Nonna Angela sits at her kitchen table. A photo of Padre Pio watches over her as she pours tepid water into a mound of semolina.
She kneads it with her strong hands, breaks off a piece and rolls it into a thin long sausage, then deftly cuts off a fingernail-sized portion of the dough. She rolls her knife over it and then flicks it back over her thumb. Nonna then places the small piece of pasta that resembles a little ear on the wooden board – she has just made an orecchiette, Puglia’s flagship pasta, and encourages me to do the same.
Nonna Angela is my husband Francesco’s grandmother, and has a head-start on me in the pasta-making division. She has been pumping out these 'little ears’ for well over 60 years and she laughs when I show her mine. She agrees it may be my Australian heritage that has mine looking more like a champion rugby player’s 'cauliflower ears’ than her miniature delicate variety. Nonna eggs me on with a couple of 'brava, brava’s" and tells me that she started making orecchiette when she was married at 19. 'It was impossible to buy pasta in a packet in Puglia in those days," she says. 'We all made our own pasta and left it to dry on large trays in the sun, just enough for the next day’s meal. My first attempt wasn’t that different to yours; you just need to practise."
My first encounter with Nonna Angela was almost nine years ago when Francesco, my boyfriend at the time, invited me to spend our first holiday together visiting his homeland. She is my ally and confidante in all things Pugliese. Francesco, proud and passionate about Puglia and Mediterranean history, attempted to cram all 3000 years of it into our first trip. We raced from the tip of Santa Maria di Leuca to the beaches of the Gargano. We climbed over dry-stone fences in the Valle D’Itria into fields of gnarled olive trees on the hunt for the adorable trulli (dry-stone huts with conical roofs) that appear to sprout in the fields. We wandered the baroque cities of Lecce and Martina Franca, and arrived home each night to our hotel in the seaside town of Giovinazzo exhausted but inspired.
Francesco’s family think I am crazy (or just repetitive) as I slip out of their apartment early in the morning. I am itching to get into the ancient white-stone streets of Terlizzi to witness the simplicity of life of a time gone by. It’s my daily ritual and I always beat a path in the direction of Nonna’s.
Terlizzi throbs like any Pugliese village in the morning. Ladies sit on their doorsteps and clean cime di rapa (broccoli rabe) or whatever is the season’s vegetable, which will then appear in a couple of hours on their tables for lunch – the most important meal of the day. White lace curtains and sometimes their husband’s underpants are the only barriers between their living rooms and the street, and I hear snippets of conversations and smell the strong scent of someone putting the last touches on their sugo.
Markets appear like mushrooms on street corners or out the front of a house. Someone might be selling just one case of cucumbers or three cases of plums, grapes and fresh almonds; others have converted their car bonnet or the back of an ape (a pint-sized Vespa-based truck) into a fruit or vegetable stall. In the ground-floor garages, I see families sitting around breaking open their almond harvest, one by one, with a mountain of shells around them.
The seasons and the agricultural produce dictates everything in Puglia. Here, man is still close to the land and its heartbeat. Whatever is grown in the surrounding land is brought in for sale or swapped with family and friends. Staples such as sundried tomatoes, fava beans and almonds are reaped in summer, but will stock the larder for the winter. At the enoteca one evening, our friend and sommelier Archangelo Fumarola reminisced: 'There was a time when an almond harvest, once dried, could be stored away for a couple of years and was of great value. It would often be sold in difficult times as a dowry for a daughter’s wedding."
Although it is a little after 9am, the line at Ecce Homo stretches out towards the water fountain, and everyone is hopping from one foot to the other waiting for their daily bread. Terlizzi’s celebrated bakers work 24 hours around the clock baking the local plaited bread, studding focaccia with tomatoes and hand-shaping the delicious and 'can’t stop at one’ local star, the taralli (a savoury bread a little bit like a crisp pretzel). 'A noble family of Terlizzi in 1790 gave the town a gift of three wood-fired ovens," says the baker Riccardo as he unloads a freshly baked tray of taralli made with olive oil and white wine. 'The other two ovens have disappeared, but this one has always baked the locals’ bread that historically, was always made in their homes and then brought here to be baked. When I started working here 30 years ago, there were still many people who made their bread in their own home and we baked it for them. We have many clients who insist on only buying bread baked in the wood-fired oven."
