la capunata (detto ‘la cialda pugliese): a barley-bread based salad

by Silvestro on August 10, 2011

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 lie.

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.


Desalinate some capers in some water.

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 a little red onion as thin as you can. Soak them in water if raw they’re a bit strong.


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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

jane henderson August 11, 2011 at 7:26 am

HI Silverstro!
Sounds wonderful, what do I use instead of the barley? Don’t think we have here! Such fond memories of our time with you last October—–Fondly, Jane

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Silvestro August 11, 2011 at 7:59 am

I’d use dry wheat bread or maybe even Grapenuts cereal, which is the same flavour, different texture. Try the later and get back with me!
S

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Silvestro December 20, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Jane,
yes, it was great to have you! Hope to have you back some day!
S

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Richard Wilsey August 11, 2011 at 9:55 am

Silveastro
What a great email to open this morning. I love bread salad. I usually make it with a hearty wheat (white) bread. I like your use of barley bread. Also it was graet to see a message from Jane Henderson, my classmate.
I hope you are doing well
Richard

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Richard Casey August 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Do you have a recipe for le friseddhe ? I can find barley here. Richard

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Silvestro December 20, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Richard, I’ll be in Denver in early January!

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Tonia August 11, 2011 at 11:54 pm

I’ll say I’m making fussy little crepes — you can make the 4-tier wedding cake! I’m still waiting for all our tomatoes to ripen — got the basil, got the cucumbers, but our crazy weather up here in Central Washington State hasn’t been condusive to ripe tomatoes yet!

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Mairi @ Toast August 13, 2011 at 10:42 pm

That made me laugh you lying about what you cook on your own :) What a wonderful sounding salad & that la frisa looks wonderful.

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PATTYO August 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm

ARRIVING IN LECCE FOR CLASS OCT. 2ND. THIS SALAD LOOKS DEVINE. LOOKS LIKE I MAY HAVE TO SMUGGLE SOME LA FRISA BACK HOME!

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Alexia de Angelis December 1, 2011 at 6:00 am

YUM! Amazing.. And not so distantly related to Cretan Dakos or Arabic Fatoush :)

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lisa September 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm

I just looked up this recipe after seeing one for Dakos. I wanted to compare the two. Dakos is basicaly like a frisa ( tomatoes & oregano)but with feta and of course olive oil.
I had remembred seeing this one some time ago and thought they were similar, but not really so as this has cocommeri, capers and basil.
Initailly I too thought like Alexia above. The Fatoush has lettuce and the sumac which lends a completely different flavour- which I love too, but it isn’t the same.
Anyhow, Silvestro it is so true that a friseddha with ripe tomatoes and local olive oil is such a satisfying meal it’s absolutely amazing= almost addicting. La frisa is more than just a food it is a sort of ritual.
After spedning my summer in Salento it is so hard to feel satisfied even after the most elaborate meal.
In Salento a simple sprig of parsley. a clove of garlic, a basil leaf or two, a zucchini and a tomato sauteed for a moment in olive oil is a taste sensation and very satisfying with a slice of pane casereccio and a glass of wine.
I said goodbye to my summer home in Salento 10 days ago and although I’ve already cooked Greek, Indian, Thai and even West African and American and Italian in these days, I have over eaten and not felt satisfied.
I miss the high quality of the simpliest ingredients which constitute the foundation of the finest meals- taste wise and health wise!
VIVA SALENTO!!!

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Paula March 17, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Can’t wait to give this salad a try when I’m in il Salento in May!

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