PR Manager Laura Dewar took a foodie trip through Puglia, working off the mozzarella, bread and pasta with gentle walks through the countryside.
Anna repeatedly stretched the length of stretchy cheese out between her hands, wringing and kneading it with some vigour, dipping it back into the bowl of water in front of her regularly to keep it moist. Once she was satisfied, she tied it – hands working as quick as a street magician – into a tight knot and placed it onto a plate in the middle of the table. Lunch was served.
We’d arrived at the Agroturismo on foot, having strolled the last couple of kilometres through rolling Puglian countryside, and we’d arrived hungry. Just as well, as Anna and her farmer husband Angelo Casulli produce prize-winning cheeses from their herd of cows. Alongside the mozzarella knot and this year’s winning cheese, a hard variety with a distinctive salty flavour, were roasted vegetable antipasti dishes, moist, garlic-laced ciadella – far more delicious than its English translation, ‘bread salad’ would suggest – and of course the omnipresent orecchiette, ‘little ear pasta’.
Whether you’re in a leading restaurant or eating with a local family, the food in Puglia is spectacular. It’s a simple cuisine, with less of the saltiness and saucy richness that characterise much of Italian cuisine. It’s vegetable-heavy and recipes are straight-forward. Or at least, they sound it – but of course every element is homemade. No tins of tomatoes or pre-made pasta (let along bread) here.
Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. And that’s a lot of olive oil. Our Tour Leader Tullia explained that Italian families will easily use a bottle of extra virgin a week, and when hosting a simple dinner for six could get through a bottle in a single night
. We were lucky enough to have a tour of the olive oil mill ‘il Frantolio’ near Alberobello with the enigmatic Angelica. We sniffed, sucked and swilled various varieties paired with yet more delicious bread and vegetable bites. The Pugliesi are nothing if not passionate, and I left determined to up my olive oil game. The (hugely oversimplified) rules? Never buy it in a plastic bottle; store it in dark-coloured glass away from heat and light if possible; ensure it’s made in Italy; and always produced and bottled in the same place.
In Altamura, we dined in the glamorous Tre Archi restaurant, headed up by the equally glamorous couple Nina and Peppino. Here, everything was immaculate – the displays of toasted sourdough loaves; huge chilli peppers, sumptuous olives and carefully knotted onions, all bursting with colour; and a plethora of Instagram-perfect puddings. Plate after plate of immaculate antipasti was brought out, accompanied by delicious Pugliese wine, until the piece de resistance: a huge earthenware pot packed with layers of seasonal vegetables and chunks of melt-in-the-mouth beef. We stretched and strained in the aftermath, revelling in the flavours while nervous of the inevitable pudding, until we learned that there was still a full pasta course (orecchiette, of course) to go before that.
Fortunately, our gastronomic experiences were punctuated by walks through the rolling countryside of Puglia, characterised by rich red soils and vast olive groves. Graded ‘easy’, the walks weren’t challenging enough to get us puffing, or burn off the indulgences of the previous meal, but they certainly took the edge off and introduced us to rural vistas and pretty towns that took our minds off our stomachs for a while.
But then we saw (and sampled) huge loaves pulled fresh from the ovens at Forno di Gesu bakery in Altamura; tried traditional meats in a ‘bombette’ lunch in Cisternino and sunned ourselves during a leisurely picnic (in late September) as we walked around the spectacular Matera Gorge across the border in Basilicata.
Our short trip was packed with flavour, and I’ve not even mentioned the beautiful backdrops against which we continued to eat and walk: the ancient sassi of Matera, where we stayed the night in a converted cave dwelling and stopped for evening drinks under an original arch; the whitewashed trulli houses of Alberobello, picture-postcard-perfect with their winding streets and colourful stores that sell hundreds of herbs, spices and dried pasta; the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Castel del Monte, packed with hidden meaning and philosophical messages… History, culture, scenery and food: Puglia really packs a punch.
For more information on our A Taste of Puglia trip, click here