Try it sometime. Next time folks ask what you do for a living, tell them that you run a cooking school in Italy. They’ll be instantly at ease and more than pleasantly surprised, eager to talk about recipes, their favourite restaurants and wines that they’ve had recently. Complete strangers will open up, the conversation as easy to maintain as a forest fire.
That is, until 5 or 6 questions into it when they’ll inevitably ask what you eat when you’re absolutely alone and can have anything you want, a meal just for you: Here is where it gets tricky.
I always say that I make a lot of towering soufflès. Or some fussy little crepes. Or that I whipped up a 4-tier wedding cake, just to keep up my chops. If you say anything banal you’ll disappoint them, every time. The truth is that most folks in the food industry really love simple food, leave us alone and we’ll eat things that don’t fit into the mental image you have of us.
Take la capunata, for example. It couldn’t be simpler. It also just so happens to be the thing I eat more than anything else, all summer long. And I’m not alone here.
Start with some menoceddhe, a strange local fruit that is half way between a watermelon and a cucumber. Outside of the Salento, you could swap cucumbers for them and no one will sound the bell.
Just like no one here in the Salento would use bread for this dish.
Here, we use la frisa.
It would be impossible to overestimate the role of la frisa (most often called, la friseddha) in the food of the Salento. It’s been the most consumed ingredient here for the last thousand years. Folks load up their suitcases with them when visiting transplanted relatives. University students live on them. Your grandmother here probably has some hidden under her bed.
If you’re wondering about the name, the dish shares linguistical roots with other words you already know, such as the Arab-leaning Sicilian dish called ‘la caponata‘, and the English word, ‘capacity’, meaning, something stored in a vase or jar.
Soak le friseddhe in some water for a few minutes. In a pinch you can use sea water, which was how it was often done historically. And still often is (as you don’t need silverware, friseddhe are widely consumed at the beach). If you use water from the Mediterranean, hold back on the salt at the end. (The Med has always been a really salty sea as the evaporation rate is faster than fresh water can enter, or even that which flows into the basin, ‘fresh’ salt water entering the Strait of Gibraltar).
Remove le friseddhe after a few minutes and let them stabilise on a plate.
Slice some fresh basil into little a sort of lazy chiffonade. Even here in the southern part of Puglia, our basil season is only 4 months long. I trim back mine each year mid-season and tend to give away something approaching 15 kilos, the profumed bundles causing heads to turn and giddy mouths to gush.
Assemble all the ingredients and douse liberally with the best extra virgin you have, as long as it’s southern, such one based on the olives ogliarola or even coratina. You need a bitter oil to balance out the flavours. Add salt if using fresh water.
Shoo away the unnamed cat that lives in the school’s garden if need be.
If you really want to do it up, a glass of cold rosato would be perfect. And you certainly don’t need any bread.
With all the simple ingredients, the bitter extra virgin, the fresh herb, the sun-drenched tomato, the earthy, hearty appeal of the barley, you have the golden summer there in your bowl, a stunner of a season riding your overloaded fork to your happy mouth.
So, when they ask, let’s be certain to get our story straight. I’ll say ‘fussy little crepes’ if you’re going to go with ‘4-tiered wedding cake’. It helps to huff a lot, as if you had work really hard for it.
We wouldn’t want to disappoint.