Wander into ‘Bari Vecchia’, the old part of Puglia’s capital, and you are likely to stumble across the dozen or so orecchiette ladies who famously line the streets around Arco Alto and Arco Basso. For generations, these formidable women have turned flour and water into the region’s typical ‘little ear-shaped’ pasta, and though it seems incredibly romantic, the reality is that there is so little work in Bari that this is as much about survival as it is about spending time with family. They are there from 8 am until as late as 10 pm - little girls learning to make orecchiette almost as soon as they can walk, and making it still well into their eighties. Between them, Marta and her mamma make around 15 kilos of orecchiette a day, selling it for 5 euro / kilo. And not only to tourists; their orecchiette is mostly bought by restaurants, supermarkets, and the local women who would prefer to do other things than make pasta. Sometimes there is maccheroncini too - mixed together with the orecchiette they make up little bags of ‘maritati’ (married)*. There are larger orecchiette giganti and orecchiette made with grano arso (burnt wheat); and each orecchietta is particular to its maker.
I spent hours in these winding streets this past June, chatting in my broken Italian with these women I literally didn’t want to leave. Their arms are strong, and they are as gregarious as their hands are deft. In jest, they argued loudly about whom makes the best orecchiette and whose photo I should be taking, but when I asked them what to serve the orecchiette with, the answer was conclusive: ‘involtini di cavallo!’ (horse meat rolls)**, they sang in unison. Surprisingly, the recipes they gave me were also similar: thin slices of horse meat are rolled around a filling of Pecorino and herbs before being simmered for several hours with onion, white wine and tomatoes. True ‘cucina povera’, the rolls are removed from the sauce to be served as ‘secondo’ (main course); and the orecchiette and sauce are served as the ‘primi’ (entree). When I arrived back home, my Pugliese friend, Sabrina explained that this is a special dish reserved for Sundays, as she reminisced about a time when her nonna would make a single giant orecchietta for one lucky family member to find on his or her plate. And we decided to make orecchiette together (with yearling beef when horse meat proved difficult to find).
There’s an art to using the blade of a fairly dull knife to drag little pieces of dough across a wooden table or board to form these little ears - smaller in Bari than in most other parts of Puglia. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the wooden boards in the video below have slight indentations where hundreds of orecchiette have been shaped - to be eaten by most Barese almost every day of the week.
* I first ate ‘maritati’ at the magnificent, centuries-old Masseria Potenti, nestled in the countryside near Manduria. Our gracious host Maria Grazia served them with tender polpette (meatballs), and when she came around to see us after dinner, we chatted about the shapes that made up the marriage: male (maccheroncino) and female (orecchietta).
** Interestingly, of the 60 or so recipes for orecchiette housed in my bookshelves; over a third are for orecchiette with broccoli, broccoli rabe, or cime di rapa - there is just one where orecchiette is served with involtini.
Orecchiette con Sugo di Braciole (little ear-shaped pasta with beef involtini)
For the involtini -
12 thin slices yearling (beef) topside (approximately 70 – 80 g each)
12 thin slices flat pancetta (optional)
12 tender, young celery leaves
1 bunch flat leaf parsley
1 garlic clove, sliced paper thin
6 tablespoons grated Pecorino, plus extra to serve
2 tablespoons (40 ml) extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce -
1 white onion, diced
1 glass (150 ml) white wine
400 g passata
For the pasta -
400 g semolina (semola rimacinata)
Arrange the beef slices on a large tray and season both sides with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Lay a thin slice of pancetta over of each slice of beef. Make a little mound close to the widest edge of each slice of meat with one celery leaf, a couple of parsley leaves, a slice of garlic and ½ tablespoon of Pecorino. Starting at the end with the stuffing, roll the beef towards the other end, tucking in the sides as you go. Secure each end with a toothpick or tie with kitchen string, ensuring the filling is completely encased in the meat.
Warm the olive oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and any remaining slices of garlic, season lightly with sea salt and pepper, and stir to coat in the oil. After about a minute or so add the beef rolls and increase the heat a little. Brown the beef on all sides and as soon as it begins to stick a little, add the wine. Increase the heat and cook until the wine has almost evaporated, then add passata and a cup of so of water. Bring to the boil, then cover and cook very gently over low heat for about 1.5 - 2 hours, turning the rolls occasionally. It is ready when the meat is very tender and the sauce thick.
Meanwhile make the orecchiette.
Add a pinch of salt to the semolina and add only enough tepid water to form a stiff dough (about 170 - 180 ml). Kneed for about 8 – 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pushed with the tip of your finger. Cover with plastic or a damp cloth and allow to rest for about 30 minutes. Cut off a walnut sized piece of the dough and roll it to a rope (about 1 cm in diameter). Using a dull knife, cut and drag 1 cm pieces of the dough along a wooden board towards you in one movement. The dough should form a ‘little ear shape’ - with thin edges (the sign of an experienced maker); smooth on the inner side, with a dimple and rough outer surface perfect for catching the sauce.
Bring a large pot of salted water (10 g salt : 1 litre water : 100 g pasta) to the boil. Add the orecchiette and cook for 2 - 3 minutes, or until ‘al dente’.
Meanwhile remove the involtini from the pan to a serving dish, top with a little sauce, and keep warm in a low oven. Drain the pasta directly into the pan with the remaining sauce and serve immediately with the extra Pecorino.
Serve the involtini with some simply cooked greens and crusty bread.
Allowed to dry completely and then stored in a zip-lock bag, the orecchiette will keep in the fridge for up to a week, but will require a few extra minutes to cook.
The amount of time the orecchiette will take to cook will depend on their thickness - taste them after 2 minutes, and at 30 second intervals thereafter.