No doubt everybody is acquainted with the humble bruschetta (if you aren’t, you should be). You toast some bread, add a little garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, salt and pepper and away you go. Variations are numerous and I’ve seen just about everything thrown on there though often the results are a bit flat. A bit of mozzarella definitely works as do red hot chili peppers, but that for me used to be as far as I’d go. That was until last night.
In Palmariggi they have been throwing the Festa della Bruschetta for about a decade and though this speck of a town in the middle of Salento has no more claim to the bruschetta than I do to the Rosetta Stone, they have managed to carve out for themselves a respectable sagra with lots of food and a bit of music (pizzica, in case you had any doubts).
Here the bruschette come overflowing with tomatoes, of course, but also sliced roasted peppers and, most notably, thinly sliced and perfectly fried eggplant. The bread, which was also great, is something of an afterthought to this potpourri of raw and cooked vegetables—an absolute winner that I will attempt to recreate at home.
The real local specialty is actually not the bruschetta, which I’ve always been told traces its roots to Tuscany and Umbria, but little almost bite-size pieces of roasted lamb innards tied together by a long thin piece of the animal’s intestines. If you are not into eating liver, lungs, heart and the like then this is not for you. I actually count myself in that group, but not wanting to shy away from the local specialty, no matter how unappetizing it sounds, I had a few. I’ll spare the details on how the intestines get cleaned and just mention that the liver is the dominant flavor here.
Another plate of bruschetta washed my palate.
Palmariggi’s claim to fame is actually not its sumptuous bruschette, but rather a statue of the Virgin Mary holding a silver palm branch and a tale of how she helped the town avoid being crushed by the Turks in the 15th Century. In 1480 the Turks slaughtered 800 people in Otranto as they took the coastal town, which like the whole area at the time was ruled by the Spanish. The Turkish army then preceded inland overrunning one town after another (and here is where the official history ends). The army began to approach Palmariggi, which had another name at the time, but was deterred by a shining reflection they saw coming from the top of the hill. What they thought was the armor of an assembling army was in fact, so I was told by a local who filled me in while I ate my bruschetta, the Virgin Mary’s silver palm branch reflecting the sun (the women of the town had brought the statue up to the hill in the hope that she would save them by working a miracle).
The townsfolk soon changed the name of their village to commemorate the miracle (palma means palm in Italian and from there they got Palmariggi, a variation of “she who holds the palm”).