Puglia supplies a sizeable share of Italy’s seafood and Europe’s pasta – sample the best of both in the charismatic yet untouristy town of Bari
Bari’s busy seaside fish market is a male domain. Slap, slap, slap is the soundtrack, as weathered fishermen beat their catch of octopus on the quay with wooden palettes. Five minutes of tenderising, and it’s time to clean the octopus by swilling it about in a bucket of seawater. Vito, with a smile that lights up his face, carries a huge octopus over to his lockup and disappears inside before re-emerging with a long hook to lift a bucket of water from the harbour. ‘I’ve fished for 70 years,’ he says.
‘I started with my father when I was eight years old.’ Behind him, his brother, squinting in the sunlight, washes more octopus, rhythmically swishing the water back and forth. Once Vito has cleaned his octopus, he puts it in a wicker basket and shakes off the water, another stage in its long preparation. All this labour is particularly important, because the Barese like to eat their seafood raw.
As the day moves on, the port gets busier. There are fierce arguments over card games with twice as many onlookers as players. A hanger-on explains: ‘They play games like la Scopa, or la Briscola… not for money, but for beer.’ The social hub is centred on the bar, where more and more people turn up, some buying and selling fish, but mostly to pass the time. Men argue over the price of fish at the market stands. As his brother pounds octopus on the quay, a young fisherman called Maurizio sells the local passion – ricci di mare (sea urchins; ricci di terra means hedgehogs). He cuts them in half to display the sweet-tasting orange eggs.
Raw octopus tentacle, usually washed down by a cold beer, is another favoured Barese aperitivo. Recognising that diners may be squeamish about this, restaurants often serve the dish grilled too – Osteria Le Arpie, for instance, hidden under a stone archway in the heart of the old town, its outdoor tables scattered over cobblestones, does a roaring trade in polpo alia brace.