If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, few places offer more pulling power than plentiful Puglia.
The region on the sun-kissed heal of Italy, known for good reason as the bread basket of the country, positively strains under the weight of sumptuous goodies. And that can only mean one thing – a foodie’s paradise.
Some of the most memorable meals in my lifetime have been served up in northern Italy, from a sublime ravioli dish of pumpkin and pasta at a Rimini castle, to an unforgettable feast of poultry at the Michelin-starred St Hubertus, high up in the Italian Alps.
But for consistent perfection on a plate, nothing compares to the simple yet delicious dishes served further south. And one course in particular will stay with me for the rest my life.
It is said the Italians put up with many things, but never bad food. Their unpretentious restaurants with tacky murals and rickety furniture may often be crying out for a makeover, but the cuisine is seldom less than perfect.
The southern fare is, to coin an old Opal Fruits advert, made to make your mouth water. Bright red cherry tomatoes compete for attention with succulent oranges and the juiciest grapes you could wish for in a kaleidoscope of fruits and vegetables.
With such an abundance of food, prices both in the supermarkets and restaurants are often incredibly cheap. How does 3 euros (£2.53) sound for a large margherita pizza at a pizzeria in the lively capital Bari, or 4 euros (£3.38) for a platter of fresh fruit big enough to feed a family of 10 at a restaurant in Alberobello?
It’s one of the reasons why British holidaymakers who regularly head to the rolling hills of Tuscany and picturesque Lake Garda are turning their attention to agriturismo hotspots in Puglia, both to visit and increasingly to snap up property. Yet many areas are still refreshingly devoid of touristy paraphernalia, while the friendly locals speak barely a word of English.
The foundation of Puglia’s wealth is its mass production of olives, or ‘green gold’ as it is aptly called. Gazing out from the airport window after my two-hour-and-20-minute flight from Gatwick, the region around Bari looks like one giant patchwork green quilt glistening under the midday sun, interspersed by pockets of pretty whitewashed villages.
There are around 60 million olive trees in Puglia, many of them more than a thousand years old and four million protected by government legislation.
They look like gnarled relics of a bygone era, often propped up by crumbling limestone blocks. But the rich, fertile land and wonderful Mediterranean climate helps them produce 80% of the country’s olive oil.
The chances are, if you’ve ever bought a bottle of virgin olive oil in Tuscany, the olives will have been sourced from the south. They have just 24 hours to transport the green gold to the processing presses, otherwise the oil becomes acidic and slightly bitter on the palate.
The best oils are said to be labelled Olivi Secolaridi Puglia, indicating they are from the oldest trees. They should be kept in dark cupboards and away from heat to stop the oil turning bitter – not in a transparent bottle next to the oven as I have at home!
Farmer Corrado Brancati has quite possibly some of the oldest trees at his charming working home, the Masseria Brancati, on the outskirts of Ostuni. His family has been making olive oil for more than 200 years and he believes some of the trees could remarkably have been bearing fruit since before the time of Christ.
A visit to see the Roman-age mill that has been lovingly restored in a cave beneath Corrado’s 16th century farmhouse and to taste the various flavours of oil that the olives produce should be high on your list.
Olives are just one of the reasons why Puglia bears the hallmarks of conquering invaders throughout the generations, from the Normans and the Spanish to the Turks and the Greeks.
Most of Italy’s fish is caught off the Puglian coast and 80% of Europe’s pasta – all 200 different types of it – is produced in the region.
As a keen fisherman, I’m salivating at the number of fish being caught at the quaint Savelletri coastal resort, a stone’s throw from my base for the week, the magnificent Masseria Torre Maizza and its sister hotel, the Maizza Torre Coccaro.
Each morning, the hotel’s chefs select from the choicest supplies of fresh bream, scampi, grouper, lobster, oysters, clams and squid, before serving up meals fit for the gods.
Thanks to the skills of the hotel’s genial head chef, 29-year-old Vito Giannuzzi, one of the dishes will be etched in my memory for a very long time.
An exquisite meal of raw grouper fish marinated with red berries and lime, red prawns from nearby Gallipoli, scampi pearl, low-fat yoghurt sauce and ‘mint flavoured fizzy slush’ is enough to render me speechless and, I’m not embarrassed to say, just a little emotional.
This is washed down by a very agreeable ruby red Il Falcone wine, a full-bodied little number from the ancient farms of Puglia’s Cornia Valley, that came recommended by the hotel’s sommelier.
Vito, recently named one of the best young chefs in Italy and clearly destined for stardom, is proud of the hotel’s motto of ‘zero kilometres’. Only produce grown at the masseria – or fortified farmhouse – is served up at mealtimes, as well as the locally-caught seafish.
The Maizza and Coccoro are among 250 masseria in Puglia offering tourists a heady mix of long summer days, characterful accommodation and the freshest of food. Cycling groups are increasingly being attracted to the area by the flat roads and picturesque landscape.
Two of the cyclists staying at the Maizza, American ladies from New York and Boston, join my wife and I for a fun morning learning how to conjure up dishes at a cookery school before we enjoy the fruits of our labours with a chilled prosecco, gazing out over a pretty pergola overflowing with grapes.
Vito’s sous chef shows us how to make a Panzerotti stuffed with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, pasta the Puglian way with semolina flour and water – and no eggs, and then a fish soup of swordfish, squid and scampi. To round off a sleep-inducing meal, we make a ricotta cheese tart so delicious it would have had Greg Wallace and John Torode beaming from ear to ear on TV’s Masterchef.
First-class restaurants and pizzerias are as plentiful as the crops in Puglia, with a visit to the Terra Rossa Pizzeria in Conversano, where more than 100 pizzas are on offer for less than a fiver, highly recommended.
Another must is a trip up into the hills to see the small but bizarre Trulli houses at Alberobello, which – from a distance – resemble a group of white-hatted Smurfs on a school outing.
If you’re still hungry, head for the Gli Ulivi restaurant – meaning Olive Tree – and order the antipasti della casa as a starter. Then sit back in wonder as dish after dish of delicious meat, fish, pasta and vegetables head through the animated Italian diners and cover your table until it is overflowing. By the time the 28th dish arrives, my wife and I beg for mercy. The heart may be willing, but the stomach can take no more.
It is, it has to be said, Trulli scrumptious.
:: Chris Wiltshire was a guest of Citalia who offers seven nights B&B at the five-star Masseria Torre Maizza from £1,165 per person – saving £635 per couple. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick with British Airways, based on a June 28, 2014 departure date.
:: Seven nights B&B at the five-star Masseria Torre Coccaro costs from £1,159 per person – saving £618 per couple. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick with British Airways, based on a June 5, 2014 departure date.