I didn’t have to think twice when Laura from Aeolian Adventures asked me to join her on a trip to Puglia, the region on the map that forms the heel of Italy’s boot, known for its stunning Baroque architecture, characteristic Trulli houses and of course, food and wine fit for the gods.
My last trip to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands with Laura was such a fun filled week, packed with so many memorable experiences, I had very high hopes of Puglia, a part of Italy I had yet to visit, and my goodness I wasn’t disappointed.
Arriving at the masseria, or farmhouse, that was to be our base for the week, I was hot and thirsty but soon cooled down inside the airy, white, vaulted reception area where I and another guest, bubbly Ailsa, were greeted warmly by the owner, Angelo. As he enthusiastically gave us a brief history of the 17th century farm, his love and passion for his home shone through. Angelo and his wife Fabiola have lovingly transformed the farmhouse and surrounding 100 hectares of lush almond, olive and palm trees into a successful agriturismo. After five minutes, sitting with a glass of one of the many delicious white wines I was going to drink throughout the week, I could already feel the stresses of England evaporating away.
After being shown to my spacious and extremely calming limestone room, I met with Laura and the other ladies by the turquoise, salt water swimming pool to enjoy a simple lunch of creamy burrata and sweet tomatoes, freshly picked from the kitchen garden. A perfect first taste of Italy and a hint of how special the food was going to be in the week ahead.
Some of the guests, including myself, had started the day very early so the first evening was a short trip into the naval port of Taranto for dinner. Flanked by two bays, the ‘Mar Grande’ and the ‘Mar Piccolo’ giving it the name of the ‘City of the Two Seas’, Taranto is also a city of two parts: the new modern city sprawls down the coastline, fronted by huge naval ships, while the old, historical city now sits on a island connected to the mainland by a revolving bridge. Nearing the city by car it is easy to make out the vast expanse of mussel beds stretching out in the Mar Piccolo. Here, apparently, is the largest area of farmed mussels in the world so it was not surprising to find them on every menu.
The main attraction here is the impressive 15th Century Arogonese Castle that still stands proud, jutting out into the sea and marking the division of the old and new parts of the town.
Two remaining Doric columns from the Temple of Poseidon are a reminder and a hint of the town’s illustrious Greek past, when it could boast of being one of the biggest, most important commercial towns in the Mediterranean. Peeking down the many narrow side streets of the old town, there was still the odd glimpse of its bygone charm but the tall closely packed buildings are mostly in a state of disrepair and any elegance has long since faded. Many of the once grand and noble seafront houses are boarded up, now left to the mercy of the elements to gradually, but inevitably, crumble away. The newer part of town with is wide pedestrianised shopping mall leading up to the large main square feels like a much more modern commercial centre with little of interest for anyone looking for the picture-postcard Puglia. On a balmy late summer evening though, the walk along the tree lined seafront watching the sun set was a very pleasant way to work up an appetite. Our evening concluded around a table in a busy fish restaurant by the sea where we ate, drank and chatted until tiredness told us it was time to go home to bed.
The following day, rested and raring to go, we were off to visit the small town of Alberobello, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its abundance of the distinctive conical roofed ‘trullo’ houses. In the tourist district of the town, the whitewashed stone trulli which line the sloping, meandering stone-paved streets are mostly shops selling local ceramics, linens and regional food. Signs and shopkeepers tempt passing tourists by inviting them inside for free, hoping they will buy gifts to take home to friends and family. Walking up steps on a sunny day was thirsty work so once arriving back down on the tree studded, open expanse of the main Piazza del Popolo, a cool drink was very welcome before moving on to our next destination.
A photo opportunity awaits around every corner and down every alley in Alberobello so make sure you have spare batteries for your camera or a fully charged phone. Like all these labyrinthine towns, the well-worn stone steps can be quite slippery so packing a pair of shoes or sandals with a decent grip is a good idea.
