Kissed by the sea. Puglia, a beautiful piece of undiscovered Italy

For a few days already I have been enjoying the wonderful surroundings and also today is the same story. Along with several other Italy-lovers I am on my way to a Masseria, a country house, to dance the traditional pizzica and to enjoy a delicious lunch. I am in Puglia to indulge in the Southern Italian cuisine. But until then, I am enjoying the view. As far as the eye can see there are endless rows of ancient and characteristic olive trees, surrounded by the low stone walls that are typical for the region. The red-colored soil contrasts with the blue sky. This is pure delight!

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We find ourselves at the very bottom of the heel of the Italian boot, in the province Salento to be more precise. This region is rich in history; Greek influences, Romanesque cathedrals and the Baroque city of Lecce. The Salento is, as they say, on both sides “kissed”, by the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Ionian Sea to the west. The sea is never far away, and this means that you can enjoy fish and seafood. But the cucina povera, or poor man’s kitchen, also includes plenty of vegetables and of course the local olive oil. Our guide explains us that the olive trees in Puglia are good for at least forty percent of the total oil production in Italy.

“But,” she says, “Puglia also is one of the major wine regions of Italy. A lot of grapes are grown here, including the Negroamaro and Primitivo. So first we will do a wine tasting!” At La Cantina San Donaci we are welcomed by Francesca, the sommelier of the winery. She gives us a tour through the modern-looking wine company. But this would not be Italy if there would not be a Vespa parked at the entrance, under a tree whose branches hang down from the nearly ripe lemons, accompanied by a waving Italian flag. We descend into the cantina, the cellar where the wine used to be stored. Since todays wines matures in modern stainless steel tanks, the old wine cellars are converted into a Sala Degustazione, a tasting room. The walls breathe the scent of the wine which has been stored here for decades.

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As we wander through the cellars Francesca explains us that in the vineyards one only sees low vines, with grapes hanging close to the ground. This gives the grapes warmth of both the sun and the soil, and provides them with a great taste. Of course we want to taste the endproduct. And so we enjoy different wines and grape varieties from the region; the Salice Salentino, the oldest type of wine in the region, the Malvasia, a sweet wine that tastes of black fruit, and of course the Negroamaro and Primitivo. For appetizers we taste some typical regional products as Taralli, small ring-shaped savory snacks, and Caciocavallo Podolico cheese originating from the hills behind Lecce. With a twinkle in her eyes Francesca shows us a special wine, a Salice Salentino Riserva that matured for twenty-four months in barriques of French oak. With this wine we toast to the first winetasting of the day.

While we reminisce about all the delicious drinks and food we have tasted, we leave for the Masseria Provenzani, a beautifully restored sixteenth century farmhouse just outside Lecce. We walk past an enviable swimming pool between ancient olive trees – for which, unfortunately, the weather is just a bit too cold – and we are warmly welcomed in the yard of the Masseria. Between the olive trees a long table is placed, loaded with antipasti dishes, freshly made pasta, different types of burrata, a local type of fresh cheese, and all topped with the famous local olive oil. It may be clear the Pugliesi love good food.

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While we eat in peace and the afternoon sun shines above our heads, the cats of the Masseria lie quietly in the sun and lazily stare at us. All of a sudden the cats  jump up. In the distance we hear some music. “Pizzica tarantata”, the man sitting next to me explains. “It is ancient music to which people attributed a healing effect against the bite of the tarantula, the dangerous poisonous spider. It was thought that through the bite of this spider a demon had taken possession of the victim and one could only exorcise it by dancing wildly. But what we see now is the Pizzica do ‘Core, a dance by which the love between a man and a woman is told. The woman dances to the rhythm of the music and waves a red scarf, the color of passion, to invite the man to dance with her. But when she has had enough of him, she invites another man to dance, and again another. Until she finds a man who captures her heart. She then gives him her scarf.” And indeed the woman walks away from the man, but not to choose another lover. She walks in our direction. Because one way or another, every time the “ragazze olandese” are chosen to participate in the dancing.

