Passionate About Puglia
Away from the classic tourist trails, the Heel of Italy’s Boot is a fascinating and enriching destination. On a culinary-focused tour to the southern Italian region of Puglia, Jane Avery discovered a place bathed in sunshine, tradition and the best olive oil.
It tastes good, looks good and feels good. It enhances almost any food and its medicinal properties have been administered for centuries. Without doubt, extra virgin olive oil is one of the most remarkable products in the world. So it’s with a sense of wonderment that one visits an Italian olive grove with trees pre-dating the Romans. More than 800 of the gargantuan trees at the ancient olive farm. Puglia has one of the oldest agricultural landscapes in the world, with an estimated 60 million olive trees carpeting the land and yielding 40% of Italy’s olive oil. Along with being the main industry, these incredible trees attract visitors, many with the aim of experiencing the region’s cuisine.
The Heel of the Boot is not a classic destination for the millions who visit Italy each year. And while northern Italians flock south for their summer holidays by the sparkling Adriatic Sea, Puglia retains a rustic and untrammelled quality. From settlement by Messapians, Daunniis and Ancient Greeks to conquests by Romans, Barbarians, Normans and Swabians, Puglia’s story is one of flux. Not only were its climate and wide plains ideal for agriculture, it was an international gateway for trade and war. The city of Lecce may date from Greek times, but it’s for its exquisite Baroque architecture that it is dubbed the Florence of the South. As for the Unesco World Heritage town of Alberobello, its unique concentration of cone-shaped ”trulli” houses date from a time in the 18th century when the taxman could call at any time.
It took just one well-positioned keystone to bring a mortarless trullo down to avoid the tax on permanent dwellings. The limestone blocks were built again once the coast was clear. Today the Pugliese (Poo/LEYHzeh) countryside is dotted with much loved and restored trulli farmhouses . Food is a surefire way to get to the heart of a culture and makes a tour of Puglia cohesive, insightful and rewarding. Not a cuisine to knock you out with its boldness, complexity or refinement, the tradition revolves around vegetables and simplicity. Essentially a version of the much vaunted Mediterranean diet, it’s a pulling together of fresh ingredients, lightly dressed with olive oil.
While markets brim with seasonal produce such as fava (broad) beans, chicory, aubergines, artichokes and metre-long wild asparagus, food is very much practicality in this part of Italy, where there are no rivers or permanent groundwater. Precious rainwater is everything. But while it’s all well and good learning to make fiddly ”little ears’‘ of orecchiette yourself, seeing them turned out by the hands of Puglian mammas in the alleyways of the old city of Bari is a revelation.
Puglian mammas also know their cheese. Made from buffalo or cow’s milk, the world-famous Italian product mozzarella originates in this region. As does buratta, mozzarella’s pillow-soft, cream-filled version. As for bread, the words pane di Altamura are enough to invoke passionate Italian gesticulating! A centuries-old staple, from the walled city of Altamura in Puglia’s west, it bears the acronym DOP or ”Protected Designation of Origin”, much like French Champagne. The wood-fired loaves, distributed Italy-wide, are renowned for their taste, texture and incredible two week shelf life. The secret lies with a mother yeast, faithfully tended for years at a time and 80 times stronger than regular fresh yeast. At a bread-making lesson at Altamura’s La Maggiore bakery, the reward is holding a rustic loaf in your arms and slicing it towards you like countless generations of Pugliese have done.
A homage to the cuisine of Puglia isn’t complete without recognising the region’s wine. Like olive groves, vineyards have been part of this landscape for eons. The predominant native variety is Primitivo, along with a unique and ancient grape called Negroamaro. With a name translating as ”black black”, it’s robust, rustic and earthy. These days production steers away from bulk co-operative supply to a scaled-back focus on quality.
And while this is not a wine region where you might independently roll up for a tasting, it’s well worth arranging a winery visit. Like so much of Puglia, it bears a timeless quality based on centuries of cultural evolution and passion for life.
• Jane Avery is a Dunedin-based writer and television producer and director.
Edited by Otago Daily Time