On the streets outside, an old man watches his figs drying in the sun on a piece of cardboard. He tells me, 'You need to flatten the fruit, rotate them every now and then, and in two or three days, they are done." He offers me a fig to try, and his generosity is rewarded with my enthusiasm for its sweetness. As we chat, the sound of a booming voice calling 'scope, scope" rebounds off the walls and heralds the arrival of the broom seller with brightly coloured brooms draped over him like a Roman warrior’s headdress. Ladies in their vestaglie, (those cotton house dresses that every southern Italian woman wears) stringing out washing on a balcony, on the street or in any available space, momentarily pause to see what the commotion is about or to check out the broom seller’s wares.
Traditions live on in Puglia just like the broom seller. 'We have always grown our own fruit, vegetables and olives for olive oil," says Francesco’s father Tomasso. 'It is a tradition, but it also guarantees that what we eat is of the highest quality." Francesco’s aunt, Zia Gina, and her brother-in-law Michele still wash, boil, mash and bottle kilos of sun-ripened tomatoes, known as la salsa, to be stored for the months to come. In winter, the olives that surround the town are harvested and pressed into rich golden olive oil that is tucked away in every family’s cantina for the coming year.
On the first Sunday of every August, the town celebrates as muscly men drag around il carro, a 22-metre wagon that looks more like a church steeple than a cart, in honour of the Madonna. Francesco and I have watched many times as the cart is pushed through the narrow streets of the old centre to the yells of the locals as it almost loses control and threatens to trample someone.
Nonna Angela and I have an appointment at her place to do her shopping. She was born in the historical centre and lived most of her life in the same beautiful white stone house. Like most people in southern Italy, a home is rarely sold, it is simply passed on to the next generation. Nonna is the ninth generation to live in the one house. Like the Pugliese of her generation, she spent a lifetime working alongside her husband in their olive and almond fields, and Francesco remembers seeing his grandmother and her friends in the room upstairs 'breaking almonds and risking drowning in the mountain of husks around them", which would eventually be sold to make the delectable local sweets known as dolce di mandorla. Francesco’s brother continues the family tradition.
Nonna and I set off to her favourite latteria (cheese shop) where she selects delicious local cheeses: burrata, in the shape of a white creamy sack (think a rich mozzarella injected with cream); caciocavallo (a hard yellow cheese that tastes similar to another Puglia favourite scamorza); and Francesco’s favourite, freshly made ricotta. She calls in to the butcher who also sells carne equina, horse meat, but she professes never to have been a great fan of red meat let alone horse: 'When I was young, we ate red meat four times a year: Christmas, Easter, the town’s festival and at a wedding. It was a big deal to eat red meat. Our diet was typical of la cucina povera, the poor man’s cuisine of beans, vegetables, cheese and fruit, which are still the foundations of our cuisine today."
In my world, dinner is king, but for the Pugliese, everything revolves around lunch. It is the most important moment of the day when the family gathers together. As the hour approaches, the sounds of tractors and farm equipment trundle through town, carrying the men who left home for the fields at sunrise this morning. The village empties, the white stone streets that were once humming with life are now silent, and all you can hear behind the lace curtains are the sounds of voices chatting over lunch and forks hitting the plate, and the heavenly scents of a morning’s work.
Puglia is blessed with so much: a sun-kissed land, art, architecture, history and 800km of coastline. The connection to land, food and family is the true reason for existence in Puglia: to drizzle delicious, freshly harvested and pressed olive oil over orecchiette con cime di rapa; to slice into the rich, succulent burrata that explodes with cream as soon as the knife makes contact with it; to break open almonds and hazelnuts that have just been harvested from the family trees; to prepare fresh zucchini and chicory straight out of your own plot; to sit with family and friends over plates of good food, and eat and enjoy life pared back to the basics, and, to be as fortunate as Francesco and to have a Nonna just like his.
Photography by Carla Coulson