One of my favourite Italian recipes is Melanzane Parmigiana. A lot of people have difficulty knowing what to do with aubergines, and I know what they mean….they can be tasteless and rubbery. Here, chef Domenico Maggi, explains how to make his delicious version.

Ingredients:

Fresh whole aubergine, medium sized – one per person should be enough.

Virgin Olive Oil for deep frying (Domenico says that if you can’t use that, the second best is ground nut oil).

Virgin Olive Oil for general cooking – a good glug.

Several cloves of garlic (how much you add is down to personal taste).

Several slices of bread.

Handfuls of fresh Basil and Parsley.

A couple of teaspoons of pickled capers, rinsed.

2 beaten eggs to bind.

Ground black pepper.

Canestrato or Pecorino cheese, grated.

Start with the aubergine and slice each fruit in two. Remove most of the the flesh from the centre of each half with a large spoon or knife, but leave a thin layer (about half a cm) lining the skins so they don’t fall apart during baking.

Deep fry the aubergine skins in olive oil for a few minutes, then drain. (Domenico uses virgin olive oil in the fryer no hotter than 180 degrees. Smoking point is 190, after which the oil’s structure can be damaged and becomes unhealthy to consume.) Put aside to cool, ready for filling.

Chop the remaining aubergine flesh into small pieces. Peel, crush and chop several garlic cloves. Heat virgin olive oil in a wok-type pan and fry the garlic until just golden. Add the chopped aubergines. The oil will be quickly absorbed by the spongy flesh, and it might seem dry, but don’t over do it as weirdly, once the flesh is cooked, the oil returns to the pan.

Take a large baking tray and decant the cooked aubergine into it. Leave to cool – shouldn’t take too long.

Take several slices of  bread, remove the crusts, and roughly chop into large cubes. Next, chop up large handfuls of fresh parsley and basil. (If you don’t have these, adding any other fresh herbs will also work.) Rinse a handful of capers to remove the pickling vinegar. Throw this all into the mix. Then add 2 beaten eggs and mix the whole lot with your hands into a lumpy filling. Season well with ground black pepper.

Next, stir in a couple of large handfuls of grated Canestrato (this is milder that Parmesan, similar to Pecorino, made from cow’s and sheep’s milk). I like the hands-on mixing thing – no need for extra washing up!

You shouldn’t need to add any extra salt, as the cheese does the job for you.

Now – back to the aubergine skins waiting in the baking tray….sprinkle a little cheese over them. Then push the mix into each half to the top. Once they’re all filled, you can sprinkle more grated cheese over the top to make a delicious crust. Set aside till needed and bake for around 20-30 minutes at 180 until golden and the aubergine halves are soft and just starting to collapse. A delicious aroma should fill the room.

Try serving with a basic Provençale style sauce on the side. Heaven.

Melanzane Alla Parmigiana

Fried Olives

How fabulous to take a few simple ingredients and turn them into something so scrummy. Domenico Maggi’s enthusiasm knows no bounds as he ululates lyrical about the wonderful ingredients available in the Apulia region. Introducing us to the ‘eternal’ tomato, he explains that they’re locally grown and if hung in the right conditions can be used in cooking for up to eight months. These were grown in his own vegetable garden. I marvel at what it must be like to live his life…top chef, presenter, traveller, exponent of Italian cuisine.

Showing us the Eternal Tomato

Start with a hot wok or pan, a few glugs of good quality virgin olive oil heated to smoking point, a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves. Next, tumble in a whole punnet of fresh, black olives and fry. (Warn your guests about the stones…of course…..) Chuck in some ‘eternal’ tomatoes halved, flavoursome (very ripe, sweet cherry toms are fine too), then finally one dried, chopped chili – seeds n’ all and a couple of bay leaves. There you have it : sumptuous, savoury and ever so good for you.

 

Eccelsa Chef School – Food for Photography

Travel Information with Viaggiando con le ProLoco

 

Pascuale shows us how to make Mozzarella Shapes.

Pascuale shows us how to make Mozzarella Shapes.

