Puglia Takes It Slow
25 May 2016
Although there are 20 regions in Italy, Puglia is where the gastronomes come to learn about slow food – and, of course, to eat, writes Tatyana Leonov.
If you haven’t heard of Puglia, you soon will. Puglia is the new Tuscany and savvy holidaymakers are making their way here before the crowds come running. Boasting serene beaches (Puglia is ‘the heel of Italy’s boot’ and home to over 800 kilometres of stunning coastline), prehistoric remains, beautiful baroque buildings, fascinating karst caves and lush farmland, Puglia is your one-stop Italian holiday.
The cuisine here is typically simple and delicious, with a strong focus on fresh, seasonal and local. The concept of slow food first blossomed in Italy in the early 1980s and in 1986 the movement gained widespread attention thanks to McDonald’s entrance to Rome. The franchise was built adjacent to the Spanish Steps and Italian journalist Carlo Petrini was furious when this was announced.
In an imaginative and thoughtful act of rebellion, Petrini and the activists who had mustered to protest shared a meal of penne together, chanting: “We don’t want fast food. We want slow food!”
The notion spread rapidly and in 1989 the slow food manifesto was sanctioned (a policy addressing slow food and the lifestyle that drives the slow food philosophy). Today, slow food represents a global movement connecting millions of people in over 160 countries.
Essentially, the slow food ethos is an awareness of how we eat and where the food comes from. Sustainable agriculture, taking pleasure in eating, and using traditional methods of food production are just some of the foundations.
However, it isn’t only about the food; it is as much a philosophy of life as anything else – it’s about slowing down and enjoying life’s pleasures.
Some of the best Italian foods are produced in Puglia. With plenty of sunshine, fertile soil and a mostly level landscape, farmers find it easy to grow fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, zucchinis, chicories, figs, mulberries and plums are just a few examples of varieties that flourish here.
More olive oil is produced in Puglia than in any other region in Italy. About 40 per cent of Italy’s olive oil comes from Puglia, and it is estimated that there are 50 to 60 million olive trees dotted throughout the picturesque region. Naturally, almost every dish comes immersed in olive oil. “Puglia is a unique part of Italy – geographically, historically, gastronomically – and a very popular holiday destination for Italians,” says Back-Roads Touring Co. Head of Product Erik De Vos. “In recent years there’s been a buzz about Puglia and it’s rapidly becoming a trendy travel destination – so we launched the Slow Food Tour of Puglia in 2015. “Puglia’s food may be quite simple for Italian standards, but authentic production and preparation techniques are being preserved and honoured and these are very unique to this area.”
Eat, drink, create
It’s easy to understand why the Slow Food Tour of Puglia is a popular trip. A small group travelling off the beaten track has a strong appeal, as does the idea of eating and drinking your way around regional Italy. One day we would be nibbling on frisella (dry bagel-shaped bread) topped with a tomato and capsicum chutney and sipping organic white wine at I Pastini winery, located a few kilometres from the village of Locorotondo; and another we would be waiting for someone’s nonna to pull out just-baked focaccia bread out of the oven in Otranto, a sweet harbour town overlooking the turquoise Adriatic coast.
But perhaps what is most unique about the slow food experience is interacting with the producers. Every day we encounter a quirky Italian or three creating something tasty, we study them crafting their specialties and sample whatever it is they are cooking. And on a few very special occasions we get a masterclass. Slow food producers are the little guys – the family-run farms, bakeries and cellar doors; the artisans who have been crafting morsels the same way for decades, if not centuries. These producers were growing organic before organic became a buzzword, they don’t know what GMO crops are, and they have never considered using harsh pesticides.
Caseifico Olanda – the home of burrata
Early on in the tour we meet two of the Olanda brothers at Caseificio Olanda, a cheese factory located in the agricultural town of Andria that was opened by the Olanda family in 1988. We watch the talented men at work as they twist balls of buffalo curd into mozzarella shapes. The rhythmic, practised nature of their work makes it hard to look away even when lunch is set out on the table.
Luckily, the first course is predominantly cheese, so I have no concern about food going cold and continue to watch the cheesemakers. When creating burrata, a fresh Italian cheese with a creamy liquid centre, they make a small pouch of mozzarella and fill it with mix of heavy cream and stracciatella cheese and neatly tie the top, holding the molten contents inside. Burrata is a relatively new culinary tradition. Our starter of sliced mozzarella encircling a large burrata is made all the more special knowing how the cheese is made. When I jab my burrata with a fork, the velvety stracciatella explodes all over my plate and I can’t wipe the grin of my face as I savour the flavour. The main course – orecchiette pasta – is just as good.
Orecchiette at Masseria Ferri
Orecchiette pasta is another Puglia specialty and we are fortunate to sample the distinctive dish many times over the course of the trip. The little ear-shaped pasta pieces (literally translating to little ears) are ideal for chunky sauces, with the hollow shape of each smithereen serving as a tiny bowl. Learning to make pasta in Italy will stick with me for a lifetime. About halfway through the tour, not far from the quaint town of Ostuni, we are treated to a long and lavish lunch at Masseria Ferri, a beautiful 15th century farmhouse- restaurant-accommodation run by a charming woman named Rosa. She leads our cheery group on a stroll through the beautiful grounds before we all sit down for an orecchiette- making class. We don’t sit for long. Everything in Italy is hands-on and as soon as the demonstration is over, we assemble around the table and attempt to make our own little pasta ear shapes, endeavouring to perfect the art, but eventually give up laughing at our awkward efforts.
Castel del Monte: one of the best preserved medieval castles in Southern Italy with a distinctive octagonal shape.
Trulli homes of Alberobello: these ancient limestone dwellings with distinctive conical roofs, still used as homes by some people, represent one of the most astonishing examples of Italian folk architecture.
Castellana Caves: situated at a depth of approximately 70 metres, these caves are some of the most amazing natural wonders of Puglia.
Winemaking at Azienda Castel di Salve: these vignerons focus on growing indigenous grapes such as Negroamaro, Primitivo, Malvasia Nera di Lecce and Aleatico, and sample some of the wines.
Fish markets in Gallipoli: sample raw shrimps, sea urchins and shellfish amid the hubbub of market life.
Polignano a Mare: a small town on the Adriatic coast located on top of limestone cliffs and overlooking the azure sea. Take in the spectacular views and explore the narrow roads and alleys of the old town
Take the tour
The six-day Back-Roads Touring Co. Slow Food Tour of Puglia covers visiting various UNESCO World Heritage-listed sights, historical structures, natural caves, coastal cities, and of course plenty of food and wine tastings. Five nights’ accommodation, a private tour leader and driver, some meals, and various excursions are included as part of the tour package. www.backroadstouring.com.