Skip to content

Ramasole

Regina tomatoes strung together like a bunch of grapes is called a ramasole in Puglia. They're preserved like this all winter long, surviving until the next season's harvest begins.

Regina tomatoes strung together like a bunch of grapes is called a ramasole in Puglia. They’re preserved like this all winter long, surviving until the next season’s harvest begins.

It’s a little trickier than it looks. You need nimble fingers, perseverance and a patient teacher. We had at least one of these attributes when we joined a workshop at La Casa degli Uccellini last week to learn how to make ramasole, Puglia’s iconic tomato bunches gathered together with thick cotton strings for long preservation. Thanks to cultural historian Teresa Acquaviva, the founder of an organization that develops events like this to acquaint Italians with their agrarian past, the evening we spent learning about this seasonal pastime was inclusive, engaging and lots of fun. It represents the very best kind of tourism in a place that deserves so much more focus in Italy and beyond for its culinary traditions among so much else.

Walking above the farmhouse to the fields, we learned the process of sowing, cultivating, harvesting and threshing wheat as it has been practiced here for centuries.

Walking above the farmhouse to the fields, we learned the process of sowing, cultivating, harvesting and threshing wheat as it has been practiced here for centuries.

We gathered before sunset in the country at a recently restored family farmhouse, called a masseria here. This farm, revived by a local couple, is now farmed organically. It’s a tall order. The deep red soil is studded with limestone rocks and boulders and water is scarce. From wheat to antique legumes like black garbanzo beans and cicerchie—a legume long associated with poverty for its ability to fill up even the emptiest stomachs—Piero and Marilù are committed to farming responsibly and connecting new generations of Italians to this region’s farming legacy. La Casa degli Uccellini also operates as an agriturismo, which is a great way to learn more about rural life in this part of the world. With Teresa and her cultural organization Passaturi, they host groups of people like us who are curious about these traditions, creating new relationships and a shared passion to preserve Puglia’s food traditions.

First we toured the land, learning about how wheat is sown, harvested and threshed. Fields are farmed by practicing crop rotation; no herbicides or pesticides are used here. We also visited the impressive tomato patch where Piero and Marilù grow Regina di Torre Canne tomatoes, a local varietal that was soon to figure heavily in our evening experience.

Regina tomatoes are grown locally close to the Adriatic sea, which accounts for their superior flavor. The green stem area resembles the points of a crown, which explains the varietal's name.

Regina tomatoes are grown locally close to the Adriatic sea, which accounts for their superior flavor. The green stem area resembles the points of a crown, which explains the varietal’s name.

Regina tomatoes, a Slow Food-designated local food treasure, are prized for their long life, particularly when stored properly. Found almost exclusively near the Adriatic coast between the Pugliese towns of Fasano and Ostuni, this varietal is dry-farmed in soil fed by a mixture of brackish water and rainwater filtered through the Karst substrate that flows down through underground limestone caverns to the Adriatic sea. Reginas are bright red, particularly high in antioxidants and blessed with superior flavor. They take their name from the crown-like appearance of the green blossom at their stems, an important part of their anatomy with which we were soon to become especially familiar.

Our especially patient teacher provided technique and tips, but making these bunches takes lots of repetition to get it right.

Our especially patient teacher provided technique and tips, but making these bunches takes lots of repetition to get it right.

Nicola Pentassuglia, tomato farmer and president of a local vegetable cooperative, joined our group as we hauled baskets of Regina tomatoes to the farmhouse’s shady courtyard. As we walked, Nicola told us that Regina tomatoes used to be interplanted with cotton, serving a dual purpose. Both plants have an affinity for one another and the cotton plants produced the material used to make the strong cotton strings used to bind the tomatoes together. Nicola brought several of his staff with him. They would be our teachers as we learned how to make ramasole, the local term that describes these bright, red bunches that preserve the tomatoes all winter long.

Once smaller, cotton-threaded bunches are finished, six or eight of them are joined together with jute or twine to complete the ramasole.

Once smaller, cotton-threaded bunches are finished, six or eight of them are joined together with jute or twine to complete the ramasole.

Without the encouragement of several women from nearby farms, we would have given up early on, doomed to chase tomatoes as they detached from their stems and rolled away from us, dropping to the limestone tiles of the courtyard where we worked. All 40 of us worked diligently, determined to get the hang of the twist and tie technique. By circling the cotton thread around the stem blossom, creating a slipknot and adding each new tomato in the same way, the tomatoes soon resembled a robust bunch of grapes. We proceeded at a rate of about 10 to 1; 1 loosely bound bunch of ours to 10 perfect, tightly bound bunches crafted by the women from the cooperative. We stopped working often to admire our creations and exclaim over our progress; we also spent a lot of time chasing runaway tomatoes that escaped our grasp during tying. The children among us were far more adept. Their tiny hands manipulated the cotton ties easily, requiring only a little help with the final knot-tying step.

Putting the finishing touches on the grano pestato.

Putting the finishing touches on the grano pestato.

The small bunches were then joined together to form larger, more impressive displays, hung on tree cuttings wedged into the courtyards limestone walls. Hanging on the chalk white limestone against the violet, twilight sky, these Reginas were truly regal, glowing like jewels in the masseria’s crown. But we weren’t finished yet. Piero and Marilù had prepared a “taste” of the organic products they produce, with wheat, wheat berries, tomatoes, black garbanzo beans and Pugliese cucumbers called cocomeri figuring heavily. In fine Pugliese style, if this was a taste, a real meal might have finished us off completely.

Black chick peas, or ceci neri, are especially high in antioxidants. They take longer to cook—and should be soaked longer before cooking, too—but are well worth the effort for their health benefits and their flavor.

Black chick peas, or ceci neri, are especially high in antioxidants. They take longer to cook—and should be soaked longer before cooking, too—but are well worth the effort for their health benefits and their flavor.

We started the degustazione with grano pestato, a first course of wheat berries, roasted eggplants, tomatoes and cacioricotta, a young sheep, goat and cow’s milk cheese made only in the summer here. United by a generous stream of local organic extra virgin olive oil, the cheese disappeared, creating a creamy, flavorful sauce, binding the wheat and vegetables together. This is a Mediterranean Diet dish you’d be hard pressed to find outside of Puglia. Even here, it’s an “old school” plate that is fast disappearing. Next we tasted a plate of locally made cavatelli, a semolina pasta tossed with black garbanzo beans and their broth. A kind of Pugliese gazpacho followed, where the pronounced flavor of Regina tomatoes shone bright. Served over local bread made with the masseria’s organic wheat, the gazpacho was garnished with more Regina tomatoes, cucumbers and basil. We finished with a fig crostata, a tart-like pastry made with the farm’s organic flour and fig jam.

These boys serenaded us during dinner with traditional pizzica music.

These boys serenaded us during dinner with traditional pizzica music.

While we were focused on the food, two teenaged accordion players and their teacher arrived to serenade our meal with pizzica music, a southern Italy music form that has deep roots here. Listening to these thirteen year-olds play songs their grandparents still love, eating food that wouldn’t be out of place hundreds of years ago under the bright Mediterranean stars, it’s hard to imagine a more meaningful way to appreciate this proud culture. As Puglia ponders its future, hoping to attract visitors who can help boost the region’s economy, it is this kind of year-round, agrarian-based approach that offers the best hope for sustainability. And the experience is second to none.

Raw farro is quite hard, so soaking is required before cooking.

Raw farro is quite hard, so soaking is required before cooking. Better yet, look for farro that is semi-perlato to reduce soaking and cooking times.

Here is a version of the grano pestato we tasted at La Casa degli Uccellini. Pancetta adds additional flavor, but Marilù and Piero left it out and you can, too, if you want a vegetarian version. Vegans can omit the cheese, but the gluten intolerant should avoid this recipe. Farro is a wonderful, ancient grain favored by the Romans to nourish the troops; based on last week’s blog, you can tell that I am just a little in love with it lately. Look for imported Italian farro that is semi-perlato (partially pearled); it will cook faster than farro that is called farro grande, translated as spelt in the U.S. To learn more, consult Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals.

