Ramblings in Italy – Puglia – A Day with Peppe

June 22, 2009
A Day with Peppe
What Could be Better?

by Rocco Verrigni

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It’s not often one gets the chance to spent an entire day with a celebrated chef, teacher, entrepreneur, and newly-made friend and colleague. I had that chance today. The day was filled with walks around his property, stories about the history of Puglia, of the  restoration of Villa Jamele, where his school, gardens and banquet facilities are located, cooking for unexpected guests, exchanging life stories and of course  eating, always eating. As much as we did, nothing was rushed, and all was tranquile, as the Italians say. I can’t remember when I have spent such a pleasurable day with a colleague. We were both teachers and students for the day.

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Peppe is a creator and as we talked throughout the day, he often said that it is his life’s work to keep inventing and creating this or that. As we strolled around Villa Jamele, he gave me the entire history of the place before and after he purchased it. There are still several workmen on the property finishing some project or starting a new one. I was most impressed with what he has done to sustain and improve the natural character of the property. We walked around an area that he has created from an overgrown and recently unkempt woodland. He put in an old stone walkway where school children can go to view the land in its natural state. He has planted hundreds of fruit and nut trees around the area along with preserving the native wild habitation. There are dozens of wild lettuces, greens and flowers. He pointed out each one of them and what they were good for.  He demonstrated without flaunting a vast knowledge of the local flora. As we walked around he would stop and pick this green or that flower which we would use to cook lunch with later. He called it his natural super market. The property  abounds with grape vines and olive trees, from which he produces wine and olive oil for use in his restaurants, markets to the public.

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IMG_4212 Once back at the restaurant, it was time to make pasta. While doing this, a couple of friends from a newly opened restaurant several villages away showed up and now we had someone besides ourselves to cook for. The next 3 hours were spent creating, cooking, talking, drinking, and eating. Two more friends made in Puglia. The pasta was made with a rare flour of Puglia, farina arsa, so named because it is made with burnt wheat kernels, the origin of which dates back hundreds of years and is another tale of the cucina di povera of the Pugliese people. In keeping with waste not want not, at the end of a harvesting season the remaining wheat was burned and its remains milled into flour. What originated as cucina di povera (cooking of the poor) translates to cucina di sapori (flavorful cooking), today. At any rate the finished pasta has a delicate smoky flavor,  very distinctive, unique, and not to be forgotten.  We made cavatelli, fusilli, and the famous pasta of Puglia, orrecchiette. Once cooked we made three quick sauces, two with the greens that we picked earlier and a third with greens and pomodori. After each cooking we would eat, talk a little more and then went on to making the next pasta. We ended our afternoon assagio with two home-made digestifs that our guests brought for Peppe which is in keeping with tradition. Whenever you visit someone in Italy, you bring something. This I remember from my grandmother many years ago. One digestif was made from a bitter, wild cherry and the other was made from finocchio (wild fennel). After café we parted, full, content and happy for spending the day together. Ah, for the simple life. More food cooked more food eaten, more friends made. What could be better than a day with Peppe?

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