The ionic coast of Puglia – that is, the instep of the heel of the boot of Italy – is no great place. That is, it is no great place when you have spent the previous few days on the much more rugged, more turquoise-and-chalk-white shores and coves of the Adriatic on the other side of the peninsula.
But we couldn’t miss the Ionian coast, so here we were, early morning, already hot and humid, the air still and water murky with seaweed. We had camped at the sea, quite illegally, having arrived in the dark, and awoken to a white van and a small Fiat parked nearby and shellfish divers gearing up for an early morning forage. I should have thought this a boon and an indicator of good seafoody things to come, but at the time, hot, tired, and insulted by the intrusion on the peace of my outlaw camp spot, I just thought it annoying.
That morning, after packing the tent and the cheap inflatable mattresses into our own Fiat, we headed north. We gave the coast route a try, but it was the same the whole way up; traffic crawling through overly-tanned Italian holiday families tumbling out of parking lots toward the bright, hot beach. I felt sorry for them, thinking how they probably came to this exact same spot every year, not knowing or wishing to explore the clear, deep water of the rocky coves across the heel.
We drove for an hour, which was a record, because we had never gone more than 30 minutes from waking up to stopping at a boulevard café for sweet cornetti and cappuccino. It is the only breakfast on offer in Italy, which suits me fine, but that is a separate story. We had decided to head into the big city, that is, Gallipoli, the biggest city within breakfast distance. We parked – quite illegally – crossed the hot pavement bustling with normal working people, and sat and took a good but not remarkable cappuccino and a sweet custard filled cornetto. We talked about how lovely it is that the cafes spill out as far as they want onto the sidewalk, and often right into the street and how it is lovely that a person taking their morning cappuccino has priority, and all the foot traffic and car traffic, prams and scooters must weave to go around.
We got up and walked across the thin bridge that leads to the old walled citadel of Gallipoli, it was cute, quaint with narrow alleys and tan facades, iron railings with tumbling red flowers and the hollow echo of old cobbles. It had a church and some markets, a lot of postcard racks and plenty of lunch spots just laying out linens on tables. But it was hot and I was nervous about our parking job, so we headed back without really savouring the old town the way we should have.
On the way back across to the new part of town, we looked down under the bridge to see rickety wooden stalls selling fish and shellfish from beds of ice. This is normally no great thing, but in the center of the action, on a steel table under a parasol, was a lady drinking a small glass of white wine. Next to her were a pitcher of said wine, mostly empty and a metal tray full of shucked shellfish of every variety. There were striped clams, barnacle crusted mussels, and craggy, thick-shelled oysters. We watched her finish her wine, pay, wipe her mouth and walk away. It was obvious that we had to indulge in exactly the same thing.
And so we wandered to the stacks of shellfish, and the tanned, wrinkled old man in his blue and white striped top used a scoop to pick out shellfish for us much like choosing candy at a movie theatre only it was impossibly-fresh shellfish and not candy. Satisfied with a small pile of clams and mussels and oysters, he brought our small tray over under the umbrella and with thick leathery fingers and a small stubby knife, proceeded to shuck each shell and free the morsel within. Then he brought over a glass pitcher of cold white wine and two glasses.
Now I have never eaten raw clams, nor raw mussels. In matter of fact, I had had a discussion a few days prior where I declared it unsafe. I was obviously wrong, because we ate a tray full and they were amazing.
Raw clams are delicate and sweet, not even slightly briney or fishy. They are tough, but yield and the flavours come alive with a sip of cold white wine. The oysters were like oysters always are, that is, creamy and briney, but also sweet with none of the metallic taste that I associate with them. They were also plump and perfectly cold. The shucked raw mussels were a bit of a revelation, sweet, but also earthy with a salty finish.
The whole brunch show took about twenty minutes, which was just as well, because we returned to a parking ticket. The meal was close enough to lunch to be called brunch and was the best, most special, most unique seafood meal I have ever eaten.
It seems increasingly that you can travel the world over and find yourself at active sea-sides and quaint fishing villages where the offering is the same farmed bream or sea bass, or the same frozen squid and octopus that you can get anywhere. And so this meal was simply amazing and was revelled and talked about for the rest of the day; this 20-minute stop under the shade umbrella at the fish market under the bridge in Gallipoli on the Ionian coast.
Gallipoli Italy, 2013