Life In The Slow Lane
Signature Luxury Travel & Style
15 April 2016
Tatyana Leonov discovers the true meaning of slow food while exploring Puglia with Back-Roads touring.
The formaggiaio stretches the mozzarella further than I thought possible, twisting and turning the pliable, creamy cheese into various shapes. First he produces a plaited morsel, then an elaborate Christmas tree; a few seconds later he’s created a star.
By now all the diners at Caseificio Olanda, a local cheese producer located in the agricultural town of Andria, have assembled around to watch and are eagerly awaiting the next party trick. Although his mozzarella-moulding skills are impressive, I’m here to learn about burrata... and eat it too. Of all the cheeses in the world, burrata is my favourite, and observing this talented artisan skilfully create what could well be the tastiest treat of the day is a wonderful start to the Back-Roads touring Slow Food Tour of Puglia.
After the demonstration we sit down to a lunch of predominantly cheese. We’re served an entrée of creamy burrata and mozzarella with a few cherry tomatoes scattered around the plate for decoration. Then we devour al dente orecchiette pasta, another Pugliese specialty, with cheesecake for dessert.
Puglia’s slow food gains momentum
The Italians take food very seriously and traditionally meals are lengthy sit-down affairs. It’s an opportune time for families and friends to spend quality time together and savour whatever is fresh, seasonal and delicious.
The slow food ideology began in Italy in the mid-1980s and the movement was officially established in 1989. The concept is simple: seasonal and high- quality food that is thoughtfully grown or produced and prepared. In Puglia this custom is even more pronounced – and if you’re travelling to Italy to eat, this pocket of culinary paradise should be your number one destination.
Although eating is an imperative part of the tour, the itinerary also includes plenty of sightseeing stops – the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Castel del Monte and the trulli homes of Alberobello, with their white walls and conical roofs, both highlights.
Specialties of an ancient region
After our cheese-heavy lunch at Caseificio Olanda we stop at Matera, known as the City of Stones. Although technically located just outside of Puglia in the region of Basilicata, it’s a marvel that can’t be missed.
We indulge ourselves for a couple of hours, weaving our way on foot through the ancient troglodyte settlement of Matera’s prehistoric Sassi, gaping at the caverns clinging to the top of a ravine, known as la Gravina. Later that evening we all agree the walk was much needed.
Our welcome dinner is one of the most incredible feasts of the week. We check into the Relais Villa San Martino, a beautiful refurbished masseria country house situated on the outskirts of Martina Franca.
There are 21 rooms and suites, each draped in beautiful silks and damasks; mine is an immense space adorned with colourful paintings and antique furnishings. Although the huge bath is calling to me, i choose to explore the lush gardens on a pre-dinner stroll.
In the hotel’s restaurant, Duca di Martina, we’re treated to a feast of regional specialties prepared exclusively for us. The orecchiette to start comes peppered with salty, smoked bacon slivers in a rich eggplant and tomato sauce. For the main we devour fork- tender ox cheek slow cooked in a Negramaro wine sauce and served alongside seasonal vegetables and buttery mash. Mercifully, dessert errs on the light side – a tumbler of fresh fruit slices capped with a dollop of citrus- infused Chantilly cream.
And so the days and nights turn into one long feast. there are mammoth spreads of local foods, organic wines matched with lavish meals, wine and cheese pairings, strolls through fish markets and more. Conversations become centred on what we ate, what we might eat, what we should try to eat...
Mid-way through the tour we are treated to a lunch at Masseria Ferri, a charming 15th-century farmhouse located in the Ostuni hillside. Owner and cook extraordinaire Rosa is a bubble of energy who wants to show us everything and anything.
When Rosa and her colleague teach us how to make orecchiette, it’s all hands on deck. We awkwardly form the wheat flour into the tiny ear shapes that gives the pasta its name.
Thankfully, come lunch, we’re served Rosa’s own deftly handmade pasta, crowned with a light tomato and ricotta sauce. There’s more food – gutsy cheese pie, crusty mini bagels topped with chunky capsicum chutney, juicy pork mince meatballs and tapenade encased in ribbons of pliable mozzarella.
And while we are feasting, the ever-smiling Rosa dashes around offering huge spoonfuls of seconds to anyone who can fit it in.
We take our time grazing, wanting to savour every mouthful. We sip our wine slowly, swirling it in our glasses. We laugh, talk and eat, and the balmy autumn day becomes soaked in a magnificent slowness.
Eventually we’re drawn back to reality as one of the group remarks that it’s now early evening. It’s at that moment I realise that time flies past when you experience life’s pleasures slowly.
Getting around: The six-day Back-Roads touring Slow food tour of Puglia (maximum of 18 guests per trip) covers architectural sights, natural attractions and of course plenty of food and wine. Five nights’ accommodation, a private guide and driver, some meals and various excursions are included. www.backroadstouring.com
Accommodation: Luxury accommodation is organised for the duration of the tour and includes two nights at Relais Villa San Martino. www.relaisvillasanmartino.it
Getting there: Etihad flies to Rome via Abu Dhabi daily. Onward connections to Bari, where the tour starts and ends, with partner airline Alitalia can be booked on the same Etihad itinerary. www.etihad.com