Grano Pestato alla Casa degli Uccellini—Farro or Whole Wheat Berries with Vegetables

Ingredients:

1 cup farro or whole wheat berries

Pancetta is rolled, then sliced by your butcher. As for 1/4 to 1/3-ich slices; then freeze them. When you need diced pancetta, frozed pancetta is easy to work with without sacrificing any flavor.

Pancetta is rolled, then sliced by your butcher. Ask for 1/4 to 1/3-inch slices, then freeze them. When you need diced pancetta, these frozen slices are easy to work with without sacrificing any flavor.

1 ounce pancetta, cut into dice (tip: freeze ½ inch pancetta slices, then cut into dice when frozen)

1 onion, diced

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 eggplant, cut into ½ inch cubes

10 small to medium tomatoes (if you can’t find Reginas, use another fairly acidic varietal; cherry tomatoes are good here)

½ cup grated cacioricotta, ricotta salata or pecorino cheese

Sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

 

Method:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Soak the farro or wheat berries in cold water to cover. Wheat berries may need to soak overnight; farro won’t take more than an hour of presoaking.

Cacioricotta begins to melt when it encounters the still-hot farro. Feel free to substitute just about any other roast-able vegetable for the eggplant, too.

Cacioricotta begins to melt when it encounters the still-hot farro. Feel free to substitute just about any other roast-able vegetable for the eggplant, if you like.

Toss the cubed eggplant in a few tablespoons of the olive oil; spread on a baking sheet. Toss the halved or quartered tomatoes in a few tablespoons of the olive oil; spread on a baking sheet. Lightly salt the vegetables and roast in the oven for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown and slightly caramelized. Remove and reserve.

Saute the pancetta and the onion in a few tablespoons of the olive oil over low heat in a medium stockpot with a lid until the onion pieces are soft and golden. Drain the farro or wheat berries, add to the sauteed pancetta and onions and stir until coated with the olive oil, onion and pancetta mixture. Raise the heat, add two cups of water (or enough to cover the farro with an inch or so to spare) and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and let the wheat mixture simmer very slowly. The wheat will absorb the water slowly, so keep and eye on it and add additional hot water as needed. Taste the grain every so often. It’s done when it still provides some resistance when you bite it, but is soft and chewy at the same time.

When all the water is absorbed and the farro is cooked, add the roasted vegetables, the grated cheese and a generous pour of extra virgin olive oil. Mix well, taste and add sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

The scene of a enchanting evening that reflects the richness of Pugliese agrarian life.

The scene of a enchanting evening that reflects the richness of Pugliese agrarian life (Photo credit: La Casa degli Uccellini).

Serves 4 as a first course or accompaniment.

Advertisements
14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Laura Collins #

    Another wonderful post! What a fun evening, and useful skill to have!

    August 25, 2014
  2. Kind of you to characterize it as a skill . . . although we weren’t the most inept, we have a long way to go. It was incredibly satisfying, though. And what an amazing evening. You would have been in your element!

    August 25, 2014
  3. Gil #

    As usual, I loved your post. I really find it interesting on how people preserve their food. It would be nice to find those tomatoes here in the USA.

    August 25, 2014
    • I think you can find this varietal through this seed company: http://www.growitalian.com/tomato-inverno-a-grappoli/ This particular varietal is not the Regina tomato I referenced in the blog post, but it has the same wintering over capability and would be a great choice. Thanks so much for your kind works, too. I love that you care about these traditional foodways from Puglia and hope you have a chance to give some of them a try. Thanks for reading . . .

      September 4, 2014
      • Gil #

        Thank you for the info. Our gardening days are about over. The animals get more than my wife picks. We love Italian food as my grandparents all came from Italy. I imagine if we lived closer to daBronx we could get more variety.

        September 4, 2014
      • But you’re just in time for your winter garden! Cime di rapa, cicoria and bietola . . . so much to do! The seed website I mentioned is a great source for everything you love to eat. I’ll be sorry when the tomatoes disappear here, but can’t wait for all those great winter greens.

