Great Ocean Food: Unearthing hidden treasures
As regular readers will now know, this food column has morphed into a travelogue during COVID times.
Recalling journeys past and recreating culinary experiences at home is almost as good as being there. Certainly, there is no need to endure airports, planes, 24-hour flights, rental cars and all their associated costs. We may not be able to replicate the European summer at present, but ours is just around the corner and basking in the winter sun is always a pleasure. So, let us revisit Puglia. Not far from our previous destination of Matera is the walled town of Ostuni, which stands like a whitewashed beacon among the ancient olive groves of the region.
Like so many old European cities, its history is rich and more often than not, politically complicated. Having been inhabited since the Stone Age, the town has been ruled by European tribes, destroyed by Hannibal, re-built by the Greeks and for the last millennium or so, governed by the Italians. What is consistent through the ages is the need for people to produce food and this region of Puglia has perhaps the oldest history of olive oil production in the world. It continues to supply 40 per cent of olive oil used in Italy.
The olive groves dominate the landscape and on our way from Matera, we were literally lost among the olives on more than a few occasions. There are no fences and the car’s GPS decided on several shortcuts which looked to me as though we were driving through the middle of someone’s farm. The winding dirt roads eventually lead us to our destination. Previous experience told me to park on the outskirts of the town and phone the hotel for a lift. This we did and the hotel sent a three-wheel Piaggio Ape with only enough room for our luggage and one person (two at a very tight squeeze). So, my wife and daughter shared the passenger seat and I walked the narrow streets to our accommodation.
The hotel was recommended by Craig from Flight Centre in Torquay and turned out to be a gem. Called Relais La Sommità, it is in the centre of Ostuni with a Michelin star restaurant and an incredibly beautiful wine cellar honed from rock which was previously three ancient cisterns used to collect olive oil. The restaurant menu promised to “combine dishes and promise a journey through the senses of the past and present, with projection into the future where the comforting flavours of the earth will reign strong”.
Now that sort of overhyped (and usually overpriced) description is the sort of nonsense I try to avoid when eating in Italy and France. We try to look for smaller local cuisine without the hyperbole. My instincts about this restaurant, however, were totally unfounded. The food was superb. Set in a wonderful outdoor citrus garden, the service was both friendly and impeccable and the selection of local wines to accompany our dishes was sublime. We ordered a variety of dishes, but the beetroot gnocchi was the best pasta I have ever eaten.
I can highly recommend Ostuni as a place to explore. It remains a little “rusty around the edges” and not as immediately beautiful as some of northern Italy but the diamonds found with a little exploration are well worth the search.
Following is a wonderful recipe for beetroot gnocchi from Gennaro Contaldo.
1kg floury potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
400g cooked beetroot, peeled and roughly chopped
300g plain flour
1 free-range egg, lightly beaten
6 sage leaves
1 orange, juice only, plus zest of 2 oranges, to serve
salt, to taste
4 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
For the gnocchi, place the potatoes into a pan of salted water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain the potatoes and return them to the heat to drive off any excess moisture. Allow them to cool for a minute and then mash well using a potato masher or ricer.
Blend the beetroot in a food processor to a purée. Pass the purée through a fine sieve. Tip the flour onto a clean work surface and make a well in the centre. Add the beaten egg, mashed potato, beetroot purée and salt to the well. Using your hands, mix well until the dough reaches a smooth consistency. Split the dough into five equal pieces and roll each piece out into a long sausage shape.
With a sharp knife, cut the gnocchi ‘sausages’ into 2cm pieces and set aside. Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to the boil. Add the gnocchi and simmer until they float back up to the top. As they come to the surface, lift them out with a slotted spoon. As soon as you drop the gnocchi into the boiling water, start making the sauce – you need to work quickly because the gnocchi will rise to the top after only a minute or so.
For the sauce, melt the butter in a large frying pan and add the sage leaves. Allow the sage to infuse for about thirty seconds and then add the orange juice and salt, to taste. Scoop out the cooked gnocchi with a slotted spoon, allowing them to drain a little, and then add them to the sauce, mixing well. Cook for a minute or so until the sauce begins to thicken slightly. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the parmesan and serve immediately, sprinkled with orange zest.