Ask anyone here in Italy what people eat up and down the peninsula and the answers will always be the same: Northerners dive into molten mounds of golden polenta, central Italians eat enough beans to vibrant the windows at night and everyone in Sicily devours plate after plate of pasta, much of it oddly ‘Arab’.
And Puglia? Well, ‘le orecchiette, of course’, they’d say, the answer painfully obvious, even to school children. And indeed there are few regions of Italy so closely associated with a single dish.
But if you were to pose the same question inside of la puglia, well the answers would certainly change, as few regions of Italy vary as much, from sub-region to sub-region (glance at a map: the why is self-evident). Ask a northern Puglia about the Salento and the response will always, alway, always be the same.
Ciceri e tria. It’s a dish that borders on being its own language. Maybe even a religion.
Firstly, our pasta is different here in the Salento than in the rest of puglia, where we tend to add about 30% barley flour, which renders it toothier, more rustic, something approaching soul food.
The ‘Ciceri’ of ciceri e tria actual refers to chick peas or garbanzo beans, a pulse that came with the Arabs. As did ‘tria’, the word for the pasta shape, which comes from the old Farsi name for ‘pasta’ (and indeed the word took root in Latin itself, for ‘grain’, so that in modern Latin nomenclature ‘triticum’ refers to ‘wheat’) (The word gives us the modern, ‘trigo’ in castilliano, as a single example).
You soak the beans, then simmer them with whole pieces of carrot, onions and celery (odori in italian, the base of mirapoix in French). Once the beans are soft you remove the vegetables, leaving behind just a complex and richly-flavoured broth.
Cookbooks try to coax the reader into thinking of the shape as ‘short parppadelle’.
A third of the pasta is then fried in extra vergine until it becomes crunchy and satisfying in its appeal.
In the human mouth the dish is nothing short of a remarkable alchemy, were a few humble ingredients transform themselves into something else entirely. The crunchy pasta satisfies as though it were bacon in the mouth, breaking into rich shards between the teeth. The meat-like chew of the boiled pasta, the savoury beans and a good, rich extra virgin.
Just ask anyone elsewhere in Italy, about the food of the Salento.
Yes, their mouths will likely be watering too.
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Silvestro in today’s LA Times.