It may be the Neapolitans who were historically known as ’mangia foglie e mangia maccheroni’ – leaf and pasta eaters, but fruit and vegetables, whether cultivated or growing wild, have also always played a significant part in the cuisine of Puglia.
Visiting one of the weekly or daily markets, such as the one in Monopoli, is a revelation. The produce varies with the seasons and is almost exclusively locally grown, with it’s provenance displayed! Regular stalls may sell produce from a variety of growers, but there are also stalls which pop up selling just salad vegetables and herbs, artichokes or melons – an individual growers latest crop. In some areas, you can still visit farmers who have set up ‘bancarelle’ or stalls, sometimes even a chair with a sample displayed, outside their houses, often taking you into the kitchen to have your purchase weighed!
Vegetables much used in Puglian cooking, and possibly unfamiliar to visitors, include cime di rape, (aka broccoli rabe or turnip tops) ‘cicorie’ (related to endive rather than chicory) and lampascioni, a bulb related to the hyacinth, which has a fairly bitter taste. Sponsali are like a large spring onion, though with a sweeter, milder taste and are often used as a filling for a kind of focaccia also known as ‘calzone’, combined with wild fennel in some recipes. These, along with the local varieties of artichokes, are all winter and winter into spring vegetables, reappearing as the weather gets cooler in October.
Broad beans are eaten fresh in the spring but also dried for use in the winter months (see fave e cicorie). In the Salento you also find recipes with chick peas. As vegetables comes into season they are preserved ‘sottolio’ – literally under oil.
Tomatoes may be sun dried and preserved under oil, turned into sauce and bottled, or the small ones ‘appesi’ – strung up in elaborate constructed bunches. This is usually done in September with the kind of round tomatoes that grow in clusters. By this time the tomatoes are already fairly thick skinned, and they keep miraculously well like this, lasting throughout the winter months, slightly shrivelled but still full of flavour.
Summer brings the better known Mediterranean vegetables in abundance, peppers, aubergines or melanzane, zucchini and, of course, tomatoes. A more unfamiliar vegetable is the ‘barratiere’ a cross between a cucumber and a melon, shaped like a small round green melon, but with a delicate flavour, not sweet, often served between courses to refresh the palate.
In autumn the ‘cardoncelli’ mushrooms start to take centre stage. Unlike other mushrooms from the pleurotus family, which grow on rotting wood, the cardoncello grows on the roots of plants from the ‘eryngium’ family – thistle like plants such as sea holly or the cardoon. It grows wild in the Alta Murge area of Puglia, but is now widely cultivated as well. Like the summer vegetables it finds it’s way into pasta dishes and is often served as part of the antipasti, maybe ‘gratinati’; cooked in the oven with a little oil and topped with a combination of breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic.