Category: Food

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.5: Borodinsky bread

When people use the words “Russian” and “Bread” in the same sentence, the chances are that the word “Rye” appears between them. And the most famous of Russian rye breads is Borodinsky Bread (in Russian: бородинский хлеб): a dark, dense, coriander-spiced sourdough.

Soviet Russia being what it was, there were officially sanctioned recipes. Therefore, if you’re on a quest for officially authentic Borodinsky Bread (and a Russian speaker) look no further than GOST 5309-50. There’s an even older source, which predates the GOST standards board, for “Borodinsky Supreme” (the 100% rye version; the “standard” has 15% wheat flour). It’s reprinted in a 1940 recipe book and lovingly recreated in this Youtube video. The origin of the name, by the way, is by no means as precise, with various stories to pick from. Choose your favourite: mine involves the wife of a general using coriander from her garden to make flavour the bread she was making to fortify the troops at the battle of Borodino (but don’t spend too much time considering the plausibility of a general’s wife feeding an entire Napoleonic army).

For an amateur baker in the West today, there are two problems with going for absolute authenticity. The first is that the process is seriously lengthy, with multiple stages of pre-ferment, “scald” and different rises and washes. The second is that you may struggle to get hold of one of the key ingredients: red rye malt (in Russian: solod (солод). If you’re desperate for the authentic, look out for stockists of home brewery supplies like this one.

While I may get round to trying for absolute authenticity one of these days, for regular use, I’m doing a cut down version based on the one in my usual bible, Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters. I’ve approximately doubled the quantities for my large loaf tin and done a bit of flavour adjustment for my own taste: in particular, I’ve reduced the molasses, which I do find tend to take over the flavour to the exclusion of everything else, at the expense of the result not being quite as dark.

The first ingredient, as in any sourdough, is the starter: mine has been going for six months now. I bake a loaf more or less weekly, and refresh it with two parts water to one part dark rye.

Ingredients

  • 80g dark rye sourdough starter
  • 580g dark rye flour
  • 100g light rye flour
  • 10g salt
  • 10g ground coriander
  • 5g coriander seeds
  • 30g molasses
  • 30g barley malt extract

Method

  1. The night before you will be baking, make your “production sourdough”: mix your starter with 80g of dark rye flour and 100ml of water. Leave at room temperature overnight: in the morning, it should be bubbly and nicely fermented.
  2. Crush the coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar. Brush the sides of your loaf tin with oil, and line the sides with half of them.
  3. Make your dry mixture of the rest of the flours, the salt and the ground coriander. Make your wet mixture from the production starter, 400ml of lukewarm water (mine was at 43℃), the molasses and the barley malt extract.
  4. Mix the two together thoroughly till everything is smoothly combined into a wet, sticky dough. Pour the dough into your bread tin, shaping it to be somewhat domed at the top. Don’t bother trying to press the dough into the corners of the tin. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, I haven’t forgotten all about the kneading stage: it’s just that dark rye won’t form gluten properly so there’s no point in bothering).
  5. Sprinkle the remaining coriander seeds over the top of the loaf and press them in slightly.
  6. Leave the dough to rise in a warm place: my own technique is to heat an over to 50℃, put the bread tin in together with a mug of water, and switch the oven off. It’s hard to know how long the rise time is likely to be: mine took about 6 hours.
  7. Preheat your oven to 250℃. Bake for 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 200℃ and bake for another 30-45 minutes. I tend to take mine out after 40 when it’s still just a fraction damp, because I don’t like risking overbaked, dried out dense rye; you may be braver.

Like any dark rye, this won’t rise massively. But the combination of rye, sourdough ferment and coriander makes Borodinsky the most intensely flavoured bread I know and my favourite accompaniment to lunchtime soups and salads.

