Preserving (in) Puglia
I’ve never darned or mended anything in my life, with the exception of the odd button. I don’t see the value in changing my own motor oil. Anything beyond a spent light bulb at our Cooking School in Italy awaits Mauro our electrician. Even climbing onto a horse seems unnecessary nowadays, especially with car keys jingling in my pocket. But then there is home canning/preserving, which keeps me awake at night, reading books and ordering more jars, lids and rubber gaskets. Friends all over Puglia invite me when they gather around dented and steaming chaldrons, knowing full well that I’ll show up to help. And oddly, now that I think about it, almost never arriving by horse.
‘Why would you want to to preserve anything when it’s already for sale, made by someone else’, younger people often ask. And my answer is always three.
1) Because there is something extra special about the homemade version.
2) that it was in learning to preserve food and drink that the ancients sent us- through hundreds and thousands of years of time- some of the greatest pleasures in life. And…
3) that traditions can morph from active habits into sad nostalgia, without any audible hiss.
Preserving /canning /putting up- whatever your cultural calls it- doesn’t just preserve food, it alters it through a few seemingly low-brow techniques. That they were learned before microscopes or the development of the Scientific Method certainly puts them among the most costly lessons humanity ever learned. For most of its history, much of it was certainly indistinguishable from witchcraft. One village might notice that it had more dead children than another. Grandparents too. It’s sobering, how much of the heavy limiting was done by those that lived so long ago.
The principles, while very knowable today, can be complex, especially since there are often multiple processes in play. Boil something
1)- a remarkable technique, as the bubbles also behave as a thermometer, telling you the precise temperature- and you can kill off everything living. And before anything begins to grow again,
2) you can create a sterile vacuum, such as with our tomato sauce (Come first week of September).
You can encourage one sort of bacterial growth to block another, such as in cheese and salumi. Batter to beer. Juice to wine. Milk to cheese. You can raise the sugar level until the sugar itself becomes the preservative. Acid. Salt. Heat. Dehydration. Vacuum. Each of these can be the entire process or only an element in a more complex system. And here in Puglia, all of it was figured out so long ago that no one bothers to write it down.
But it’s also that these are the techniques that are falling away from daily use in the average family home in Southern Italy. The empty glass bottles in the cellar gather another year of dust, next to the rusty roller-skates that no longer fit anyone’s feet. As in much of the industrialized world, more and more comes home from the hypermarchè, imported in cargo containers Only here, few seem to realize that it’s slipping through our fingers, that defining cultural characteristics are fading, leaving behind only questions of identity.
For the last 15 years our cookery course in Italy has been a mirror that reflects back to the community. Raising international interest in local traditions is the best way we know to keep them alive: when Salentini see that people are coming from all over the world to play an active role, the bottles in the cellar get a good cleaning. And another generation has the time to decide if there is something in this worth keeping.
For us at the school, there is. Next time you’re considering a cooking school in Italy, take a look at our new canning/putting up course, the Preserving the Preservation of Puglia. We’d love your help in keeping a tradition alive.