We started our cooking classes in Lecce on Tuesday morning. Our class met again on the main Piazza and then we went to a Bar/Cafe for espresso. We shared several pastries, including Rustico Leccese, which is a savory mini pie of flaky pastry stuffed with mozzarella. It’s served warm, so the cheese is soft and gooey. Yum.
Silvestro, who is our instructor and ambassador of all things Pugliese, especially the Salento Peninsula, took us into several shops in town and explained about the products typical of this area, ultimately arriving at the town’s oldest market, a big building that houses fruit, meat, poultry, and salumi vendors, many of whom have been operating in the market for generations.
We got a short lesson on meats typical to the region and Silvestro purchased the most enormous loaf of bread I’ve ever seen. See the picture below.
Historically, cows, pigs and their by-products were not part of the cuisine of this area (although they were prevalent in northern Puglia). Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, cow meat and milk would spoil before it could be consumed and it was too humid for pork to be cured.
Most of the protein consumed here was fish or chicken. The typical cheeses are soft, not hard cheeses, made from sheep and goat’s milk.
We did learn about a rich family that kept cows and during the summer they would send their cows north by railroad so they could spend the warm months in a cooler climate. That really gives new meaning to the word “cattle car.”
The produce here, however, is plentiful. Vegetables abound — artichokes, tomatoes, arugula, zucchini, peaches, clementines, etc. The growing season is long here.
In addition, a large portion of the wheat eaten in Italy comes from Puglia, with pasta being the “king” of the table. This is pasta country, mostly made from flour and water. Specifically, in the Salento, it’s semolina and barley flour.
Around 11 am, we returned to the school to begin preparing our lunch. This was our first glimpse of the kitchen. It’s actually in the Palazzo’s old stables. There are two rooms, one has a sink, stove and a remarkably small refrigerator. From there, you step down into the work area. One wall is lined with the original stone troughs from the stable and they function as a large sink and storage for enormous pots.
Two giant granite islands dominate the kitchen. One has an eight burner gas stove and holds more cookware and cutlery. The other island is our work surface. There were eight of us standing around the island and we had plenty of room to work.
We started with a pasta lesson from Silvestro and Giuseppe. We each made our own ball of dough and then created two shapes. The first was called capaletti mexicani, which, as I mentioned yesterday, are like little mexican hats, although I think they could also be witches hats, perfect for halloween.
Our second shape was one of my favorites, cavatelli. Making pasta is really not that hard. The trick is making sure the dough isn’t too tacky (e.g., sticks to your hands). We rolled out the dough with wooden rolling pins and used common kitchen tools to cut and shape the pasta. In almost no time at all, we’d created a little sea of mexican hats and cavatelli.
We took a short break while the staff cleaned and prepared the kitchen. When we returned, the ingredients for our lunch awaited us. Together we prepped all the food for our three course lunch, which included:
- Antipasti: Black mussels with basil, garlic and white wine
- Primo: Capaletti mexicani with tomatoes, arugula, and cacioricotto (a soft sheep’s milk cheese)
- Secondo: Whole grilled sea bream (a.k.a., orata), stuffed with lemon and herbs, accompanied by a fennel salad
Once the meal was prepped, we returned to the dining room for a quick lesson on our wine, which was a white made from Negroamaro grapes. Who knew? It was a lot like Verdicchio — dry and crisp.
For each course, a different member of the class returns to the kitchen with the staff and they cook that course together. So for example, Anne returned to the kitchen with Giuseppe to help cook the mussels, which we had already cleaned. She then presented the dish to the class and we ate it. The black mussels were from Taranto and were tender and delicious.
Someone else then returned to the kitchen to cook and assemble the pasta with Giuseppe, while Silvestro talked more about the culinary traditions of the area.
While we ate the pasta, Giuseppe grilled the sea bream, which is a delicious, light fish. It was served with the head on and we each filleted our own fish at the table, with big bowls placed in front of us for the bones. Because of the simple way the fish was prepared, stuffed with lemon slices, we drizzled a tiny bit of olive oil over the fish before eating it. Perfetto.
Dessert, thank goodness, was a bowl of clementines, which are just coming into season here.
We walked back to our apartment and took a little rest after such a productive morning.
As is still the case in many towns and cities in Italy, almost everything closes down from about 1:30 until 5 pm. A few bar/cafes are open, and a couple of shops, but for the most part it’s pretty empty and quiet, so you don’t really feel too guilty about taking a short nap.
Refreshed, we returned to the school at 6 for dinner. Similar to lunchtime, we prepped the meal as a class. Our dishes were simpler and lighter, though:
- Primo: Cavatelli (which we’d made earlier in the day) with a simple tomato sauce and lots of parmesan cheese
- Secondo: Lu stufato, which can best be described as a Puglia style ratatouille, with zucchini, eggplant, yellow peppers, potatoes, onion, basil, and cherry tomatoes. Excellent. It was accompanied by sautéed chicory, which I have to say, I’m not a fan of. The rest of the class loves it, but it tastes like soap to me. I’ve been promised I don’t have to eat it again, but we’ll see.
- Dessert: Almond brittle. Almonds are a big deal here.
Similar to the previous meals, we prepped all of the ingredients as a class. I chopped potatoes and the basil, while Anne made the almond brittle. We then sat down to taste the wine. I wish I could tell you what it was, but I didn’t write it down. It was red, locally produced, as all of our wines are, and delicious. I think it was Negroamaro, but don’t quote me on that.
Anne and I arrived home late, close to 11:30, and then continued to stay up debriefing on the day and struggling with the very weak wifi (need to speak to Maurizio about that). We may have had another glass of wine or two, too, but who’s counting?