As usual, a few in-process shots:

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.4: Torta Negra

It’s time for this blog to cross a few time zones and head to the Caribbean coast of South America. “Torta negra” is the go-to cake for family celebrations in Colombia, if the Internet is to be believed.  It’s a fruit cake darkened by caramel (the name means “Black cake”) and it’s lighter in weight and darker in colour than a typical English fruit cake. On the basis of the recipe I started with, from Colombian expatriate Erica Dinho, Torta Negra is a lot less sweet than the average fruit cake over here – although this may vary, since it seems to be another of those bakes where every family has its own recipe.

Erica must have a large family or friendship group, because her recipe is for two substantial cakes at a time. I therefore started by halving her recipe; I’ve also turned the measurements into metric and the US names into English ones. That left the thorny question of the caramel: Erica recommends baker’s caramel or dulce quemado, neither of which I knew how to find (even in the foodie land of North London, where you really can get most things) or molasses, which make me nervous because they have a strong and distinctive flavour of their own which tends to overpower everything else. So I decided to go for making my own caramel, which is messy but not all that hard.

Since there’s a very long waiting time in the middle of this recipe,  I’ve split the ingredient lists up according to stage.

Stage 1 – get some fruit macerating

  • 120g pitted prunes
  • 120g dried figs
  • 150g raisins
  • 120 ml port
  • 60 ml rum

Chop up the prunes and figs, then put everything into a tightly sealed jar (I used a Kilner of the sort you use for making jam). Before sealing the jar, do your best to press the fruit down so that as little as possible pokes above the surface of the liquid. 

Now leave the fruit to macerate for at least two weeks, turning it every few days to make sure that none of the fruit is simply drying out.

Stage 2 – make some caramel

If you do this immediately before starting to make your cake mix, it will be not too far off the right temperature to add to the mix: you don’t want the caramel to cool past its freezing point the second you add it to your mix, but you also don’t want it so hot that it’s baking the mix the moment it touches it. (By the way, this might be a good time to start preheating your oven, and to get your butter out of the fridge and softening).

  • 100g sugar
  • 15 ml water
  • 15g butter (optional)

Choose a small stainless steel pan. Put in the sugar and water, mix thoroughly, and heat it up, fast at first and then more gently as you’re trying to find the right caramelisation point. It’s going to bubble furiously, but keep stirring it and you’ll eventually get to a point (around 175-180℃, if you have a sugar thermometer) where it turns very dark. Take it off the heat and add the butter and mix thoroughly (the only point of this is it keeps it a bit more liquid).

By the way, you’ll have way more caramel than you needed. When I had used what I neede for the cake, I poured the rest onto a sheet of baking paper: once it had cooled, I broke it up and kept in a jar for future use.

Stage 3 – mix your dry ingredients

  • 240g flour
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves

Mix all these together in a bowl.

Stage 4 – make your cake mix and bake

Grease a cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Mine worked fine on a 20cm diameter round springform tin, but I imagine you can use any shape you like.

  • 250g butter, softened
  • 250g sugar
  • 6 medium to large eggs
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract

Cream your butter and sugar together (I use a Kitchenaid stand mixer for this, but if you don’t have one, elbow grease and a wooden spoon works fine). Add the eggs, two at a time, mixing well at each stage. Add the vanilla extract and mix in.  Next, put in your dry ingredient mixture and mix thoroughly: you don’t want lumps and you don’t want bits of dry raw flour.

Now add around 2 tbs of the caramel you made above.  If you’ve left the caramel long enough for it to solidify, warm it up until it’s the consistency of toothpaste before trying this, or you’ll merely end up with shards of caramel through your mixture.

Take your macerated fruit out of its jar, giving it a squeeze so that you’re keeping as much as you can of the soaking liquid in the jar. Add the fruit to the cake mix and do your best to mix it evenly through the mix.

Put the mix into a tin and bake until the cake passes the usual test of a skewer poked into the middle coming out clean. Erica’s recipe says 1h45: mine was done in 1h15 in a 175℃ fan oven. Everyone’s oven is different, I guess – and I suppose hers might not be a fan oven.

Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes or so, remove from the tin and leave to cool for another 10, then brush your remaining wine/port mix over the cake, letting it seep in.

Wrap the cake in cling film and foil, leave it to mature for a few days, and serve.

To end with: a few more of the usual in-process shots…

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.3: Spanakopita

If you’re thinking of Greece and baking, the chances are that spanakopita is at or near the top of your list. But what exactly is it? The most usual answer is “spinach and feta pie”, but the truth is, you can take pretty much any leafy vegetable, any set of alliums, your favourite dairy products to enrich it (or not, if you’re vegan) and your favourite herbs and spices: wrap that in filo pastry in a shape of your choice (bite-sized or pan-sized), bake it and you get something that’s arguably a spanakopita. There are probably as many recipes as there are cooks.

The finished article – a view of the inside…

So I’m not in any way claiming that what follows is a definitive spanakopita. But I will claim that it’s tested, it’s absolutely delicious, it’s filling, it looks good, it doesn’t take all that long to make, it’s highly tolerant of inaccurate quantities and as long as you take it out of the oven before it starts burning, you’re unlikely to ruin it. In short, whether you’re a frequent vegetarian cook or not, it’s a winner.

…and in context, ready to be cut and served!

The filo pastry and butter is a given, and unless you’re going to opt for kale or other leaves, so is the spinach (the recipes I’ve seen recommend fresh non-young spinach, but all I have available in my local supermarket is the young stuff, and it works fine). For alliums, I like a mixture of leek, shallot, onion and garlic – but you can leave out at least two of these. For flavourings, I go for nutmeg and lemon rind, which gives a real zing, plus a mix of dill, oregano and flat leaf parsley. But again, the first time I made this, I only had parsley in the house, and it was fine. For enriching the filling, I like eggs and feta cheese with a generous dose of grated Parmesan. But you get the idea: don’t feel overly bound to my choices and quantities. Lots of variations will work. So here goes…

The recipe serves four generously as a meal on its own, or would do a starter for at least 8.

Equipment

I used a square 23cm x 23cm metal baking tin, which probably better than a thick ceramic dish, but you can adapt the instructions for whatever you have.

You’ll need a brush of some sort for spreading the butter – otherwise, you’re likely to break the filo too much – it’s very fragile.

The ingredients (minus the olive oil and nutmeg, which I forgot to put in the photo)

Ingredients

  • 400g fresh spinach (frozen is said to work well, but I haven’t tried)
  • 2 leeks – around 300g, 240g after trimming
  • 1 red onion – around 120g
  • 3 cloves garlic – around 20g
  • 1 banana shallot – around 50g
  • Bunch of dill
  • Bunch of oregano
  • Bunch of flat leaf parsley
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 200g feta cheese
  • 120g Parmesan or similar hard cheese
  • Rind of 1 lemon, grated
  • Grated nutmeg and salt to taste
  • 12 sheets of filo pastry (around 150g)
  • Melted butter for spreading – I needed around 100-120g
  • Olive oil for frying

Method

Here’s the usual collection of in-process shots:

Preheat oven to 180℃ fan.