A ride down the Valle d’Itria and we arrived in the beautiful historical town of Locorotondo. I loved this little town, maybe because it had an easy, relaxed air about it and lacked any obvious big tourist spots. The gleaming white old round centre which gives the town its name ‘Round Town’ is perched on top of a hill, surrounded by terraces. With its tightly packed white houses, topped with steeply pitched roofs, it deserves its accolade as one of “The Most Beautiful Towns of Italy”. A leisurely stroll off the piazza took us through narrow alleys with flowered balconies, where, after an impromptu wine tasting, we stopped for lunch at the bustling UCurdunn Restaurant, full with chattering locals, always a good sign, enjoying a lengthy post-church Sunday lunch. Choosing from the excellent menu was quite difficult but I was pleased I chose the baby octopus. It was cooked perfectly, soft and tender, sitting on a bed of creamy fava bean puree which became a favourite side dish over the week ahead. Definitely something I will be trying to replicate at home.
For Sunday evening Laura had planned an evening wine tasting at a nearby extremely stylish restored Roman castle, now a hotel and restaurant with its own winery. Sitting on the beautiful terrace at Vinilia Wine Reort, listening to an owl heralding the arrival of the full moon, our group of six food and wine loving ladies were treated to an evening which would be hard to surpass anywhere.
The menu was simple but every dish was cooked to perfection and a joy to savour, paired expertly with the exceptionally good wines. The starter of pureed fava beans with sweet Apulian peppers was accompanied by a light, refreshing white Fiano Salento IGP, followed by orecchiette with tomato sauce paired with a Negramaro Rosato Salento IGP. A juicy medium-bodied red Primitivo Salento was paired with a perfect aubergine parmigiana and the last sweet treat of chocolate and apricot was washed down with a very special Primitivo di Manduria Riserva DOP.
Although I am far from a wine expert, the wines we tasted everywhere we went in Puglia were a delight, both red and white. Unfortunately I think Italian wines get a bit of a bad rap in England, probably because most of the good local wines aren’t exported and are kept for the lucky locals. Seeking out a good Primitivo or Negramaro would be well worth the effort, I’m on the look-out already.
Monday was to be another full day of incredible architecture and food experiences. Laura had arranged for us to spend the day cooking with a fabulous lady who runs a busy cooking school in the heart of the Baroque town of Lecce, ‘The Florence of the South’. Lecce, the capital of the Salento region, boasts an intricately carved stone facade on nearly every corner. Being one of the larger towns of Puglia, it has a vibrant, cosmopolitan ambience, certainly a town worth visiting, even if just to visit the magnificent 14th Century Basilica of Santa Croce.
Chef Gianna has the most welcoming, light and airy school in the heart of town where she teaches traditional Puglian cookery with infectious enthusiasm. Gianna certainly knows her stuff, after a while as a judge on Italian Junior Masterchef, she now has a role in finding new participants for the programme. She was rightly very proud of the fact she was asked by the BBC to appear as a judge on the recent BBC Chef’s Brigade.
She helped us prepare the octopus for Polpo alla Pignata, just one of the dishes were were going to cook for our lunch. Her soft, fluffy focaccia Pugliese, made with a little grated potato, lashings of olive oil and topped with halved tomatoes, was a recipe quickly noted down to make at home. I think we all deserved a pat on the back for our first attempts at making the local speciality Orichiette al Sugo, even though our little ears weren’t perfect, they tasted fantastic all the same. As if this feast wasn’t enough, we were also taught how to cook the local Cicore All’aglio, nothing like the salad chicory we eat here, more like kale with a slightly bitter edge, and very tasty. Crisp, salty calamari fritti was the last dish to grace the table. Looking at the mountain of food we had cooked, I was regretting stopping for a coffee and a Pasticciotto (a local pastry filled with a sweet, creamy custard) in a cafe on the way to the cooking school but, not wanting to let the side down, stiff upper lip and all that, I tucked in.
