Forgotten Flavours of Puglia

Somewhere between neat, tall rows of grape vines and the sea of shimmering olive trees with their ancient, disfigured and twisted trunks, I found myself in heaven. An intense blue sky and picturesque white-stoned towns only added to the already blissful atmosphere. I’m in Puglia. And more precisely, I’m slowly eating myself to death in Puglia. Not on purpose, but that’s just the way it’s done here. Food is taken seriously. When they say “antipasto” they actually mean twenty portions of the most exquisite, yet simple, fresh ingredients that will leave you with nowhere near enough space to fit in that plate of orecchiette you have coming up next. Not to mention the main.

The problem is that I want to be able to eat everything; it’s all so good. I know that it’s one of the cardinal rules here – finish everything on your plate and you’ll earn a place in the hearts of the locals, but I physically just can’t eat another bite. Well, okay, maybe just a taste of that marinated zucchini with mint. A bit of homemade sausage. A forkful of cavatelli with a hit of caciocavallo.

Then somehow they manage to convince me that I do have that extra space for dessert, a bowl of the freshest fruit you could ever imagine, plus of course a homemade amaro – this is the key to digesting everything you’ve just stuffed your face with – such as the fresh bay leaf digestif at our last meal, poured out of a frosted glass vase, deep green like freshly mowed grass.

This has gone beyond over-eating. It’s like a sport. I’m wondering if I stay long enough, could I train myself to eat as much as my generous hosts are offering? Last night I had to forego the dinner plans and went to bed with just a glass of water. This morning, I skipped breakfast (okay, I ate a fioroni, a local fig – the most luscious, jammy, fat fig I have ever had the pleasure of eating). This was all in preparation for our lunch: I had to be in top form, I had to feel hungry. The worst thing that could happen was to feel too full at the antipasto. We were going to Antichi Sapori, in between Andria and the mysterious Castel del Monte, to fulfill a much-anticipated visit to the restaurant of my dreams.

Recommended to me by my wonderful foodie friend Giulia, as well as my trusty Slow Food guide, Antichi Sapori has a beautiful philosophy behind it, or literally very close to it: a garden. The menu is prepared with the freshest vegetables you could ever ask for from the neighbouring garden looked after by chef and owner Pietro Zito and his father. The menu is carefully and genuinely reproduced from the ancient traditions of this region of Puglia in the High Murgia, respecting the products that were once the only thing between the people of this land and starvation – such as wild herbs and weeds collected by hand, grano arso, the left-over grains found in the fields, burnt by the hot engines of the harvesting machines but certainly more accessible than regular grains for flour. The restaurant gets bonus points from me for also using solar power and recycling the heat from their stoves to create hot water.

But on to the food… We start with an antipasto. I take a deep breath, expecting as assault of dishes, but instead the waiter brings out timely, well-portioned tastings of the best the rich soil and sun this corner of Puglia has to offer. A puree of fava beans, focaccia made with the smoky-tasting grano arso, delicately grilled sweet onions, baby artichokes cooked in ashes and another version delicately vinegared and scattered with mint, the best ricotta I have ever tasted accompanied with delightful candied celery, zucchini flowers stuffed with capocollo and ricotta then ever so slightly melted in the oven and finally, aquasala, similar to Tuscan panzanella but without vinegar and served with sweet, crunchy, round local cucumbers and the ripest tomatoes.

Every single vegetable burst with flavour and freshness, absolutely singing out in their respective dishes. I have never had such pleasure eating and tasting each single mouthful or morsel. That was just the antipasto.

To follow we had a puree of artichokes with thyme and ricotta salata, a salty, aged version of the fresh ricotta most people know. It was a beautiful dish of the freshest artichokes, undisguised by any other flavours until you caught a playful bite of ricotta. Then of course there was the orecchiette, the staple pasta in Puglia – little “ear” shaped rounds of pasta made with quick hands – made of that ancient, smoky grano arso, with a sublime sauce of tender zucchini shoots and explosive little chunks of grilled ricotta salata.

I never made it to the mains, which consisted mainly of mouth-watering mounds of grilled meat, including donkey, one of the specialities of the area. The waiter was terribly disappointed with me, but I did manage to find room in the second stomach I save for dessert. The quasi-cassata (almost cassata) is Antichi Sapori’s version of a famous Sicilian dessert. Theirs is made with ricotta and a delicate sponge cake base, flavoured with specks of candied fruit and toasted almonds and topped with a thin veil of chocolate-backed marzipan, it sent me over the edge. To finish were the on-house local – and extremely addictive – sugared almonds.