  • Boil a kettle, put the spinach in a colander and pour the boiling water over it. Leave it to wilt and drain while you prepare the rest of the filling.
  • Chop the leeks, onion, shallot and garlic and fry gently in some oil (I add a bit of salt at this stage). Meanwhile, chop your herbs: when the mixture has gone transparent, add the chopped herbs and stir well so that everything is nicely blended. Keep frying gently for a few minutes until it’s all soft and beginning to go golden: don’t let it go dark brown. Remove from heat.
  • Crumble the feta into a large bowl, add the grated parmesan, beaten egg, lemon rind and nutmeg and mix thoroughly. Make sure the leek and onion mix is no hotter than lukewarm – you don’t want it to scramble the eggs – then combine it with the mixture. Now squeeze some water out of the spinach, add this, and stir/chop vigorously with a spoon or spatula  so that the filling is thoroughly blended – you don’t want lumps of cheese or lumps of pure spinach.
  • Spread a layer of melted butter over your oven dish or tin. Open your packet of filo and work quickly (the stuff dries out): spread two pieces across the bottom of the tin so that they hang over the sides, brush melted butter over the area lining the bottom and sides the tin now repeat this but going the opposite way. When you’ve done this, your square tin will have filo draped over each of its four sides. Repeat this twice, so you’re using 12 sheets of filo in total.
  • Pour your filling into the pastry-lined tin and even it out into a single, thick layer reaching the corners.
  • Take the overhanging edges of the last pair of pieces of filo you put in, wrap them back over the dish, and brush them with melted butter. Repeat for the remaining five pairs. Make sure you have enough butter left to give the top a good brushing: that’s what will make the pie go gold.
  • Bake for around 30-40 minutes, until a deep golden colour.

You can serve it straight out of the oven, cold for a picnic, or anywhere in between.

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.2: Sachertorte

The Austrians, particularly the Viennese, are serious about cake and serious about chocolate. And there’s no debate as to what is the baked item most emblematic of Vienna: it’s the apricot-laced dark chocolate cake created in 1832 by Franz Sacher and known to the world as Sachertorte (or, in the case of my family, “Sam’s birthday cake”, which it has been for several years now).

There are plenty of recipes for Sachertorte around, but the basics are common to all of them: a mixture of butter, sugar, flour, egg yolks and melted dark chocolate, folded into a meringue made with the egg whites; the baked cake is cut into layers, spread with apricot jam and topped with a chocolate icing. The variations are in the detail – the choice of icing sugar or caster sugar for the cake mix, or additions like ground almonds, vanilla, rum or baking powder. For the icing, Austrian recipes tend to favour a combination of sugar syrup and chocolate, while English ones are more likely to use a ganache made with cream.

The Hotel Sacher claims to guard the original recipe jealously, but in my honest opinion, it’s now selling the stuff to tourists in such volume that it doesn’t even make the best Sachertorte any more. Opinions differ, but my Austrian colleague Elisabeth (who is a serious baker herself as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Viennese cafés) recommends Café Sperl, near the Theater an der Wien, or Café Diglas, which has four locations around the city.

My personal set of preferences, as shown in the recipe below, is to (1) follow the Austrians in using icing sugar for the cake mix, (2) use a teaspoon of baking powder to help the rise, (3) add some vanilla essence, (4) use the syrup method for the icing, (5) take the trouble to slice off the top dome of the cake to create a perfect cylinder. One Austrian tradition I don’t follow is to serve Sachertorte with whipped cream, because no-one in my family likes it. But you will undoubtedly come up with your own set of likes and dislikes.

By the way, although the instructions I’ve given are reasonably precise, don’t be intimidated, because it’s a fairly forgiving recipe. As long as you have good dark chocolate and apricot jam, your result is likely to taste just fine, even if it isn’t the last word in elegance or perfect texture.

Credits: my recipe started life as the one in the American classic “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. Since then, it has morphed and has acquired its icing recipe from austria.info.

Cook with a greased, 8-9 inch, removable-rim pan. Serves 8, generously.

