FOR centuries, sophisticated Italians from the north have regarded their southern compatriots with a mix of disdain and snobbery, even going as far as to brand them “terrone” in an allusion to the region’s historical dependence on agriculture and the peasants that used to work the land.
Although modern-day Puglia – which occupies the heel of the iconic boot – is still the garden of Italy, the Milanese and Venetians have shaken off their snobbery and have been descending on the region for the best part of a decade, attracted by its rolling rural landscapes and warm weather. Many masserias – fortified farmhouses sprinkled across the countryside – have been converted into boutique luxury hotels such as the Masserie Torre Maizza and Coccaro, where we stayed. The beaches between the two big coastal towns of Bari and Brindisi are now home to exclusive private beach clubs that have emerged to cater for this new throng of high-class clientele.
The British, too, are catching on to the delights of the region, as Tuscany, the traditional Italian destination for Brits, has become rather overcrowded in recent years. Puglia’s distance, both from the manufacturing and financial hub of north Italy and also from Rome, makes it a much quieter and much hotter holiday destination – temperatures are already 25C by May and reach as high as 40C in July, making the area ideal for an early or late summer off-peak break. Even November, when we went, was pleasant, dry and devoid of tourist crowds.
Puglia’s status as the garden of Italy – it makes over 70 per cent of the country’s olive oil and provides much of the country’s fresh produce including cheeses such as mozzarella, ricotta and local speciality scamorza, which is similar to mozzarella – makes it an ideal destination for food-lovers. Being rather partial to a plateful of pasta or a slice of pizza myself, I was rather looking forward to visiting the culinary heart of Italy and sampling all the local foods.
Puglians are certainly enthusiastic in a very Italian way about their food, whether it is in the ground, in the cooking pot or on their plates and they are keen to share their love for the high-quality local produce. With a local guide, we were able to visit a mozzarella farmhouse where every part of cheese making is on site, from rearing the cows to tying endless knots in the mozzarella and even a small shop frequented by locals on a regular basis. You can also visit a vineyard, a vegetable farm and a museum of olive oil.
But while Puglia is particularly proud of its olive oil, its coastal stretch is famous for its fresh fish. Monopoli is a thriving fishing port between Bari and Brindisi and, as you would imagine, has excellent fish restaurants such as Osteria Perricci, a traditional family Italian trattoria tucked away behind the port. Osteria Perricci served us generous portions, leaving our stomachs stretched and feeling more than sated with sea bass, crab, octopus and heaps of spaghetti.
For those after a slightly lighter meal, Pescheria 2 Mari down the coast in Savelletri makes sushi from local fish and scalds shrimps and prawns. The last two were still wiggling before they were doused in hot water and placed straight on our plates and washed down with a glass of Locorotondo, a crisp and dry local white wine that was so good, it converted my exclusively red wine drinking friend.
But for those foodies who fancy a slightly more hands-on approach to Puglian cuisine, the Masseria Coccaro offers a cooking school with chef Cosimo. We were taught how to make both spaghetti and orecchiette (a style of pasta native to Puglia), though our efforts looked rather limp and deformed compared to the pile that Cosimo was rapidly accumulating in front of him. We also made fresh fish stew, panzerotti (another local speciality that is akin to a deep-fried calzone and filled with a fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella and capers) and sweet potato dumplings deep-fried in olive oil, which were far more delicious than they sounded. We were then served what we had helped to cook accompanied by local Puglian wine such as Negroamaro and Primitivo, two hearty reds.
While its gastronomy is undeniably one of Puglia’s main attractions, the real highlight for me was a morning’s bicycle tour around Alberobello and the surrounding countryside in the sunshine to visit Puglia’s quirkier architecture, known as trulli. The region has plenty of baroque and mediaeval towns steeped in Catholic tradition, but the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Alberobello was like stepping into a different, slightly Tolkien-esque world. While trulli – traditional prehistoric limestone dwellings with conical roofs – are found across the Itria Valley, the biggest concentration of them are in Alberobello. The town has now become something of a tourist hotspot – although relatively deserted on a sunny day in November, we were told it is worth arriving early during the summer months to escape the worst of the crowds. Many of the trulli have been converted into holiday cottages for English and German visitors but plenty of them are – almost unbelievably – still occupied by local residents.
Guided by Alessa, who runs a local tourist association called Trulli&Natura that focuses on sustainable tourism, the bike tour took us out into the green Puglian countryside that is filled with gnarled olive trees, blossom trees and, of course, trulli. This untouched rural landscape of Puglia with its fresh clean air was invigorating and brought home how well the region has managed to retain its rustic and traditional character as well as open it up to the rest of the world.
BA flies to Bari three times a week in high season. Ryanair flies to Bari daily and Brindisi most days in high season.