Puglia – Off the Beaten Path

Posted May 3rd, 2016 by Vineyard in Travel

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Pristine beaches, an azure sea, pearl white villages, and thousand-year old olive trees twisted into tortuous shapes set against blood red earth and fields of wild flowers. Bordered by the Ionian and Adriatic seas, Puglia forms the heel of Italy’s boot and is perhaps the country’s best-kept secret.

 

Loved by Italian holiday-makers, but somewhat overlooked by other nations for more famous destinations, Puglia is a region with enough variety to offer something for everyone. Its food is unparalleled: this is Italy’s kitchen garden and its fresh produce is second to none. In the words of Antonio Carluccio, the London-based chef and restaurateur from Northern Italy who often holidays here, “What you might call the “industrialisation” of food doesn’t exist in Puglia; food comes straight from the land or sea to be eaten. It isn’t processed, it’s simply fresh and delicious.’

Just outside Alberobello, we sat down to lunch with the family of our guide, Mimmo Palmisano. We joined his mom in making the fresh orecchiette pasta that are synonymous with the region. The ‘little ears’ (as the name translates) look simple enough to make, but are in reality fiendishly difficult to shape and require an expert thumb technique that only Apulian mamme seem able to master. These are traditionally served with cima di rapa, or rapini are they are known in English, the flavourful, bitter green ‘turnip tops’.

All this is accompanied by wine made by a family friend from what is perhaps the king of Puglia’s grapes, Primitivo.

This big, rounded wine with bold fruit is generally high in alcohol and shares its genetic make-up with Californian Zinfandel. Its red cherries, leather and liquorice are balanced by a natural acidity and round tannins.

A couple of decades ago, Puglia was best known for producing grapes that were sold to give some ‘oomph’ (and alcohol content!) to other wines from Italy and France. Now that is changing, and the region boasts 25 different DOC areas and some excellent vintages of its own.

Another extensively used varietal – almost exclusively grown in Puglia – is Negroamaro (literal translation ‘bitter black’), whose drier style is not dissimilar to Cabernet Sauvignon and is used to produce some of the region’s best wines, including Salice Salentino. The grape is often blended and softened with Malvasia Nero. There are also other indigenous grapes, little known outside their region of origin, like Bombino Nero and Susumaniello, as well as dry reds with intense, earthy flavours, firm tannins and high acidity like Aglianico.

While Puglia’s production is concentrated on red wine and it is a red-drinker’s paradise, whites are growing in importance. Zingy Verdeca and aromatic Minutolo produce some excellent results, together with international varietals including Chardonnay and Sauvignon. After all, there has to be something chilled and fresh on a hot day to accompany all that superb seafood, like the sea urchins eaten in vast quantities everywhere from fancy restaurants to makeshift bars along the coast.

And we couldn’t talk about Puglia’s wines without mentioning its rosés. Perhaps the region’s most famous and versatile wines, here the Negroamaro, Primitivo and Nero di Troia grapes with their intense variety of flavours and palate textures are used to create rosés with a light, appealing colour and delicate floral aromas. These great value wines that pair perfectly with local cuisine and are great to drink at any time of the day certainly give the rosés of Provence a run for their money: Puglia produces more rosé wines than any other region in Italy.

One last special feature of wine making in Puglia is the style of vine cultivation, known as ad alberello, or bush vines. These distinctive, free-standing “little tree” vines help protect the grapes from the sun, making them more adept at surviving the region’s hot, dry summers.

Puglia is no longer Italy’s backward, neglected country cousin. There are a wealth of top class services, hotels and restaurants for visitors. Lecce, one of the region’s major cities is a baroque jewel. A destination in its own right, this ‘Florence of the South’ is one of the liveliest cities in Italy, with a rich artistic heritage and a vibrant restaurant and bar scene.

Meanwhile, back in little Alberobello, Mimmo Palmisano gives us a great introduction to the area’s distinctive architectural feature – the trulli, unique dry stone huts with conical roofs, dotted around the countryside, many of which have now been restored and are available to stay in. There are a range of theories behind the origin of the design. One of the more popular is that due to high property taxation the canny folk of Puglia created dry wall constructions that could be dismantled when tax inspectors were in the area and easily rebuilt when the coast was clear. Their unusual shape and whitewashed walls make them an appealing place to spend the night. Yet once, the trulli were very different places. With no indoor bathrooms or running water the trulli were primitive, agricultural dwellings.

Mimmo, a master trullo-restorer who is now bringing several of his own back to their former glory, tells us of Stella, an old lady who lived in the semi-ruined trullo that we go to visit. “She was like a grandmother to me. I used to play here when I was a little kid. She had two daughters but she wasn’t married so the church looked down on her. She was a kind of a witch, who used herbs and folk medicine to heal local people, who would come to visit her in secret. Yet her two daughters studied medicine at university, one is an oncologist. You see the link between folk wisdom and science?” As we leave the street where Stella’s house stands, we pass another trullo. “This is mine too,” says Mimmo, “I’m restoring it. Look, it’s perfect because it has no step and a wide doorway. So if a wheelchair user wants to come and stay in a trullo they can! No barriers, fully accessible, equal opportunities for everyone!” And he grins delightedly.

Perhaps nothing better expresses Puglia’s combination of ancient civilization and present-day optimism, openness, warm welcome and entrepreneurial spirit than that!
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