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Do You Knead Bread?

■ 7 September 2014 by James Martin

Travel clogs your brain with all sorts of pernicious poppycock. You work it in there with all the truths and half truths you discover on your journey through life, and out comes a crusty deposit full of holes. Like bread.

my bread pictureOn our last trip to Rome we stayed northwest of the Vatican, in the neighborhood called Aurelio. This happens to be the place where the current king of bread, a guy named Bonci, has a pizza joint. As a journalist, I had to try the pizza. After all, it was all the rage. The man was a saint, according to the lit. This fact, of course, made me want to ignore him. I am a contrarian. I immediately think of other things, hidden things, when confronted with anyone made godly by a ballooning cadre of sycophants. (After all, at the height of his power, Mussolini received about 1,500 letters a day from Italian men and women of all social classes praising his political prowess. Think on that!)

In any case, I also visited a bakery in Puglia, a region which I consider the best for bread. There I met Lorenzo Accarino in a store called Chichino Pane in Monte Sant’Angelo. He was throwing big, wobbly hunks of bread to be baked.

And he didn’t knead it. Not a bit.

So, then I listened to a talk about bread at La bottega di Stigliano, a food cooperative in Siena province. The talk turned to modern folks inability to digest bread, and one of the threads being studied was the turn away from ancient methods to “quick rise” methods of making bread faster. We all took a swerve and started to make bread like factories, a quick rise, kneading to align the gluten in the flour, a short rise and then bang, into an oven.

So then I started hearing all the new talk of “no knead” bread—because that’s the way Mr. Bonci does bread—creating a wet dough you can’t even think of kneading.

Why don’t you need to knead? Because a long rise, overnight or longer, aligns the gluten when the big holes expand with the slow rise. The bread works for you.

So what’s the big deal, then, about health? Well, well-fermented, slow rise bread is very low in phytic acid.

Phytic acid not only grabs on to or chelates important minerals, but also inhibits enzymes that we need to digest our food, including pepsin,1 needed for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach, and amylase,2 needed for the breakdown of starch into sugar. Trypsin, needed for protein digestion in the small intestine, is also inhibited by phytates.

Through observation I have witnessed the powerful anti-nutritional effects of a diet high in phytate-rich grains on my family members, with many health problems as a result, including tooth decay, nutrient deficiencies, lack of appetite and digestive problems. ~ Living With Phytic Acid

To be fair, there are some who would argue that the benefits of Phytates outweigh the disadvantages. But still, I can create a free-form loaf of bread with a crunchy crust and those un-uniform holes that pane pugliese has with a minimum of effort while the rising dough does all the work. And the long fermentation makes it tastier.

So, when you slow travel, think of slow bread, too. Let’s hope this swerve back to the past has legs.

And, um, thanks Mr. Bonci!

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Do You Knead Bread? originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Sep 07, 2014, © James Martin.

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Burnt Wheat

■ 27 August 2013 by James Martin

The more you study the a place that has had a long history of poverty, the more likely you are to become amazed at the sheer amount of creativity that flows from severe need.

As the world tries to cope with the unimaginably daft notion that we’d all be better off if we’d just contribute more of our hard-earned wealth to the already wealthy, I wonder when the time comes that we suddenly realize someone should be curating these creative survival tactics?

When we’re all parched and ill-mannered from not having enough to eat and the fat-cat rich are on their own little planet or space station or some such, far away from the planet they’d ravaged for filthy lucre, we’ll wish we had a catalog. Ideas you can eat. Bet on it.

What got me to thinking about all this is Faith Wilinger’s piece in La Cucina Italiana called Adventures in Puglia.

Burnt wheat. What do you think of that notion?

…It was our first encounter with hand-made orecchiette, little ear-shapes, the region’s most important pasta. They were made with burnt wheat flour, an ingredient born of poverty that’s made a big comeback. (Note: After wheat was harvested, fields were burnt, but before being plowed under, people of little means would glean the burnt wheat, combine it with more costly hard wheat for their flour. It became an acquired taste and is now produced on purpose, toasting instead of burning the wheat.)

Pulia, along with Basilicata and Calabria, is a hotbed of these types of ideas as modern politicians found every excuse to ignore the folks of the hardscrabble south. Poverty will get you more poverty in the modern world unless you’re clever.

