Maria Grazia picks sage leaves and strips thyme stems as she explains her kitchen philosophy to me. “You are born a cook; you do not become one. You have to have it in your blood.”
We’re cooking together in her kitchen at Masseria Potenti, a sprawling, stark white farmhouse turned luxury resort, which she runs with her daughter, Chiara, and husband, Paolo. The masseria is nestled in the wildness of the Salento coast in southern Puglia, at the very tip of the heel of Italy’s boot. The flat desert landscapes, flowering cacti, and rugged, crated coastlines make this landscape feel otherworldly, as if this could be the very end of the earth.
“The kitchen is the most important place in the house,” she says as she rolls out the focaccia dough. “Our emotions pass through food. Sad food means sad diners.” She grew up in these fields of wild flowers and bougainvillea. Her family was well known in the area and very well to do, but, she tells me with very serious eyes, hers was an ugly childhood.
She’s been cooking for 53 years. She and Chiara have built a visually stunning hotel, and yet they manage to make you feel like you’re staying in their home. The various sitting rooms all connected by an open-air floor plan are adorned with day beds, antique furniture, family photos and cabinets of Maria Grazia’s linens. During my first at dinner at the masseria, Maria Grazia stopped at my table to introduce herself and asked whether I was staying with anyone. When I said I was alone, she put one hand on my shoulder and said: Here you’re always at Home; you are never alone.
We start mixing flour and water to make the pasta dough for orecchiette. I ask her what is her favorite thing to cook.
“I change every day, so it’s necessary to change in the kitchen. I hate monotony.” She pauses to yell to one of the cooks on the other side of the kitchen inquiring about the lunch salad. “I want a beautiful salad today, Franci. No tuna, no egg. I want beautiful greens.” She turns back to me and jokingly refers to herself as la strega, the witch, as she wrangles her wild mane of curls into a barrette. It’s clear that none of her cooks match her intensity, which I find mesmerizing.
There are touches of nature everywhere around the masseria: olive branches adorning the overhang at the tables, wild flowers overflowing from giant vases on every table, massive clusters of cacti with sprouting fichi di india dotted around the property. “Nature is my poetry. When I’m overwhelmed with an emotion like anger, I just go out into nature and she soothes me. Natural beauty, that it is the fountain of joy.”
When Maria Grazia cooks, she keeps a big bowl of wild herbs – mint, thyme, sage, lavender – close at hand. As we fill the focaccia I notice she tosses in whole herbs with the stems before adding the vegetables. I ask her why she doesn’t chop her herbs: I prefer to be able to read them.
Trise di Verdure in Agrodolce
Maria Grazia starts each day in the kitchen making a batch of this. She uses it in just about everything: as a filling stuffed bread, tossed with eggs, in pasta, as a condiment for toast. She doesn’t add chili, but I like to add a pinch to the vegetables before they roast. Maria Grazia is a crusder against kitchen waste admonishing her cooks to use every bit of the vegetable. This is one of her favorite ways to use up vegetables languishing in the crisper. Feel free to sub whatever you have on hand that needs to be used up.
- 2 tropea onions, or 1 red onion, sliced in small wedges
- 1 medium-sized eggplant, sliced in small wedges
- 4 long sweet peppers, or 2 red bell peppers, sliced in small wedges
- 2 zucchini, sliced in small wedges
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 handful golden raisins
- Pinch of Sicilian oregano
- Pinch chili flake
- ¼ cup good red wine vinegar
- ¼ cup olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350.
Toss all the vegetables in a bowl with salt and olive oil. Add the raisins, oregano and chili. Spread in a shallow roasting tray and roast until softened and caramelized, stirring periodically, about 45 mins-1 hour.
Sprinkle the vinegar over the hot vegetables. Cool before using as a filling.