We never cease to be amazed by the sheer quantity of produce that springs forth from Pugliese soil. Perhaps more impressive than the quantity, though, is the quality or bontà. From season to season, Pugliese fruits and vegetables go from strength to strength in a yearlong parade of color, texture and flavor that is a wonder to behold. Yesterday we spent the day at an especially productive organic farm down by the Adriatic coast near Ostuni, returning to Martina Franca with boxes of treasures almost too beautiful to eat. But we ate them anyway.
We visited the Pugliese-Rubino family at their family farm, Masseria Difesa di Malta, an historic fortified farmhouse less than a kilometer from the ocean. This is where the family produces the preserved vegetables, jams, marmalades and pasta sauces we will soon be importing under our Pascarosa label. While there are hundreds of preserved food producers in Puglia alone—and we think we’ve tasted most of them—the products that Vita Pugliese makes from the produce her husband, Pino Rubino, grows are truly exceptional. Watching Vita work yesterday confirmed the attention to detail and almost impossibly high standards she sets. From the organic produce grown from seeds harvested from year to year to the preserving methods Vita employs, every step is taken the hard way.
Yesterday was devoted to preserving eggplant. We arrived to find Vita and her staff hand-peeling the most perfect eggplant you’ve ever seen. It seems they only choose eggplants that are young enough to be completely devoid of seeds, which can add bitterness to the finished product. No preservatives are used here, so scrupulous attention is paid to cleanliness, hence the attractive hairnets, lab coats and booties we donned in the 90-degree heat of the cantina. Vita’s hands moved faster than I could follow, peeling, then slicing the eggplants before dropping them in a white wine vinegar bath. Her helper retrieved the slices after soaking, layering them carefully in a tall, cylindrical container with large grains of sea salt and a few pieces of hot, red pepper scattered between each layer. A heavy weight is placed on top of each cylinder, facilitating the release of water absorbed by the eggplant during its growth. Then they wait until the eggplant slices’ volume is reduced by half, transferring the finished eggplant to smaller containers and covering with their own organic extra virgin olive oil.
Today’s production plan involved stuffed peperoncini, gorgeous, round cherry-red peppers with a sweet-hot bite. These are stuffed with anchovies and capers and are utterly irresistible. Pino grows these peppers with seeds he saves at the beginning of each harvest, preferring to use an antique varietal instead of the hybridized versions available locally. When we followed Oriano, the couple’s engaging son who is responsible for sales and marketing, out to the farm, we saw these plants in all their glory and could already taste the salty, earthy sweetness of this finished treat.
This family knows that the vegetables and fruits they grow and preserve are the best. They know that only way to ensure extraordinary, artisanal flavor is to grow small quantities of each ingredient and preserve them the same way, attending to every eggplant, every pepper and every jar personally. Their bontà is extraordinary. And yet they compete with mass-produced products that flood the market both here and abroad with disarming, homespun labels that proclaim each product offers antichi sapori (antique-style flavors) and cucina casareccia (home-cooking). A closer look reveals that most of these products use produce cultivated on an industrial scale, preservatives and sunflower seed oil rather than time-honored, time-consuming preservation techniques and extra virgin olive oil. In many of these products, the produce—the star of the show—may not even come from Italy, although it takes quite a bit of investigation to confirm its point of origin, let alone the practices used to grow it.
Like any genuine, handmade product, these preserved vegetables, jams, condiments and sauces cost more. They require more labor to produce and the ingredients are more expensive. When we first decided to import our own extra virgin olive oil and the olive oil produced by our friends and neighbors in the Valle d’Itria, we made a commitment to choose only the best because we wanted to support producers who shared our values. This meant that we would reject products that didn’t meet achieve the twin thresholds of extraordinary taste and scrupulous cultivation and production standards, no matter how lovely the producers were or how advantageous the price. The more we learn—and the more we taste—we’ve confirmed that the Pugliese-Rubino family’s products surpass that high bar. So every time we visit the farm, we get more and more excited about bringing these products to our customers. We hope you’re excited, too.
When you come to Puglia, you can visit Masseria Difesa di Malta, too. Along with I Millenari di Puglia, an organization founded by two young Italian university graduates in environmental studies, Oriano Rubino has organized tastings at his family’s farmhouse as part of trekking adventures throughout this part of the region. After you are led on a walk through the coastal countryside visiting antique olive mills, thousand-year-old olive trees and protected landscape areas, learning about the area’s history and practices, you’re treated to a tasting of Oriano’s family’s products in the masseria’s courtyard. It’s an incredibly way to experience life here as it used to be and how it can be sustained into the future.