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.

There is only one little problem with this recipe though….

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.

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  1. Lovely, lovely pictures and information – thank you so much for such a well designed newsletter and content!

  2. Silvestro, This looks cool. What’s the name of the smoked sheep’s milk cheese you use?

  3. Michael, here we use a smoked sheep’s milk cheese from Sardegna called Gavoi. Any good rich grating cheese should work though. Cooking dishes abroad is always an approximation.

  4. Judy, be certain to send this to your food and wine-loving friends!

  5. I keep having these recurring dreams that I’m there, in Lecce, in the middle of those lovely photos, and those tempting plates of food are mine. What do you suppose that means?

    • Perhaps a visit to Lecce and a week in my kitchen is in order.

  6. I’ll be over on Whidbey Island in a couple of weeks and will need to pick-up some fresh Penn Cove mussels: can’t wait! Thanks for an informative and entertaining newsletter 🙂

  7. I must say, you do have a great sense of humor, love your article. Mussels are one of my most favorite dishes, and yours look and sound just divine!

  8. Ciao Silvestro!

    Looks Fabulous! My husband and I lived in San Vito Dei Normanni when it was a US AF Base. We loved Lecce! My sister Robin attended your school and our other sister, Teresa and I plan on coming with Robin. In the mean time, I love your newsletters!


  9. Everything I’ve read indicates the rice goes back to the Greek influence. Also, while the Turks certainly attacked la Puglia, I’ve never seen any evidence that they ever held it, as suggested in your writings. Isn’t the symbol of Lecce the fish (Christians) eating the crescent moon (the Turks)? Oh, and the dish looks wonderful. Very close to the “correct way” we make it in our family. 🙂

    • Chiarella,
      You’ve never seen evidence that the Turks held part of Italy? Have you ever been to Otranto?

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