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an essential piece of the landscape – Italian Cuisine

an essential piece of the landscape

The legume and wheat soup: the recipe that identifies the community of Matera and the peasant civilization

One cannot understand what is the crapiata if you don't understand what the Borgo La Martella from Matera and i Stones. If, among the many specialties of Matera gastronomy, it is this simple one legume soup to have opened the celebrations of Matera European Capital of Culture, there must be a very profound reason, linked to the very intimate nature of those stone architectures that defined the space and then the time.

La crapiata and Borgo La Martella

The time of the past in Matera, as well as in the whole of Basilicata, was marked by the cyclical nature of nature and its crops. The crapiata was the reward meal: when the agricultural year ended with the last harvest and its fruits could be tasted. The crapiata was the gift of collective effort: when all the farmers gathered to "eat together" and celebrate. The crapiata was the result of everyone and not of the individual: all the women of Matera carried a handful of what was left of the previous harvest. Each handful offered wheat, chickpeas, beans, lentils, peas, broad beans … offered what they lived on for the whole year. And people lived for little, but that little was shared: because the earth needs everyone, not the individual.

In the middle of the last century, between 1951 and 1954, Borgo La Martella rose from the Matera landscape, destined to host all the displaced from the Sassi, the same considered the "shame of Italy" after the denunciation of the Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi. The "question" Sassi and Matera became the symbol of southernism and the great dream to achieve a true united Italy. The vision was that of the best minds of the time and was embodied in a new architecture, born from the characteristics of the territory to give shape to the culture of those who lived there. At the head of this army of great revolutionaries was Adriano Olivetti and his concept of "Community City: Matera like Ivrea, the South within the Italian Community". The Neorealism of architects such as Ludovico Quaroni, Federico Gorio, Pier Maria Lugli, Michele Valori and Luigi Agati designed the space to welcome the community. La Martella: historical emblem of the peasant village. Parameters and rules: environment, landscape, territory, local culture. The Borgo arose from the orography of the place and was then laid down on the territory, following its signs and shapes. They recreated two fundamental elements of the structure of the Sassi: the atmosphere of the "internal courtyard" and the "neighborhood", set on the curves of the agricultural territory of Matera. Objective: harmonious continuity between the new and the old landscape. Even on a tactile and visual level, the traditions and colors of the Sassi were recalled thanks to the use of native materials such as tuff and pieces of baked clay. The houses were planned with the presence of a small vegetable garden, a well and even a stable to give continuity to the time that had always been in that place. Even the Teatro del Borgo had a structure to carry out the aggregative function, which had to be even stronger there: it had no chairs or armchairs, each one had to bring his own chair from home and bring it to his companion.

The meaning and the dream of the Borgo's architecture still survive today in the name and in the crapiata. The Tuesday (La Mortella) is the name of a spontaneous Mediterranean aromatic: myrtle which, even today, is used for the preparation of olives in brine. The soup is the flavor that the displaced people of the Sassi have recreated all together, grain by grain like brick by brick, to “architect” in a new time what it always was.

Remember and recreate communities with crapiata

In the mid-70s, when all dreams were shattered and every reconstruction showed its dark side, Borgo La Martella also went into crisis. A community crisis: the elderly peasants who had lived in the Sassi died without being able to pass the baton, also thanks to the eternal scourge of emigration. Individualism began to disintegrate the community just as capitalism began to eradicate old peasant values. Paladin Raffaele, the factotum of the Borgo at the time, always very attentive to places and to his own people, began to recreate aggregation around the crapiata, the ancient soup common heritage of all his fellow citizens. He surrounded himself with friends and farmers to rediscover and pass on the ancient "community recipe", the one that gave only a pinch of salt to the "fists" of the laborers.
Fundamental thing: the legumes must necessarily be dry, because they are residues from the previous year. It is with the seed of the past that the harvest of the future is nourished.

Thus was born the Festival of Crapiata which, still today for the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Borgo, makes the community pass from one century to another: "For our Borgo, the crapiata was and is a moment of great aggregation", confirms Paolo Grieco, president of Amici del Borgo association. «August 1st is an unmissable event not only for us who are here, but also for all the Martellese who have gone away.

The recipe for crapiata

The recipe for crapiata is so ancient that even the name today does not have a univocal interpretation. For some it would derive from the Greek krambe, which indicates a legume. For others it would come from nearby Calabria, where crapia it would be the old tripod on which the large pot was placed to cook the collective soup. And, again, it could derive from crapa for on the Sunday following the feast he killed himself and ate a goat. Whatever its true origin, for the people of Martello and Matera, crapiata is a "set of dried legumes", a mixture of different elements in which the diversity of each contributes to the richness of taste of the whole soup.

The original recipe would like only salt, oil and some new potato chips for the crapiata, or rather only what you possessed when you had to bring your "fist" to the community; other flavors and fresh ingredients were only added later. Even the doses retain the mystery of tradition: they are always excessive because they are designed to feed all the farmers who participated in the harvest, not a single family or a few friends. Today, for our homes, we could use a reprocessed dosage and ingredients as follows.

Ingredients for 6 people

100 g of broad beans not peeled
100 g of spelled
100 g of chickpeas
100 g of cicerchie
100 g of peas
100 g of white beans
100 g of black eyed beans
200 g of small lentils
200 g of durum wheat
6 small new potatoes
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
1 onion
Extra virgin olive oil to taste
2 bay leaves
4 cherry tomatoes
Water to taste
Salt to taste


The day before, soak all the dried legumes in plenty of water. After 24 hours, drain and rinse them. Clean the new potatoes well, leaving the skin behind. Put all the legumes and new potatoes in a saucepan and cover the whole thing with water about a couple of centimeters. Simmer for about 45 minutes. Then add the rest of the ingredients and a little salt (put the celery, carrots and onion whole while chopping the cherry tomatoes).
Cook for another 45 minutes or so.
When cooked, remove the celery, carrots and onion, add a drizzle of raw extra virgin olive oil, a little chilli powder (according to your taste) and toasted bread. Serve hot, accompanied by a good red wine, preferably a Matera Doc.