Lunch over and secretly pleased I had worn trousers with an elasticated waistband, we took a leisurely stroll down to a local market before meeting back at Gianna’s for more cooking and eating. Just as we were preparing to make our goodbyes, Laura surprised us with a real treat. A local troop of two musicians and a dancer appeared on the terrace to perform the traditional pizzica dance. We clapped along with the rousing vocals and the watched the dazzling young lady in a brilliant red dress spin around and around until we felt giddy just watching. With encouragement and a couple of glasses of wine, I managed to have a go at dancing myself. Not surprisingly I wasn’t asked to join them as a new recruit but it was great fun and a very special end to an already perfect day. After just two days, Puglia was already getting under my skin.
After another beautifully prepared and presented breakfast at the masseria, Tuesday started with a taxi ride to Gallipoli, not to be confused with the Turkish peninsular of the same name, infamous for the catastrophic 1915 campaign responsible for the death of so many thousands of Allied soldiers.
This pretty little coastal town, its name Greek name meaning ‘Beautiful City’, sits by the crystal clear waters of the Ionian sea, its small harbour filled with cobalt blue fishing boats and piles of colourful, well used fishing nets.
The busy side roads winding up through the old part of town are dotted with colourful shop displays, punctuated by crates of dazzling red peppers, used in so many dishes here. Like all the towns we visited the lanes are interspersed with the most magnificent churches and we were lucky enough to stumble across a few weddings on our travels. Whilst sitting in a cafe cooling off with a refreshing water and lemon granita I could not help smiling at the arrival of two pristine VW camper vans, one red, one bright green, adorned with wedding ribbons, come to transport a wedding party up to the Baroque Sant’Agata Cathedral where the impending nuptials were to take place. Whatever one’s religious proclivities, it is very difficult not to draw breath at the sight of these incredibly ornate buildings. The majority are breathtakingly beautiful inside too and I recommend taking a peek through the giant doors if you get time, even if just to have a quick look up at the elaborately painted ceilings.
Before meeting up with Chef Gianna again for a trip out to sea on a fishing boat, I enjoyed a fantastic piece of meaty swordfish for my lunch in a restaurant on the seafront. Heaven.
Boat trips are always something I really look forward to but as soon as I found out the Captain was going to be cooking us a fish soup with our catch I couldn’t wait to get on board. There is no guarantee with fishing and as we took it in turns to help reel in the nets we watched like excited children for the sight of any fish. Although we didn’t catch a huge haul – a few bright red scorpion fish, a cuttle fish and a couple of small crabs, they all went into the pot. The tomato based soup was one of the best fish soups I have ever tasted. Interestingly the fish were cooked whole and eaten separately before the hot, slightly spicy broth was served in a bowl over some roughly crumbled ‘friselle’, the regional dried bread found everywhere here (think of a dried bagel but a whole lot tastier). The soup, which after the plentiful servings of fish, was already enough to satisfy our waning appetites, was followed by a small mountain of deep fried fresh anchovies and prawns which seemed to miraculously keep arriving on the table. It was a warm, life-affirming sort evening, we were joined by the skipper’s wife who bought along a jar of homemade lip-burningly hot pepperoncino for us to try, definitely not for the faint-hearted! We sat on the gently-bobbing deck until well after the coral coloured sunset had faded. The best kind of evening; eating amazing food and drinking superb wine with a happy, generous and kind group of people, all bound by the same love of food.
There were many more adventures before the week finished but there is so much to write about I think I will stop here and continue with the last three days in another post.
As you can probably tell, every day was one to write home about. Laura is a fabulous guide, born in this part of Italy she manages to find local people to meet and hidden places to visit, which provide the opportunity for her guests to really immerse themselves in the region. The vibrant flavours, colours and smells that make up Puglia are now firmly imbedded in my memory. There is much to see and do, so many beautiful towns to visit both inland and on the coast, I will definitely be returning to explore further. As for the quality of the food, I already knew it was going to be good but I was honestly blown away by just how superb it was. And that’s saying something.
Ciao for now,
For more information about this and other exciting organised Food and Wine Tours of Italy, Sicily and the Aeolian Islands contact Aeolian Adventures – firstname.lastname@example.org
This was all-expenses paid trip, sponsored by Aeolian Adventures. The article also represents a true account of my trip and hasn’t been influenced or dictated by Aeolian Adventures in any way.