Ingredients

Cake

  • 150g dark chocolate (70-80% cocoa solids)
  • 120g icing sugar
  • 30g granulated sugar
  • 170g butter, softened
  • 100g plain flour
  • 6 eggs
  • Apricot compote, or apricot jam mixed with the juice of half a lemon
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • vanilla essence or vanilla paste to taste (different brands are so different in strength that I can’t give an amount)

Icing

  • 150g dark chocolate (70-80% cocoa solids)
  • 200g granulated sugar
  • 120g water

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 160°C fan. Grease the sides of the pan with butter and line the bottom with baking paper or parchment.
  • Separate the eggs into yolks and whites
  • Melt 150g of the chocolate in a double boiler. Then leave it to cool.
  • Cream the icing sugar and the butter until the mixture is fluffy.
  • Beat in the egg yolks gradually until the mixture is light in colour.
  • Add the melted cooled chocolate.
  • Sift the flour and add it gradually. Add the baking powder and mix everything thoroughly.
  • Beat the egg whites until they are beginning to be stiff. Add the 30g of granulated sugar and beat on maximum speed until stiff but not dry.
  • Fold the resulting meringue mix into the cake mixture, about a quarter first, then the rest.
  • Bake the mixture in the pan for 50 to 60 minutes.
  • Remove and cool on a rack.
  • Optionally, slice the top dome from the cake and set aside. Slice the remaining cake in half. Spread the jam on the bottom half and reassemble (optionally, spread jam on the top of the cake also).

Icing

  • Put water and sugar into a pan, heat until you have a thick syrup
  • Add the chocolate, and mix vigorously until smooth
  • Leave to cool for a few minutes (but don’t allow it to set)
  • Spread over the cake
  • Cool

Notes

Really, you want a higher and narrower tin than my one, so bear this in mind when looking at the photos.

If your butter isn’t soft, cut it small cubes and leave it at room temperature for a bit (see photo)

The part of the recipe worth taking trouble is the part with the egg white. When you fold the first bit of meringue into the mix, be robust enough to make sure that it’s fully blended, at the expense of losing some of the air in the meringue. The result will be softer and easier to fold for your second phase, when you’re trying to protect that fluffiness.

If you’ve sliced off the top of the cake to get that perfect cylinder and/or to allow an extra apricot layer, the offcuts make a magic cheesecake base when blitzed with some butter.

The home made jam I’ve had from an apricot-growing area in Austria has much more fruit and less sugar than apricot jam that I can buy in the UK: the nearest I’ve found here is Bonne Maman apricot compote. If you’re using standard apricot jam, you will need some lemon juice to thin it out or it won’t spread properly (some recipes suggest heating the jam).

The reason I’ve gone off using a cream-based ganache is that it never really stays set at room temperature and the cake never tastes as good when chilled. And although I own a sugar thermometer, I haven’t given a temperature for the syrup for the icing because I’m not convinced I’ve got it right yet. Any recommendations welcome!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.1: Moldovan Plăcinte

For the next year or two, I’m planning to explore breads, cakes, pastries and other baked goods from many different countries, including places we don’t normally hear about as well as the obvious ones. Being a rank amateur, will I get to 80 before I give up? I don’t know, but watch this space…

A Plăcintă (the plural is Plăcinte) is a flat pastry or filled bread from Moldova or Romania. It’s a pretty broad term: look up recipes online and you’ll find dozens of different variants: the filling can be sweet or savoury, the dough can be yeasted or not and can be made and rolled in various ways.

For this one, working from a Youtube video from someone called Katy’s Food, I’ve chosen a cheese filling and a yeasted, layered dough, which results in a kind of cheese bread. Each ball of dough is rolled out thinly and wrapped around its filling into a sausage-shape, which is then formed into a spiral before being baked.

The result is a layered, flaky bread that’s very delicious.

Vera, the only Moldovan I know and the person who suggested I try making plăcinte, gave them her seal of approval, although she recommended adding chopped spring onions to the cheese filling and she would have used a medium-soft curd cheese: the nearest you get in London is “twaróg”, which you can find in Polish food shops or larger supermarkets. As far as I can see from the web, quark is similar (though I’ve never tried using it).

Ingredients

I’ve reduced the recipe to make 6 plăcinte, which is what fits into my oven. There’s 100g of flour and 80g of cheese in each one, so they make for a very large snack or a substantial component of a lunch.

