Cooking Like a Local: Pugliese Style! – ‘A La Brace’

Written by guest blogger Maria Demkowicz

Having cooked a traditional roast chicken, Yorkshires and trifle Sunday lunch for Italian friends I was invited for a return match the following week. With some trepidation (my Italian isn’t great and my Italian speaking partner was away) I made a lemon meringue pie and turned up at their apartment at the appointed time.

The table was set in the living/dining room and there was a cheerful log fire burning in the open grate next to us. Homemade wine was on the table with olives and nibbles to start. Pasta with a lovely homemade veal ‘sugo’ (sauce) was the first course. While my friend cleared the plates and put a lightly dressed salad on the table as a palate cleanser, her mum raked over the fire and produced a rack of thinly sliced pork which was laid on a trivet immediately over the embers. Within minutes the pork slices were cooked to perfection and ready to eat with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon and seasoning. Pork has never tasted so good, the meat was melt-in-the-mouth tender and the flavour of woodsmoke was the perfect complement.

Known as ‘a la brace’, (on the embers) this is the main method of cooking meat here. Dating back into the mists of time when no other method of cooking was available, the simple open hearth with brick or cast-iron base with chimney over, can be found in almost all houses and apartments and is used for both heating and cooking: Walk down any street at any time of the year and you could find a lorryload of wood dumped on the pavement being laboriously raised by rope and bucket to a second or even third-floor balcony. Sliced meat, sausages, fish and shellfish are cooked by this ancient method. Two Christmases ago we had succulent giant prawns cooked in their shells on skewers, a la brace, in the corner of friends’ tiny kitchen. In the searing heat of the summer, when a wood fire in the corner of the living room is the last thing you want, many homes have an outside kitchen, either on the roof or in the garden, which will be centred around the braceria and all meat will be cooked on that from June to September. No need for marinating, sauces or gravy, no pans, grill or cooker to clean, just sweep the hearth and throw a couple more sticks on the fire if you need to keep warm or let it go out if not. What could be easier?

So much a part of the local cuisine is this method of cooking, that it isn’t only used in the home; most butchers have a braceria offering cooked-to-order meat, sold in tinfoil trays. They also do a roaring trade on summer evenings and festa nights, and many restaurants specialise in main courses cooked ‘a la brace’. There’s nothing like the primitive smell of wood burning, wafting across the piazza, to tickle the taste buds. No place for vegetarians here!! However my host did show me a couple of cooking pots which would not have been out of place in any folk museum, both glazed earthenware; ‘Piñata’, a double handled jug used for soups and heating liquids (larger ‘Piñata’ are also used to slow cook stews in an underground fire pit), and an open casserole dish used for many beans dishes.

After second helpings of our delicious pork, my host laid a tray of chestnuts on the embers and we all spent a happy half hour bashing and peeling, before dessert was served. The hearth was cleaned and coffee and digestivi (after dinner liquors) served while we all sat around basking in the glow of crackling logs. Heaven…..

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Fish cooked a la brace (on the open hearth)As an add-on to Maria’s ‘a la  brace’ blog, I recently went to a new restaurant in San Vito Dei Normanni, Dimora Sant’Antonio, where most of the seafood was cooked ‘a la brace’ this rendered the fish, super moist and was received by the locals with enthisiastic groans of delight!!!

Buon appetito!!!

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