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Sophie’s Choice | Life, Food and Recipes from Puglia

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We finally got our hands on a copy of cook, food writer and TV presenter Sophie Grigson’s A Curious Absence of Chickens (“ACAC”) when Sophie came over for lunch earlier this week.

Our lamia (ACAC, p241; Sophie’s journal also provides us with a useful shorthand reference tool for many aspects of life in Puglia) is a mere eight miles from Ceglie Messapica’s old town. Despite being almost neighbours, busy schedules (even though we are in Puglia where busyness is relative) got in the way of meeting up until now.

We did enjoy a sneak ACAC preview ahead of publication. Earlier in the year Sophie shared her allorino recipe (p260) with us which we dutifully tried out, carefully selecting 60 of our most fragrant fresh bay leaves for the purpose. So it seemed only right that we sent her home after lunch with a large bouquet from our favourite bay bush.

She also shared some of her insight into our joy of burrata.

Over an unhurried, easy lunch we discover a few more things in common than the pleasure of eating polpo. A serendipitous menu choice by the way. Polpo features favourably in ACAC (pp95-107), with no less than five recipes. We cooked polpi in umido, broadly equivalent to Sophie’s saucier braised octopus (p104) served with a generous sprinkling of “parsley, parsley, parsley” (p17).

We share a love of cats - Sophie has two and a half, we have five - a love of Puglia and the Puglia kitchen:

“For interest and as a lure to bring you readers to this blessed land, I’ve included a handful of dishes that can only be cooked in Puglia because this is the only place you will find the essential ingredients…”

A Curious Absence of Chickens, Sophie Grigson

It seems we are not alone championing favourite recipes to tempt our readers to Puglia. Though for us while the simplicity of our region’s cuisine travels well, finding ingredients outside la terra nostra with the flavour that our local produce packs may not translate quite as easily.

That is why you have got to eat here. Besides, a caffè leccese (p290) will never taste as sweet as it does sitting out in the heat of a lazy Salento morning in one of Lecce’s dazzling piazze. Even if you switch the almond milk (p288) for almond syrup, as we do.

We have both made the same pleasurable discoveries. Standout recipes that rely on unusual combinations and not at all obvious. Until you try them. The ingenious pasta and chickpeas, ciceri e tria (p181), comes with the extra surprise of crisp fried pasta.

Then there’s pasta e cavolfiore, pasta with cauliflower. A revelation in taste and comfort eating that we have promised to introduce Sophie to.

Joyful and triumphant we discovered that we even celebrate Christmas in Puglia in the same way, with a crossover mincemeat pasticciotto. Sophie’s are the traditional circle shaped pies using pasticciotto pastry with Italian(ish) orange and walnut mincemeat (p271). Our version retains its pasticciotto shape with mincemeat filling.

ACAC is an authentic experience of discovery. Discovering Puglia, its people and its “highly localised, and universally treasured” food (p5).

Indeed. In a region where dialect is often spoken over Italian and changes from town to town (the residents of Carovigno some 12 miles away may struggle to understand the residents of Sophie’s adopted Ceglie) it is no surprise to find variety between many of our recipes. Even our way of making that most constant element of Italian cuisine, the sugo (tomato sauce), changes across the short distance between us.

A festive pasta al forno (p170), polpo alla pignatta (p102) and basciole (p177) all retain the garlic once gently fried. In our version only 15 minutes by car away the garlic is used to temper the oil before being removed and discarded. (Though in practice it never is; our garlic chips are saved to be crumbled over the occasional salad or to season an impromptu panino).

Other recipes use garlic where we would leave it out; polpette di pane (p198), brasciole (p176).

These tweaks aren’t just an expression of local culinary pride. They are a reflection on family tradition, where recipes are handed down from generation to generation. And, of course, of personal taste somewhere down the line.

ACAC takes its place on our bookshelf as a treasure trove of Pugliese recipes and a go to reference. Not only to benchmark our cooking, but also our experience.

It is a celebration of Sophie’s choice of life, food and recipes from Puglia and of reinvention and reinvigoration. It offers a happy insight, even in the difficult days of Covid, into life in the sud of Italy. Really, there’s nothing quite like it.

This is a book we will be giving friends at Christmas, gifting happy memories of holidays in Puglia and our own happy and seasonal life here

As for A Curious Absence of Chickens? Well, there is always an exceptio probat regulam.

We may proclaim that polpette di carne are not polpette unless the meat is mixed with soaked and wrung out bread morcels or breadcrumbs and with grated cheese, rolled into walnut sized balls and deep fried, before being added to any tomato sauce.

But on the menu last night at one of our favourite Ostuni restaurants were were some delicious polpetta di carne alla vecchia maniera. Old style meatballs, oversized, cooked in the sugo and with a curious absence of bread.

As was terrina di pollo, chicken terrine.


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