I've just returned home from the second leg of my trip to Italy: five days in Puglia at a conference on nutrition and olive oil presented by Oldways. My thanks to Melissa McCart and Jane Lopes for guest-editing the Appetizers and the Agenda in my absence.
I'm slowly poring over the hundreds of photographs I took on the trip -- from olive groves on the cusp of the harvest to open markets brimming with puntarella, persimmons, artichokes, and octopus. Until I edit these photos down to a reasonable number, I bring you two images from Puglia that are forever seared in my memory.
Above is a detail from a poster for Moira Orfei, "Queen of the Italian Circus," whose visage shadowed us throughout our trip. Those posters -- announcing her "RITORNA IN PUGLIA DOPO 10 ANNI" -- were everywhere. Plastered to nearly every highway underpass, Moira's surreal eyes (and those eyebrows!) constantly followed us like Big Brother with a beehive hairdo. A brief search online finds that she is a lifetime circus performer born to a clown, actress in myriad 1960s monster movies, and even the inspiration for a novel.
Below is a plate of steamed mussoli served at one of the only restaurants open in the town of Bisceglie after 9:00 p.m. on a Monday night. We thought they were mussels at first, but they turned out to be something else entirely -- a mussel's crusty cousin.
Inside the shell, the mussoli tasted like mussels, only with a much more intense, briny flavor of the sea. Unlike mussels, they don't open when cooked. So, to get at the meat, you pinch and pluck out a little plug found along the seam where the two sides of shell meet and then stick a knife in to pry them apart. Searching for information about the shellfish online has yielded precious few details about these mysterious creatures.
The utter weirdness of the eating experience was only made more so by the Dirty Dancing soundtrack playing on a cassette tape while we dined.