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A Cena Regional Dinner: Puglia

September 24, 2013

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A Cena’s regional dinners are a great way to experience the diverse styles of cooking found in Italy. Italy is a relatively new country – unification was in 1861 – and the separate entities of the different regions are strongly expressed in each region’s food. Puglia – think the heel of Italy – has been invaded by many people over its history, from the Ancient Greeks to the Normans, Spanish and Turks. This long history of conquest and settlement has resulted in an eclectic cuisine. However, the primary influences reflect the region’s geography, the shape of the ‘heel’ means Puglia is surrounded by water – the Adriatic Sea to one side, the Ionian Sea to the other. Thus seafood is a major ingredient.

Large flat plains in the deep hot south of Italy at times reveal nothing other than the sight of olive trees reaching far into the distance and this area produces 80% of Italy’s olive oil. Vegetables abound, especially tomatoes, broccoli, cimi di rape, chicory and fennel. It is also a huge wheat growing area. Puglian bread is renowned for its unique flavour and texture that comes from the durum wheat grown in the area. The local pasta, also made from durum wheat, has a higher protein content than the softer pasta from the north and doesn’t contain egg; it’s grainier and has a rougher texture when you eat it but has a great flavour. One of the most popular shapes is orecchiette – ‘little ears’ – which wonderfully collects any sauce into its ‘saucer’ shape. The cooking of Puglia has a purity; it’s uncorrupted and simple but absolutely wonderful. It evolved from cucina povera – peasant cooking. Lamb is a preferred meat – beef isn’t so well suited to a hot climate – and it’s usually simply flavoured with aromatic herbs or tomatoes but many of the dishes are simply cooked fish or pasta and vegetables.

Head Chef at A Cena, Nicola, is passionate about producing authentic menus for these regional dinners. As someone who has spent time in Puglia and loved it, I know she succeeded well last night and I was excited to see both ‘Ncapriata di fave – broad bean puree – which was served with cimi di rape …

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… and orecchiette served with broccoli, chilli, anchovy, breadcrumbs and Parmesan, as a choice for starters.

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This really summed up Puglian food in two plates! Jonathan and Lyndsey went for the puree while I chose orecchiette. We each tasted each other’s and they were excellent. For mains, Jonathan and I chose lamb, slow-cooked with peas and herbs.

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Lyndsey chose a baked mussels dish.

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It was all delicious; the lamb softly melting and the sauce wonderful. Glasses of wine are included with each course and there was a choice of Puglian white or red (Primitivo) for the first two courses. They were very good. Then a surprisingly deep red sweet wine came with desserts.

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Jonathan and I had Zuppa Inglese – an Italian trifle – which was brilliant.

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Lyndsey chose chocolate sorbet that was deeply and deliciously chocolatey.

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It was a fabulous evening. A Cena was beautifully lit with candles (hence my rather dark photos!), which added to a relaxing and lovely atmosphere. The food was wonderful as was the wine. At £30 for 3 courses, including wine, it’s great value and these evenings are a fantastic  way to get to know more about the food of the different regions of Italy. I for one can’t wait for the next one. There are still so many gorgeous parts of Italy to go! If you want to know more and be kept up to date, go onto the A Cena website – click here – and sign up to their newsletter.

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