  • 600g strong white bread flour
  • 300 ml of warm water (around 40℃)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 500g cheese (I used 300g feta and 200g grated cheddar, but see above)
  • 2 large eggs
  • sunflower oil

Method
I won’t give instructions for bread-making basics like mixing, kneading, proving, testing for doneness: if you’re already a bread-maker, you’ll have your favourite methods for these; if you’re not, this probably isn’t the right recipe to start on. The best book I’ve found so far is Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters.

  1. Weigh out and mix flour and salt
  2. Mix warm water, sugar and yeast, leave 10 minutes or so until foamy
  3. Combine wet and dry mixes and knead until you have an elastic dough. then leave to rise
  4. While the dough is rising, make your filling. If using a hard cheese, start by grating it, then beat the eggs and combine them with the cheese(s) to form a paste.
  5. Cut the dough into six pieces (it’s probably  a good idea to weigh these out to ensure they’re all the same)
  6. On a floured surface, roll a piece out into as thin a circle or rectangle as you can manage. Transfer the circle of dough onto a large plate or other surface, and brush with a thin later of oil until the surface is covered. Repeat for the other pieces, stacking the circles on top of each other.
  7. And now the tricky part of the recipe: take your first circle of dough and transfer it to your original surface, stretching it with your fingers as far as you dare without tearing it. Take a sixth of your filling, spread it into a sausage the length of one end of a circle of dough, then roll it up into a cylinder. Now form the cylinder into a spiral and transfer to a baking tray lined with baking paper or parchment.
  8. When you formed all six plăcinte, leave them to prove
  9. Brush with beaten egg
  10. Bake at 180℃ fan (mine took around 20 minutes, but your oven may differ: I get the distinct impression that mine runs hotter than most.

Finally, here are some photos at various stages of the process:

Olives, almonds, grapes and the sea: food and wine in Puglia

The first things that strike you are the olive trees. On the way from Bari airport to our first hill town, Ostuni, we pass untold hectares of them. When we visit the Masseria Brancati, we get to see them close up, laden with leaves and fruit, which is still unripe – it’s August and the earliest harvest is still a couple of months away. Some of the trees, named the monumentali, are very, very old – 2,500 years or more: their trunks are several feet wide, gnarled, looking generally grumpy at what they’ve seen.

Masseria Brancati - near Ostuni
Olive trees at Masseria Brancati, near Ostuni

Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. But this ancient part of the nation’s culture is vulnerable, as evidenced when you drive past Brindisi and see the road – the old Appian Way from Rome – lined by thousand upon thousand of dead trees, standing upright but with their leaves scorched. They’re the victims of a single subspecies of bacterium, the xylella fastidiosa subs. pauca: since 2013, farmers and government scientists have been engaged in a desperate struggle to save the olive trees: there are signs of some recovering or being replanted, but the lines of brown trees are still a desperately sad sight.

Martina Franca - Bruschette at Bistrot Garibaldi-2
Friselli with tomatoes and basil

In Italy, food defines everything. And Puglia is where the food is grown, so it’s all about doing simple things with the local ingredients. The centro storico of Ostuni is packed with shops selling local food items to the well-heeled tourists from further north, of which the most important is olive oil. Apart from details of terroir and whether or not the oil is organic, the principal differences between oils lie in whether or not they are first pressing (the Italians tell you to keep extra virgin olive oil for salads and not use it for cooking) and the harvest date: early harvest olives (mid-October) give an oil with a distinctive strong flavour, whereas late harvest olives can give a smooth oil with a long aftertaste.

