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la cupeta: a little sweet treat, however rare

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.

Melt the sugar in a heavy-bottomed sautè pan, keeping it as blond as possible (‘redhead’ will be more bitter and ‘brunette’ begins to taste like coffee, not what you want here).

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.

Silvestro Silvestori
Sommelier / Owner / Director of The Awaiting Table Cookery School, Lecce, Italy

Silvestro Silvestori, the owner, founder and director of The Awaiting Table Cookery School, Lecce, Italy has been teaching the food and wine of Puglia and particular- Italy’s Salentine peninsula since 2003. In addition to his knowledge of Pugliese food and culture, Silvestro is a nationally-certified sommelier in Italy, and a staff writer for Wine & Spirits magazine, covering all their Southern Italian food and wine content. He has also appeared on American, Australian, Belgian, British, Chinese, Dutch and Italian television, and Italy’s most respected newspaper called him, ‘A national treasure’, and ‘THE anthropologist of the traditional cuisine of the Salento’ for his work in preservation and promotion of Salentine’s food and wine.

Comments:

  • Geoff Griffiths
    April 20, 2010 at 6:56 am

    Thanks for alerting me to this by email after I showed interest in your cookery school. I like your style… cooking AND writing!
    Will now browse the rest of your efforts – Keep up the good work!

  • Caroline
    April 20, 2010 at 7:33 am

    I love your articles! My grandmother, deceased, but originally from San Severo, used to make some of the dishes you discuss. I’m trying to get some friends together to go to Italy to take one your courses!!

  • yvonne tricarico
    April 20, 2010 at 7:50 am

    It is always a delight to read what you write. Your passion for Italy and its food is delightful. Someday I am going to cook with you.

  • Jim Van Zandt
    April 20, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Silvestro,

    Great article in Bon Appetit, nice photo of you too! It has been too long since Francesca and I had dinner with you and the class during Cliff Wright’s visit.

    Hope to see you soon, be well.

    Jim and Francesca

  • Sharon
    April 20, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Silvestro,
    Your stories and photos are magical. Thanks for the smile. We hope to return soon. Kudos on the Bon Appetit article!

    Ciao,
    Sharon

  • Michelle
    April 21, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Would you like to set up a cooking school in Costa Rica with me? Tropical cuisine like italian, stands on the freshest of products, the simplest combinations -benevolent weather, abundant water, tradition in agriculture..

  • Teresa
    April 21, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Sylvestro,

    If your talent in writing and photography is any indication to your talent in the cucina,I know I will be inspired when I attend your school. I hope to make it happen soon.

    Keep, writing,cooking and most of all, enjoying!

    Teresa

  • Adrianna
    April 23, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    It has been such a pleasure getting your letters with the wonderful pictures and recipes.

    I hope to enjoy cooking with you in the near future. Italy captures my heart both in beauty and food.

  • Kathleen
    July 13, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Everytime I open my outlook in the morning in my office and your newsletter is there I get myself a coffee and start reading. I know, I know, its a work day….but to start it by travelling to Italy with your words is one of the best ways to start ANY day. Your style of writing is captivating and for a person who yearns to go to Italy (my father was there during WWII) it is the closest I can get….for now.

  • Latrice Franca
    August 12, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Hey, good blog.

  • Cathey
    January 9, 2011 at 12:26 am

    I am extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one today..

  • Francesca
    September 18, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Just like my Nonna used to make! Grazie!!

  • Laura (Tutti Dolci)
    January 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    What a beautiful story behind la cupeta! I love the diversity of Italy’s regional cuisine and the unique history behind many of the dishes.

  • sydneycool
    February 24, 2013 at 12:36 am

    Silvestro I really enjoy your photos, recipes and your story telling. The life in the south of Italy is such a wonderful dream to me, always looking forward to your post, Sydneycool.

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