Arriving in Maglie was to walk into a lurid dream state.
The August sunlight, reflecting on the limestones and alabaster, glazed a mist-like filter over my eyes; in this hallucinogenic translucence, Giorgio and I happened upon a cafe and brought our deckchairs under an umbrella – even in its shade, the heat was overpowering, senses-dulling.
What we ordered – Aperol Spritz and rustico, a puff pastry parcel filled with tomato paste, bechamél and mozzarella – were the last things I had during my previous visit to the Salento region of Italy; it felt less a meal at present than it was a flashback.
We talked about riposo, the Southern Italy’s equivalent to the Spanish siesta, the bracket of summer afternoons where it’s too hot to venture outdoors – whoever I glimpsed strolling by appeared like spectres in the scorching haze, or as though they jaunted outside still in their sleep and oblivious of the heat.
And there, arrayed on the façade beside Aldo Moro Square, the unlit neons were only vague outlines of a circular emblem, and the logo of Mercatino del Gusto. That being the annual food festival I was about to attend, the cable-marked calligraphy was my first hint of this culinary congregation – before the town had snapped out of its dream.
Soon enough, though. Because the night was falling, the air cooling – and it’s almost time to wake up.
I reemerged from my cocoon, a quaintly book-themed guesthouse, just in time to watch Maglie light up.
Pacing around as I waited for Giorgio back at the Square, I would stop to wonder how I hadn’t noticed the signs hovering overhead, every time one’s bulbs flickered into illumination. It was like seeing for the first time in the morning: only when my eyesight awakens and sharpens does the clarity return. Except, in this instance, day was night – and sharpness lied with glimmers contrasting with deepening blue.
And now that I could see clearly what the arrows pointed towards, the letters alone were premeditating my lust.
I mean, I know you’re waiting for Giorgio…but look at me: “Piazza del Gelato”. As in, you guessed it, an actual square dedicated to gelato!
Two scoops or one?
Good that I was a little early, because that afforded me time to do some independent exploration – while the denizens and visitors of Maglie were only still stirring.
Question was, where to begin? I weaned off the lure of sweet, frosty things – saving that for later – and sauntered towards Roma Street. Only hours ago, Giorgio and I drove past this corridor and resting vehicles; at this hour, barely after the sun had diminished, only market stalls and transport vans parked along the pavement.
Pedestrians, far from just starting to surface as I’d wrongly thought, were already flocking the street: huddling in front of vendors, poking their heads over shoulders of those huddling, wading in the entropy of crowd flow. There was finger-pointing, money-handling, plates riddled with nuggets of all sizes and colours passing over counters.
And what a transformation: that sweltering, lulled town with a rarefied population had now morphed into a breeze-kissed open-air market animating the whole of Maglie. Or as far as my eyes could see.
Then, once I eased into the congregation and fretted less about stepping on someone’s toes, I took notice of the merchandise.
Rods of cured meats; cheeses in carved barrels, in bulbs; jars brimming in different hues and forms: puréed, brined, conserved. My eyeballs toothpicked the apéritif while the tongue wetted.
At least there were samples; the more bite-sizes I pinched, the more I wanted to prolong the enjoyment – only to then curse at the baggage allowance on my return flight. Bigger bag next time, perhaps.
So I extracted my yielding senses away from the temptations of Roma Street; wandering through several similar alleyways, feeling the palates swell only to then suppress the arousal, I was getting close to graduating from the school of gastro-cognitive resistance.
Then, blitzing past Via dei Dulce with steadfast “dessert last” dogma, I simply had to follow curiosity’s lead and investigate this people trail filling under an archway, and into the courtyard of a palace.
I clambered up the lithic staircase in Palazzo de Marco and found vantage point on its balcony; quiet, peopleless Maglie was now but a distant memory, figment even. It was now packed in every sense: the bodies pressed into the communal space; the sights, sounds and smells – all the sensory bombardment of the street food quarter.
If, standing over the very heart of Mercatino del Gusto, I wouldn’t rip up my inhibitions and let my palates have their pleasures, then I may as well as not have come to a food festival at all.
Even though they were my nostrils that took the bait first, when I forayed below.
Each stand flaunted their own visual appeals, from vibrant signs and ingredients to spirited cooking processes, pasta freshly rolled and cut, pans on open stoves flung and swirled, trays whizzing in and out of ovens; but none conveyed as far from their white cubic tents and across the square as the billows carrying the smoke, and its aromas: meat, herbs and cheeses, over fire.