        September 4, 2014
  4. Jim & Paula Faris #

    A great mouth-watering post. It so nice to learn of your interesting and informative activities. This alone would justify a trip to Puglia. It would certainly make a great addition to your tours.
    Love to you both,
    Jim & Paula

    August 25, 2014
    • Thank you both for reading and commenting on our adventures in Puglia. Just when we think we’ve explored it all here, some new experience reveals itself and deepens our knowledge—and our passion—for Puglia. Our tours incorporate many of the activities we have experienced first hand here, which we think distinguishes them. It’s not easy for people who don’t speak the language and know the culture to access authentic experiences like these, so we hope to make them part of everything we do. And it’s so much fun, too!

      September 4, 2014
  5. Teresa #

    Dear Catherine
    Each time I receive a new post from nuovastoria, I feel as if I have just received a hand written letter from a dear friend. In an instant your gift of writing transported me from my home in Washington, D.C. to a lovely summer evening in Puglia. My parents were born in Martina Franca and each time I read your blog I feel that I draw closer to knowing the amazing culture and traditions from which I came. My parents immigrated to the U.S. in the mid 1950’s and I recall the clusters of tomatoes hanging in the most unexpected places; the end of a curtain rod at the kitchen window, a knob on a kitchen cabinet door or a chair back on the patio. Tonight I learned from you that those clustered tomatoes have a name. How wonderful to hear of the work of Passaturi and the efforts to preserve such a rich culture. I find in myself a deep desire to give something back, perhaps in some way to support the work of Passaturi and the people and land of Puglia. Please continue to share your stories. I plan to pass them on to my friends!
    Teresa and Joe

    August 26, 2014
    • Dear Teresa,

      It was such a pleasure to meet you when you visited Martina this summer. It must have been incredible for you to connect with so many relatives, with so many memories of your mother rekindled by the experience. I love that people like your mother brought their traditions, their culture and their own memories with them when they emigrated, imprinting them on you and your siblings in ways that are only just now revealing themselves. I hope you can come back for a longer visit next time and that your life continues to bring you closer to your history here. Let’s be sure to stay in touch!

      September 4, 2014
  6. Delicious, especially the cicerchie !!!

    August 26, 2014
    • Cicerchie are a revelation, Valentina. For so long, they were considered food for the poorest of the poor, but now they’ve become fashionable. Their flavor is unmistakable; now I’ve started to crave them!

      September 4, 2014
  7. Ginna Holcombe #

    A mutual friend of Jim/Paula’s and mine (Nancy Mead) shares your blogs with me because she knows how much I enjoy Italy – and fine writing! Thank you so much – this evening sounds wonderful, even without the feast!

    August 26, 2014
    • Hi Ginna–Thanks so much for your kind words about the blog. I’m so pleased to hear that the experience of the evening at the Casa degli Uccellini came trhough in the post. It was magical, in a country where magic seems to happen on a regular basis. I appreciate your feedback and hope you continue to drop in now and then.

      September 4, 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

The $tingy Sailor

DIY trailerable sailboat restoration and improvement without throwing your budget overboard

Gracefully Global Blog

Where travel adventures never begin with a trip to the local monument.

Italy....and Me

food. italy. wine. books genealogy. travel. wine. get. the. idea?

My Sardinian Life

photography, expat tales and short stories from a wandering waitress

Zester Daily

Zester Daily

Nancy Harmon Jenkins

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"

A different point of view on travelling, living and loving Italy.

In Puglia and Places

My experiences living in Puglia and other places

Girl in Florence

A Tuscan Texan immersed in Florentine life: passionate about food & wine | random moments | and travel

News : NPR

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Online Casinos

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Eater SF - All

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Eater Portland - All

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Food : NPR

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Chocolate & Zucchini

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Bon Vivant

Life's simple pleasures

Culinate Main Feed

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

stylishmews

A resource and running commentary on stylish London

Puglia Kitchen

sapori, profumi e visioni culinarie made in puglia

Cantine Menhir

News from Salento... where the sun warms the spirit, water refreshes the mind, food whets the palate, land feeds the soul, and the wine... awakens the passion.

What Katie Ate

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

A Cup of Jo

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Orangette

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

101 Cookbooks

We begin a new life in Italy . . .

%d bloggers like this: