I just got back from one of the worldâ€™s most remarkable cooking schools and while I was there, I ran into some wines that you ought to know about. The school is called The Awaiting Table and itâ€™s in Lecce, a lovely old city in Apulia. The schoolâ€™s focus is on regional cuisine. Students come and browse the markets and cook traditional dishes based on whatâ€™s available locally and seasonally. As they cook, they encounter wines from the region.
First, a word about the food. Itâ€™s mostly vegetables and lots of olive oil. In fact the oil is so cheap here that you want to laugh-E5.50 buys a litre of the really good stuff, fruity with a hint of spice. The wine might as well be free. The bread from the nearby town of Altamura is a marvel. It could be renamed Atkinsâ€™ Undoing. Semolina with a coarse texture and a chewy, nutty crust. We bought a hugh loaf-maybe 8 kilos and we used it in various ways for the next couple days. I carried the thing home from the market-it was like walking through town carrying a surfboard.
The Leccese eat a lot of vegetables, usually sauteed or sweated in oil and served with a ton of salt so every day we make a big, multi-species platter of veg. (Unfortunately, thereâ€™s not much cheese native to the region, so we donâ€™t put un poâ€™ di grana on it)
Thereâ€™s a very nice fish market and we have had some sort of little bass, huge fleshy mussels and incredible succulent clams. We also had a great baked fish with herbs â€˜in cartuccioâ€™ which is the same as â€˜en paplilloteâ€™, but italian. Thereâ€™s fresh fruit in the market, incediary strawberries and cherries that shine like new Buicks.
Nobody has breakfast, nobody has dessert (much). Neither us or the Leccese.. At least thatâ€™s the home tradition. There is a gelato place near the b&b thatâ€™s almost as good as Capogiro on Sansom street in Philadelphia. The coffeeâ€™s pretty good-the guy across the street where we break our fast makes a lovely doppio and there are pastries for those so inclined.
In this earthy, salty environment, there are two dominant red wine traditions and one small trace of white. The red that grows on the flat land around Lecce is called Negroamaro. The local winemakers are deseperately and understandably trying to avoid translating the name as â€˜black bitterâ€™. No matter, the best of these wines have a bracing tannic bite that makes your mouth water for food. The DOC that uses the grape most famously is Salice Salentino.
The other red grape is Primitivo.Â Recent DNA testing has shown that it is genetically identical to Zinfandel. The expression of the grape in Apulia is certainly reminiscent of the fruity, exuberant versions of Zin that we see in the U.S. So far, no one has shown up with something to compete with a Ridge or a Turley.Â
From nearby Basilicata, the marvelous Aglianico has begun to infiltrate and of course, some winemakers are experimenting with international varieties. (it turns out that a shot of Cabernet makes everything taste more interesting.)
For a region with abundant seafood, thereâ€™s not much white wine. The best was based on a grape called Verdeca which has to call to mind the Spanish Verdejo: fruity and intense with a clean acidic finish.
It was a beautiful evering on the roof, night school at The Awaiting Table. We were grilling the sausages we made earlier in class and eating an amazing salad whose graininess comes from hydrated barley cakes. Letâ€™s call it hardtack salata. The tomatoes are yummyÂ and thereâ€™s a cuke-like vegetable thatâ€™s like a great drink of bottled water. Oil and salt only, no vinegar. Silvestro is a great group facilitator. Heâ€™s got a way with a crowd. Heâ€™s also quite knowledgeable and he has a fabulously dry sense of humor.
Tomight, heâ€™s pulling out bottles of fruity Primitivo to go with the salad. The average cost is about $4US a bottle. No vinegar on the salad means thatÂ the salad course is suddenly wine-friendly. The salt in the salad punches up sweet suggestions in the wine and . . . well, letâ€™s just say that no one had to be encouraged to eat their vegetables.
The sausages are more fresh and meaty than pungent. The impression is of highly evolved meat rather than of spices and herbs. The Toramaresco version of Salice Salentino blows us away. Without food, itâ€™s rich and emphatic. Alongside the sausage, itâ€™s like the missing ingredient.
Another day, we had some low-alcohol Verdeca that we all slammmed down with lunch. We had the fish in parchment again and some green beans, homemade pasta (little mexican hats) with a roast tomato sauce finished with chopped arugula and cheese. There was also a bowl of mussels and some of that incredible bread-another surfboard-from Altamura.Â
At the end of cooking school, most of us had learned a lot about a local, sustainable way to eating, but youâ€™ll have to go to Lecce to really appreciate it. We also got a glimpse of some remarkable wines that are just beginning to make an impact in the export market. I think that with the approach of summer and grills and salads breaking out all over, we should all be asking our wine merchants for the wines of Apulia.Â
You can find out more about The Awaiting Table at http://www.awaitingtable.comÂ