Every year, on an early April day, I drive my Alfa Romeo rented car down the Autostrada A14 on the way to Bari, the capital of southern Italy’s Puglia (Apulia) region.
The ride from Bologna allows me plenty time to enjoy the landscape even as I cruise at the legal maximum speed of 80 miles per hour. As the straight four asphalt ribbon lanes unroll, on my left the Adriatic coast offers an incredible succession of breathtaking sea perspectives while on the right the vast Tavoliere plain gradually leads me into Le Murge, the stretch of territory where Bari is located.
By now you have all the classic ingredients for an extraordinary choreography: 500 miles of coast with clear blue sea, gorgeous sandy beaches, lush green hills, fields of lavender, bougainvillea, olive trees and vineyards everywhere. In Puglia the flavors of the Sea and the flavors of Earth naturally meet and blend into each other, one of the reasons why Apulian cuisine is among the most genuine in Italy.
Puglia is a perfect holiday destination, Google it to believe, it would be nice to get lost in this ancient region inhabited since the Paleolithic but, to quote J.R.R. Tolkien, “not all those who wander are lost”: I have a thick business agenda to follow and yet, while I munch mile after mile southwards, I can barely wait for my dinner and the chance to savor once again the exquisite pleasures of the awesome crudo barese, the raw fish and seafood from the port city of Bari, where the old tradition of eating raw sea food goes back centuries and is still deeply embedded in the culture and in the lives of both “Baresi” and all “Apulians” in the rest of the region.
I would rather say that for the Baresi eating raw sea food it’s not only an ancient tradition, or a favored food style, but also a way of life. After all Japanese sashimi or Italian carpaccio are ordinary daily choices for foodies all over the world even if, probably, only few of them would actually know about the crudo barese.
In fact, there exist official documents resting in Bari’s museums dating back to 1500s, setting the rules on the sale of octopus to be eaten raw at the City's Molo di Sant’Antonio, where fishermen still dock today with freshly caught fish to be sold at the fish markets also often consumed right on the spot.
The truth is the that Peruvian ceviche, Japanese sashimi, Dutch herring, Malaysian hinava, Turkish lakerda, Filipino kinilaw, Apulian pulpe rizze (curly octopus) are somehow connected by common denominators. As the Italian food expert Carlo Spinelli once argued: “the gesture of swallowing raw fish and shellfish is the most sensual in the world of the anthropology of nourishment. It is an ancient gesture by no means fashionable or ephemeral”.
Just imagine, the impressive variety of seafood found in the local waters: sea urchins, octopus, cuttlefish, mussels, scallops, razor clams, oysters, squid, anchovies, red mullet, prawns and lobster. Whatever type of fish, the locals would eat the fresh catches in the “freshest” way possible: raw. And note: once you have tried the freshest way you will not be able to settle for anything “less” fresh…
This is why when I reluctantly have to eat substandard sushi or sashimi in one of the so called "authentic" Japanese restaurants pauperizing Manila’s dining scene, I know I have been fatally spoiled by the exquisite taste and freshness of the crudo barese. I also know it’s useless to tell the next apologetic manager of the joint that if the raw squid doesn’t crackle under your teeth then it cannot be considered fresh or that sea urchin is a delicacy and therefore if it is as distasteful and zestless as the unfrozen sea urchin leftovers he is hopelessly trying to defend then he and his bosses be better change business!
By now I have already left behind Molfetta, an important fishing center 16 miles north of Bari. It’s past 7:00 pm and I figure that in the next hour or so I would be sitting at my favorite restaurant in the old Bari historical center, waiting for my next raw sea food crudo barese eating experience.
The owners are friends since back in the 90s and they will not allow me to order. It’s an Italian thing: they would rather take care of me personally in the slightest details, offering me their best. I bet, though, there will be sea urchin, the king of the raw sea food scene in Bari, followed by the raw octopus and by series of plates of all the raw marine family, for my unadulterated appreciation...
Take the “u pulpe rizze”. Once fished, the octopus is cleaned of its internal organs and beak, stunned with a wooden stick, beaten on a rock and placed on the bottom of a basket. Then the fisherman “curls up” the octopus for about an hour until the tentacles form rings (curly octopus). In the Barese dialect, this process is called “arzze’ u pulp”, and it causes the relaxation of the nerves which makes the meat tender but substantial.
Now, what wine on earth would you drink with the crudo barese, with this wonderful, delicate raw seafood? While there are still pairing experiments going on all over the world with the Japanese sushi and sashimi made more complicated by the wasabi and soya sauce, here in Italy I can think of dozens of great Italian whites wines that will happily “marry” the crudo barese which you simply savor as it is, even without a drop of lemon juice.
The thing is, after many early April days spent in Puglia, I have already narrowed my choices to a few perfect matches. However, as a sommelier, wine professional and wine lover, I enjoy tasting little known varietals because it is true of wine that the more you learn about it the more you want to know.
This is the case of Verdeca, a wine made from an ancient Apulian grape that had nearly disappeared few decades ago. It is a light to medium bodied, bright yellow white wine with green shades. Other than the nose, for this pairing experience it is important the palate in which the wine must balance the delicate and changing tastes of the raw sea food. You definitely need a wine with good acidity and minerality, and a mild finish.
A Falanghina, a Fiano di Avellino and a Greco di Tufo would have been my choices tonight. However, I have discovered a refreshing 50% Fiano and 50% Greco white blend by Valentina Passalacqua, straw yellow colour, floral and citrus, lush round palate, scented Fiano blending into the body of the Greco on southern soil mineral flavors. Great wine!
And so, as the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi wrote in one of his timeless poems: “my mind sinks in this immensity and foundering is sweet in such a sea”…
At 12 am the moon is high in Bari’s sky and there isn’t much space left in my belly to savor the pleasures of other Crudo Barese seafood dishes. All right, I sigh just a little for the Commedia’s sake, tomorrow is another day and there will be another April next year.