I can’t believe it’s the last day of the Grundtvig Project. We’ve come such a long way and made such great friends. The extraordinary conical Trullis of Alberobello glint in the strong sun. (Alberobello is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bari, Puglia. You must visit. It’s amazing.)

We are in for a great surprise today. Little did we know we would be taught by the great chef Domenico Maggi today. We are shepherded into the Eccelsa Catering College and greeted by its administrators. Spotlessly clean, stainless steel work surfaces, big fridge freezers and industrial sized kitchen implements stand firmly like soldiers.

Domenico himself is a charismatic, jolly fellow whose English is impeccable. He welcomes us with open arms and introduces us to his colleague and family friend Pascuale, the Mozzarella Maker. Domenico travels the world teaching Italian cuisine typical of the Apulia region and often takes Pascuale with him to demo the amazing process of making Mozzarella (I am an addict and often sneak a pack into my basket to devour voraciously neat!).

The process starts with a large vat of cow’s milk heated just shy of boiling point, say 90 degrees.  Rennet is added (normally made from cow’s stomach but you can get veggie versions made from a type of fungus: microbial rennet. You can also make rennet using safflower, melon, fig leaves or thistles.)

Next up you can season if you like but the amazing thing is that you instantly see curds forming in the milk like little icebergs in the sea. Just keep adding hot water. Using a large wooden baton to stir, Pascuale rolls and lifts, rolls and lifts until the curd joins together to make a large, stretchy ball. The Mozzarella is ready when you can stretch it into a huge thin sheet and allow the light through. When all the curds are conjoined Pascuale then breaks little bits off to make shapes, even animals or Burrata (which means buttery) filled with cream and bits of curd – delicious!) He has asbestos hands, being able to plunge them into the hot liquid with little effect.

It’s hard to explain how happy I am feeling at this moment. I’ll never forget Pascuale, Mozzarellailo!

From the finest wines to the most delicious food, we certainly weren’t expecting this all in one morning. For days we had been treated like royalty and so it continued.

After our fantastic, informative tour of the factory, we had worked up a true hunger. The spread was colourful and a heady aroma emanated. Stomachs growled as our talented chef tossed an enormous pan of pasta up in the air. All the ingredients were locally sourced born from a rich heritage of making do.  Surprisingly there was little garlic in this food. With the sea only a few miles away in any direction, seafood featured large.

I was surprised by sweetbreads topped by acidic, tart goat’s cheese, balanced beautifully with a sweet, berry jelly.

It’s very easy to be vegetarian in Southern Italy. Fruit is generously sized and yet the strength of the sun makes flavours sing: no insipid supermarket fare here. A lot is said about the Mediterranean diet contributing to a long and healthy life, but even if it is a load of old twaddle, at least you’re enjoying yourself as your taste buds zing and if it is  true , then what a bonus!

When I woke up this morning it was snowing whirling dervish flakes. God! It’s nearly Easter too. Poor Suggs and Co: stirling performance last night at the sad closure of BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane.  I thought back to those warm, balmy days on the Grundtvig Project, longing for soothing Negroamaro wine and the succulent dishes we tried.

(Cue: one of those wobbly dream filters they used to use in the movies.)

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We are visiting the Monaci family vineyards in Copertino, Salento. Originally from Campania, the family moved to the Puglia region 50 years ago. Our speaker is Angela Venturi, wine and PR expert specialising in wine making and high quality agricultural tours. Spanning 22 hectares, this masseria focuses on red grapes (Negroamaro, Primitivo, Black Malvasia) trained to grow flat on espaliers (trellis) making the fruit easier to harvest. (A plant’s lifespan is 25-30 years.) This plant is hardy. In 2007 temperatures reached 52 degrees – a great year for red grapes, Angela waxed enthusiastically.

The Monacis never buy in grapes for blending and follow a policy of respecting the soil by not forcing growth.  Nevertheless, 100,000 bottles is usual for a good year. Young and white grapes need to be protected from the sun, which can be ferocious in these parts, so vines are planted so that the fruit is protected by the shadow of its own leaves. Nowadays, Antonio cares for the plants while Adriano lays down the law in the factory.