I was more than full. But it was all worth every single bite. No doubt the house digestif, a handmade alcoholic delight flavoured with torroncino (an Italian nougat), liquorice and coffee, will set things straight. That, and the very civilised ritual of sleeping the rest of the afternoon off – the heat, the empty streets and closed shutters means that you have no choice either but to go home, have a lie down and wait for the cooling breezes of the evening and the magical powers of the digestivo to be able to embark on your next meal.

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18 Responses to “Forgotten Flavours of Puglia”
  1. Laura says:

    I absolutely need to return to Italy for a taste of Puglia. It sounds wonderful, exactly the kind of food I love to eat!

  2. Absolutely stunning blog and pictorials. I see I’ll be spending a lot of time here catching up on your past posts. Have a wonderful day!!

  3. Sarah says:

    Just lovely. The meal and your words and photos. My mouth waters at the freshness and care that went into your meal.

  4. Karen says:

    What a beautiful site you have. I’m getting lost in Puglia looking at this post..so rugged but full of soul. I dream about visiting someday and connecting with my ancestors. And yes, eating!
    ~Karen

  5. This articles bring to mind all the intense flavours I love when I am in Puglia. I didn’t manage to meet you last night in Florence but enjoyed your photo presentation.

  6. Patty says:

    Oh my god…I’m feeling sick reading this story. Yes, it is true, Puglia is like Africa: after you leave it, you will miss it forever. Give a look to my post and you will find someone stroke like you by this place. Can you read italian? Hope so. Thanks to Juls if I discovered your beautiful blog. Ciao a presto, Pat
    http://andantecongusto.blogspot.com/2011/04/antichi-sapori-mangiare-e-un-gesto.html

    • Emiko says:

      Grazie Patty! Che bel post sul Antichi Sapori, concordo con il commento “e’ gioia allo stato puro”! I dolci sembrano meravigliosi… Puglia definitely had an affect on me… totally unforgettable and I cannot wait to go back and explore more.

  7. Angelo says:

    HI,

    A friend who admires you directed me to your site. I wondered there today, my first day back at work after a short holiday. And I stumbled upon your blog on Forgotten Flavours of Puglia. In the dreary, burning humid day of Washington, when it seems that Brel’s song “Le Plat Pays” really was meant for this town (but with 50 degrees of heat in addition), I had a sudden, pleasant and unforgettable whiff of colors and flavours that reminded me of where I come from: Puglia. It made me feel alive again and I imagined as if a fresher sun was piercing through the heavy clouds and this wet, hot weather. You omitted many things on the difficulties of this region, rightfully so, in the context of your blog – but you portrayed beautifully the palatal wonders of this little culinary oasis, hidden from the main path, somehow forgotten by the masses of tourists roaming Italy and, maybe for this reason, still partially unspoiled. I roamed a lot in my life as well, this is now the 7th country where I live, I had (and still have) my share of “Mal d’Africa” and never felt I would feel homesick, until I watched your images and read your words. I wanted to thank you for that. At times going back to your roots is as important as looking forward optimistically. Today was such a day. Again, Thank you.

    • Emiko says:

      Grazie Angelo, wow it’s the ultimate compliment when a local loves the way his home has been described! I think that every place has its ups and downs, but it’s when the beauty of a place (and maybe not always conventional beauty) overcomes every other aspect that you know it is special. Puglia is definitely one of these places, and it is beyond me why it’s been forgotten by tourists, as you say. I’m torn between telling everyone about how wonderful it is and keeping it all secret! I agree that going back to your roots is so important (especially for roamers like us!) – how lucky you are that yours come from a place so rich in beauty and tradition.

  8. Heidi says:

    Just returned from Puglia. I am looking for the recipe for a olive studded panini or bun from this region. Also trying to find the cookbook “Taste of Puglia”. Thank You!

    • Emiko says:

      Hi Heidi, I don’t know the cookbook but I know the bun you are looking for, it’s also known as a “puccia”: 600 gr durum flour, 400 gr of plain flour, 300 gr pitted black olives, 150 ml olive oil, salt, 1 packet of fresh yeast. Dissolve the yeast in lukewarm water. Add this to the flours, oil and salt and combine. Add olives and knead until elastic. Divide the dough into little buns and let rise for a couple of hours. Bake at 180°C for 20 mins. Good luck!

  9. Emiko, I am finally headed on the Puglia trip I had mentioned to you in an email months and months ago. I can’t wait to try your recommendations, including Antichi Sapori ~ I have just contacted them to make a reservation.

    Many thanks again for sharing all your wonderful information.

    Cheers,
    Domenica

    • Emiko says:

      That’s wonderful, Domenica! I do hope you enjoy it, make sure you arrive very hungry! Would love to hear all about your trip when you’re back!

  10. OMG drool! I remember being in Italy, looking at all of the dishes I had to eat, and pondering whether or not I would be able to handle eating them all! So much good food over there though :D

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