Plic e Plac
As our own roots reach just a little deeper into this especially rocky Pugliese soil, we’re making new friends and slowly becoming ever more bound to the people we’ve come know over these last 18 years. Martina Franca isn’t a tiny town—its population hovers around 50,000—but we find it’s possible to connect easily, sometimes effortlessly, while conducting the business of daily living.
Here the market, the post office and the local bar stimulate ritualized encounters. The Saturday and Sunday evening passeggiata summons almost everyone to the old town’s principal walking street sooner or later, creating nuclei of hobnobbing Martinesi who bestow exuberant, cheek-kissing greetings and link arms to catch up on any news that has surfaced since the last encounter. Favored vendors, neighbors and friends and relatives of friends make the circle larger, each adding some new level of understanding in this new, old world.
Brian has made (literal) inroads through his bicycling friends. The G.C. Martina road cycling club meets early in the morning, three times a week for what is invariably a three-hour, 80-kilometer ride. Brian is an honorary member complete with club kit, so his circle of friends has increased dramatically as a result of his affiliation. One of my favorite stories is Brian’s retelling of the group decision process required to determine the day’s course. Often in local dialect, riders hold forth on wind direction, its likelihood to change course during the ride, road conditions, general weather and group’s collective fitness. After a lengthy, spirited review of the options, one of the group’s members typically turns to Brian to say, “Va bene, BREE-ahn. Via, okay?”
Brian met his friend Vito through the cycling club, and they’ve now spun off the group ride to supplement with shorter rides whenever they have the time. Vito is a local vigile or municipal police officer, so he has become our conduit to all things legal and procedural in Martina. It’s a head-scratching morass, and we’ve found that a more helpful, or kinder consigliere (advisor) than Vito would be hard to find. Vito is something of a buongustaio (gourmet), so I have come to rely upon him for advice regarding local foodways. And Vito’s wife, Grazia, is one of the best home cooks I’ve met here, so I spend a fair amount of time looking over her shoulder as she cooks her way through the culinary year.
At a recent lunch at Casa Vito, we tasted a sweet and fiery hot condiment that almost knocked us out. We kept sneaking surreptitious spoonfuls onto just about everything we ate that day. We learned that this pepper paste is called plic e plac in Martina Franca, although some variant of it surely exists all over southern Italy. No one could tell us how plic e plac came to be named, but we were assured it was a dialect name that is unrecognizable outside of our area. When I asked Grazia for the recipe, she immediately warmed to the idea that I should watch her perform the entire procedure. So that’s what we did one blustery afternoon when she was ready to make this year’s batch.
Emboldened by Grazia’s hands-on demonstration, I tracked down the last of the season’s deep red corno di bue or oxen’s horn peppers at the market. Another friend had just given us handfuls of peperoncini, the spicy little red peppers that are preserved in oil or dried on their stalks for use all year long. Our little neighborhood vegetable stand provided the celery and the garlic and we had just brought home our own freshly milled extra virgin olive oil. Sufficiently armed with ingredients, I was ready to take on plic e plac.
Grazia was worried about my cooking pot inventory, so she sent Vito over to our house with their prized AMC brand stockpot to use for my plic e plac-making efforts. We came to learn that just about everyone here has one of these stockpots, most likely the work of especially intrepid door-to-door salesmen because the line isn’t available in stores. Its principal attribute is its stainless steel construction and extra-thick base with an interior copper layer designed to conduct heat efficiently. Grazia warned that even a hint of scorching during the long, slow plic e plac process would render the entire batch unsalvageable, hence the loan of the super special plic e plac stockpot.
Plic e plac may sound a little labor intensive, but like most everything here, you make it in stages and you only do it once a season. And when you’re done, you have this absolutely gorgeous, peppery relish that brightens anything it touches. We slather it on crostini, often on top of a
spoonful of creamy ricotta. It’s wonderful with soup, adding a piquant note that intensifies when heated. Tossed with steamed vegetables that have been dressed with a little lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, plic e plac burrows in the nooks and crannies, offering its arresting sweet-hot flavor in every bite.
In the end, we learned that you don’t really need the miracle stockpot to make plic e plac successfully, but you do need to keep your eye on it when it is slowly simmering. We also found that even though it seems like you have chopped a ridiculous number of peppers into tiny little fingernails, the salting process reduces their volume considerably. The balance of sweet and hot in plic e plac is entirely up to you. It’s fun to play around with its flavor, but remember that a few peperoncini go a long way. If you don’t feel like processing the finished plic e plac jars in a boiling water bath, you can always freeze small quantities, defrosting as you work you way through the winter. Any way you get there, you’ll love the result, doling out precious spoonfuls and marveling at your resourcefulness.
Plic e Plac—Preserved Sweet and Hot Pepper Relish
10 lbs. of bright red peppers (corno di bue are the best variety if you can find them; pimentos work well, too)
10-15 fresh, hot red peppers (peperoncini); if you can’t find then, try a similar small, hot pepper and adjust quantity based on heat level
5 or 6 ribs of celery
4-5 cloves garlic
Extra virgin olive oil
Wash red peppers and remove each pepper’s stem end. Using a sharp knife, slice open each pepper and remove all its seeds and white membranes. Slice each pepper lengthwise into ½ inch strips. Stack these strips, turn them a quarter turn and chop them into ½ inch pieces. Repeat until the peppers are all chopped (whew!).
With kitchen gloves on, remove the stem ends of the hot peppers. If you like your plic e plac really piccante, chop the hot peppers, seeds and all, into roughly ½ inch pieces. You can also remove the membranes and seeds of these smaller peppers to reduce the heat if you prefer. You could skip the kitchen gloves, but if your peppers are at all spicy, you will regret this decision later.
Now that the peppers are all reduced into thousands of tiny pieces, salt them liberally and use your hands to mix the salt into the pepper piece mixture. Put the peppers in a colander with a bowl below it, then place a plate on top of the peppers with a heavy object (a 28 oz. can of tomatoes is great for this). Leave the peppers alone for 24 hours; they’ll shed a great deal of water.
The next day, pour a generous quantity of extra virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stockpot and heat gently. Wash and chop the celery ribs into ½ inch pieces. Roughly chop the garlic cloves.
Squeeze the last little bit of water from the peppers and add them to the olive oil in the stockpot. Add the celery and garlic, mix well, and raise the heat until the mixture is gently bubbling. Reduce the heat until the mixture is just slightly simmering. Keep your eye on the plic e plac for the next 3-4 hours, stirring the mixture from time to time to make sure that none of it has adhered to the bottom of the pan. Keep the heat low enough to prevent this while still cooking the plic e plac to reduce its liquid. When most of the liquid is gone and the consistency of the compote is just a little saucy but not runny, remove the plic e plac from the heat.
That’s it; you’re finished. But if you’ve made a large quantity of plic e plac, you’ll want to preserve it. You can freeze it in small quantities by letting the mixture cool and placing it into a series of small, freezer safe containers. Or you can preserve the plic e plac by canning it. Follow this procedure or watch this video carefully, follow the directions and enjoy plic e plac all year long or give it away as much-prized holiday presents to your friends.
Makes about 12 half-pint containers.