Almonds are another important crop. If you’re an ice-cream lover, don’t miss their combined fichi e mandorle (fig and almond) flavour, and the shops have plenty of almond biscuits of various types. There are many types of hard biscuits (including the biscotti type familiar to us outside Italy), but my downfall was the mouth-watering soft ones, something between an almond biscuit and marzipan, that we bought from the Furne di Porta Nova bakery, towards the east of the old city in Ostuni. The bakery also makes focaccia, the Puglian version being delightfully light, with far less oil and salt than I’ve had elsewhere, and usually laden with olives and cherry tomatoes. Apart from focaccia, my favourite bread here is their equivalent of the Spanish pan rustico, an unevenly shaped sourdough loaf with a hard crust and a delectable soft, moist middle: in at least one bakery we visited, the sourdough starter was made with fruit. Hard crackers (taralli and friselli) are ubiquitous, handed out as snacks with virtually any drink you buy at a bar.

Alberobello - Astra - Burrata and mozzarella-2
Burrata (centre) with mozzarella

Puglia’s hallmark cheese is burrata: soft, white balls, usually 6 centimetres or so in diameter which are popular both as breakfast and lunch items. Cut into the skin-like outside and a creamy filling gushes forth, delicious on its own or as part of a salad (but be sure to eat fresh burrata the day they’re made – they don’t improve). Lunch plates are also likely to include caciocavallo, a hard cheese made of sheep’s or cow’s milk or, most deliciously, both. There’s also capocollo (a cut of cured pork from the neck and shoulder, somewhat fattier and somewhat stronger tasting than typical prosciutto).

Locorotondo - Perbacco Restaurant
Caciocavallo tart with salad and capocollo

And then, of course, there’s the wine. Various connoisseurs I know are rather dismissive of Puglian wines as being easy drinking and lacking in distinction. Personally, I love Puglian red wines: they’re scented, full of flavour and low on hard tannins. The predominant grapes here are Primitivo (the same variety as the US Zinfandel), Negroamaro and Malvasia nera; there’s a wine called Salice Salentino that blends either two or all three of these. There are others to be discovered: we didn’t get round to Nero di Troia, but the contents of our bottle of Susumaniello vanished without trace in a chorus of yums. I’m less keen on the whites here, but they make a mean summer rosé with Negroamaro.

A short trip to Matera in the neighbouring province, Basilicata, revealed another truly lovely red wine, Aglianico, said to be one of the oldest wines from Greek times (the name may or may not be a corruption of “Hellenico”). It tells you something about Italian regionalism that Aglianico was nowhere to be seen on the shelves in Puglia, even if you’re only half an hour’s drive from the border. If you’re buying a present for a friendly baker, a neat souvenir from Matera is a wooden bread stamp, used in bygone days to stamp you initials on your loaf when baking it in a communal bread oven.

Gallipoli-2
What chilies are really for…

Even within the province, there is variability according to region. We stayed at Gallipoli on the Salento peninsula (not to be confused with the battle site in faraway Turkey), a town which has been a fishing centre for centuries and is celebrated for its seafood. At the fish market, stalls proudly announce that the produce is “recently fished”: the fish was very good; the clams and mussels were outstanding. The surprise of our trip were the gamberi viole (purple prawns), said to only be available in the Salento area and up there with the most intense-tasting shellfish I’ve ever eaten. When I asked the man in the market how best to cook them, his response was “anchè crudo” (don’t bother and eat them raw). I wimped out and showed them the pan for a couple of minutes and I’m glad I didn’t do more: they were fabulous, but we discovered in one restaurant that they lose their flavour if overcooked by even a minute or so (the restaurant, to be fair, replaced them without demur).

Gallipoli-7
Fisherman preparing nets at Gallipoli

Our experience of Puglian restaurants was that they’re not particularly good at trying to be fancy. But when it comes to taking great fresh ingredients – even humble ones – and cooking them simply, they’re masterful. Portions, by the way, are giant: if you’re trying to leave room for dessert, be wary. Il Pettolino in Gallipoli, Nausikaa in Martina Franca, Il Guercio di Puglia in Alberobello and PerBacco in Locorotondo all served us meals that were thoroughly memorable without a sniff of haute cuisine. We’ll be back.