On the Road in Puglia
In the seaport town of Trani, Italy, a dozen or so scraggly fishermen have lined the water’s edge with cardboard tables laden with today’s impressive catch. The seafood is fresh-from-the deep, caught not long ago in the surrounding crystal-clear waters. As I observe from my perch on a window’s edge at Hotel San Paolo al Convento, calls of “Vieni!” ring out as the men entice passers-by to the makeshift stalls.
They don’t have try too hard. A cheerful nonna buys a dozen prawns for tonight’s family dinner, a commis picks up some scallops for the next service, and the rare tourist stops by to peer at the ugly monkfish.
This is Puglia, one of the most diverse yet lesser-known parts of Italy, located in the south-east and lining the ‘heel’ of the country’ s boot-shaped peninsula. I’ve been to Italy numerous times before – I’d even lived in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, for a year in my late teens – but never have I seen this side of the country.
One imagines this is what the more popular parts of the Italian countryside felt like 50 years ago, before the throngs of tourists took over the likes of Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. Here are all of the country’s charms: quaint little towns, pristine beaches with gorgeous views of the Adriatic and Ionian seas, fresh, inventive food, and wonderfully underrated wine.
It’s the food and the wine that I’m here for, the Puglian tourism division having organised a trip for journalists to sample the region’s distinctive offerings. Because unlike the northern parts of Italy, Puglia is defined by a more Mediterranean diet: seasonal vegetables, plenty of seafood, only the leanest of meats and, of course, lots of wine.
I was told early on that the majority of Puglia’s tourism comes from Italians who want to escape their country. Confused? I was too, at first. Until I realised Puglia is, in fact, closer to Greece than to Rome. As a historical port, it’s been invaded by – and has hence been influenced culturally by – the Romans, the Greeks, the Normans, the Turks and the Spanish, amongst others.
There are even a couple of small villages near the city of Lecce that still speak an archaic Italian-Greek dialect called grico. All this gives it a diverse melting-pot feel that’s unlike any other part of Italy. Going on the road, sampling what you find along the way, really is the only way to truly experience such a varied region. Which is funny, because that’s exactly what my companions and I did.
We started our journey in the very south of Puglia, in Salento, where we came across the Duca Carlo Guarini, a winemaker whose moniker is often synonymous with the region. The Guarini family once owned at least a third of all the land in Puglia and can trace its roots back to the 11th century Normans.
Its current owner has less grandiose ambitions and would rather just settle down with some wine. He ferments his grapes the old-fashioned way, using vast subterranean tanks. It’s how they did it hundreds of years ago and the results speak for themselves.
Guarini is known for his use of the primitivo grape, one of the region’s native varieties and often compared to the Californian zinfandel. His most famous bottle, the Boemondo, has a crusader’s sword on the label in honour of his roots. Ironically enough, up until the ‘80s, Guarini wasn’t even bottling the stuff – it was mostly sold in kegs, and now, the region can’t get enough of it.
As we drove through different parts of Puglia, the landscapes started to become more and more familiar to the eye: thousand-year-old olive trees, vineyards as far as the eye can see, then a slightly rundown masseria (country house) gleaming white in the midday sun. It all becomes quite common – until you reach Alberobello, the town of the trullis.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Alberobello is possibly the tourist centrepiece of Puglia, mostly because of its iconic trullis: white-stone circular houses that seem to have come straight from medieval times. Their most renowned element is the coned roofs, which were designed to keep those inside cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
The town is undoubtedly filled with tourists, but it also houses some of the finest restaurants in the region. Avoid the crowds who would lead you to La Cantina or L’Aratro and head straight to the Michelin-starred Il Poeta Contadino.
The restaurant aims to recreate both the ambience and food from the region’s medieval past, taking diners into a time warp. Ornate chandeliers and classic wax candles dot much of the restaurant, and the dishes are naturally heavy on the fish: rustic offerings like mullet paired with simple potatoes, or monkfish alongside seasonal vegetables.
Near Alberobello is the Castel del Monte, an area of Puglia named after the vast falcon-watching castle sitting on top of a hill. It’s one of the very few regions recognised by Italy’s DOCG quality-assurance label, and chief among those who helped insure that merit was the Rivera winery.
Far from the oldest in the region (it only set up shop in the ‘60s), Rivera is nonetheless one of the most forwardthinking. Its founder Sebastiano de Corato predicts that Puglia would one day become a major wine region and markets his wines as such.
It’s arguable whether Rivera’s Il Falcone was the wine that put Puglia on the map, but there’s no doubt it’s now one of the region’s most popular internationally. Named after the castle, the wine is a 70-30 mix of the native Nero di Troia grape and the country’s more popular Montepulciano – for me, it has come to define the wines of Puglia. Bold, medium-bodied flavours that dazzle the palate, but are nonetheless light enough for pairing during the day or night. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for the entire region.
But for all that Alberobello and Castel del Monte offers, with their gorgeous trullis, incredible wineries and surprisingly high number of fannypacked tourists, it was Trani that still impressed us the most. The town feels like the heart and soul of Puglia, the place where all of its finest elements come together at once.
Nowhere is that more apparent, than in its food, and for those in the know, Corteinfiore is the epitome of Puglian fine dining. Packed to the brim with locals, the restaurant is high-end but worth every penny: here, you’re treated to the most fascinating takes on classic Puglian cuisine, fine seafood and fresh vegetables dished up using innovative, original methods, alongsidewhite wine and even whiter tablecloths.
Stumble upstairs afterwards to one of their few private B&B rooms or, better yet, stay at the Hotel San Paolo al Convento, whose views continue to stick in my mind as I write this.
The final morning of the trip, before I was due to catch the 7am train to Rome, I looked out the window of my hotel room to see the Trani harbour just waking up. Seagulls were breakfasting on last night’s bready leftovers and joggers were running off their Med diets. There was a feeling that this was all very unreal: Puglia seemed too beautiful, too healthy, and too moreish to exist altogether. And as much as I hated letting the world know about such hidden pleasures, such was my duty – and it’s safe to say I’ll be back very soon.
Originally published in Sawasdee, November 2014.