Autumn officially begins on September 21st, but in Puglia, September is arguably the very best time of the year for savoring the best of the summer. Even though the days are getting shorter, it feels like the atmospheric gods are conspiring to make the ever-waning daylight something truly special. From stunning midday skies and dreamy sunsets to sweet, grape-scented breezes, we’re reveling in these last moments before the darkening sky moves decisively into winter.
Against this sunny, early autumn backdrop, we had the extraordinary fortune to host Nancy Harmon Jenkins. You almost certainly know her authoritative work interpreting the Mediterranean diet along with a plethora of cookbooks and countless articles that explore Mediterranean cuisines, the Mediterranean diet and its consequences for good health and, not incidentally, everything you might ever want to know about extra virgin olive oil. What you might not know is how truly articulate, funny and gracious she is. On her way to her home in Tuscany, Nancy came to us from a sojourn on the volcanic island of Stromboli (yes, the Stromboli of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini fame), which you can read all about here.
Nancy is planning to launch a Puglia-focused version of her successful Amorolio, a week long immersion in the world of extra virgin olive oil through tastings, cooking classes, traditional dinners and tours of the towns and countryside where some of the finest extra virgin olive oil in the world is produced. The program will also feature a high profile chef who will impart the secrets of extra virgin olive oil in the kitchen through hands-on cooking lessons. Happily, we’ll be right alongside Nancy in planning and hosting this new, Puglia-based Amorolio experience.
Is there a better place to learn about olive cultivation? Puglia is home to over 60 million olive trees: one for every man, woman and child in Italy. Of these, just under half a million are centuries old. Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s extra virgin olive oil and has the largest concentration of olive oil mills of all kinds. And Puglia’s olive oil history is long and fascinating, offering opportunities to visit ancient olive mills, imposing baronial farmhouses steeped in the production of olive oil and the olive groves themselves.
In addition to outstanding wine, a beautiful bounty of fruits and vegetables and all those olive trees, Puglia also offers a continuous coastline from the Adriatic to the Ionian seas, which is where we spent a lovely afternoon planning next year’s Amorolio adventure. La Forcatella, a tiny fishing village with a few small stands offering plates of sea urchins and a delicious array of shellfish pastas and frittura di pesce (lightly battered and olive oil-fried crispy sea creatures), represents what Puglia is all about. Stunningly fresh materia prima or core ingredients prepared simply and lovingly by passionate cooks who care deeply about quality dot the landscape here. In thinking through our plans for the Amorolio tour, Nancy and I were convinced we could fill a month with unique adventures. We’re supremely confident that the week we’re designing will be an experience of a lifetime.
Amorolio Puglia will take place in late fall of 2014, ideally during the very early days of the Pugliese olive harvest. We’ll stay in a stunning masseria (baronial farmhouse) updated to offer exceptional style, elegance and comfort without giving up an ounce of its historical charm. Part of Nancy’s time with us involved visiting these masserie to find the very best one—arduous work, but we rose to the occasion. And as we concluded Nancy’s visit with a cucina casareccia (homestyle) dinner at the home of one of the farmers we work with to
produce Pascarosa extra virgin olive oil, we knew we were on to
something special. Summer is grand here, but autumn in Puglia, with the heady perfume of the grape harvest and the olive harvest hot on its heels, is the place to be. We’ll keep you posted on our Amorolio progress.
Here is La Forcatella’s recipe for Spaghetti ai Frutti di Mare (Spaghetti with Shellfish). As you can see in the photo below, we didn’t leave a morsel, not even the tiniest clam, on our plates. If you have a good source of shellfish, this is the simplest and most satisfying way I know to serve it. You can vary the shellfish to suit your supply, but don’t stint on top quality pasta and the best extra virgin olive oil you can find. Pascarosa, anyone?
Spaghetti ai Frutti di Mare—Spaghetti with Shellfish
1/2 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly smashed
2 or 3 medium tomatoes or 7 or 8 small tomatoes, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 small, hot, dried red pepper or peperoncino, chopped (about ¼ tsp.)
1/3 cup dry white wine
Kosher or sea salt to taste
1-½ lbs. small mussels
1-½ lbs. Manila clams
1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley
1.1 lbs. (500 grams) best quality spaghetti; Martelli, Cavalieri or Latini are all good brands
Let the clams and mussels soak in salty cold water until you are ready to use them. IF there is any sand in the clams, the water bath with prompt the clams to clean themselves, expelling any sand that might be hiding inside. Scrub the shells of the mussels and debeard them by firmly grasping the mussel in one hand and the scraggly “beard” that peeks out of the shell. Pull down hard on the beard to release it from the mussel and discard it.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
Heat the olive oil in a large, high-sided skillet large enough to hold all the shellfish and cooked pasta. Gently heat the olive oil in the large skillet over low heat. Add the garlic and red pepper to the olive oil, carefully allowing the garlic to bubble a little but taking great care not to brown anything. The olive oil will become infused with the garlic and peperoncino, smelling heavenly.
Raise the heat, add the chopped tomatoes and let cook, releasing the tomatoes’ juices. Add the clams and mussels and bring up heat to high. Cover, and let the shellfish steam open. This process shouldn’t take more than five minutes. Discard any clams and mussels that haven’t opened on their own during this period. Add the white wine and let the mixture simmer for 2-3 minutes. Taste for salt and season as needed. Turn off the heat and wait for the pasta.
While you are working on the sauce, put the spaghetti in the cooking water, stir it vigorously to avoid sticking and let it cook until it is very al dente (not quite done). Taste a strand of the spaghetti; it should offer a little resistance and exhibit a fine, pinpoint of white at the its very center. Drain the spaghetti, reserving about a cup of the starchy cooking water.
Turn up the heat under the sauce and add the drained spaghetti, using two large spoons or tongs gently to combine. If the mixture seems at all dry, add a little of the reserved, hot pasta cooking water. Yes, you do serve this past with the shellfish shells because they add so much flavor to the sauce. Be sure to accompany the pasta with a bowl for empty shells if your guests feel the need to remove them before eating.
Turn off the heat, add the chopped Italian parsley and stir gently. Serve immediately.
Serves four hungry people as a main course or six as a first course.