Gallipoli (beautiful town) is a village of 20,969 inhabitants in the province of Lecce in Puglia, southern Italy, in the heel of the boot. It is located by the Ionian Sea and is divided in two parts, the modern and the old city. The new town includes all the newest buildings including a skyscraper. The old town is located on a limestone island, linked to the mainland by a bridge built in the 16th century. It’s a picturesque town surrounded by high walls, which were built to protect it against attacks coming from the sea. The Angevine-Aragonese Castle was built in the 13th century by the Byzantines. The main additions were carried on by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, who worked for King Alfonso II of Naples. In 1522, the eastern wall was added. Extending out into the sea, the impressive and majestic Castle remains a focal point of Gallipoli, as does the Cathedral in the town center. Started in the 12th century and not completed until the 16th, the Cathedral, with its decorative facade and Baroque interior, was built in honor of Saint Agata.
Once an important fishing center; it feels more like a working Italian town, rather than what it is – a resort region. The attractive port is still used by fishing boats and one will see fishermen mending their nets and houses decorated with fishing baskets. Restaurants serve fresh seafood and sea urchins are a specialty of Gallipoli. Gallipoli has a mild climate and can be visited year-round but the main season is May through October, when the weather is almost always hot and clear. There are celebrations and festivals for Easter Week, Carnival (40 days before Easter), Sant’ Agata in February and Santa Cristina in July.
With its labyrinth of narrow streets and churches, palazzi and structures, Gallipoli’s history and mix of different influences and cultures is apparent. Strolling through the old town, it’s impossible not to be facinated with the charming alleys and courtyards that greet one at every turn. There are many places of interest in the city, beginning with the Greek-Roman fountain (III Century BC) above photo, which one will see after crossing the bridge that divides the new city from the old.
There was a time when oil was as valuable as gold and the subterranean cisterns of Gallipoli were full of it. We are talking about lamp oil, needed to light the chandeliers in palaces and aristocratic mansions or transformed into soap for the great ladies of Paris. Apparently from the by-products of Gallipoli’s oil mills the famous “Marseilles kitchen soap” was made.
The oil from Gallipoli was the best in the Mediterranean and the most popular. From the 17th to the 19th century ships crowded the port of Gallipoli, loading precious liquid that reached the seaports of Northern Europe and Russia. That was because this oil, thanks to its purity, was the only one allowed to burn along with incense in front of the statues in the Moscow orthodox churches.
Even the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg was only lit with the lamp oil from Gallipoli, which made less smoke as compared to other oils and gave more sheen in the vast salons. The Czarina, Catherine, sent envoys to try and discover the secret. The secret, yes olive oil, had its origin in the ancient Gallipoli subterranean oil mills that did not depend just on the quality of the olives, but also, on the stone in the cisterns, in which the oil was often stored for long periods. The carparo (tuff) stone filtered the oil, giving it a special pureness. Many historians believe that the rough stone in these ancient subterranean oil mills blended the olive oil with the saltiness from the sea below to give it its uniqueness..
In the old town center there once were about thirty oil mills. It was not only the production of olive oil (which in the 19th century employed about 8,000 workers from October to May) that had developed, but also a number of satellite activities, such as the production and marketing of casks, whose wood was aged in salted water so as to make it more resistant and ideal for long voyages. A rich class of craftsmen and traders established themselves, which made possible investments in the restructuring and building of new churches. A donation of the “dockers” was the church of Santa Maria della Purità and the lamp oil trade gave the town of Gallipoli an international atmosphere. The ships that loaded oil brought to the town a variety of goods, which even came from America, England, France, Germany, Venice and Trieste, trays from Sheffield, Limoges porcelain, glasses from Murano, cheese from Bavaria and foreign wines.
All European languages were spoken on the quays of Gallipoli and merchants and consul authorities abounded, with the British playing a leading role. The trade of lamp oil was controlled from London and a number of families related to the industry moved to the area to oversee the oil trade. This can explain why in the region, even today, one can find the descendants of numerous families with English surnames and that the relations between the United Kingdom and this far corner of the boot have been close throughout the centuries.
The Cuisine of Gallipoli
Friselle Bread and Tomato Salad
Friselle are ring-shaped rolls, similar to bagels. They’re partially baked, removed from the oven and divided into two halves, which are returned to the oven and allowed to bake until done, then dried completely.
- 4 whole wheat friselle
- 4 large tomatoes
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1 clove
- 4 basil sprigs
- A pinch of dried oregano
- A pinch salt
- 1 tablespoon wine vinegar
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Soak the Friselle for a couple of minutes in a bowl of cold water before using. Drain and break them into chunks. Place in a serving bowl. Add the chopped tomatoes, crushed garlic, basil and oregano and mix well. Season with a generous pinch of salt and dress with the vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately or keep chilled until ready to eat.
Mussels au Gratin
Cozze al gratin is a classic dish from this region. It’s easy to make, especially if you buy pre-cleaned mussels.
- 5 pounds live mussels, washed and purged
- 6 tablespoons bread crumbs
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/3 cup olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup freshly minced parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Carefully wash the mussels, passing them multiple times under running water to remove any dirt and impurities. Place a saute pan over medium heat with 1 tablespoon of oil. When hot, add 1 clove of peeled garlic.
When the garlic becomes golden, add the mussels and 1/4 cup of water. Cover and cook until the mussels open, then remove the pan from the heat and let cool. When cool, remove the half-shells without mussels and discard.
Mix the breadcrumbs with 2 ½ tablespoons of the oil, the minced parsley, 1 minced garlic clove and the crushed red pepper. Season the mixture with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Spread the mixture over the mussels, put them in a low-sided oven-proof dish, drizzle the remaining oil over them and bake them until the bread crumbs brown, about 10 minutes.
Ciceri e tria (Tagliatelle with Chickpeas)
Serves 6-8 people
- 2 ½ cups dried chickpeas
- 1 pound fresh egg tagliatelle
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1 celery rib, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 ripe tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Soak the chickpeas in water the night before (for about 12 hours) adding a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. In a large pan, heat the olive oil. Saute the onion, celery and garlic and then add the tomatoes, the chickpeas and the bay leaves. Cover the mixture with ample water, season with salt and pepper and simmer until the chick peas soften.
Add the fresh pasta simmer until the pasta is cooked. Remove the bay leaves. Serve in pasta bowls.
- 4 swordfish fillets
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 1 tablespoon parsley, minced
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
- 1 tablespoon oregano, minced
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup dry breadcrumbs
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 orange, sliced
Combine the herbs with the breadcrumbs and mix well.
Rub some olive oil on both sides of the swordfish, then dredge in the breadcrumbs to coat them well.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and cook the fish, about ten minutes per side. Serve with the orange slices on the side.
Sesame Seed and Olive Oil Biscuits
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- Sesame seeds
- Pinch of salt
Beat the egg with the sugar, honey, vanilla and olive oil. In another bowl combine all dry ingredients: flour, salt and baking powder.
Use a rubber spatula to stir the liquid mix into the dry one, then use your hand to mix until you have a smooth ball of dough.
Roll it out roughly between two pieces of parchment paper and place it in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Take the pastry out of the fridge, unwrap it and roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thick and cut into desired shapes. Then cover with sesame seeds.
Place the cookies onto a lightly oiled cookie sheet and prick them with a fork.
Bake the cookies for 12 minutes, until lightly golden. Cool a couple of minutes, then remove the cookies to a rack to cool further.