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Apple Tart Maman Blanc

The other day I wrote a piece for The Daily Mail and as the paper arrived and I saw that I was on the front page (ack!) with some dastardly headline I felt ill and squeezed my eyes shut and clutched at my pyjamas and waited for the whole internet to fall in on my head all day long.

It didn’t, thank god. Thank you. I mean, I’m sure there were 4,000 comments underneath the piece, all vile, but I don’t read those – (you simply cannot and stay sane) – but I did get one, single, slightly unhappy tweet. “I used to love your blog,” it said, “but now you just troll yourself. How much do the Mail pay you to write this stuff?”

And I realised then, that I should probably explain what happens. I lose track of how many readers I have, I forget that I’m not just writing to Becky B and my husband.

(Becky B’s just had a baby by the way. No pain relief. None. There was briefly a story going round that she had her stitches with no pain killer either, but that turned out to be apocryphal, like that one about how she once put a mugger in hospital just by giving him a nasty look.)

But for other readers, seeing me in the Mail like that must be strange, like if your boyfriend suddenly turned out to be a contract killer, or a pimp.

So this is how is happens: one morning, some devastatingly charming girl emails from Femail, (they’re all charming at the Mail, that’s their deadly weapon), wanting to run a piece that you have already written and to give you, in return, enough money so that you don’t have to work for the next two weeks if you don’t want to, and pay the nanny AND buy a bottle of neon pink nail varnish from Models Own.

And you stop and you think “Oh but my photo will be in there, and some really horrifying headline and there will be pictures of my children…”and then you think “yes but this is my job.” And then you think “money…”. And then you think how pleased your mother always is when you’re in the paper, no matter what you’ve said. And then your husband comes into the room and reads the email over your shoulder and goes “You’re going to ask for more money, aren’t you? Great job. Don’t forget to invoice!”

Then you file your piece and wait. Presently the “edit” comes back to you, which is where they run your normal words through their computer and it comes out in perfect MailSpeak. And you go “fine – can you change this and this?” and they go “sure”.

And then you deal once or twice more with women who, as the deadline gets closer and closer, sound more and more tense, as they sit at their desks, talking to you and eating their lunch at 8.30pm, tapping in tiny tweaks here and there – none of which matter because the headline is going to be MY KIDS ARE SO FACKIN BORING YAH???? so the subtle word changes you are insisting on are like dusting the rotary blades of a helicopter that’s just crashed into the side of a mountain.

Then the paper comes out the next day and you feel crushed and sick until your husband goes “GREAT job!” and your mother, who quite often looks at you blankly like “which one are you, again?” actually rings up and says “They’re talking about your piece on the radio!!!!!!” And then you remember: “money!”. And, eventually, you square it all away and forget about it. Until the next time.

It helps that I am basically a sloppy hack at heart and don’t really mind – not really, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. If my children find these pieces later in life and want to have a go at me about it I will simply start charging them rent.

Another girl in my life who doesn’t judge me for this kind of caper is a French girl called Amelie, once described to me as the “rudest girl in London” but I don’t understand why, because she is simply charming, she is just a bit brisk and French. I think she is terrific.

We went to see her and her husband this weekend for lunch and Amelie calmly went out to the shops to buy some ingredients for Raymond Blanc’s much-celebrated Apple tart Maman Blanc and made it while guests were arriving. She had never made it before! And, she declared “I ‘aven’t cooked anysing for years.” I cannot imagine how relaxed you have to be to do something like this.

Anyway it was just fantastic. I didn’t help in the actual preparation, I just provided moral support and read out the recipe as she was cooking, which she declared was very helpful but I think she may just have been being nice.

This is how it goes: the precise recipe, including instructions for the shortcrust pastry, can be found on p246 of Kitchen Secrets, or online.

Amelie, like all good French girls, just buys her pastry pre-made. I think she used puff (she herself couldn’t remember if she had bought puff or shortcrust – such insouciance!!!) but you really ought to buy shortcrust.

So here we go:

Apple tart ‘Maman Blanc’

1 packet shortcrust pastry
3 dessert apples (like a Braeburn or whatever, just not a super-sour cooking apple)
15g unsalted butter
15g caster sugar
11/2 tsp lemon juice
7g Calvados (if you like)
icing sugar, to dust
1 medium egg
100 ml whipping cream
50g caster sugar

1 Roll out your pastry to fit your tart case and have it slightly higher than the rim of the tin because pastry shrinks on cooking. Prick the base with a fork and put in the fridge for 20 min.

2 Preheat the oven and a baking sheet (or any old tin big enough to take the tart tin) to 220C

3 Peel and core the apples and cut each into 10. Lay them closely together and overlapping in a circle in the base of the tart case.

4 In a small pan, melt the butter and sugar, then take off the heat and mix in the lemon juice and Calvados if using. Brush this over the apples slices and dust with icing sugar.

5 Slide the tart tin onto your now hot sheet and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 200C and bake for another 20 minutes until the tart case is brown and the apples look a bit caramelised.

6 For the custard filling, whisk 1 egg together with 50g caster sugar and 100ml whipping cream and pour into the tart 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time.

Et Voila! As Amelie almost never says.

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