Friday, 27 June 2014

Distinctive Dwellings: The Masseria

Scattered about the fertile plains and low hills of Puglia stand white-washed dwellings that bear testimony to a particular epoch of southern Italian history.  Known as a masseria, these isolated rural structures once protected and housed numerous farmers and their families in a communal, cloistered setting.

The lands of the south were primarily distributed among the aristocratic elite who owned vast holdings in the feudal system of the time, first initiated under Frederick II and then continued by the rulers of the Kingdom of Naples.  The peasants worked the land in exchange for housing and a percent of the harvest, and they tended the estates for the mostly-absent owners.

The masseria was similar to a Spanish hacienda, a protected compound surrounded by walls and often bearing a watch tower.  The windowless walls had only one entry gate, which would be closed at night, and to ward off possible invaders or brigands.  Inside was a courtyard surrounded by the main house and smaller outbuildings.  It was a self-sufficient dwelling.  There were animal stalls and storage rooms for grains, goods, and farm equipment, along with fruit trees and a vegetable patch.  In the courtyard stood a water well, a wood-burning bread oven, and often even a chapel.  The courtyard served as a petite piazza, a gathering space for sitting, chatting and menial household chores, as well as playground space for the children.

Outside the walls were the fields of grains and olive groves, and pastures for the animals.  Larger vegetable plots and fruit orchards were common, too.  The farms were quite isolated from each other, so each masseria was its only microcosm, a country community in miniature.  Farmers, their families, and household servants lived, worked, worshipped and played together within the complex.

Things changed after the Unification of Italy when the owners started spending more time on their land and turned them into "masseria palazzo" structures, more prestigious and less "working farm".  Eventually, the feudal system was abolished and the lands divided up.  Many of the masserias were abandoned as people immigrated or took jobs in the cities.  Today, however, there has been renewed interest in the unique structures, which are found predominantly in Puglia and Sicily.  Many have been restored into inns and restaurants; others still serve as the headquarters and housing for determined but modern farm families. 

Look for these peculiar walled compounds as you travel around the south, and maybe dine in one to get a glimpse of a way of life that once was.

Spaghetti al Tonno

From Gioconda's Kitchen - Spaghetti al Tonno (Spaghetti with Tuna)

As you probably know by now, Gioconda is a fabulous cook.  Today, she shares a recipe which is not only a family favorite, it's super-easy to prepare, as well!

Gioconda says:  This fresh and tasty sauce is prepared in just a few minutes while you wait for the spaghetti to boil!  I make it when I'm late getting lunch together or when unexpected guests arrive.  It's a great one-pot meal.
  • Ingredients for 4 people:
  • 300 grams (12 oz.) spaghetti
  • One can tuna packed in olive oil
  • 300 grams ripe tomatoes, chopped (it's alright if they're canned)
  • 50 grams (3 TBSP) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 10 grams (2 tsp) salt-cured capers
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 spoonful of minced parsley
  • 2 or 3 basil leaves
  • Red pepper flakes (if you like a little spice!)
  • Salt
Prepare the sauce:

In a large pan, heat the olive oil together with the crushed garlic.  Empty the tuna into the pan along with capers.  Cook a minute while you break up the tuna with a fork.  Add the parsley and tomatoes.  Cook for a few minutes on medium-high heat.  Tear the basil leaves and add it at the end, and taste to see if you need to add a little salt.

Prepare the pasta:

Boil the spaghetti in a large pot of water.  Use at least 4 liters of water, add salt, and cook until the pasta is "al dente".  Drain the spaghetti, keeping some of the water.  Add the drained spaghetti to the pan and toss it with the sauce over a medium-high flame for a minute, adding a little of the cooking water if necessary.

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