Perched on a hillside, surrounded by a patchwork of tilled soil, olive groves, vineyards and the Daunia forest, Orsara di Puglia is in the middle of nowhere. The only other sign of life is Troia, 14 kilometers away—a booming metropolis of 7,600 people compared to the 3,400 living in Orsara. Located in northwestern Puglia, the region called the ‘heel’ of Italy, Orsara is seemingly untouched by the outside world, suspended in time.
Roosters and church bells sound at sunrise, people shout and horns toot throughout the day, and wild dogs howl at night. Widows still wear black here and only men gather in the town center at dusk, heads covered in traditional caps, catching up on news. These people seem to have known each other since conception—living their whole lives here, as have their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, back to the ancient Osci and Irpini who originally inhabited the area. Traditions seem to live on in this tranquil setting, yet the threat of extinction is imminent, if you are paying attention or if you are Peppe Zullo.
Peppe Zullo’s 80-seat restaurant, banquet room for 150 and five suites appear to be a mirage amid the grazing sheep and horses. Currently renovating a nearby villa from the 1700s, he plans to offer an educational culinary program to develop the five senses. His cooking philosophy is based on the use of only fresh, authentic, seasonal products, which he reverently calls “the gifts from nature”. On 20 hectares of his own land, he cultivates grapes, olives and a range of vegetables and herbs. The surrounding woods are host to foraging cinghiale, or wild boar, as well as laurel and chestnut trees, wild edibles and assorted fruit trees. Among these are grafted cultivars of 10–15 rare apple varieties found in Daunia. These will not be displayed in markets or food stores next to Golden Delicious or Melinda apples. The new generation of Orsaresi laugh at the names of Peppe’s apples, unheard of by many: limoncelle, gelato, cucuzzare, San Pietro, lazzarone, chianelle. Familiar, however, to the old men and women of Orsara, some of these apples are mentioned in Southern Italian cookbooks dating back to the 1700s. Yet today, they are scarce and rapidly disappearing.
Most of Italy’s apples are now mass-produced, year-round, in the northern regions. The only seasonal apple receiving attention, is an old cultivar from Campania and Lazio, the annurca. Given IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) status, the apple has been recognized as unique, warranting regulation and preservation.
In Orsarese dialect, apples are called e mele (pronounced eh-mehleh), an ironic twist on “e-mail”—the old dialect word is a cautious reminder for the encroachment of technology into our food sources. Genetic modification, factory farms and mass-production are crowding out lesser known, heirloom food varieties including e mele. Fortunately, in Orsara, old men in their caps, widows in black and Peppe Zullo remember how families coveted these now obscure apples. In the fall, apples were gathered from local trees and stored in the attic for winter. Sometimes covered with paglia, or straw, the apples were checked daily for softness. Depending on the variety, they were then cooked or eaten as is, providing sustenance through the frigid winter.
Scribbled in a tattered pocket notebook, Peppe keeps a list of these disappearing apples, almost as a testimonial to their existence. The names come alive as Peppe enthusiastically describes them. Mele limoncelle were typically baked in a wood oven with sugar and water. In his restaurant, Peppe uses locally-made honey and limoncello liquor. Elongated like lemons, the apples are yellow-green. As they soften and ripen, the skin wrinkles to resemble that of a lemon, and develops a distinctive lemon aroma. Used for apple pie, Mele cucuzzare are among the largest of the local apples. The name is derived from the dialect word for zucca, or pumpkin, which is cocuzza. Mele cotogne, fuzzy on the outside, similar to peaches, are used for marmalade.
Of the uncooked varieties, Mele San Pietro, are the first apples available in late spring, maturing by June 29th, the Feast of Saint Peter. Greenish-yellow and very sweet, the milelle, or little apples, were refreshing for farm workers harvesting grain at this time of year. Mele gelato are green, mid-sized with a flaky texture resembling ice chips. Well-behaved children were given these as rewards. Other uncooked varieties include: Mele rosa, generally eaten from the tree, characterized by a beautiful rose color; Mele Appia, medium-sized, yellow-green, possibly associated with Via Appia, the ancient road from Rome to Brindisi; and Mele chianelle, often multi-colored, known for being rich and succulent.
Finding any of these apples was difficult on a crisp October day in Orsara. Yet Peppe was determined and after scouring the hills, one of the townspeople showed us his few limoncelle, cucuzzare, cotogne and chianelle trees. We gathered the apples as if they were jewels, eating as many as we could and reveling in their unique tastes.
Peppe’s apple trees will hopefully provide another source for these treasures in the future. Like the Johnny Appleseed of American folklore, Peppe seeks to preserve these “gifts of nature”. His enthusiasm and resolve may spread his cherished apples beyond this area, but for now, this isolated town is the keeper of the goods. The old men and women of Orsara are looking a little smug.
Susan Ciriello attends the Slow Food Master Italian Cooking program, based in Jesi. Currently, she is completing her first stage at Peppe Zullo’s Ristorante in Orsara di Puglia