Of course, things come full circle, and now the rich want their share of this tasty treat, so the cucina povera gets mass produced, driving the poor out of the market so that prices can rise…

The idea of burning grains—or at least roasting them until they’re quite unmistakably dead—isn’t a new technique. You find burned barley in your Guinness or any stout beer of your choosing. It broadens the flavor profile of the beer while not adding alcohol as lightly toasted barley malt would.

Yes, someone should start curating the creative cleverness of poverty soon. From burnt wheat to filtering water with papyrus, another clever Puglian re-invention, starting with the ancient Egyptians.

Or we could just eat the rich. I suspect they’re too fatty though.

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Burnt Wheat originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Aug 27, 2013, © James Martin.

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Puglia and Little Ears

■ 9 July 2013 by James Martin

I’ve been toiling here in sweltering California for quite a while on our Puglia Maps and Travel Guide Page. You know how it goes. You write and write until you think you’re finished. Then you remember something really, really cool and you write some more. Each time you save, check, upload until your mouse is looking a bit frazzled and hot. It’s never done, really, you have to come to grips with that.

In the meantime, when you’re looking for pics and video, you see some little shred of video that you think, “why didn’t I do something with this?”

So that means more work. But, in this case it’s good seeing the orecchiette fly off the knife of Fausta Munno, who runs a B&B in the Gargano and is a fantastic cook.

It’s just a little ditty of a video. Don’t expect too much. It starts with a rather traditional dish of the Gargano, Orecchiette in tomato sauce with ricotta salata next to a fried meat roll, served as a “piatto unico” or single plate (meaning you don’t have to order any more dishes, you’ve eaten enough). Of course, we were guests at the Villa Americana Park Hotel in Rodi Garganico, so about 158 dishes came after this one…

In any case, the movie then cuts to the fascinating conclusion, showing Fausta cutting the pasta roll she’s made and then, in a slow and languid motion rolling the pasta off a common kitchen knife so that it has a lot of texture to catch and hold that sauce. Her mother had a special, “secret” knife to do this, but she’s using what looks like one made in China and sold at the 2 Euro store, which makes her a genius.

Anyway, here it is. Don’t let it make you hungry. I’m not responsible. I mean about your hunger.

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Puglia and Little Ears originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jul 09, 2013, © James Martin.

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Open Air Markets, Especially Ballarò Market in Palermo

■ 29 June 2013 by James Martin

I am a foodie. I am not a foodie.

Ok, let’s face it: I don’t know what a foodie is. Yeah, “a person who likes food” comes to mind. But what food? The food coming from the exalted kitchens of a chef who might mix 476 spices with a molecularly deconstructed flank steak seasoned with a special salt scraped from a chunk of meteorite found in a corn field in Nebraska and force the whole, syrupy shebang through the tiny orifices of a specially modified ink jet printer to spew designs upon a translucent sheet of specially stretched lamb tendon so they can sell the exclusive concoction to you for $149.99 an ounce while you sip the few drops of precious Chateauneuf du Pape they’ve managed to drip into a glass big enough to fit Rush Limbaugh’s head?

I’m not that kinda foodie any more. Maybe when I was young. Rush Limbaugh’s head wasn’t nearly so big then anyway.

And not nearly as big as the cow heads on display at the famed Ballarò Market in Palermo. Antony Bourdain ate the famous spleen sandwich there. Pane ca’ meuza they call it. He didn’t die, either.

But this morning I saw a couple of postings about the market. They had my name on them, in a manner of speaking. Here’s one that got me lusting to go, to rent an apartment and spend a week or more cooking the fab stuff on sale in all those glorious pictures: Ballarò Market in Palermo

Heck, I get goosebumps just thinking of talking to the guys in the stalls. “What do you do with these?” I might ask, then sit back while the secrets of Sicilian cuisine are revealed to me. It’s not like you’re in the Safeway and the check-out babe asks you what that red lettuce-like stuff is and how you’re going to use it. America is backwards, and slipping more so each day.

There’s more. Rosalia Chiarappa, a journalist who I had the pleasure of meeting in Conversano in Puglia, posted some more great pictures from the same market this morning on her Facebook page called Un giro a Ballaró

Heck, we’re just in the process of ordering our tickets for our fall journey and I’m already thinking of a side trip to Sicily.

