When I was initially invited to Taste of Puglia , I responded “Yes!” immediately. How could I turn down a week of touring, eating, and drinking in Italy? However, I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly certain where Puglia is located. On my way home that evening, I stopped by the bookstore to browse through books of Italy, and to determine the exact location of my travels.
Apulia is located in the heel of the boot of Italy, bordered by the Adriatic Sea. It is often considered to be the “best kept secret” of Italy as well as “the next Tuscany”. The region produces many high quality foods, among them extra virgin olive oil, cheese, vegetable preserves, pasta, and sweets. A number of fine wines also originate in this region from some interesting and uncommon grapes, such as uva di troi and primitivo.
A Taste of Puglia program is organized by Oldways Preservation Trust and sponsored by AINT. Oldways is a nonprofit food issues think tank which educates consumers and promotes a healthy diet, specifically the Mediterranean Diet and consumption of whole grains. AINT is a nonprofit organization sponsored by the European Union. The organization’s mission it to promote local high quality products and producers with the long term goal of exporting them. Together these two organizations guided retailers, importers, and buyers of Italian products on a 5 day culinary exploration and tasting of the region.
Contrary to popular belief, the Taste of Puglia experience really was work! We left from our lodging at 8:30 am, not returning home until after 11 pm each night. During those hours, we visited pasta and olive oil producers, artisan bakers and cheese makers. We also toured a local candy factory and a farm which produces preserved vegetables. In between these visits, we were treated to many unique dining experiences. On the first day, after touring the olive groves and learning about their methods of production, we were lucky enough to finish with lunch at the proprietors’ home. The mother of the family served us course after course, starting with baked orecchiette in terra cotta pots and finishing with baskets of apricots and cherries picked straight from their fields.
Each meal gave us a taste of the traditional dishes of the region. The cuisine is pure and simple, without the burden of heavy sauces or frivolous garnish. Pasta and vegetables are prevalent in Puglia, taking center stage over meat and seafood courses. Dinner typically started with 3- 4 antipasti dishes such as pickled beans, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and cipollinis, and Cerignola olives. These items were often accompanied by a basket of taralli, a doughnut-shaped crunchy snack made from flour, olive oil, and white wine. Depending on where they are made, taralli made be flavored with fennel or cipollinis. A couple of times we were indulged with freshly made burrata, a “bag” of cow’s milk cheese which encloses a mixture of heavy cream and unspun mozzarella curds. The result is a butter-like, sweet and creamy center. The next one or two courses was usually pasta: orecchiette served with a red sauce, small meatballs and beans, or with sautéed broccoli rabe and garlic. A meat or seafood course might consist of pork, goat, lamb, mussels or cuttlefish. Desserts were fairly simple, often fresh fruits such as figs, apricots, or cherries. Other sweets included pralined almonds and individual sponge cakes filled with divinely light and sweet lemon cream. At each meal there was always a bottle of the pungent, peppery extra virgin olive oil, which was either drizzled on the pasta dish or over some wild greens in a salad. And of course, the meal would not be complete without a sampling of the local wines.
In addition to visiting producers and dining three meals a day, we also had the occasion to visit some cultural sites such as the Castel del Monte and the town of Alberolbello, home of the conical houses. Both were amazing gems in this otherwise humble region.
The people and the cuisine of Puglia have a special place in my heart. The land does not boast the glamour of big cities or the obvious beauty that one might find in Tuscany. However, in my eyes, this simplicity is what gives Puglia its charm and appeal. Selfishly, I wish we could keep it as Italy’s best kept secret!
– Katie, Di Bruno Bros. Catering