Puglia’s culinary delights are widely known: the creamy and runny burrata, the crunchy and addictive taralli or the fresh raw eaten seafood – this south Italian region offers many gastronomic highlights.
On a trip in early summer, I discovered a pugliese speciality that was new to me - the Pasticciotto Leccese. While entering Lecce, the main city of Puglia, gray clouds overshadowed the usually clear blue sky. When we opened the car door, huge water drops fell from the sky. We ran into the next pastry shop – the Pasticceria La Cotognata Leccese - and found heaven on earth.
Just the day before, locals recommended to try the region’s typical pastry, which they usually eat for breakfast still warm out of the oven. In the Pasticceria La Cotognata Leccese, we found a display full of Pasticciotti Leccesi and other tempting pastries. When I bit into my still warm Pasticciotto al pistacchio, I knew my choice had been right. A crumbly short crust dough on the outside and a creamy, green pistacchio cream on the inside...
The roots of this treasure of the Salento area go back to 1745. In Galatina, a pretty village in the province of Lecce, the pastry chef Andrea Ascalone had economic problems but still wanted to invent a new sweet. Necessity is the mother of invention – so he took ingredients he had anyways available or even leftovers from other creations of his and made a small, oval pie with shortcrust pastry shell and a heart of creamy pastry cream. Pasted with egg yolk and baked in the oven, a golden and shiny pie was the result. However, the pastry chef was not so happy with his invention and thought it was a «pasticcio», a mishap, and named it «Pasticciotto». He let some of the passers-by taste it anyway and the success was huge – they loved the crunchy and crumbly outside and the creamy inside – to the degree that this sweet became the symbol of the Salento area. Despite its humble beginnings, nowadays, the Pasticciotto is a pastry that is much in demand throughout Puglia. From the traditional with pastry cream filled version, there are today versions with amarena cherries, ricotta, chocolate, pistacchio and many more creative options.
The filling of the classic version employs genuine ingredients like fresh milk, eggs, sugar and lemon rind. The shortcrust pastry is traditionally prepared using strutto – pork fat – and not butter. While for the antique Romans, pork fat and butter were symbols of the pastoral nomadism of the barbarians from the north, their proper olive oil, wine and bread were seen as the epitome of an elevated culture. It was still used in roman cuisine, but only in the poor people’s kitchen.
Only in the high medieval period, when the barbarian culture spread further, the economical valorisation of the forest increased and thus, also lard was promoted to having a strong value in the alimentary system. Having available fats deriving from either plants or animals , it was the liturgical calendar that decided about the use: vegetable oil was used for the «lean» days (giorni di magro), and animal fat for the «fat» days (giorni di grasso). In northern European countries, butter was used instead of vegetable oil for the lean days. According to studies, the vast use of butter in the north was due to the dislike of the bitter olive oil, which was very much beloved in the Mediterranean countries but did not meet the taste of the northern population. Over time, butter lost its reputation as barbarian and food for the poor and even became «en vogue» and changed status in the 15th century – at that time, it was even used in the privileged social classes of the south.
From then on, lard was used for the fat days, butter for the lean days (Friday and Saturday), olive oil and almond oil for the lent season. Today, the different Italian regions prefer different fats in their cuisine: in Tuscany for example, olive oil is very much used, in Lombardia they employ a lot of butter instead and in Emilia, recipes often use lard. Puglia being very much in the south traditionally never knew a vast use of butter. In addition, when killing a pig, every part had to be used, so also the pork fat. Consequently, pugliese cuisine traditionally employs olive oil and lard.
Nowadays, people’s reaction to the thought of using pork fat is often rejection, especially when used in sweets. The saturated fatty acids and the mere idea of using pork in a sweet seem to be unpleasant to most people today. When cold, the white, compact block Strutto has no odors, only above 40/42°C it starts becoming paste-like and has a delicate but characteristic flavour. It is obtained from all the fatty parts of the pork, the back fat and the subcutaneous fat. Using lard in doughs and biscuits renders the gluten in the dough more crumbly, increases the volume of the dough, slowing down the loss of humidity and gives flavour. Lard is used only in local, traditional sweets. The high boiling point also makes it a good fat for deep frying.
All the unhealthy saturated fatty acids didn’t stop us from tasting a Pasticciotto in every single pasticceria we passed by. It became an obsession. And we could name a definite winner: the Pasticciotto of the Pasticceria La Cotognata Leccese – the first one we had. What made the whole experience even nicer was the lovely and welcoming owner of the place. A lady in her sixties who ate – concluding from her size – thousands of Pasticciotti which gave her a wonderful radiance of happiness and satisfaction. The pastry shop takes its name from the Pasticciotto’s sibling – the Fruttone: a pastry in the shape of the Pasticciotto, but with a filling of quince (Cotogna), almond paste and covered with chocolate. This one however is always eaten cold.
The Pasticciotto was that good that on the day of the departure we got up at 5 am and on the way to the airport, we took the small detour into the centre of Lecce. Just when the Pasticceria La Cotognata Leccese was opening its doors, we stepped in to get our last Pasticciotto. When closing my eyes now, I can still feel the crumbliness of the dough on my lips, the unctuous and creamy warm filling in my palate and the delicate aftertaste. And I can see the warm smile of the owner-lady.