Known as the vegetable garden of the Italian peninsula, Puglia (Apulia) produces “80 percent of the pasta consumed in Europe, more wine than Germany (about 20 percent of all Italian wine, and more olive oil than all of the other regions of Italy combined (or a third of total Italian production),” according to National Geographic Naples & Southern Italy.
Puglia occupies a narrow strip of land (some 250 miles from end to end and about 7,500 square miles all told) bounded on its northeastern side by the Adriatic Sea and by the Ionian Sea in the arch of the boot. Hotter than blazes in the summer and mild in the winter, Puglia’s farms and gardens benefit from a year-round growing season. Puglia’s markets offer fish caught that morning and fruits, vegetables, and nuts harvested the same or the previous day. You can’t get food any fresher than the food in Puglia, and Puglian chefs know to handle and prepare these fresh ingredients in simple ways to allow the natural flavors to shine.
Two of my favorite dishes came from Antichi Sapori, a superb restaurant in which we dined on the day we visited Castel del Monte. One dish was the slightly smoky tasting burnt-wheat (grano arso) focaccia. After the wheat harvest was finished, farmers burned their fields. When the fire burned out, peasants scavenged for the leftover, now burned, wheat and used it to make their own flour, beginning a tradition that is still followed today—without burning the fields, of course. My other favorite appetizer at Antichi Sapori was fresh ricotta with candied celery. Yes, celery. I single-handedly polished off the whole plate (after Kate and Angelo claimed to be finished, of course!). Although every bite of food at that wonderful restaurant was superb, the focaccia and the ricotta dish knocked my socks off.
Although I was somewhat nervous to try it, another favorite dish was the horsemeat that I ate at Cibus in Ceglie Messapica. Stewed for hours in a spicy tomato sauce, the meat was fork tender and delicious. According to Angelo, who encouraged me to try this dish, some horses are specially bred for food in Puglia, so I didn’t eat someone’s pet, which was a relief, of course. Cibus also had a wonderful cheese cellar, and we ate 12-year-old Gorgonzola there, as well as tasting three pecorinos: one aged six months, one aged one year (my least favorite, although it was really good), and one aged two years.
In Lecce we ate lunch at Le Zie (this place is also listed in various guidebooks as Cucina Casareccia), and if you visit Lecce, you should eat there, too. The neighborhood isn’t great and the restaurant isn’t fancy, but the cucina povera (“cooking of the poor”) cuisine is delicious, and we had a ball there. To begin, Kate had a lovely soup of wheat, beans, and sausage, and I had cicero e tria, a dish of chickpeas with regular and fried tagliatelle (known as tria in Puglia). I love Italian meatballs, and my main course of meatballs stuffed with cheese in a white-wine sauce ranks among my favorites.
Angelo, our trip coordinator and guide from Experience Puglia, made sure we tasted several regional specialties. In Putignano we visited a pasticceria that made the best taralli that I’ve tasted in Italy, as well as beautiful and delicious cookies. In Martina Franca we bought Italy’s best cured pork capocollo in the tiny deli of a grocery store off the beaten path and polished it off as we stood at the corner across the street. In Gioia del Colle we watched a cheese maker prepare a batch of mozzarella, and then we tasted it (mmmmm!). In Galatina we visited the pasticceria that invented pasticciotto, a tasty breakfast treat that looks like a tiny double-crust custard pie.
Thus ends our trip to Puglia. Thank you, Kate and Angelo, for a perfect week and so many wonderful memories, meals, and treats!