Land of Flavors, Knowledge and Fragrance
The long and narrow heel of Italy is in the easternmost part between the Adriatic and Ionian seas. The southern flat and fertile portion was once known as Calabria. The Greeks also called the area Enotria. The quantity of wine produced in this area is the largest in Europe from ancient times to today, making up 17% of the national total. Much of the wine was once trucked north to add structure to wines in the Italian north, to make vermouth, or sent to France. Without an increase in price, Puglia’s quality increases year by year. Some wines are well-known the world over.
Puglia is also one vast olive grove. One third of national Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from this region. Five of them have been awarded the DOP denomination. Where there are not olive trees, Puglia is a great big vineyard: grapes for wine and grapes to eat out of hand.
Let’s start our trip in the heel of Italy – the Salento, a magnificent belt of land. And we will dine in Lecce, starting with fava puree and wild chicory. The dried beans are cooked in a traditional ceramic pot, covered with water and left to cook for a couple of hours. The resulting puree is poured into a large dish to which cooked wild chicory is added and then dressed with extra virgin olive oil and croutons. Not yet ready for the main course we will try taieddhra, layers of onion tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants with a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper, sprinkled with bread crumbs and roasted in the oven. Then the pupiddhri arrives, a perfect dish of little fried fish. We end the meal with two of the best sweet specialties of Lecce, cupeta, a crunchy cake made with whole almonds and nfocacotto, a 19th century dessert made with flour, sugar, eggs, extra virgin olive oil and citrus. The pasta and desserts are paired with Salice Salentina Rosato and the other courses Primitivo di Manduria DOC.
We next head to Taranto, an important city in Magna Graecia times. Taranto is in a picturesque location with its center on an island which separates it from the Mar Grande and the Mar Piccolo and the two tiny Cheradi isalands in the Gulf called San Pietro and San Paolo. The archaeological museum in Taranto merits a visit, one of the most interesting in the world as far as Magna Graecia is concerned. And you mustn’t leave without enjoying the mussels, the most delicious of all the Adriatric.
Now we return to the Adriatic, Brindisi, to be precise. The legions set sail from the port of Brindisi for Illyria, Macedonia and Asia Minor. Learned Greeks moored here on their way to Rome, and from here, Via Egnazia followed the Appian Way as far as Salonicco.
We take the Appian Way from Brindisi passing the beautiful, white hilltop town of Ostuni and arriving to Egnazia, meaning the archaeological area of Egnazia. Here imposing remains line the coast. Visit the water-proofed cisterns and tombs, remains of roads, canals, ovens and impressive moorings now under the sea.
Leaving the sea behind we go to the Itria Valley, with its trullis, ancient cone-shaped dwellings and the picturesque towns of Alberobella and Lcorontondo. Visit Bitonto to see the cathedral, a shining example of Romanesque architecture and to taste the extra virgin olive oil, Terra di Bari DOP.
The neighboring town of Andria, on the slopes of Castel del Monte is a national heritage site and the world number one in the quantity of oil it produces. Castel del Monte looks over the gentle landscape of Alta Murgia, which rises from the Barletta coast and the vineyards of Andria towards the limestone altopiano. Altamura and Gravina are a wonderful visit. In Altamura you simply must try the bread – the first in Europe to be awarded a DOP. Sheep farming here in the Alta Murgia goes back thousands of years and from their tradition comes Canestrato Pugliese cheese. It is made with whole milk from Merino or Gentile di Puglia sheep and is seasoned for from four to ten months. At ten months it is at its best. We enjoy it served with the queen of olives Bella della Daunia IGP.
We continue northwards towards Foggia, gateway to the the Tavoliere plain. If the Salento is the heel of Italy, Gargano is the spur overflowing with the sea and hills. From Vieste we take the boat to the Tremiti Isles. These islands are a concentration of nature and history. On the smaller island, Capraia, nature has created an architectural miracle: the Architiello, under which the sea forms a small lake.
We leave the Tremiti and from Viesti, with the sea on our left, we head for Bari. We cross Manfredonia, founded by Manfredi, son of the great Fredrico II. And if you happen on Manfredonia during carnivale, try the farrata, fine leaves of pasta filled with crushed wheat, ricotta and essences extracted from the herbs of Gargano. From Manfredonia, with Gargano behind us and keeping the sea on our left, we arrive in yet another picturesque place, where the Tavoliere plain reaches the Adriatic.
We are at the mouth of the Ofanto river. And here, at Margherita di Savoia, is the biggest expanse of salt works in Italy and one of the biggest in the entire Mediterranean basin. As we reach Bari, we see the San Nicola Basilica, a wonderful masterpiece of Puglia Romanesque architecture, built from white limestone. We sit down to two typical local dishes. We start with a classic orecchiette with turnip greens, sautéed with garlic, oil and chili pepper. Then we tuck into a Tiella of rice, potatoes and mussels. We pair it with Castel del Monte Rosato DOC. And here our round trip in Puglia must come to an end.