It used to be that when students booked, I’d ask them what they expected to find with regards to the food of the Salento. The initial answers back were always vague but every once in a while someone would put the foreign take on Italian food into a cozy sound bite: Cream in the north, tomato in the South.
‘Don’t you guys eat a lot of vegetables don’t there’, would be a common refrain. ‘Lots of tomato, right’? would be another. And while these answers are not wrong per se, they certainly don’t seem to grasp the flavours of the South, the saltiness, the sour, the bitterness, the hearty immediacy, the walk-in-the-front-door or it all, the stiff kicks in the taste-buds that so much Southern food seems to be about.
Take lampascioni. They are flower bulbs boiled in vinegar and water and then put up under olive oil. And not a week goes by at our little cooking school where, somewhere between the first and 5th forkful that you won’t see the facial expression that seems to say, Oh so this is what the south is about!
Lampascioni are hyacinth bulbs, the same ones your aunt has growing out front of the house. The wild version here are harvested by digging down a hands’ lengths into the winter soil and then digging up the little bulb intact, which like all plants, tends to make its home by really digging in. While I used to harvest them, I confess that at the school, we fly through them so fast that gathering is no longer practical. I buy mine from a local greengrocer, cases at a time.
The recipe couldn’t be easier. You wash them well, trim them down until you have what appears to be a peeled onion. And like onions, this takes some time. Best have some good music. A bottle of wine. A new girlfriend.
Today we’re listening to a call in quiz show which I just love. They play songs from 30 and 40 years ago and women all over Italy call in to tell the announcer where they were in their lives when the songs were new. A crinkly voice from Sardegna. A child-like voice from Roma. A heavy smoker from Pavia. We peel and we peel and we peel.
‘I have a hotspot from the knife’, says Elisa as we peel. Over the radio a woman from Bari gives an open invitation to a singer I never heard of before. ‘I don’t care if you’re old now too’, she says. ‘Just come and visit me’. The announcer is taken back by the honesty of the invitation. He’s lost for words. In my mind’s eye I see a overly-made up 60-year old woman with a poster of a teenage boy up on the wall, his forehead red and fuschia from the years of passing kisses.
Elisa is a physician, 28 and from Lecce, but she’s never prepared hyacinth bulbs before. ‘They are slimier than I would have imagined’, she says. ‘Yes, that’s why you soak them in cool water’, I say. ‘And to remove the proper amount of bitterness’.
Once completely peeled you soak them in water for a day or two, changing it a few times. Then you boil them in half vinegar and half water, which cooks them, but also kills off any botulism spores.
Then you place them in jars and cover them with extra vergine and let them mellow for at least a few months. The flavour is oniony, but with a hearty kick of bitterness and a little floral perfume. If you place them under really good olive oil too, then the flavours are even more complex. I keep a jar in the refrigerator at all times, a greedy spoon ready for barefoot midnight visits.
Come February we’ll pull down jars and begin to taste the first lampascioni of the year. We’ll make up some fresh bread and eat them as a kind of earthy and gutsy pickle, mopping the juices and oil that pool around them.
Today we made 65 jars of the bulbs. I’ll pull down and open each for visiting students, all year long, pristine souvenirs from todays’s perfect afternoon.