Harvesting 80% by hand, usually takes place late August – early October and sugar content of the grape on average 21-22%. This year sugars weighed in at a whopping 27% – and so expectations were high. Timing is critical as each day you leave the grape, the sugar content changes and the flavour is corrupted. Early harvesting hours protects both the grape and the workers and is over by 11am due to the extreme heat in this region.

The fruit is transported to the press, any hard wood and leaves left over are macerated and put back in the soil as compost. After 6-7 days in the fermentation machines (whose design dates back to the 40′s and provide a stable temperature) skins are removed, recycled and sold to be made into Grappa and surgical alcohol. Nothing is wasted here!  The wine is then kept in huge vats under ground away from the light, at 16-18 degrees until ready for storing in barrels. 100% French Oak, they  provide natural oxygenation without overcoming the wine’s true flavour, which in itself is strong enough.  For 18 months it lays in the barrel and left for a further 10 months in the bottle to settle. “Simpotica” stays in French Oak Barrels for only 6 months.

Bottling

Bottles are received sterilised but are cleaned and re-sterilised to be sure. Great pains have been taken to ensure the quality of the natural cork used.  Over the years, it was sourced from Salento, then Sardinia but nowadays it’s imported from Portugal. (Plastic doesn’t allow breathing, screw top proved a disaster!)

History

Salento has a long history of wine making. Byzantine monks, then the Normans and Frederick II improved the cultivation in the area. Exporting can be attributed to the Berbers. Unfortunately, all wine production in the region was destroyed by disease and had to be re-established in the 19th Century. Wineries from the North started buying grape from the South and due to mass production methods, quality suffered but nowadays, Puglia is the fourth region after Sicily producing quality wines.

(Cue: the wobbly dream filter again.)

It’s Still Snowing!

The care and attention that goes into making these lovely wines is something I’ll certainly remember! As I gaze out of my window, the snow hasn’t let up and I’m reticent to get out of my pyjamas and go shopping.

We are sitting in the sun, glinting through the panes of  what can only be described as an enormous industrial greenhouse. The young lady talking to us is of Venneri stock and her English is easy and fluid. Sporting a short French crop, a scarf casually thrown across her shoulders,  she has a facile Italian style, so natural.  She is passionate about her family’s environmentally caring heritage, recent modernisation and expansion plan. Her grandfather established the farm pesticide-free and they still farm that way today. Solar panels produce energy for the whole company. The Venneris want people to have confidence in the quality of their products.

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We are sipping a thick, viscous touch of bliss, a delicious mix of fresh peach juice and almond milk with a dash of Vincotta Primitivo Balsamico. This is a rich, dark Balsamic style vinegar the family manufactures from reduced local wine Primitivo. Adding Vincotto Balsamico, naturally enhances the flavour of food.

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The family have been working with nutritionist Alfredo Balliaro, whose focus is Nutrigenomics, the study of  identifying and understanding molecular-level interaction between nutrients and other dietary bioactives with the genome. What I think this means is that it’s possible to tailor nutrition to the individual’s genetic make-up. For instance, we are told, local dish combination Ceceri é Trie (pasta and chickpeas) is supposed to be a very healthy combination.

Ms Venneri extols the virtues of their Vincotto products as being high in anti-oxidants. The farm comprises 10 hectares, of which 6 are given over to making vinegar under organic certification. 3 kinds of wines are used to make Vincotto. She elaborated, claiming that consumption of Vincotto Balsamico will prevent health problems and that mass manufactured Balsamic Vinegar contains e150D, a chemical caramel, seen to promote Cancer. Vincotto has no ‘e numbers’, being rich in polyphenols and anti-oxidants. Adding Vincotto to pulses during soaking can help eliminate undesirable flatulance. You will be able to see the gasses escaping from the mix, so keep adding occasionally by spoonful until this stops. It’s an excellent replacement for Balsamic as a salad dressing and is less expensive.

Next up, we sample Vincotto Ingentilito, great on meat and fish, we’re told. It’s a natural flavour enhancer unlike Balsamic Vinegar which can be too strong and shield the true flavours. Ingentilito is aged for only 6 months. It’s an excellent replacement for Balsamic vinegar, made locally from Salentino vinegar. It is combined with Primitivo wines and heated until the alcohol evaporates. Currently it exports to the UK, Spain and shortly to Japan.

