le pignate: earthenware pots, salento-style

by Silvestro on August 17, 2010

Is it ‘irony’?

If not, what else would you call it?

How else would you explain this disparity, the perception of the Mediterranean basin as the cradle of simple, fresh, quickly-prepared foods, when, for the last 12,000 years or so it’s to the long-simmered brown foods that nearly all of us owe our existence?

Vessels like these pignate was how it was done, long before we figured out even how to count our toes or write sonatas based on the months of spring. (Nearly every food anthropologist I know figures it happened just about the same way: we threw meat into a fire or hung it above the flames on sticks and, thus, learned to grill, but it wasn’t until we developed pottery that we learned to boil, that civilization really began to flourish, moving us from simple bands of hunters to farmers living in larger and more diversified groups).

And while knives moved from stone and wood and bone to iron and then to alloys, clay pots have changed little, so pure and perfect in design. Someone with a name something like Ughuuh-gug got it right a long time ago, accepting the Design of All Time award in the form of the ability to feed her children.


And this is una pignata, a gorgeous little monkey of pot that renders everything you put into it, completely delicious.  It’s how it’s STILL down here in the Salento. I own about 30 of them and always jump at the chance to pick up more. I think my cooking really improved when I started cooking with them.

It’s when I started understanding subtly.


‘The cracked bean pot has already admonished you once’, is how John Thorne describes this tendency towards subtlety inherit in all earthenware cooking. You must mollycoddle the food. You coax it. Where as anyone can blast fire at something, the truly gifted seem to be able to eek out a little more, borne from years of experience, just like the pot itself.


While the shape and materials have changed little over the last 12,000 years, the glazes gained significant beauty here in the Salento during the Spanish domination, which lasted a couple of hundred years, much of the culture remaining even today. Visit Spain even now and it’s haunting, the echo you’ll still find in the ceramics of here.


During our olives courses at the castle, we load up 12 or 15 pignate, with everything from meaty, southern-style ragùs, rabbit with green olives and herbs, lentils with garlic, fava beans with little pieces of spicy salame, even local pears poached in passito.

We go off to work the nearby olive groves for the day, returning to smells that could wake the dead, the ingeniousness of the design crystal clear to all as we remove the lids and gather around with hungry bowls and greedy spoons.

As a teacher my stance has changed over the years in regards to teaching  others how to use earthenware. Those unfamiliar with them would crack one every now and then, their sense of guilt and my sense of loss something we’d all try to hide. But it was seeing the look on their faces when it happened that caused me to embrace their accidents. It was the moment of recognition, a feeling I know well, as I’ve broken many myself over the last ten years, that’s when the real learning happens.

Good cooking is contemplative, it’s subtle. It’s timeless. It’s humbling to think of humanity, hunched over a fire, the clay pot one of our very few constants in a long and winding history.

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