Hypnotised, I followed it to its source: beside the comic-sans letters spelling “Bombette” in bold, and the lengthy queue in front of it, rows of skewered bombette – little bombs in Italian – browning and caramelising within the flaming kilns. I got up close, behind the safety barrier; near enough to hear the juices and fats wheezing and vaporising, to feel the temperature rising on my skin.
Only my taste was missing out.
I got in line, which moved fairly swiftly; distracted by the grill masters performing what looked like a fire dance with meat-stuck swords, I soon received my share in a paper cone. I spared it a moment to cool, then offered one straight to the palate: molten cheese ricocheted inside my mouth, so did little shrapnels of parsley, while my molars rebounded under the elasticity of pork, until it dissolved and left behind only a lingering of sweet savouriness.
And then I got to detonate another, and another, until I pincered the last little bomb and cherished the final bite.
Next prey. Though there’s so much to choose from, in such concentration of the region’s finest ingredients and the skills put to preparing them.
Circuiting the courtyard I spied foccacia breads, their fragrances outreaching before I caught their golden crusts; croquettes, stuffed meats and sausages on grills, manners of vegetables simply packed into toasted panini; perhaps another rustico, just so I could reminisce a reminiscence.
In one booth, I found another familiar dish I ate on my first trip to Italy’s heel – or the makings of it. Watching and photographing the burly pasta chef work, I couldn’t help but conjure the image of a bearded giant tossing a proportionately-sized skillet, sending the severed ears of Christmas elves tumbling and soaring within it.
Though I was probably still drunk from the bombette fumes.
Orecchiette con cima di rapa, he reminded me of the name of the dish as he handed me a portion.
Inside the cavity ran the pungent oil flavoured with garlic and anchovies; it smothered the “little ear” pasta, the starchy chewiness succumbing under bite alongside the jagged crunch of breadcrumbs. Cutting through it all, the incontrovertible bittersweet of cima di rapa – turnip green tops – the Apulian delicacy that, despite its commonly displeasing harshness, I actually love since the first time I tasted it.
Together, it was the perfect summary of of Puglia’s identity: earthbound, resourceful, underappreciated – as much its cuisine’s penchant for bitter flavours as the region itself. It also felt like the chef had unmasked before me, peeling off the mud skin and iron hide to reveal a gentle heart and finesse.
For the first time, in Maglie and Mercatino del Gusto, I truly tasted being back in Puglia. And how glad was I to be standing on this patch of Italy again.
The choices may have downsized from whole street food stalls to bottles, but making a decision didn’t get any easier – especially with the precious five coupons Giorgio and I were brandished.
Nesting in a chamber inside Palazzo de Marco – dubbed “Wine Passion” – were the spawns of Puglia’s finest wine productions. Luckily for us, they were fostered by the most well-versed sommeliers around, who didn’t rush their explanations before pouring the wine.
It was by now the second and final evening of our visit in Mercatino del Gusto, which also concluded that night. Together we’d prowled throughout the maze ogling and savouring, before we were so intoxicated from the cookery that we fancied a retreat, and onto some actual intoxication.
As we claimed the complimentary platter of cured meats and cheeses, Giorgio proposed that we selected different wines so we could try each others. Crafty. It is one thing the privilege of company gets, aside from not drinking five glasses alone and having to laugh at your own jokes between sips.
And with the alcohol spiking my head, along with the view over the festivaling streets below, I recounted my two-day journey.
My palates could yearn to have tasted every bit – on the streets, the street food pavilions, and certainly that enchantress of a gelato piazzo; mine was only a glimpse of Mercatino del Gusto’s offerings, just as the “voyage” around the produces of Puglia was merely a fleeting impression of the entire region, and its gastronomic identity. No, I’d have to dedicate a lifetime.
But in the end, it wasn’t just my taste buds that relished the experience of a food festival: sight, smelling, hearing, touch, all woke to the sensory cacophony that erupted within this small town. Adding to those, to be amidst the medieval architectures, the earth sprouting the harvests and livestocks that in turn nourished the people who lived off it, who concocted the incredible cuisine: it aroused my sixth sense, my sense of place – terroir, to borrow a term from what I was drinking.
Not that places or events only stimulate my passion for food when the food “is good”; rather, they remind me that the culinary – the palatal – isn’t solely the dominion of one sense, but all five – six, if you can relate to my romantic notion. To be enveloped in the visual appeals, serenaded by its clinks and clatters, spellbound in aromas, brushed by textures and temperatures, synched with the terroir and then finally blessed by its flavours: the combination of them all isn’t just what an extraordinary food festival gives – it’s the way how it’s best savoured.
As for Mercatino del Gusto, it’d quite simply served me a palatal awakening.