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Cuetto is an even sweeter version, a traditional recipe dating back to the 1800′s. High in iron, it is also good for coughs and acts like honey to soothe the throat. It is used in desserts such as Panacotta or over fruit.

Lastly we are shown the latest edition to the range, coming in a small bottle, a culinary glaze Glassa Di Vincotto. Ms Venneri explained that over-heating the product can change its molecular structure making it carcinogenic: slightly confusing after driving so hard down the healthy route. In the UK we think of a glaze as something we can put on food before roasting to change it’s appearance, so I challenged her on the product’s health claims which returned a rather frosty response! Hey Ho!

Enter Mrs Venneri….another pasta demo ensued. This time we all get a chance to have a go. The light has a very special quality, simultaneously hard, crystal clear, yet diffuse. We watch Mrs Venneri knead the pasta, fry it. Ms Vinneri gives us a run-down about the history of Saragolla Wheat. Originally brought to the Adriatic Coast by the Bulgarians in 400BC it was a low yielding, inefficient type, tall growing and susceptible to weather damage. The Vinneri family are attempting to grow this wheat again and the Tria Pasta we are making today is made with it.

Mr Vinneri’s passion is Succulents and Cacti. There is one entire greenhouse given over to them. Spiky and ferocious in shape, it’s strange to see so many in one place but I’ve always found them photogenic. Standing to attention in rows, they seem military.

I can only feel gratitude to the Venneri family for taking the time for just one day, to give us a glimpse into their life.

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For more info check out: http://stores.ebay.it/Vincotto-PrimitivO

We had started the day meeting the little kids in Carpignano Serrano, Scuela de Infancia – Castriniano. With all their lives ahead of them, they were so sweet, all lined up in a row, waving their National Flag proudly as they sang Nursery Rhymes. I felt very privileged to be thought of as an ambassador.

Outside a local school. ©www.trishgant.com

Outside a local school. ©www.trishgant.com

The day had continued to the Olive Groves, where we had experienced the heritage and manufacturing process of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and were shown around “La Furca” a beautiful Farmhouse B&B in Pozzello.  (This was a new venture for the owners and so sadly there are no website listings for it as yet.) And then, to experience the Martyrs of Otranto in its Cathedral, it occured to me that the flavours of the region’s wines reflected extremes of life and death. Gazing up at the piles of bones and skulls presented behind glass either side of the alter was chilling and certainly food for thought. It was 1480 July 28th, when a fleet of ships carrying Ottoman troops, attacked the citizens of Otranto who were seeking shelter in its castle. The castle was sadly lacking weapons and the people were soon over run. 12,000 Catholics were beheaded, refusing to give up their beliefs.

After touring the lovely city, we found ourselves back where we started, at the school, which had been transformed into a lecture theatre and dining room for us. I made a visit to the kitchens to see Lyn Bertramelli and her friends prepare our meal. Lyn’s English was very good because she is married to an Englishman and she explained how they were prepping the dishes. There was the obligatory pasta, platters of local cheese with walnuts and Pezetti di Cavallo (chunks of horse), a peasant meat stew with various things floating around in it including what appeared to be fatty, jelly stuff. Once again Chicoria, Zorin’s favourite, made an appearance.  I stuck to the cheese!

Our hosts, Viaggiando Con Le Pro Loco and some local dignatories from The Association of Serrano and Agenzia Ulisse, greeted us with a welcome speech. Vita, our Guide, asked me to speak on behalf of all of us. I’m not a great public speaker but it was easy to say positive things: we had had such a brilliant time. Glass after glass of wine flowed, whilst we tasted the different flavours. From the freshness of a local sparkling Rosé full of life, to the intensity of the Primitivo and Negroamaro (dark and bitter), our tongues were set to tingle.

After our delicious lunch we were treated to a tour to see the industrial side of olive oil production. A visit to Co-operativa Agricola San Giorgio is a must if you’re in the Lecce area, nicely finished off by perusing the produce in the farm shop.