After dancing we are completely relaxed and we join Mamma Giulia, who holds sway in the kitchen of Masseria Provenzani. “We are going to make fresh pasta”, so mom Giulia tells us in lovely Italian. “And not just regular pasta, but the specialty of the region; orecchiette or pasta in the shape of little ears.” I can not wait to go make it myself.

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The next day we learn another recipe, but this time with Luca Capilungo, known as a famous pastry chef throughout Puglia. Full of enthusiasm, he leads us through the kitchen and then we sit down to a stainless steel workbench. We have pen and paper and a camera at the ready because it is time for Luca to show us how to make the Pasticiotti Leccese; a typical local product where the people of Lecce are proud of. Luca lovingly rolls out the delicate dough, quite a contrast with his arms which are full of impressive tattoos, while in the meantime we enjoy the scents of vanilla and lemon. You can smell it everywhere in the bakery. When Luca is adding the finishing touches to the Pasticciotti and slides the tray into the oven, I quickly write down the recipe.

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We do not yet taste the Pasticciotti, we take the pastries with us as a desert for the lunch we are offered at Conti Zecca Winery. This turns out to be one of the highlights of the trip. “A light lunch”, they called it, but the various dishes keep succeding one another: grilled octopus, fried melanzane and zucchini, different types of meat, burrata and local cheeses. Of course, the local olive oil bottle is within reach and all the dishes are accompanied by local wines, Negroamaro or Primitivo. And once you’ve tasted, you just want to eat and drink more and more, because it all tastes so lovely. And to be honest, I must say, we do so.

After this sumptuous lunch we travel towards the Adriatic coast to Gallipoli, a small fisherman village which name reveals a Greek past; Gallipoli is derived from the Greek Kalepolis, which means beautiful city, which it absolutely is. With its picturesque streets and white stucco houses, the city still has a Greek feel to it. And when you see how the fishermen on the coast clean up their nets you know for sure in this town you can eat the freshest fish.

We spend the last day in the beautiful baroque city of Lecce. We start with tea in the beautiful Patria Palace Hotel, but since we have some busy days behind us, we also need a caffè. Fortunately Saskia Balmaekers who writes the blog “Ciao Tutti” is with us, and she knows exactly were to drink the best Italian coffee; at All’ombra del Barocco. Saskia tells us; “The local coffee specialty is the Espressino (literally a small espresso), a coffee variety that you will not find anywhere else in Italy. It is a variation on the cappuccino; a strong espresso, some milk foam and a bit of cocoa, served in a small glass.” As we walk through the Baroque city center we see the famous paper mache handicraft products, which are manufactured and sold in the city. We arrive at a square where we admire the rich Roman past of the city; overlooking the Roman amphitheater with an Aperol Spritz we toast to a couple of wonderful days in Puglia.

Ylenia of Yltour, who put together the program of the trip, did this with care. I have visited places and have gained experiences that I would have missed had I traveled alone. Yes, I would have eaten the pasticciotti, but I would have never known how they were made, and I would have never danced the pizzica under the southern Italian sun nor learned how to make fresh pasta from Mamma Giulia. But what I will remember the most of this trip are the kind and open people I have met in this region. With no exception everyone was hospitable and we were warmly welcomed everywhere. Everyone we encountered offered us something to eat, a typical local product or a glass of wine, and told passionate about Puglia. And they are right, because the region where I spent the last few days is one of the most beautiful regions of Italy that I have ever visited.

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Do you want to enjoy Puglia? Surprise yourself during a five-day all-inclusive cultural and culinary tour of the Salento, in southern Puglia. Nostra Passione and Yltour, the Puglia Specialist, invite you to firsthand experience the passion and hospitality of the Pugliesi. All the details and the possibility to book this trip can be found on the website of Nostra Passione. Andiamo?!

In April 2014 this article was published in Dutch on this website, under the title ‘Gekust door de zee. Een prachtig stukje onontdekt Italië´

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