Real food. That’s the kinda foodie I am. A real foodie. You sit me in front of a picture of a hunk of crusty bread, a gaggle of ripe tomatoes and a bowl of fresh mozzarella and I’m drooling lustily. The picture in this posts sets me off: Cilento, odi et ama parte seconda. La lista dei buoni di Marco Contursi

Yes, it’s in Italian. But look at the picture. You add the sea to the background and it’s just perfect. It’s not a bright, sunny day. It’s the tomatoes that make a bright day. And here, too, we are in the south of Italy. This time in Puglia.

I am obviously hearing the siren song of the south. And of the open air markets. And yes, even the cow’s heads call to me. Sorry, Rush. You’re so yesterday.

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Open Air Markets, Especially Ballarò Market in Palermo originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jun 29, 2013, © James Martin.

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Festa del Soccorso in San Severo, Puglia

■ 13 May 2013 by James Martin

san severo romanesque church picture

San Severo in Puglia is an interesting place. It’s located in the province of Foggia on the flat part west of the mountainous spur bit called the Gargano. They make good wine there. A big influence on the local dialects was the Tratturo del Re, the ancient transhumance path you can see just out of town, linking Aquila in the Abruzzo to Foggia in Puglia.

It’s a baroque town, but the bits of the Romanesque you find are oddly out of whack, like in the church pictured on the right.

But that’s not all that is wacky. The procession of the Madonna del Soccorso, the Black Madonna worshiped in San Severo, is celebrated in May.

It’s one of those crazy festivals celebrated in the south, like Matera’s Madonna Bruna. It’s all about the daredevil youth. In this case, as in the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, the youth risk life and limb (well, sorta) running down il tunnel della paura, the tunnel of fear.

What they do is line the route followed by the Black Madonna with a long “fuse” upon which has been tied bags of gunpowder and light it at just the right moment. Kids called “fujenti” run in the midst of all the explosions, trying to keep ahead of the next one, all to prove devotion to the Madonna Nera.

Crazy? Yup. But really, you gotta see it. So here:

Here’s the schedule for the 2013 festival (in Italian)

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Festa del Soccorso in San Severo, Puglia originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 13, 2013, © James Martin.

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Il trabucco di Monte Pucci - Where to Eat Fish in the Gargano

■ 25 April 2013 by James Martin

trabucco-garganoIt has the same claptrap appeal John Steinbeck must have felt upon first envisioning Cannery Row; Il trabucco di Monte Pucci sits on a rocky point, its long “antennas” pointing out to the deep water. They’re made of sections of the local pine trunks, a wood that has exactly the strength, flexibility and resistance to salt water you need for this sort of fishing. Often three trunks are lashed together to get the length needed to drag giant nets through the water. It is a fishing machine born not far from Rube Goldberg’s drawing board.

The origin of the Trabucco is actually said to have been Phoenician. You didn’t need to head out in your little fishing boat on the bad days when the sea roiled around you. The Trabucco solved that problem admirably.

Today’s enormous ships can go out when they want and drag all the net that can fit on the boat, so the trabucci aren’t as profitable as they once were. They’ve become protected historical structures though, and to make ends meet, restaurants are born. The Ristorante al Trabucco, those white structures with the red roofs, is a not-to-miss attraction for folks staying around Vico del Gargano craving really, really fresh fish.

fresh fish pictureMarco runs the operation now; the trabucco has been in his family for many generations. He gets up early to captain the morning catch, then cleans up and transforms himself into our waiter. You can’t get closer to the raw materials and those who nurture it into food than this.

Once he’s got your beverages well in hand, out comes Marco with a platter of what they’ve caught that morning. He explains how you can have it cooked. On that platter is the biggest seppia (cuttlefish) I’ve ever laid eyes upon. We don’t order it. We go for an assortment of smaller species.

marinated mackerel pictureAnd for an antipasti Martha selected her usual insalata di polpo, a refreshing and rather large helping of very tender octopus with tasty celery. Knowing that mackrel is one of those fish that has a trashy reputation in places like the US where it’s less possible to get it really fresh, I had that. It was darned good. Don’t miss it. I mean, you have a trifecta of Gargano goodness going here, the local olive oil, the local lemons, and the fish that just came out of the net.

