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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
1 cup farro or whole wheat berries
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
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.
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.
Serves 4 as a first course or accompaniment.