Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Why is Food in Italy So Amazing? A Puglia Grower Talks Local Farming and Eating Culture with LGG


Meet my very good friend Michelle! She recently left her job, sold her house and went on an unbelievable trip around the world.

Michelle in Bali

And in Japan

After visits to Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand she made a stop that made my heart leap out of my chest...to Bari, in the Puglia region of southern Italy, for several days of cooking!

In Puglia, making eggplant and balsamic onions

Michelle's photos from a market in Mola di Bari

With her farmstay hostess Rita, eating squid and sea urchin

Michelle visited Bari in Puglia, on the heel of Italy's boot

Note to Michelle: we are all jealous of you!

Michelle graciously let LGG poke around her Italian vacation a little about something that has baffled us for years.


When the economy hit the skids I was blessed enough to live at home to save money, and I took a trip to Europe in 2013 to see if I could meet some new people and open some new doors for myself. It was then that I discovered the joys of eating fresh fruits and vegetables in Italy.

While consuming standard American produce can be a chore that crushes the human spirit with its lack of sweetness and flavor, Italian produce is a dream come true. I was speechless at the outstanding quality of some of the foundational, everyday ingredients I came across, like lettuce, oranges, olives, olive oil, parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar. You could have lettuce with balsamic vinegar for dessert every night of the week in Italy and basically die happy.

Prepped Italian vegetables. Produce in Italy needs little in the way of added fanfare. 

I was not in the area Michelle visited but it sounds really interesting. Puglia has been an agricultural region for millenia and produces wine, olive oil, fruits, vegetables and wheat for pasta that are all distributed throughout Italy. It has a long history of outside occupation and poverty that seems to have resulted in a culture of growing one's own wares to get by—exactly what LGG has done to survive these trying times.

Puglia's food is reported by some to be spectacular. One traveling foodie blogger says it's her favorite place to eat in all of Italy and that the produce has more intense flavor than that found further north.

AND! High five from LGG on this one, Puglia: the town of Altamura put a McDonald's out of business. The locals gave it a chance but pretty much stopped eating there, opting instead for their own local foods and breads—one of which is protected by EU regulations as being "unique".

Masserias, or farmstays, are popular places to stay here. Michelle's cooking classes took place at a very cool one called Masseria Serra dell'Isola. Check it out.

Masseria Serra dell'Isola

Rita, owner, farmer and cooking instructor at the masseria

Rita owns this masseria and is a former journalist on agricultural and environmental issues. Thanks to Michelle, Rita has kindly agreed to talk to LGG about why she thinks Italy produces some truly outstanding fruits and vegetables. I'm really excited to have her with us today!

LGG: Hi Rita! It's really cool to meet you. This is so exciting! So, I am dying to know why some of the produce and simple ingredients of Italy are so perfect. I think it all blows even our organic food out of the water by far and is some of the best in the world. What do you do on your farms in Puglia?

Rita: There are a few potential reasons, and these are just my opinions!

1. Most of the farms here are very small. This is based on how historically families who inherited big plots of land decided to sell them. Because of this, there is very little use of insecticide. Insects are attracted to large fields of crops, not small ones.* So the soils aren't as polluted.

2. Also in a small farm, you can plant things next to each other that don't attract the same kind of bug. Example, the bugs that like garlic don't like celery—so you would plant garlic and celery next to each other. (That is just an example—not specific to garlic and celery.)

3. There is little to no industrial activity in my area here in Puglia. It's generally confined to a small section that has an iron plant and another plant. Because of this, there is little to no pollution in the soil, water, rain, etc.

4. Culturally, certain foods are important to this region, like tomatoes, garlic and olives. So doing things that would change the taste of these plants would be considered a very bad thing. For example, if you make tomato plants grow bigger tomatoes or grow faster, but it impacted the taste, then that is something that people generally wouldn't want to do. So culturally there is a natural aversion to doing things that would weaken their strong connection to food.

Rita's focaccia with tomatoes

5. In about 1950, it was discovered that Puglia is so rich of underground rivers. The water make the difference, and the richness of our red soil in the area of Mola di Bari. Some areas in Puglia have sandy soils but here in Mola we have very good red soils.

Mola's red clay soils—terra rosso—contain iron and limestone. 