I love industrial places. They are a feast for the senses. Factories provide excellent opportunities to practice capturing motion by using different shutter speeds and combined with the noise make a great video. Crates and crates of olives are standing out front waiting to be lifted.

 

The basic method is still widely used today. First the olives are ground into an olive paste using large millstones in the press for at least 30-40 minutes. This applies pressure to the paste and separates the liquid oil and solid vegetable matter left over. Then any water in the mix is separated by decantation using a centrifuge.  Making sure the olives are well ground, this allows enough time for the olive drops to join to form large droplets and for the fruits’ enzymes to contribute to the oil’s aroma and taste.

After grinding, the olive paste is spread onto discs (traditionally hemp or coconut fibres) which are stacked on top of each other, then placed into the press. These days, synthetic fibres are used which are easier to maintain. Using hydraulic pressure of up to 400 atm, the discs are forced together and water is poured down the sides of the discs to increase percolation speed. After each batch , the paste must be removed from the discs, otherwise left overs will cause inconsistencies and contamination to the taste and purity of the oil.

 

 

Why Grindstones?

Although they are ancient by design, grindstones break up the fruits’ pulp while barely touching the kernel and skin. This reduces the rate that oxidisation can occur. Using this extraction method, the amount of water used is minimal compared to modern methods of extraction. Less polyphenols are washed away and once the paste is exhausted, the ‘pomace’ has a low water content and makes it easier to manage. The disadvantages to this method are that the grindstones require more manual labour to maintain them and the process involves waiting periods which can expose the paste to oxygen and light. All this translates into a longer production time from harvest to pressing.

Modern Methods

Separation at all stages is done using an industrial decanter and centrifugal force, spinning at 3000rpm.(Two or three phases of centrifuge can be used.) Using a hammer, disc, knife crusher or de-pitting machine, the paste is then malaxed for 30-60 mins. As small olive droplets gather, fruit enzymes create the oil’s aroma. Solids are removed by a slowly rotating coil in the drum which pushes the solids out of the system. Separated oil and water are then rerun through a vertical centrifuge working at 6000rpm removing any small amounts of vegetation water.  The machinery using this method is more compact, oil production being continuous and requires less labour. Olive oil made using the two-phase centrifugal system contains more phenols and is more resistant to oxidisation than oils from three-phase or hydraulic press methods. However, this method uses more energy and the pomace can be wetter, so adding drying to the disposal process and because more water is used, it reduces the amount of anti-oxidants present in the product.  There are some other methods but I don’t want to bore my readers too much!!!!

First Cold Press or Cold Extraction

The temperature of malaxation and extraction has a critical effect on the quality of the oil. When high temperatures are used to increase the yield of oil from the paste, it has a negative effect on the vitamin and antioxidants content. Under strict EU regulations, extraction must be done under 27 degrees centigrade (80 degrees Fahrenheit). Olive oil bottled outside of the EU is not covered by this standard and so the consumer has no idea what they are buying.

What does this mean to me, the person who dishes out the dosh?

Olive oil quality is equally dependent on the condition of the fruit itself. Oxidisation occurs immediately upon harvesting and the fruit should be pressed within 24 hours. During the period between harvesting and grinding, the olive’s enzymes are very active and degrade the oil. If you wait too long the oleic acid content goes up affecting the taste and making the oil more bitter. Exposure to light also affects this process, so keep your bottles in a dark cupboard or in a dimly lit part of the kitchen. If you buy a large can, it’s best to decant some into an air-tight vessel.

I do believe you get what you pay for when you peruse those shelves in Waitrose wondering why!

 

They gathered together giggling like girls, four elderly ladies in traditional scarf and swooshy, full skirt. Brandishing a witches broom each, they demonstrated how they used to harvest olives in days gone buy. Gathering at the base of an olive tree, they swept across the surface of the earth, picking up the ripe fruit. They appeared to enjoy the attention and laughed.

We were visiting one of the many walled Masserias (co-operative farms) in the region, which were used as fortifications against the Turks and other invaders around the 1400′s. At around this time the Olive Crusher was developed too as serious oil production was established.  Every olive tree was planted one by one and mostly worked by women to collect enough olives to make one litre of oil per day by hand. And this is the way it was done right up until the 1950′s.

