Puglia, Italy’s deep south known as the ‘new Tuscany’, is famous for everything from handmade ear-shaped pasta to picture postcard beaches. We take a deeper dive into Salento, away from all the hustle and bustle of Italy’s more popular destinations. Here you’ll find pasta with bitter turnip tops, red shrimp served crudo-style with olive oil and custard-filled pasticciotto.
Blondie is a moody cow. “If she lifts her knee, jump back,” is Donato Fersino’s tip. Huge, butter-wouldn’t-melt eyes meet mine over her shoulder as I tentatively take a teat, gently squeeze and pull. A spurt of hot milk shoots into the bucket. I’m milking my first cow on a 60 hectare farm in Salento, Puglia’s deep south – a flat, fertile plain on the stiletto tip of the heel of Italy.
Puglia is the country’s breadbasket, producing around 40% of its olive oil, most of the wheat needed for its mountains of pasta and, thanks to a year-round growing season, a large proportion of its fruit and vegetables.
At Le Stanzie farming methods are old-school. Fersino has 35 Podolica and Marchigiana cows (all milked by hand), goats, chickens, pigs and around 700 Leccino, Ogliarola and Cellina di Nardo olive trees; so far these have escaped the fungus from Costa Rica that’s currently attacking the region’s shimmering olive groves.
Le Stanzie’s cinnamon-coloured soil is planted with regimented rows of vegetables and its field-to-plate farmhouse restaurant is just a few earthy footsteps away. It produces everything it serves – from homemade ricotta to bread baked in an original stone oven.
The farm, down a prickly-pear-fringed track, dates back to the Romans and was once a staging post on the olive oil route between Otranto on the east coast and Gallipoli on the west (olive oil from Puglia was once used to light London’s streetlamps). Inside there’s a cool warren of rooms, where rustic tables are spread with jauntily checked cloths. We go down to a cellar stacked with round cheeses ageing on shelves spread with fresh herbs.
Huge terracotta pots store black chickpeas and black-eyed beans while rafters are strung with pomodora pendula, hanging tomatoes picked in July and used throughout the winter for pomodori scatterisciati – whole tomatoes fried in olive oil with salt, garlic and onion until they burst open.
At a table beside a fireplace the size of a studio flat, the dishes come thick and fast: bowls of beans cooked on an open fire, creamy ricotta, orecchiette cime di rapa, the local speciality; handmade ear-shaped pasta with bitter turnip tops and pane cotto. Traditionally this was taken into the fields for lunch: day-old bread fried in olive oil, chilli and garlic then mixed with white beans and broccoli into a tasty stew. This hearty, wholesome cucina povera or peasant food is what the area has always been known for. Until now.
When Puglia first hit the travel headlines as the ‘new Tuscany’ the tourist hordes made it as far south as Lecce, the baroque beauty nicknamed the Florence of the South, bedding down in quaintly conical trulli along the way. Southerly Salento missed the first wave of tourists, possibly because of its lack of hobbit houses and the fact that it is, literally, the end of the road.
Now, however, the secret is out. Those in search of modern elegance can check into La Fiermontina a 17th-century house turned luxury hotel, replete with cutting-edge art. Or into one of several revamped masseria (fortified farmhouses) that pepper the local landscape – places such as Masseria Trapana and newly refurbished B&B Don Totu. Helen Mirren and her filmmaker husband, Taylor Hackford, even own a chic little bar here, the Farmacia Balboa in Tricase.
Holidaymakers are also sniffing out the picture-postcard ‘Greek’ villages here, a local dialect, Griko, is still spoken, stopping to marvel at the 12th-century mosaic floor of Otranto’s cathedral as they trip over the region’s Messapian menhirs and dolmens. They’ve clocked that there’s not one but two coastlines to choose from as the land dribbles into the sea beside Santa Maria di Leuca’s art nouveau villas; the Adriatic meets many rocky coves while the Ionian’s sweeps of pure white sand has been dubbed a ‘Mediterranean Maldives’. What’s more, the food’s good – and this summer one of the most exciting new ventures, culturally and gastronomically, flings open its doors.
Castello di Ugento is a golden-hued 17th-century fortress-turned-palazzo towering over the sleepy little town of Ugento. It has been in Massimo d’Amore’s family since 1643 and over the past few years he has steered a personal project to restore its frescoes, renovate the dilapidated building and convert it into a luxurious nine-suite boutique hotel (due to open in June), museum and state-of-the-art cookery school.
‘Cookery school’ underplays the sheer scale of the project. The Puglia Culinary Centre was launched in January as the Italian campus for the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in the Hudson Valley. For two semesters each year, from September until April, the students will study Italy’s cuisine under the guidance of Odette Fada, an Italian chef who has run restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic and cooked for the Grammys. In the summer, hotel guests will also be able to take classes.
Creating a professional kitchen requires precision engineering. The equipment had to be slotted into the castle’s original vaulted storerooms, 23m long and 6.5m high, freestanding constructions that could be removed if necessary without damaging the historic framework. “These were spaces created to store food, olives, grain flour. Now we have returned them to their original purpose,” Massimo explains.