And of course also in agriculture we don't waste water. We were for centuries a land with no water because no rivers and so only the few water arriving from the sky. Until 1950 the vegetables were grown with the Arab techniques, it is a bit difficult to translate, but you don't waste water, and here the habit is that even if you clean your teeths you close the water. If you go in Northern Italy you immediately notice the difference of crop irrigation. Here we use drop irrigation.

6. Also, along the sea there were wells of spring water, and the far past, similar to the wells that you could see in the desert oasis. That kind of water is still used, a bit salty, for our tomatoes. When we prepare the "salsa", the tomato sauce for winter, we use, here in Mola, that kind of tomatoes. Of course when you grow tomatoes with this water tomatoes are a bit salty and with much flavor, much savory. And any vegetables too, eggplants, zucchini, cauliflowers, rapini and so on.

The water make the difference, and the richness of our red soil. And not so much pesticide, who destroy the life of the soil.

7. Here in Puglia, my opinion, we still have a great and healthy food because of a almost vegetarian habits: we eat many vegetables and many legumes with pasta.

Some dishes: spaghetti and fagiolini (green beans) or spring beans, pasta e cime di rape (broccoli rabe), pasta e cauliflowers, pasta a fagioli (white/brown/red beans), pasta e ceci (chickpeas), pasta cicerchie (grass peas), and many times we add also some vegetables, pasta chickpeas and bell peppers, pasta cicerchie and mushrooms.

And also our tielle (made in terracotta pans): patate e cipolle (onions), patate e cicorie, patate e carciofi (artichokes), patate e funghi (mushrooms), patate e fagiolini (green beans). I could continue for hours, with a long list of things that don't need meat or fish, in any season.

Tielle de patate e cicorie, a la Rita

Rita making tielle dishes

Is something that the new generations sometimes forget because the habits are changing, women now don't stay at home but they work, and so the time to cook is less than before, you could tell me. In my opinion this is wrong!

LGG: Hmm. I think it's challenging for everyone to find the time to cook and pay attention to our food lives in this day and age to the degree that we should. But what choice do we have? Our health depends on it. My food life is something I try very hard not to sacrifice. 

What do you do to your soils? How do you compost?

Rita: We put all kinds of things in compost, any kind of fruit and vegetable, and egg's shells. But it's important not to use food things or things with fats. Like no meat scraps or nothing with olive oil, butter or dairy, etc. Also, you don't want to use anything that has flour, like bread or pasta because the fermentation is different. In addition to food scraps, you can use paper towels or toothpicks as long as they don't have the items above on them. There is also paper, little pieces of wood and leaves. They all absorb the liquid of vegetables and fruit. Also you can use ashes from a fire.

LGG: Interesting. Okay, I'm curious—do you think it is possible the ingredients I had further north (Florence, Umbria) that were so delicious were from Puglia? The oranges I had that were so out-of-this-world were from Sicily, which is down in your neck of the woods.

Rita: Our vegetables and fruits, of my area are sent in Rome, Milan and also out of Italy so it is possible.

LGG: Interesting. I wish I'd paid more attention to that. Next time! 

Okay Rita, really fantastic, this is all giving me a lot to think about. I'm so in love with Puglia now and I really love and respect how much you and others there love your food. Thank you so much for talking with us, I'm really excited we have connected. Hopefully I will visit your masseria sometime soon and have a few amazing days of cooking with you!

Rita: It was a pleasure for me too, you are welcome here any moment Lisa! Nessun luogo รจ lontano, ricorda—remember, when people have so much in common no place is so far. Ciao!

What do you think of all this? Between soil, water sources, watering techniques, pesticide usage, industrial pollution, farm size, planting strategies and the impacts of people's love of their fruits and vegetables on farming, Rita has put many potential ideas on LGG's table for why some of Italy's produce is so spectacular.

What do you think of these speculations? What can we surmise from all this?

Add a piece to the puzzle below!

*LGG had major problems with aphids last summer in our little plot, so bugs do feast on small crop areas. Still, we think Rita's point is a good one that deserves further exploration.


Michael Nielsen said...

Super interesting post. I can't wait to do some more traveling in that part of the world!!

Lisa said...

Hi Michael! Thanks! Meeee toooooo...... :)