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Apulian Cooking
Pittule Plain or full of vegetables, “alla pizzaiola” or flavored with fennel seeds, make them according to tradition, and just freshly fried, they are irresistible... by Dario Ersetti
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Pittule, plain or in one of their many creative versions with a filling, are one of the tastiest Apulian starters.
Photo by Dario Ersetti

 The name

      Pittula” or “pittola” is almost certainly the diminutive of “pitta”, focaccia. It also has another meaning which is “untucked shirttails” (lu piccinnu cu lla pèttula n culu) that probably derives from the movement with which the pittule were made, by extruding the dough between the thumb and the index finger of the left hand positioned in the form of a fist. The dough would stretch out of the hand, like shirttails do with some shorts. There are various names used in Apulia besides pittula and pittola, such as pèttola, pèttele, pèttulu, pìttala, pètt-li, ppèttulu, pèttala, and also pèttuli (in Brindisi), loffe de mòneche (in Gargano), sckattabotte (in Noci) and pettue nguvatèzze (in Terlizzi), though, in reality, these are transliterations of the same name with different pronunciations. We should not forget that the dialectal intonation in Apulia changes every twenty kilometers, and that the area from Peschici to Capo di Leuca stretches over 400 Km. If we begin with the fact that in Naples they are called “pèttole”, and in Calabria (where they also make them in the form of a donut) and in Lecce “pìttule”, we can conclude that these two names are the true names and that the other ones are only phonetic variations.

 

The tradition

 

      Pittule are a light starter (“di magro” in Italian, which indicates meat-free dishes), and the tradition has always been to serve this dish on the 7th of December, the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, even if today they are prepared for many other occasions and are inevitable as appetizers at restaurants and trattorie that serve traditional Apulian food. It is a very easy dish to prepare, and as all easy dishes are, difficult to get just right.

      Here is how they were made once upon a time on masserie (local gentrified farms).

      Grain of the last year’s harvest, which was stored in a loft in a cool area of a tower at the masseria, was sown on a fertile field where sheep grazed. As soon as the first sprouts would come out, the sheep were brought back to the pasture to eat all the fresh sprouts. That way, the grain would germinate new and more numerous sprouts, that were also more robust. There were no herbicides used, so therefore other types of plants sprouted with their relative seeds, and these got mixed in with the grain even after the threshing. The right measure of grain was taken to a local mill when it was time to make bread and pittule: bread and pittule that had a touching flower-like smell!

      The pittule were then made by the farmer’s wife, who with her muscular forearms would knead the dough to just the right consistency, blending it with natural yeast (called the “mother”), which was jealously and religiously guarded for years. The pittule, the plain ones, and the ones with vegetables strictly from the garden, were fried in abundant extra virgin oil produced by the farms’ olive trees, over a fire of olive wood and grapevine cuttings.

 

 

The recipe

 

-1 kg of whole wheat flour

- 25 g of brewer’s yeast

- salt

- warm water

- extra virgin olive oil (for frying)

 

      Mix the flour with yeast that has been dissolved in warm water, and add a little salt. The difficulty consists in thoroughly kneading the dough for a good period of time in order to get a very soft mixture, almost like a cream. Put the well kneaded mixture in a large container, cover it, and leave it to rise for at least 2 hours in a warm place.

      The technique for creating pittule needs a little practice. Put a little bit of the mix in your left hand, close that hand to form a fist, and squeeze out little balls of dough through your thumb and index finger. With your right hand, take the little balls as they are squeezed out and put them into the hot frying oil. It seems easy enough, but when you try to do it...

      Fry the pittule until they are of a golden color.

 

 

Varieties

 

      Stuffed pittule require adding boiled vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, lampascioni (edible grape hyacinth), celery, and salted anchovies (rinsed) or cooked codfish to the dough. Another recipe, “pizzaiola”, calls for onions, tomatoes, capers, black olives, salted anchovies, and hot red pepper.

      In the area of the Murge hills near Bari they also make pittule with fennel seeds, which give them a refreshing taste.

      To make pittule stuffed with vegetables, boil the vegetables until they are half cooked, chop them, and then fold them into the dough, making sure they are well covered.

      Some people also put boiled, grated potatoes in the flour mixture, in the proportion of 1/2 kg of potatoes for every kilo of flour, and others mix refined flour with the whole wheat flour (half and half). Still others use a spoon to form the pittule, and some use pre-packaged, frozen pittule made who knows where or how.

      Plain or stuffed, pittule are irresistible, but after you have been amazed by those prepared the old fashioned way, try not to turn up your nose at the ones that many restaurants serve.

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