Next we shared a pasta, something we wouldn’t normally do, but wanted to share more of the fishy goodness. We had a pasta allo scoglio, literally pasta of the shoals, with shellfish. It was great—and there was still too much of it.

Then we wait in anticipation of our grilled fish, sipping the crisp and citrusy white wine of the area made from Bombino Bianco grapes. I can’t help thinking of Babe Ruth. I don’t know why. It was a home run anyway.

trabucco grilled fish pictureAnd there is is on the right. Bella, no? Fish deteriorates quickly once it’s yanked from the water. If you don’t like fish because it stinks of fish, then you haven’t had fish done right. This is the way to prepare them, just grilled. You’re tasting what you ordered. Nobody has to cover up anything.

This experience isn’t cheap. It isn’t really expensive either. Lunch with a fabulous wine cost us 90 euro.

How to get to Ristorante Al Trabucco

The restaurant is just outside of Vico del Gargano, despite the address:

Localita Monte Pucci – S.S. 89, Peschici (FG)
Te.: 345.8933151

If you are on the SS 89 coastal road, stop when you see the square tower with a parking area in front of it. The road down to the trabucco starts on the east side of the parking lot. You can also come by boat, of course.

Reservations are recommended.

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Il trabucco di Monte Pucci - Where to Eat Fish in the Gargano originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 25, 2013, © James Martin.

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Smoke, Mirrors...and Coffee

■ 23 April 2013 by James Martin

espresso maching bar pizzicato picture

Ain’t she a beaut?

This is the espresso machine at the Bar Pizzicato in Vico del Gargano. It’s a very special bar, one of those places where you marvel at the service, where you’re absolutely sure that the barista has eyes in the back of his head.

It’s the mirrors, as I discovered when I tried to take a picture of the gleaming machine surreptitiously. (It didn’t work, as you can tell by the fine portrait taken in the process.)

The Bar Pizzicato is a very special place. It has organic fruit juices and gelato flavors, made from fruit grown in town. It has pastries to die for. The staff people are genuinely and warmly friendly.

Unlike in America, where a “bio” bar or organic juice bar would become a hangout for health nuts and smokers would be booted, here the old guys sit at the tables laid out in front of the bar and smoke while watching the world move along slowly in front of them. Cars stop, drivers talk and gesture. Nobody is bothered, neither the bar’s patrons nor the people stuck behind the yacking drivers.

I like that. I mean I’m not a smoker and don’t particularly relish the idea of sitting next to someone puffing away at breakfast time. But there’s something nice at work here that transcends filthy habits. A sort of slow “live and let live” mentality that transcends the “everyone for himself” mentality of the US. It’s something I admire. The old guys never even seem to buy anything. Ever. But they’re free to sit. Free to watch the world pass.

I’m sorry. I really am. But I like that.

(Bar Pizzicato on Facebook)

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Smoke, Mirrors...and Coffee originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 23, 2013, © James Martin.

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Fresh Meat

■ 20 August 2012 by James Martin

I got the itch to go to Italy today. I mean, you might say I always have the itch, but every once in a while an event triggers a yearning so strong that it hangs in my mind, obliterating other desires. I need to go to Italy, and I need it bad.

You see, yesterday Martha bought one of those bagged, industrial chickens. Today, less then 24 hours later, I carefully sliced open the well-sealed bag. The smell of rot slithered out on big rhinoceros toes. This is not an uncommon occurrence. This is the type of chicken. I just thought you’d want to know.

So we threw the stinking thing out and the pangs began. Oh Italia! Wherefore art though?

You see, in Italy you don’t really buy chickens in sealed bags, even industrial chickens. If they are rotting and stink, you’re gonna smell it. It’s going to embarrass the butcher. It’s just not commonly done.

Italians, after all, aren’t traditionally squeamish about seeing food not incarcerated in industrial bagging. Even those goat heads the waiter brings to show us what Arthur Miller ordered when he visited Ristorante La Caravella in Monte Sant Angelo didn’t attract any attention from other diners. It’s just food, despite the eyeballs. It’s fresh. It doesn’t stink. And you don’t pay an arm and a leg to have it cooked up for you.

goat heads monte sant angelo

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Fresh Meat originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Aug 20, 2012, © James Martin.

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