This is one of those dishes, so emblematic of a place that it’s impossible to think about one without the other. Yes, le orecchiette are eaten all over southern, continental Italy, as indigenous, it’s just that here in Puglia, it’s not just another pasta shape.
It’s the region on a plate.
Well, it’s a micro-regionalism on a plate, actually, to the point that you could be drugged, blindfolded and helicopter-dropped onto any dinner table anywhere in Puglia, and based on the size and colour of le orecchiette, instantly recognise your actual city, right down to the postal code. (If you do decide to try this trick at home, outdoor dinning occasions are preferred).
Here in the Salento, the southern part of la Puglia, le orecchiette become larger and browner the further south you go. They’re rustic, wholesome and the addition of barley flour makes them much better for you than refined, white flours. Of course, no one here eats them because they’re good for us. We eat them because they’re just plain good.
Great in fact.
They’re also the hardest pasta shape in all of Italy to make, in my opinion. No shape is harder. As a teacher, I push them back later into the week, introducing the easier shapes first. This cuts down on the frustration that usually accompanies learning how to make le orecchiette, nearly always dictating a rich, Rococo-like stream of blasphemy, free-styling profanity featuring donkeys and broomsticks, followed by the tearing of one’s own hair and garments.
And some simply never get it, even after all that.
The recipe, like nearly all the pasta shapes of the Salento, starts with 60 or 70% hard durum wheat flour, with the remaining coming from that of barley, or ‘orzo‘ in Italian (unrelated to the pasta shape of the same name).
Mix the two together, make a ‘well’, a ‘fountain’, a ‘volcano’ or an ‘atoll’, then slowly add water. Make it a little wet and add more flour, as opposed to making it too dry and trying to add water (which only makes it slimy, as if it were slip clay).
Once amalgamated, begin to knead. Roll that out into a long snake and cut them into 7 gram pieces. Now the tricky part begins.
EVERYONE does this slightly differently, so it’s best to keep trying to find a way that works for you. Apply the rich, Rococco-stream of blasphemy before continuing. Break something valuable belonging to someone else. Discuss the litany of those whose parents never actually wedded. Then move on.
You’ll eventually end up with something that is called a cavatello, or the shape of a cowrie shell. You’ve down the hard part. Throttle back the donkey and broom stick references. Apologise to loved ones and concerned neighbors.
Invert them over a finger tip or thumb until they have a high, nice arch. They should be light for their size. Thick orecchiette taste like raw dumplings, rather than pasta. Don’t fuss with the ones that are ugly. Keep moving forward.
Depends on how you eat, whether in Italian style, or in the New World style (those that see meals as having ‘main courses’, as opposed to equally important stages), probably 15-20 a piece will be a portion.
Boil them until soft. (Hour-old orecchiette, rendered light by practiced fingers, need only 2 or 3 minutes. 8 hours old needs closer to 8 or 9 minutes. The clunkier they are, obviously, the more time they need underwater).
Dress them simply. You want to taste the pasta, the wheat, the barley. In summer, we often dress them with a little, just-heated- through tomato, rughetta (‘rocket’ or ‘arugula’) and a fresh local cheese called cacioricotta. Drizzle a little, good olive oil, such as an ogliarola (the best olive oil in the world, in my opinion) and you have the justifiably, world-famous dish.
You can eat le orecchiette just about anywhere in the world. Have them here though, even just once, and you’ll see what I mean. If there is a better example of a culinary GPS, I don’t know it.
If you want to get to know the Salento, reach for a fork.