I’m going to get hate mail on this one. Drive bys with rotten fruit. Perhaps Molotov’s through my front windows. If I had children, larger kids would pull their braids and push them down into the gravel. Folks would kick my puppy, if I had one. Cartoonists and late night television hosts are going to use me as the butt of their jokes. My friends’ wives will stop accepting my handmade pastries, their top lips peeling off their teeth in barely-hidden disgust. Local officials are going to ‘register’ me. Nope, this one is going to get messy.
But I’m going to post this anyway, no matter the mob that forms at my front door, their soily pitchforks shaken in rage. Here is my recipe for Taieddhra, a dish so entrenched in the cooking of the Salento, that folks not only disagree on how you make it, we can’t even decide what to call it.
With tiella, taieddha, tajeddrha- whatever spelling you choose- you only really talk about ‘tendency’. Some folks half an hour north of here call it ‘riso, patate e cozze’, one of those dishes, like, say, aioli or vincotto, where the name of the dish also happens to be the recipe, in this case, ‘rice, potatoes and mussels’. And like so much of the culture of the South of Italy, the rice is thought to be a souvenir from the Spanish domination:It would take you an entire day in a car at top speed just to find the nearest rice grower. (Italy is the only place that I know where, historically, the poor ate wheat and the rich ate rice, as the rest of the world usually worked the other way around).
There ARE a few fixed tendencies though. Most folks feel an almost fetishistic link to a particular cooking vessel for the dish, which used to be earthenware (and indeed, most women over 60 still prefer terracotta). It’s not that much of stretch if you think about it, as like ‘cassaroule’, the name of the vessel dictates the name of the dish itself. And in fact, the origin of the word is likely to be Castilian or Catalan, the diphthong then double ‘l’, seemingly related to that of ‘paella’.
Many local food scholars tend to see the rice as the swing element, the one ingredient that makes the dish Spanish in origin, where as its absence tends to site the inventors of the dish as Arabs, Persians or even Turks, the last group who invaded the Salento just as Columbus did his thing, switching the European emphasis from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
The method for construction couldn’t be easier. Peel some potatoes and cut them into thin rounds. Thinly slice some courgettes or zucchini or whatever you want to call them. Steam open some mussels and discard the half of the shell that doesn’t contain the meat. Grate some aged, smoked sheep’s milk cheese. Break out the breadcrumbs. Start with potatoes, then breadcrumbs, cheese, a layer of mussels, courgettes and on, finishing with a nice bit of potato on top.
Here at the school, I’ve met all kinds of folks from all walks of life, from all over the world but I’ve never met anyone that doesn’t cite crunchy, oven-roasted potatoes as among the best foods on earth. I tend to steam open my mussels with a cup of white wine, just to get things started and stop them from exploding. I let that liquid ‘decant’, the sand and detritus falling to the bottom. That’s the liquid I use, pouring it over the dish before putting on the lid and jump starting the dish over an aggressive flame.
After a good five or ten minutes, move the dish to a hot oven, and let it go for 40 minutes or so, checking it to see if the potatoes are soft to the touch. Once they are, remove the lid and brown the potatoes, turning on your broiler or grill, if you have one. Brown the potatoes slightly more than you’d think. Go for crunchy.
Well, it’s sort of big, little problem, as problems go. No one here I know would agree on… ANY of this.
It MUST have rice, it can NEVER have rice. Some add tomatoes. Some augment the smoked sheep’s milk cheese with other aged cheeses, such as Rodez or even Parmiggiano Reggiano. Some cover it to bake, others swear that it should never be.
Some women I know open the raw mussels by hand, insisting that the mussels shouldn’t cook twice. I’ve seen the dish reinvented so that it contains almost none of the ingredients that I see as pivotal, the name of the dish, some how, remaining the same. I’ve served my version to friends that subtly suggested that I switch fields, perhaps, until I finally find something that I’m good at.
But I’ve also served mine out in the countryside to a grandmother who cried as she ate it, her arthritic fingers moving the fork to her quivering lips. ‘I eat this dish all the time, but I haven’t really tasted it in 40 years’, she said, her dialect as thick as winter soup. I’ve served it old men who saw my version as unremarkable and nothing special, which is the highest prize you could ever hope for, their wives’ versions a mirror of my own.
I’ll open the door when my angry neighbors and local foodwriters come for me, inviting them all in and around my table. I’ll take their jabs at my cooking. I’ll accept that my version isn’t the real one, that their mothers make it better. I’ll insist that they are right. We’ll open some wine.
As for me and my version, I have my own convictions: I tend to trust the sober, antique tongue of that signora. For the first few moments, it was only her eyes that were welling as she ate.