How do you showcase regional food when you're not in the region? Don't smuggle the salami in, that's for sure.
That's the advice I got from Mino Maggi, a chef from Locorotondo, Italy, who came to Washington, D.C., last week to demonstrate the food of Puglia at the summer Fancy Food Show. There he was, in the windowless bowels of the Convention Center, trying to invoke the allure of food from a land of olive trees and Adriatic breezes.
"When people go abroad they expect a taste of the culture," Maggi tells The Salt. "That is what I expect. That is what I do when I am abroad."
Clearly the atmosphere could never be the same. But could the taste be authentic? That can be a challenge. Consider the salami.
Maggi had hoped to feature a special cappacola made in Martina Franca, a Baroque town perched in the Puglian hills. But as someone who had traveled often to the United States, he knew that would be tempting fate. Cured meats are banned, and he could easily imagine if one of those keen-nosed dogs at U.S. Customs crossed his path. "I couldn't risk to bring the cappacola di Martina Franca," he says. "The little dog, he comes following me at Customs. If I bring it in, they won't let me come any more."
So, no special cappacola. That Maggi could accept. But he was crushed to discover that in June in Washington, fresh fava beans are as rare as bipartisan cooperation. Having been in Puglia in the spring, when the fava beans are so tender and tasty that the locals eat them raw for snacks, I shared his pain. Especially since I wouldn't be tasting his cavatelli with fava bean cream.
All was not grim, however. Maggi had followed his usual food-show strategy of arriving a day early to scope out the convention hall and hunt ingredients. Luckily for him, that was the day of the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market. "I had a fabulous basil!" He said. "I got some cherries, also, and courgette (zucchini). Look, I found some beautiful rosemary!" he says, brandishing a bunch the size of a small bush. "It's like I grow at home!"
Maggi is a man who presses his own olive oil, so I consider the fact that D.C. produce got a passing grade to be a triumph.
He brought his own grano pestato, a form of wheat grown in Southern Italy. That got soaked for two hours the day before, then boiled before it was transformed into a risotto-like dish with the zucchini, asparagus, and other fresh vegetables from D.C.
Maggi is not alone in scrambling for familiar ingredients in a strange land. Embassy chefs all over the world face this challenge, and even mere regular folks. Our colleague Whitney Wyckoff told us how she found American Thanksgiving dinner ingredients in Japan and how other travelers faired during holidays abroad.
In the end, Maggi's audience happily slurped up the focaccia barese, fileto di spigola in crosta di pane con salsa di olive Bella di Cerignola, and other treats Maggi and his son Robi spent three days cooking in the Convention Center basement. It wasn't quite the food of Puglia without those fava beans, but for Maggi, it still tasted of home.