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‘’Il Paese in Festa’’: The Story of Puglian Feasts & A Traditional Focaccia Recipe

“When I was a child I could not wait for the “Day of the Festa”. I would buy my packet of olives and dried fruit, munching as I walked around the illuminated streets.”

La Festa D’Aprile is one of the most heartfelt patronal festivals celebrated by the people of Castellana Grotte. It is organized by the Puglians on the last weekend of April to honor the patroness of the city, Madonna della Vetrana, whose name is etymologically derived from “veteran” and “ancient”. (This year, it will take place on the penultimate weekend of April: the 23rd and 24th, 2022.) In 1690, the Madonna saved the city from a plague that had broken out in the southeast of Bari. The disease arrived in the nearby city of Monopoli, the most important port in the area at that time, through infected fabrics and other merchandise. Medicine was not as advanced as it is today and the poor hygienic conditions of the port city helped the contagion spread. In those days, the people trusted more in God’s help than in science. Legend has it that our Madonna appeared to the local priests in a dream, asking them to anoint the diseased with the oil that was burning under her image. The plague victims were miraculously cured. Once the plague had been eradicated, it was therefore natural to attribute all credit to the Madonna della Vetrana.

Light has always been a symbol of the Festa; as in most of the patronal feasts of Puglia, light is emphasized through the use of illuminations. Originally, the luminaire were torches covered with colored canvases; later, they became wooden structures from which lamp oil-filled glass hung. In the 20th century, these contraptions were replaced with light bulbs. Today, the illuminations are valued as works of art and are appreciated worldwide. (Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior stylist and Puglia native, presented her 2021 collection under Apulian luminarie.) And as in every self-respecting religious feast, there are processions, a fundamental scenic element. The most original one is certainly Sunday’s: the so-called Gala procession, when the image of Madonna della Vetrana is accompanied by more than twenty statues of Saints, followed by a stream of believers.

The feast ceremoniously concludes with a fireworks display and a concert. Ever since I was a child, I’ve looked forward to the most magical moment: the last and traditional song of the evening. Every year, the crowd suddenly falls silent to listen to Ravel’s “Bolero”. Although this moment is repeated annually, the citizens always feel new and profound emotions.

And, of course, there is the food. On Monday morning, the image of the Madonna is returned to the Sanctuary dedicated to her. Immediately afterwards, people gather at the table with their families. Any excuse is a good one for Italians to sit at the table and eat with friends and family!

My father, the chef at our restaurant Osteria del Caroseno, told me that the Festa d’Aprile always follows the Easter festivities, so in times of “lean cows”, people had to limit the richness of these festive lunches, especially when the two occasions happened only a few days apart. During today’s patronal feasts, however, there are always plenty of dried and toasted fruit stalls. When I was a child, I could not wait for the “Day of the Festa”, when I would buy my packet of olives and dried fruit, munching as I walked around the illuminated streets.

Another tradition that the people of Castellana Grotte never miss is focaccia stuffed with mortadella and provolone cheese. We eat it on Sunday evening of the Festa, while watching the fireworks. On my family’s table, the focaccia di patate barese is made from my grandmother’s recipe.

My nonna prepares the focaccia dough in the afternoon and leaves it to rise for a whole night, pampering it from time to time during the evening to activate the leavening. Before going to sleep, she places the focaccia in pans with plenty of olive oil. The next morning, she wakes up at 5 a.m. to put it in the oven. The scent spreads throughout the house and the streets of the neighborhood—irresistible.

RECIPE FOR FOCACCIA DI PATATE BARESE

 

  • 250 gr flour 00
  • 500 gr semolina flour 
  • 300 gr potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 pinch of sugar
  • 20 gr beer yeast
  • 60 gr evo oil 
  • 100 gr milk
  • 700 / 750 ml water 
  • cherry tomatoes
  • oregano
  • olives

 

Method of preparation:

 

  1. Boil the potatoes (in pieces) in plenty of water. Once they become tender, drain and mash them. Be sure to conserve the cooking water: let it cool to lukewarm temperature. 
  2. Dissolve the fresh brewer’s yeast in the warm water and add a pinch of sugar.
  3. Add the mashed potatoes, 00 flour and semolina flour, salt, extra virgin olive oil, brewer’s yeast dissolved in water, and milk.
  4. Knead everything well, adding warm water little by little until the dough is elastic and soft. If the water used to cook the potatoes is not enough, add more.
  5. Let the dough rise for 2-3 hours, then work the dough a bit to reactivate the yeast. 
  6. After regenerating, allow another 2 hours.
  7. Roll out the dough in baking sheets with olive oil on the bottom and let it rest for about 6 hours.
  8. After the last 6 hours of leavening, use your fingers to form many small holes on the surface of the focaccia and top with cherry tomatoes, oregano, olives and more olive oil and bake at 200℃.
  9. After the first 10 minutes, change the oven temperature to 180℃ and bake for another 20-30 minutes until the focaccia is golden brown.
  10. The focaccia is ready–enjoy!

 

Now that you also have the recipe, you are finally ready to experience the emotion of the “Festa D’Aprile”, which this year takes place on the penultimate weekend of April (23-24 Apr 2022).