Puglia has been one of Italy’s main producers of durum wheat since Roman times. Different kinds of bread, focaccia, biscuits, cakes and fresh pasta made with durum wheat and water are an essential part of the Puglian diet. Many of these products are unique to this part of Italy- all are worth sampling.
The durum wheat is predominantly grown in ‘il tavoliere’, the flat plains around Foggia, and the town of Altamura is famous for its bread. ‘Pane di Altamura’ is a crusty, sour dough bread raised with special culture. It has DOP status – only bread from this immediate region, made in a specific way can be sold under this name, although it is transported and sold all over Italy. One of the characteristics of the bread is that it keeps fresh for a long time – up to a week. It has a long history – Horace, the Roman poet, in 37 AD called it the most delicious bread in the world and recommended that all travelers carry it with them.
Instead of the ubiquitous bread sticks, provided in Italian restaurants world – wide, in Puglia there are Taralli – little rings of bread dough made with olive oil and sometimes white wine, plain or with the addition of fennel seed, onions or pepperoncino, twisted into little rings and briefly boiled before being baked in a wood fired oven.
Also typical of the area are Friselle, or Friselline (tiny ones) which are round, hard, savoury biscuits with a hole in the middle. They are cut in half midway through the baking process to provide a flat surface and are delicious dipped briefly in salt water to soften them (as fishermen would have once dipped them in the sea over the side of their boat) then topped with fresh tomatoes and olive oil.
Foccacia is made with dough enriched with olive oil, raised with yeast, baked in round tins and usually topped with tomatoes, olives and onions. This often takes the place of bread in antipasti or light meals but is also eaten on its own as a snack. The name ‘foccaccia’ derives from fuoco, or fire, and so can refer to anything that is cooked in the fireplace. Another variety is more like a pie, thin sheets of dough encasing fillings such as cheese and spinach or, more traditionally, wild fennel with a kind of spring onion and anchovies.
Panzerotti are made from the same dough and can be baked, though they are more usually deep fried. Traditonally they are filled with tomatoes and mozzarella. The large ones are eaten as a filling snack and can be bought from bakeries to take away, the tiny ones, ‘panzerottini,’ often appear as an antipasto. In the Salento area, confusingly, panzerotti are a kind of potato croquette, and the Barese ‘panzerotti’ are called calzoni, like they are elsewhere in Italy – where they are more likely to be baked than fried…