The first area of the castle to be restored – and replanted – was the 18th-century walled kitchen garden. Wandering through it Odette points out ripening grapes, caper and chilli bushes, and a 200-year-old pomegranate tree. In January, she tells me, they pick the first artichokes, fennel, kale and spinach, in February cabbages and onions, in March pink beets and aubergines and in April courgettes, carrots, watercress and radish. “It’s easy to be a vegetarian in Puglia – we can harvest all year round,” she says.
That’s not the whole story, of course. Meat was not a regular fixture because cucina povera by definition is the food of the poor. Its remote location also meant people had to eat what was near to hand. “Salento was locavore before it became fashionable,” adds Odette. “We have two coastlines but fish is not traditionally eaten inland – only within walking distance of the sea.”
Foreign students needed somewhere to stay so Massimo also revamped an old masseria on the edge of town. Hence Ugento is not just gaining one hotel this summer, but two. Masseria Le Mandorle, named after its almond trees, is a sleek white boutique hotel with a swimming pool, tennis court, outdoor pizza oven and rooftop herb garden with views over silvery olive groves to the sea.
There’s more ancient history, another 17th-century palazzo and an 18th-century winery in the village of Scorrano. Giovanni Guarini’s family has been producing wine and olive oil here for 25 generations. His ancestor, Ruggero Guarini, was a Norman knight who took part in the first Crusade, settling in Salento on his way home in 1065. The vineyards are organic and in the summer there are tours, tastings and alfresco dinners at the Duca Carlo Guarani winery.
Until recently Puglia’s native grape varieties, the most famous of which are primitivo and negroamara, were just used to add body to wines from the north. Now, however, they’re enjoying recognition in their own right. Guarini has been experimenting and pours me a glass of bubbly. It’s not traditional to produce sparkling wine here; you need a grape with a low acidity, which he’s achieved by harvesting the negroamara grapes early. On more familiar territory the primitivo is deep and dark, swirling with spices and chocolate.
Next we taste the olive oils. The mandarin is a revelation. The olives and mandarins are pressed together, he tells me, the oil from the fruit’s skin mixing with the olives’. It’s exquisitely delicate –perfect with pasta, fish and salad.
Bottles clanking I head back to my apartment. The wine-tasting had been organised by luxury villa company The Thinking Traveller which rents out Guarani’s historic 14th-century palazzo as well as my contemporary apartment, Scale Nove, overlooking the sea on the edge of Gallipoli’s labyrinthine old town. As well as gourmet extras such as a wine delivery service, personal chef and cookery classes, the company offers a range of Think Experiences drawing on their local expertise, such as cheese-making at Le Stanzie and a hands-on course learning how to make pasticciotto, Puglia’s signature pastry, with award-winning chef, Giuseppe Zippo, which I had lined up for the next day.
They also give suggestions on where to eat and that evening I wander through the warren of streets to rustic seafood restaurant Osteria del Vico, one of their tips, for antipasto dell’ osteria – a moreish medley of fish featuring Gallipoli’s famous red shrimp served crudo with olive oil and crumbled hazelnut, fried mussels with ricotta scianti (strong ricotta) and breadcrumbs and a bruschetta topped with stracciatella cheese and salame di pesce on a pungent beetroot puree.
The next morning I wander down to the fish market to buy some red shrimp to barbecue on the sprawling roof terrace that evening, passing fishermen mending their nets in the sun and stallholders cracking open spiky sea urchins and shucking imperial oysters to tempt passersby. Then I thread my way through the silvery olive groves to Zippo’s bakery Le Mille Voglie, in the medieval village of Specchia.
Pasticciotto leccese, a short-crust pastry filled with creamy custard. It was invented in Galatina in Pasticceria Ascalone in 1740 but I am learning how to make this Salento favourite with Italy’s reigning panettone king.
Giuseppe beat 150 contestants from across the country to win the award in Milan last September. Panettone is a Lombardy invention, so a southern usurper was something of a shock. He cuts me a slice. It’s intensely, fragrantly fruity. His secret? ‘Love!’ (He also marinates the fruit in local honey for days). Next the pasticiotto.
It’s a food-focused day. That evening as the sun starts to sink and the boats return to harbour I turn the shrimps, sizzling on the grill. For dessert – the creamy, crumbly pasticciotto I had made earlier and a caffè in ghiaccio (iced espresso with sweet almond milk). Blondie wouldn’t be impressed by this dairy-free Salento speciality but, for me, it’s the icing on the cake.
HOW TO DO IT
Scale Nove sleeps six and costs from £2,445 per week. It is available exclusively through The Thinking Traveller. Think Experiences also include boat charters and guided tours. British Airways is launching flights from Heathrow to Brindisi from June, from £35 one-way (ba.com). More info: viaggiareinpuglia.it
Words | Lucy Gillmore
Images | Getty, Lucy Gilmore