Focussing on high quality meant that the olives that had fallen to the ground (Marcire or rotten) were ignored and used for lamp oil instead (exported from nearby Gallipoli). In fact,there are many myths about what makes a top quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Some say it’s the oil from the first pressing. Well that’s nonsense! It’s simply that the very best fruit is selected and is never pressed from olives which have already fallen to the ground. This oil is known worldwide for it’s fruity taste and delicate aromas, which can be used in bakery. High in polyphenols and anti-oxidants, its molecular structure is very important. At over 160 degrees celcius, the character of the oil changes.

Masserias are at the heart of Salentino culture. It is possible to get a really good meal here as well as shelter. Many serve as B&B’s too. Narduccio, an old boy from the farm, explained the British helped to restore many Masserias, keeping in line with the tradition of the outer walls being slightly lower that the fully grown olive trees.

Harvesting – Two Methods.

There are two ways to get olives from the tree. The Machine Grabber seizes the tree by the trunk and shakes it firmly, allowing the fruit to fall. There’s a down side to this method: damaging the trunk. Alternatively a kind of long-reach strimmer is used, which is by far the gentler way.

In the background, I caught Will learning to turn on a Lamboughini tractor….Lamboughini TRACTOR???

Gary, a British neighbour and married to an Italian, was on hand to do some interpreting for us. Us Brits appreciated a frank account of his trial by fire when he first moved here and had to fit in with the culture. He was very knowledgeable about the olive oil process, explaining that waiting too long to press the fruit results in the acidity content increasing. Extra Virgin is less than 1% acidity by definition. As the olives turn from green to black on the tree, the taste of the oil becomes more peppery: Fruitato – not peppery, Piccante – peppery. This produces interesting varieties of oil. Some types of olive are more acidic naturally. Gary explained that more acidic content can be carcinogenic and it’s common to graft on different cultivars for differing needs, perhaps medicinal, perhaps culinary and as he did so, he stooped down to pick up some Wild Borage.

I was knackered, having stayed up past 2am doing my post-processing. There was no urgency, except that I really wanted to see my shots.

My room had high ceilings and one window whose cil started about 8ft off the ground. Adorned with shutters, there was a contraption leaning up against the wall, in the corner, with which to close the said offender. To be honest, I couldn’t be assed with trying to close it. What it meant was that as soon as the sun was up, friendly, warm light spilled in….early.

I don’t know why, perhaps due to years working in dark studios, my eyes are hypersensitive to light. As soon as the sun is up, so am I. Being in Lecce , I was in a heightened state of excitement anyway. Up I got. Instituto Antonacci was quiet, nothing stirred, not even a mouse. Luckily my room was right next to the Braille library. I grabbed my tripod and tippee toed in, so as not to disturb. There was an extraordinary aroma of musty pages: shelves and shelves of braille books and some spread out on a table in the centre, a complete set of The Divine Comedy giggling in the corner, some of the students’ exercise books on display and a braille version of Walt Disney’s Bambi.

Again, through another window high up, shone the sun. I knew it was only a matter of time before students would arrive, so I trembled trying to get the shots done using l-o-o-o-n-g exposures.

There is more here than meets the eye. Yes, the rooms are lovely, clean, furnished simply. Yes, the staff are lovely and friendly but it’s not just a B & B. Walking down the echoey corridors, you come across strange artefacts….sewing machines….other paraphernalia. There is even a lecture theatre. There seem to be several ways to access the same place, like an Escher drawing, up and around, down and out. The floor is tiled throughout with terracotta and white. This is an art class in the rules of perspective.

Next to the lecture theatre are classrooms which welcome visually impaired students. Papier maché sculptures and willow baskets lie scattered about. Easels rest up against the wall like elderly people taking a rest on the way to the supermarket.

Down yet another corridor, I pass through door after door, into the derelict wing of the building. Again the same motif, stacks and stacks of braille books, abandoned. I wonder how anyone could just neglect them like this.

It’s silent. All I can hear is me tightening up my tripod and breathing.

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