When people ask me how my trip to Puglia was, and I quickly and assuredly respond, "absolutely amazing", it most often begs the follow-up question of "why?" My response is qualified, and it must be, within the context of my profession. I am fortunate enough to travel to Italy annually- each year to a different region- to visit wineries we represent at Trattoria Delia and to explore and enjoy the culinary and oenological landscape.
That being said, Puglia stands alone amongst many visits to Italy. There is something inexplicably consistent about the warmth of southern hospitality and it rings especially true in Puglia (the heel of Italy). Perhaps it is the slower pace of life or perhaps it is because Pugila is off the beaten path of the throngs of American tourists that visit Tuscany and other northern regions each year. Whatever it is, our hosts were incredibly hospitable. Our tasting appointments turned into all day visits with long walks through vineyard lands, extensive barrel tastings, and three hour meals with extended family. In Toscana and Piemonte we seldom had the pleasure of meeting owners or winemakers, the focus of property tours was almost always bright, shiny stainless steel tanks, roto-fermenters, and brand-new French Oak barrels, and we never barrel tasted. And we were certainly never invited home for siesta and multiple course lunches with the family. The whole experience in Puglia seemed so genuine. Owners and winemakers took the time to explain and point out the nuances of their properties and wines. Our experiences in their homes and with their families gave us insight to the rhythms of everyday life.
And the wines themselves, you ask. They were amazing too! For most consumers, southern Italy is a world of obscure, indigenous varietals that are difficult to pronounce. It was incredible to have the opportunity to explore this world and to taste the un-tapped potential of these ancient varietals. Tormaresca, of Antinori fame, is doing phenomenal work with Aglianico, Primitivo, and Negroamaro. Run out and try their Masseria Maime (100% Negroamaro)- a three glass winner that will blow your socks off! Santa Lucia was my favorite visit yet in any region of Italy. What Roberto Capone is doing with Nero di Troia, an unheralded and ageworthy red varietal, is phenomenal. The problem is actually finding his wines in your local wine store. And Taurino, responsible for bringing international acclaim to Puglia, makes fabulous blends from Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, including the highly regarded Patriglione. Above and beyond, I recommend drinking a Rosato (Rose) next time you are feeling Puglian. Yes they are chilled; no, they are not sweet. They are dynamic, often spicy, and absolutely delicious with seafood.
Which brings me to food. If you love vegetables and fruits, Puglia is gastronomic heaven. Think broccoli rabe (ripini), chicory greens, cherry tomatoes, arugula, artichokes, peppers, eggplant, fava and cannellini beans, apricots, clementines, persimmons, figs, and peaches. And don't forget all of the artisinal pasta shapes beyond the recently famed Orecchiette, amazing cheeses including Pecorino, Stracciatella and Burrata. The seafood is so fresh and abundant and used creatively like octopus carpaccio, pesce crudo (raw fish), langostines, prawns, mussels, and clams to die for. And I certainly don't want to give you the impression that they don't eat meat. The region is known for its horse and donkey sausages, carpaccios, and grilled kebabs. And there is plenty of other amazing sausage, braesala, prosciutto crudo and cotto, and beef carpaccio. Don't worry- grilled meat is everywhere! Puglian cuisine is a quintessential example of what makes Italian cooking so special and so unique. First, it is about high quality, fresh, local ingredients prepared simply and in logical and harmonious combinations. Second, it is a celebration of diversity and the bounty of the land and sea.
While the hospitality, food, and wine of Puglia can only be described as "absolutely amazing", traveling as a tourist in Puglia is not for the Italy uninitiated. First and foremost, there most certainly is a language barrier. The quantity and quality of English spoken is nothing like it is in Northern Italy. It is highly recommended to at least speak and understand tourist or elementary Italian. To make things even more interesting, much of the Italian you do hear on the streets is in dialect, seemingly a different language than Florentine Italian. The good news is that, at least in my experience, Italians love it when you attempt to communicate in their language and are more than willing to help you learn your way. My wife's ability to speak French and my ability to speak German also proved invaluable when our Italian proved too cumbersome to express a need or an idea.
Figuring out where to stay, where to dine, what sites to visit, and most importantly, what their significance is also proved to be difficult in Puglia. From what I've been told, however, the tourist infrastructure has improved dramatically in the past 5-10 years to address this shortcoming. Lonely Planet is supposedly coming out with their first guide book on the region in February 2008. In the meantime, finding information on B&Bs, restaurants, and tourist attractions requires some internet savvy and a bit of patience. And ideally some friends who have travelled in Puglia to get you started. Luckily for me, my wife is a librarian and the owners of Trattoria Delia vacation in Puglia frequently. I highly recommend this website for accommodations. Reasonable rates for B&Bs and very affordable, delicious meals can easily be found throughout this region.
And my recommendations, you ask. Well, I recommend renting a fuel-efficient car and driving. You will most likely start your travels from Bari. While not too spectacular itself, Bari is very close to many wonderful coastal towns and ancient hilltop villages. A little farther away you will find Baroque cities and verdant nature preserves. We loved our time in Trani, Giovinazzo, Bisceglie, Castel del Monte, Minervino, Cisternino, Martina Franca, Alberabello, Ostuni, Copertino and Guagnano. We wished we had the time to visit Otranto and Lecce in the far south and the Gargano Peninsula in the far north. I guess that's what they made next time for.
In my next posting on Bottles and Glasses, I hope to incorporate some photos into my musings of Puglia and conclude my trilogy with descriptions of my favorite wine from our trip and the menu from my favorite dinner (11 courses and 4 hours) EVER!