Puglia — the “spur” and “heel” of the Italian boot — is one of Europe’s great agricultural areas, its immense plains and rolling hills producing much of Italy’s olive oil, vast quantities of its fruit and vegetables, and most of the hard durum wheat used to make its pasta.
The hot, dry landscape is closer in look and feel to Greece, which is just 70km away across the Adriatic. Many towns and villages also have a Greek appearance, their whitewashed, flat-roofed buildings a world away from the honeyed stone and terracotta tiles of Tuscany or Umbria. Art is also thinner on the ground than in these more northerly regions, and old peasant traditions, often forged in the face of extreme poverty, still exert a more powerful influence than in many parts of Italy.
This is especially true of Puglia’s food. Ingredients and recipes are rarely sophisticated in Italian cooking, but in Puglia they can be very simple, indeed. This being Italy, however, simple never means limited, for the range of ingredients is staggering, with the bounty of the land augmented by 800km of coastline. So while meat is relatively uncommon — lamb and goat being the exception — superb fish and seafood are not.
Bari and Lecce are the region’s key historic cities, followed by pretty hilltop whitewashed towns such as Ostuni, the coastal villages of Gallipoli and Otranto, and the rather touristy centres of Alberobello, Martina Franca and Locorotondo, which are close to the biggest concentrations of trulli, the strange, conical dwellings virtually unique to a small part of Puglia. Even more than other Italian regions, this is an area where you’ll stumble across great little restaurants and street food almost everywhere you go.
Regional specialities Puglia’s typical pasta is orecchiette (“little ears”, after their shape), but the region is home to a host of other varieties that you’ll be hard pushed to find elsewhere, including troccoli, cavatelli, stacchiodde, curti, gruessi and more.
Most are made with just flour and water, eggs having once been considered a luxury. The classic accompaniment to orecchiette is a sauce of cime di rape, literally “turnip tops”, but actually similar to a leafy broccoli. You’ll also find orecchiette and other pastas served with mussels (cozze), aged ricotta (ricotta forte or scanta), white beans (cicerchie), wild chicory, wild fennel, courgette flowers, and dark, nutty-flavoured grano arso (literally “burnt” grain).
Features of the region, but especially Le Murge, the limestone hills of central Puglia, are communal village ovens (forni or fornelli). These were — and are — used to bake bread, for which much of Puglia is celebrated (Altamura’s is especially prized). Butchers or street-food stalls often have an open wood-fired grill (rosticceria) where meat is cooked to order. For a taste of this experience, try La Fontana 1914 (Largo Martellotta 55, Alberobello); Granaldi (Via Bellini 108, Martina Franca); Marchio Murgia (Via Noci 119, Putignano); and Da Mimmo e Valeria (Via Iacoviello 47-49, Santeramo in Colle).
Sheep also means good cheeses. The most celebrated is canestrato pugliese (after the canestri, or baskets, in which it is aged), which is often grated on pasta. Also, look out for cheeses that should be eaten fresh, preferably within 24 hours, notably burrata di Andria, fallone di Gravina, and pampanella (partly flavoured by the fig leaves in which it is wrapped).
Like most Italian regions, Puglia offers numerous agriturismi, or farm stays, that provide opportunities to meet locals and eat home-grown produce and regional dishes (visit agriturismo.it or agriturist.it for listings). Some of the region’s largest former estates, or masserie, have been converted into upmarket hotels, but there are still many more modest masserie that operate as working farms with accommodation.
Corte Altavilla (0039 080 495 9668; cortealtavilla.com) is a four-star hotel in a converted medieval building in the historic town of Conversano. Its Goffredo restaurant is committed to local organic produce — the cheeses from the Querceta dairy, in particular, are outstanding. It also offers half-day cooking classes in association with an innovative local gastronomic society, Dire, Fare, Gustare (direfaregustare.com) in the nearby Masseria San Pietro (from £57 or Dh328 per person, including lunch or dinner). Three-day cookery packages at the hotel can be organised in Britain through the Discovery Collection (01371 859733; discovery-collection.com). Double b&b from £52.
Lama di Luna (0883 569 505; lamadiluna.com) describes itself as a “biomasseria”, in other words a converted fortified farm in peaceful and beautiful surroundings that is devoted to sustainable and organic farming. Among other produce, it makes its own olive oil. Depending when you stay, you can help make jams and preserves, or take part in or watch the harvesting of almonds and olives. Double b&b from £116.
La Sommita (0831 305 925; lasommita.it) is a standout five-star hotel in a converted 15th-century residence in Ostuni, the most celebrated of Puglia’s hilltop “white towns”, so called because of their whitewashed houses. The hotel’s Cielo restaurant has a deserved reputation for some of the best food in the region (with a fine garden for summer dining) and can organise cooking classes, themed dinners and more. Double b&b from £80.
Masseria Salamina (080 489 7307; masseriasalamina.it), near Ostuni, is not as polished as some of the new luxury masserie — though it occupies a magnificent old building and grounds — largely because it is still a working olive farm. It can organise a range of food-related activities, from cookery and other classes to tastings and tours at local producers. Double b&b from £76.
PUGLIA FOOD AND BEVERAGE HOLIDAYS
L’Acropoli di Puglia (0039 080 430 3302; lacropolidipuglia.it) is a producer of outstanding olive oil close to the town of Martina Franca that offers fascinating hour-long tours of its olive groves and olive presses followed by tastings of the estate’s various oils (Mon-Sat, 8.30am-1pm, 3-7pm; free). Gourmet Puglia (0831 342 153; gourmetpuglia.com) is run by Cathy Upton, a long-time English resident of Puglia, and offers luxury gastronomic trips in the region. Bespoke options are available for groups of four or more; otherwise there are two-week Kitchen and Puglia Adventure trips annually, plus an Olive Week to coincide with the olive harvest (this year from November 7-14).
Trips cost £995 full board with tastings, including transfers, from a base at Trullo Solari, a recently restored trullo property close to Ostuni.
Il Gusto del Tacco (0832 241 786 or 368 251006; ilgustodeltacco.it) is a small but first-rate cooking school based in Lecce run by Anna Maria Chirone Arno, who offers bespoke lessons (prices on application); visits to vineyards, olive oil estates and other local producers can also be arranged. Flavours Holidays (0131 343 2500; flavoursholidays.co.uk) offers eight departures annually on an eight-day Cooking in Puglia trip from a residential base at Casino Pisanelli, a former hunting lodge near the village of Ruffano in the Salento region. The holiday combines cooking classes with trips to Lecce, Gallipoli and Santa di Eluca, as well as to vineyards and local restaurants. The cost is £1,599 per person, including transfers and full board but not flights.
The Awaiting Table (347 676970; awaitingtable.com) is an excellent cooking school in Lecce run by enthusiastic locals, who offer classes (in English) by the day or week (from £pounds 1,377, course only). Day classes (£142) start with a coffee in the local market, followed by shopping for ingredients that go to make lunch; sightseeing, a break and then more ingredients and different dishes for dinner. Olive courses are also available, plus a cookery cycling tour.
Think Puglia (020 7377 8518; thethinkingtraveller.com) offers a range of food experiences as add-ons to its villa holiday stays. These include the opportunity to join Il Gusto del Tacco cooking classes (see above) or have chefs deliver bespoke three-hour lessons in your villa, costing from £pounds 72 per person, assuming three or four are in the class.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2015