NOTE: The floral bowls and platter in this post are the courtesy of Dishesonly; a website where you can purchase various types of designer and craft dish-ware. Check them out! There have many pretty plates!
Fiammetta is the type of woman I’d like to become “when I get old”; brilliant, independent, strong and unstoppable. She just turned 73, she can tell you a hundred stories about her travels around the globe since she was young, the stories of South of Italy, where her both parents were from. One from Apulia and the other from Naples. The stories of when she worked as the manager of classical musicians and arranged concerts in Italy for the Russian artists when the Soviet Union didn’t let anybody out. She speaks many languages and her recent infatuation with Iran has brought us together. Fiammetta has travelled to Iran in November 2014 and she’s been in love with my country ever since. So much so that she’s now learning Persian. My mother tongue made our paths meet; and the passion for food and culture bonded us in a not-so-ordinary friendship. I had a pleasure to stay in her country house in the provence of Apulia in Southern Italy for the first 10 days of August. Emerged in the beautiful and unique nature of Puglia (the Italian word for Apulia), and surrounded by so much culture and history, Fiammetta and I talked a lot; I talked about Iran and she talked to me about Puglia, Naples and the stories from her parents and her childhood. We went out a lot; around the country side and the nearby small towns, and to the beach, where the Pugliese sea was Esmeralda clear blue and put the the Caribbean seas to shame. But most importantly we cooked. We talked about countless recipes, both Italian and Persian, and we were often surprised by the similarity of some of these dishes, especially the southern ones to the Iranian ones.
Thankfully, Fiammetta and I shared the same same taste regarding Summer food; simple, seasonal, quick and mostly vegetarian. There was an abundant harvest of tomatoes, eggplants and thin, long peppers. Plus a certain kind of cucumber that I have seen only in southern in Italy and has different names in different dialects. It’s round and green, smaller than a melon, and it tastes like both cucumber and melon! It’s one of my favorite summer vegetables that sadly I can’t find in Rome. The tiny vegetable garden provided us with much more than we needed, therefore a lot of time was required to preserve all the veggies and prevent them from rotting. We spent two days making “conserva”, the tomato sauce the Neapolitan way. (Here you can find a classic Italian tomato sauce recipe.) Caught by the weariness and after squeezing and canning many kilos of tomatoes, Fiammetta said “L’orto fa l’uomo morto”, a saying which means the vegetable garden kills a man (for the amount of work that there is).
The rest of the big garden around “Casina Luciana” (the house is named after Fiammetta’s late mother) is filled with many, many spectacular olive trees. There are four or five figs trees too, from which each day I picked up fresh figs. Each sweet bite on the ripe figs right under tree was an immense joy.
It’s amazing how the Apulia soil, which looks avid and dry at the first sight, can provide so much great produce. Some of the best grapes and vineyards of Italy are in Puglia which make Primitivo wine, with a dry and strong flavor. Everywhere you look, the red soil shines with the silver leaves of olive trees. The Apulian extra virgin olive oil is just as good as its wine, if not even better. The fantastic Mediterranean climate in Puglia, like Calabria and Sicily, allows almond and pistachio trees to grow and fruit beautifully. Almonds are among Puglia’s best and most characteristic produce. Their almond granita tastes divine and almond milk served on espresso ice cube is a traditional post-meal drink, both much appreciated in hot summer days.
Speaking of hot Summer days, specially when we came back from the beach, we ate various ready-made food based on vegetables. After days of Italian/Pugliese meals, one evening that we had Fiammetta’s cousin over for dinner, I took over the kitchen and cooked Persian, only with seasonal and local ingredients, without really giving the authentic Persian recipe a make over.
One of the dishes was a classic Persian cold soup call “Ab-doogh-khiar”, literally translating to water-(sour)yogurt-cucumber. Other than cucumber, the soup is filled with a LOT of aromatic herbs which help the soup thicken. In the classic version black (purple) basil, mint and tarragon are used. But you can change that based on what you have on hand. Such as thyme, origano, marjoram, as long as you use mint as the base, even dry mint works. Mint, cucumber and yoghurt match so well and it’s the key element in the freshness of the dish.
For this recipe I used a lot of mint and basil from the garden. Tarragon was nowhere to be found, so I just used a sprinkle of other herbs that I found; a bit of fennel tops and a tiny bit of marjoram. What brings the fuel and energy, plus tanginess to this cold soup is walnuts. A touch of sweetness is brought by raisins which also softens the acidity of yoghurt and the strong flavors of aromatic herbs. When all ingredients are seasoned and combined in a big bowl, ice cubes are added on top, not only to cool the soup even more, but also to make it more fluid, as the Greek/Persian yogurt, mixed with all the herbs is very thick. You could also add some chopped fresh spring onions. Another version mixes some double cream with the yogurt, but honestly, I find it way too heavy. For the last touch, if desired, add a sprinkle of dry roses. This cold soup is served with bread on top. In Iran layers of thin, flat breads are used. But you could use stale bread that would soften with the wetness of the soup. On our Pugliese dinner, I served it with some stale bread, and some typical Apulian dry bread called Frisa. Because frisa is also wetted, either with water or fresh tomatoes juice before being served.
It felt me up with happiness that my purely Southern Italian guests loved the dish. over dinner we talked about the possible historical and cultural reasons that some Persian flavors are so much appreciated in the Mediterranean region. It’s not hard to tell. The borders of the Middle East and the Mediterranean so often melt into each other, that’s where cultures and (therefore) flavors have encountered for centuries.
You can make this cold soup in advance and even bring it to your summer picnics. (In a thermic bag, of course). Just leave the bread out and add when serving.
Tell me in comments about your favorite summer food. Did you learn any new recipes in your Summer vacations? Where did you travel to? What did you eat? Let me know about your culinary discoveries in your holiday.
- 500g (about 2 cups) Greek yoghurt
- 2 big cucumbers (about 400g)
- A small hand full of fresh mint
- Some tarragon
- Some basil (purple, if available)
- Other aromatic herbs such as thyme, sage ore maggiorana, just a sprinkle
- 50g walnuts
- 70g raisins
- salt, black pepper
- Dry roses to sprinkle
- Stale bread, or Apulia Frisa
- ice cubes
- Start by cutting the cucumbers into small dices and add to a big bowl.
- Coarsely chop the walnut and add to the bowl together with the raisins.
- Chop very finely all your herbs and add to the bowl. Season with salt and pepper and add the yoghurt and mix everything.
- Sprinkle with dry roses, and add the ice cubes.
- Serve in bowls and top with bread.
Coming from Iran, she mostly develops her recipes by combining the aromas of the middle east with the flavors of the Mediterranean, specially Italy, where she has found her second home.