Puglia, which forms the heel of Italy’s boot, is one of the country’s poorest regions. However, what it lacks in the glitz and glamour of nearby Sicily, it makes up with one of the most authentic culinary experiences in the country, discovers Divia Harilela.
Puglia, a region best known for its whitewashed hill towns and bucolic landscapes, stretches from the Adriatic Sea to the Ionian, covering 800km of ruggedly-beautiful coastline. Its waters teem with exotic seafood you won’t find anywhere else in the world, and its land is bountiful and devoted to agriculture, the region’s biggest industry. Puglia’s unique geography promises low humidity and incredibly rich soil, thereby guaranteeing the best produce, from vegetables to durum wheat, to beef cattle and lamb, while its ancient olive trees, known for their generous trunks and twisting branches, produce 40 per cent of the country’s olive oil.
Italian cuisine is known for its simplicity, and nowhere more so than in Puglia; the region’s cucina povera (literally “poor cuisine”), which has always appealed to Italians, who venture from afar to indulge in the region’s “slow food” dishes, is now seducing travellers from abroad. Prepared using local culinary techniques and traditions that haven’t changed over the centuries, in Puglia’s cucina povera you’ll discover the intricacy of ear-shaped Orecchiette pasta and the intimacy of Stracciatella di bufala and other artisan cheeses, which are made by hand in family-run farms.
Interestingly, each area in Puglia has its own specialty. In the small town of Torre Canne you’ll find a series of outdoor “restaurants,” that look more like shacks. Don’t let their appearance deter you, as these simple eateries are known for serving up the most exquisite ricci di mare or sea urchins, which are taken from the surrounding seas daily (take a peek behind the restaurant and you’ll probably spy a line of wetsuits hanging out to dry). It’s a no-frills experience - around eight to ten urchins are cut open and presented with fresh crusty bread, with which you soak up the urchin’s sweet yet salty juices.
The seaside towns of Monopoli and Polignano a Mare are best known for their fresh catch of the day. While tourists go to eat at the latter’s over-hyped cave restaurant, locals head to Osteria di Chichibio, a local icon renowned for raw seafood that’s prepared so simply that it melts in the mouth.
But it’s not all just fishy business. Nestled in the hills above the coast are the picturesque towns of Cisternino and Locorotondo, which are known for their sweet white wines. In Altumara, the first town in Europe to receive a DOP classification (Denomination of Origin of Production) for its bread, the scent of freshly baked loaves wafts through the air from the communal wood-burning ovens, where local housewives bake bread together.
Martina Franco is not only famed for its summer opera festival, but also for its local meats, which are delivered direct from the farm to small butcher shops dotted throughout the town. Each butcher is connected to a restaurant, which is crammed with communal style wood tables and chairs. Beyond, local cooks work over open wood fires, ensuring that the meat is tender, juicy and bursting full of flavour.
At the UNESCO listed heritage town of Alberobello, finish your tour of the trulli, cone shaped houses that bring to mind The Smurfs, with a visit to a local eatery for homely and rustic dishes such as gnumerieddi (lamb intestines) and orecchiette con la rape topped with leafy green turnip tops. The pasta is made with just flour and water giving it a meatier texture - eggs were once considered a luxury and the recipe hasn’t changed in generations.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Divia Harilela has worked in the lifestyle and fashion media for over 17 years. Most recently she served as the fashion editor for The South China Morning Post, where she remains a contributing editor. She also contributes to a range of high profile publications and websites including Business of Fashion, Vogue China, Howtospendit.com and Departures among many others. She is also editor and founder of The D’Vine, Asia’s leading luxury and fashion website.