Orecchiette Pasta: History, Fun Facts & Recipe for an Apulian Classic
Orecchiette pasta with turnip top greens – in Italian, “Orecchiette con cime di rapa” (oh-reck-ee-ET-tay cawn chEE-may dee RAH-pah) –, is one of Apulia’s iconic dishes, the go-to recipe for savoring the region’s pure, natural ingredients and a tradition so ancient that its genesis is part history, part legend.
The Sublime Simplicity of its Recipe; the Complexity of its Roots
The uniqueness of orecchiette pasta is both in composition and shape: first of all, there is no egg in the pasta itself, whose sole ingredients are durum wheat flour (one of Puglia’s premier products), water and salt (this also means that orecchiette are vegan-friendly!); secondly, their disc-like shape is rough in surface, thicker round the edges and thinner in the middle, where Apulian mothers and grandmothers would traditionally make an indent with their thumbs. This central cavity forms something like a tiny bowl where the typically ‘Pugliese’ variety of turnip-tops nestles snug as a bug, releasing all its distinctive aromas and flavors.
The indigenous quality of the recipe’s ingredients clearly points to an autochthonous origin. Dating the latter, however, is all but impossible, and there are several contradictory theories that go further and further back in time – one traces orecchiette’s forebears back to ancient Roman times and the lixulae found in Marcus Terentius Varro’s De Lingua Latina (1st century BCE). Another posits their origin around the year 1000 AD, some time between the Norman and Swabian domination, in Sannicandro di Bari, and even suggests their shape may have been inspired by the oznei Haman or hamantaschen eaten by Jews during Purim. Interestingly enough, “oznei Haman” means “Haman’s ears” in Hebrew, and “orecchiette” means “little ears” in Italian…
Unraveling the complex tangle of myth, history and legend is a task we cannot hope to achieve. We can, however, state one thing for sure: the first official document to mention “orecchiette” concerns the inheritance of a master pasta maker, and is dated 1596. The deed has been preserved in the Church of St. Nicholas, in Bari. We are happy to note that the master pasta maker’s heir was actually an heiress – his daughter. It is easy to picture the recipe being handed down from mother to daughter through the intervening centuries, right up to the present day, when we can savor the ancient dish and enjoy it just as much as the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest, Demetra, is supposed to have done.
The Apulian Appeal of Orecchiette… Anywhere in the World
Puglia (or Apulia, the Latin name usually employed in our language), the heel to Italy’s boot, is a fascinating region to visit. Its Salento area, for instance, has become one of the trendiest summer resorts for domestic tourists who like to make the most of Puglia’s amazing coasts (nearly 500 miles of coastline) and pristine seas (two of them, the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea). Should you also like to dive into the emerald waters of the region, do pack your bathing suits and book a flight. If, however, you’d rather dive into the briny deep of its myriad culinary treasures, all you need to do is pick our Apulian Dinner Experience Box.
Inside, you will find Azienda Agricola San Matteo’s toasted-flour orecchiette “Torre Brancia”, darker-colored orecchiette pasta made from the toasted wheat flour (“grano arso”) typical of Gargano. Artisanal grano arso pasta has a rough, porous texture that absorbs and enhances the pasta sauce, and distinctive depth and richness of flavor characterized by nutty, smoky aromas. These unique orecchiette are a match made in heaven with the turnip-green pesto we have selected for you, “I Contadini”, made from local turnip greens cleansed and rinsed by hand, seared, then finely ground and blended with extra virgin olive oil, chili pepper, garlic and salt.
The finishing touches to your ideal Apulian dinner are an antipasto and a sturdy, food-friendly red from boutique grower Valentina Passalacqua, Nero di Troia Puglia IGP. 100% Nero di Troia varietal from hand-picked native grapes found in the heart of Gargano National Park, it is brilliant ruby with violet reflections and shows an intense bouquet of ripe plums and spice confirmed on a fruity, round, full-bodied palate.
The cherry on the cake? Our Ventuno VR Tour Viewer, which will enable you to explore the sunny, Mediterranean magic of Apulia, wherever you are.