enough to leave their culinary traditions behind.
Have wine with your meal, and you’ll rarely be all that interested in sweet desserts, as you’ll already have your fix in the way of residual sugar in the wine.
And this lack of sweet sweets is true of the Salento as well, although every once in a while, a holiday will roll around and someone will offer you a piece of la cupeta, the dialectical version of il croccante, an almond brittle so sweet that 10-year olds and humming birds would even reject it for being too sweet.
But ‘how’ a dish is used inside of a community isn’t always readily obvious, from outside, looking in.
Take la cupeta. That it exists in the Salento doesn’t indicate a desire for sweet sweets, especially not when you consider how little of it is actually consumed. And how seldomly.
The patron saint of your town died 1300 years ago today: have some cupeta. Easter? Have some cupeta. Visiting an aunt you barely know, you may be offered some cupeta. What it isn’t is a typical thing to eat following your average meal, on any old day.
Making cupeta couldn’t be easier. It has only three ingredients, and one of those you can go without, if in a pinch.
Almonds, either peeled or unpeeled, toasted or raw, are sprawled across an open surface. Street vendors at carnivals and religious festivals are famous for pouring out the molten sugar unto great sheets of marble. Parchment papers works just as well, especially if you don’t have a sheet of untreated marble laying about.
Every cookbook I’ve ever read proposes that sugar and almonds should be in equal ratio but I’ve never been able to coat all the almonds with so little sugar. I up the sugar by 30% and it always works out.
Pour it over the almonds, coating them as well as you can. Be careful: the burn wards of our local hospitals are clogged with cupeta mishaps. Well, not really, but it makes a good story…..
Anyway, cut a lemon in half and then use it as a tool- as a spatula- smoothing the molten sugar between the almonds, covering them as well as you can. Once la cupeta is cool, which will be an hour or so, take a hammer, rolling pin or the back of a cleaver to it, breaking it up in shards. Add a glass of sweet malvasia or un moscato di trani and you’ll wonder if maybe Hemingway might have been missing something.