As followers of our blog will know by now, Basilicata and Matera has a rich culinary history and tradition. Our 'cucina povera' or 'poor kitchen' has seen a resurgence in modern gastronomy and many of our dishes and ingredients are famous throughout Italy.
An absolute classic dish from our cuisine is known as 'La pignata', pronounced 'La pinyata'. Basilicata and Matera are traditionally farming communities and it's therefore not surprising that a lot of our dishes are vegetable and pulse based. As was the case in many communities around the world in the past, meat was an expensive rarity only to be eaten at special occasions. Materans in the past would traditionally only eat meat two or three times a year (at times of festival) and often on those occasions, they would make 'la pignata'. Even today, Materans are not huge meat eaters with many families opting to eat meat once a week or so.
'La pignata' is traditionally cooked in a large earthenware pot that looks similar to an amphora, placed in a wood oven and cooked slowly over a long period. Inside the pot there is a mixture of broth, potatoes, onions, celery, tomatoes, some local cheese and the main ingredient, mutton. In the past, when a shepherd lost one of his sheep to accident, disease or child birth, the opportunity to make 'la pignata' would present itself. Sometimes, when a sheep failed to produce milk or couldn't breed anymore, again the opportunity to make this special stew was seized. For those animals that had died of disease, special measures were taken to make the meat safe to consume, such as steeping the meat in a mixture of cold water and vinegar for a period of time, amongst other practices.
Sometimes 'la pignata' is made with a bread dough covering the top of the pot and baking a seal over the stew. The idea is that the bread is then broken into the stew creating a hearty side dish. However, some chefs of this special dish such as Franco at our farm, are nervous to seal the pot with bread dough as they fear the various stories of this causing the stew to boil too harshly and result in an explosion from the top of the pot!
A few weekends ago, one of our sheep presented us with an opportunity to make 'la pignata' and so Franco decided to invite the family around and enjoy this Materan treat. It's always such a tasty spectacle to see this dish being cooked and then served to family and friends at our table. The meat truly is so juicy and succulent and it's a perfect dish to enjoy in this cold weather at this time of year.
There's a fantastic BBC Television programme (available on Youtube) that not only shows some of the history and art of Matera, but also shows 'la pignata' being cooked in a traditional way! Well worth a watch if you're keen to find out more...