My southern Italian origins, which I already explained in previous posts, provide for a constant longing for all things authentic, honest and reliable. My upbringing, as the one of many children coming from my same area, was one deeply interweaving sacred with profain, guilt with pleasure. As part of this Dostoyevskian-like legacy, the orecchiette talk more than words. As kids, we were all called to order like little soldiers by my greatgrandmother, as I explained here. May we miss the call, our ears were pulled. Poor little ears. Yes, just like the orecchiette that we would have then enjoyed for lunch (talking of subtle metaphor). But, what are they? Orecchiette are a type of pasta typical of the Puglia region, the shape of which is approximately that of small ears, from which the origin of its name. Widespread in Puglia between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from then capital Bari, where it still remains as one of the top most typical dishes. In Bari's colourful dialect they are also known as "L strasc'nat" (dragged), a term deriving from the creation method with which the pasta takes shape when it is dragged on the working table. Throughout the whole region, orecchiette are cooked mainly with turnip greens, with cauliflower, broccoli and other vegetables, or simply and somptuously, with red sauce (tomato based) and the accompaniment of a very salty thick ricotta (cacioricotta), also used in Sicily for pasta alla Norma, which I shared with you here.
Their size is about 3/4 of a thumb finger, and they appear as a small white dome, with the center thinner than the edge and with a rough surface. In all variants, they are produced using solely durum wheat flour, water and salt.
Oddly enough, their origins are not to be found in Puglia, but most likely in the French Provence where, since the Middle Ages, a similar pasta was produced using a durum wheat from southern France. It was a very thick pasta, round formed, hollow to the center through thumb pressure: this particular form facilitated its drying, thus its conservation to face periods of famine. It also seems that large amounts were loaded on ships that were preparing to travel long distances. Later, they would be spread by the Anjou throughout Basilicata and Puglia with their current name , in the thirteenth century dynasty that ruled the lands of the regions. According to the legend - orecchiette pasta originated in the territory of Sannicandro di Bari, during the rule of the Norman-Swabian, between the twelfth and thirteenth century. It is possible, following the attitude of protection against the local Jewish community by the Norman-Swabian, that their creation had been inspired from some recipes typical of the then current Jewish tradition, like the ears of Haman, to be found in some Sephardic sweets, or in the Croisettes, a type of pasta prepared in the Occitan valleys of Piedmont, a distant relative of orecchiette also likely influenced from the Middle East.
This picture was taken from my father during Christmas holidays. What he cooked them with will be the subject of next week's post. Stay tuned.
With love and orecchiette,