Snapshots from Italy: Grano Stompato, My New Favorite Food

Editor’s note: Serious Eats correspondent Carey Jones, eating her way around Italy, will be reporting back from Rome, Bologna, Tuscany, and Puglia.

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Two dizzying weeks of giddy gluttony in Italy, eating my way from Bologna to Lecce, acquainted me with a number of veggies, pastas, and sea creatures I’d neither seen nor tasted before. But one of the best single bites of the entire journey came in the town of Manduria, when I took my first mouthful of grano stompato—a centuries-old peasant meal that reminded me just how simple and sublime the right ingredients can be.

The name of this dish, also called cranu stumpatu, translates to “stomped grain”—and it’s nearly as simple as it sounds. Whole grains of durum wheat are husked, soaked for twelve hours, and then pearled with a heavy mortar; that wheat is then soaked again and boiled, uncovered, for several hours. (“Durum” derives from a Latin word meaning “hard,” and true to its name, this firm and stubborn grain demands an awful lot of softening.)

Eventually, the wheat mellows into a state not too different from farro (made from the closely related emmer wheat) but with larger grains and a bit more of a bite. Some preparations continue with tomato sauce and perhaps a grating of sheep’s milk Pecorino. But Puglia is a historically impoverished region, and the poor and hardy farmers were more likely to stop with just the grain, perhaps adding drizzle of the ubiquitous native olive oil.

20090402stompato.jpgThat’s essentially how we encountered the grano stompato, at a lunch at the Museo della Civiltà del Vino Primitivo in Manduria. The chef had sautéed a bit of onion in ample olive oil before tossing in the cooked wheat. And that was all this dish needed. The oil was fruity and sharp, enormously fragrant. The finely diced onion was expertly softened, with a hint of caramelized sweetness. And the grain itself was earthy and appealing, more satisfying than rice or farro—a texture almost like steel-cut oatmeal writ large.

I don’t like applying the word “revelatory” to food; I think it’s a somewhat florid term. A chocolate cake may be delicious, but it rarely sparks a revelation. This meal did. I knew that certain revered ingredients, like a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato or an ocean-fresh lobster, were better left unadulterated. But I never realized that simple kernels of grain could be treated the same way.

I finished every bite, though I knew several more courses lay ahead. And as I pierced the last grains with my fork, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect meal. Were I an eighteenth-century Puglian farmer, I’m sure, grano stompato would grow tiresome. But at that moment, I felt as if I could live on it alone.

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