You say Apulia, I say Puglia.

Matera, Unesco World Heritage site in Basilicata.  Click on image for larger view.

Jody is still in Europe, hobnobbing with her fellow wizards, while I’m back home, working on my fourth espresso of the morning since my circadian clock stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that I’m no longer in the Mezzogiorno, the land that W. H. Auden aptly dubbed the sunburnt otherwhere.  I thought I’d post a few pictures of our trip (Wait!  Come back!) and offer a few observations about Puglia, food and biking.  The photos appear with a higher than usual resolution, so if you click on them you’ll be taken to a much larger version, which you can magnify even more, a helpful option if you want to see the panorama of Matera above, for example.

These are olive trees.  One-thousand y. o. olive trees, and still producing olives!  Having travelled in France and Italy I’ve seen my share of ancient trees, but never with trunks rivaling junior sequoias.  As you might imagine, such trees are considered treasures, and not just by Puglians.  The regional government prudently now requires the tagging of any tree over 100 years old to prevent their removal or destruction.

With an open landscape of olive trees and relatively flat terrain Puglia is a cyclist’s paradise.  The approaches to hill towns can challenge asthmatic wheezers like me, but not my wife.  Traffic on rural roads is light to nonexistent and there is often a sense of emptiness about the countryside.  Where are the people?   It comes as no surprise to discover that much of the area was abandoned in the 1920s as laborers trapped in a sharecropper system of farming emigrated in search of better prospects.  Standing on the side of the road, it can be hard to find visual telltales suggesting you’re not seeing things as they were 100 or even 200 years ago.  The emptiness,  a crumbling wall, a neolithic dolmen, or a pre-Roman olive mill all point to the past, and Puglia has a lot of past.

As a relatively recent destination for tourists Puglia has had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other more travelled regions of Italy.  Determined to preserve its unspoiled coastline, zoning and pollution controls have prevented some of the egregious development mistakes seen elsewhere.  New coastal construction is often restricted to two stories, and one afternoon as I admired fishing boats in the coastal town of Polignano a mare I realized the crystal blue water was so clear I was actually seeing the floor of the harbor.  From the standpoint of pollution, Puglia is regularly rated one of the greenest regions of Italy, with a progressive commitment to preserving the environment. Signs on the gateposts of masserie (manor farms, now often accommodating guests) proclaim their affiliation with agriturismo.  (The staff at the masseria where we staying apologized for not returning a set of my laundered biking togs after a day – they don’t use clothes dryer and had to wait for everything to line dry.)  

Jody and local chef Rocco Cartia breaking down a goat from the market during one the three classes she gave over the course of a week.

Everyone cooking together.

After only a week I can’t claim to be an expert on Puglian cuisine, but I saw a lot of  stunning primary ingredients–fruit, vegetables and seafood–often reworked in simple, resourceful ways.  (Biggest regret: I didn’t get to taste the purple fava beans I saw at a market.)  At an elaborate meal in which it seemed the restaurant owner was determined to make sure we let no traditional Puglian specialty go unsampled we had a wide tubular pasta lightly dressed with a simple tomato sauce presented atop a fava puree.  A second pasta course followed–wagon wheels in a different tomato-eggplant sauce atop a puree of yellow pepper.  Both were delicious.  Local food never seems to stray far from its origins, whether it’s fava been puree, grilled octopus, or raw sea urchins.

Fresh mozzarella is almost as ubiquitous as olives, and we ate both at every meal, except breakfast.  Yesterday, after making a salad for lunch, I was seized with a feeling of uneasiness.  Some internal alarm was pinging.  Then I got it: where’s the fresh mozzarella?

Seafood is equally striking.  After a tour of a wholesale seafood purveyor a couple of workers eating a plate of raw mussels invited me to join them.  Their mistake.  I ate one, rapidly followed by two more.  Blindfolded, I would have mistaken them for oysters, so sharp and briny were they.  At the same establishment I saw at least a half-dozen unfamiliar shrimp/prawn/lobster-like creatures–including some giant shrimp with scarlet heads and orange bodies that we incorporated into our antipasti array one night.  Did I mention the octopus?  The sea urchins?  By the way, English-speaking peoples of the world have sea urchins; Italians have sea porcupines.  One of the charming things about travelling up the Puglian coast are casual ristoranti tipici advertising their specialties – octopus and sea urchins – the way seaside New England restaurants flag fried clams.

Okay, Ken, so what was the wildest thing you ate?  

The wildest was also the most ordinary–a bowl of handmade cavatelli, their cowry-like shapes glistening with a tomato sauce flavored with… horse meat.  A cast-iron pot of meatballs and brasciole fashioned from the meat that had flavored the sauce accompanied the dish.  The owner of the restaurant, like many of the Puglians we met, positively beamed with delight at my order, at someone willing to step into his world, and insisted in grating the local cacciocotta ricotta (I have no idea if that’s spelled correctly) on my pasta.  His pleasure of sharing something special still gleamed, untarnished by decades of visitors traipsing through his back yard.

Would I go back?  In a heartbeat, with or without a bike, although it could be dangerous–I might take up eating mozzarella or sea urchins for breakfast.  In the meantime, we’ll be posting about some of the treats we ate or made while in Puglia.  No ricci di mare (sea porcupines), alas, but I can guarantee octopus is on the way.  Ciao.  Ken

Note: Take a moment to give yourself an esthetic treat and read Auden’s bitterweet poem Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno in its entirety at Chris Horner’s website.

You can see photos of our trip, including shots of a subterranean olive press, cooking classes, food we prepared, and places we visited, here.

26 thoughts

  1. Beautiful photos, Ken. I can’t wait for a recipe or two. I am deeply jealous of your summer….

    So, what is in that last photo? Identify, please! (a cheese binky?)

    • Hi, Sally–Sorry I’ve been off the grid for so long. Yes, it’s a pacifier. In addition to mozzarella, Puglian cheesemakers also make scamoroza, in which the cheese is formed into a ball, “strangled” with a string, and allowed to hang for a few hours. The hanging period makes it more acidic and firmer (because it loses moisture). Some cheese intended for the scamorza treatment is formed into animals (soft fresh mozzarella won’t hold the shape). Our guy had a sense of humor, so in addition to quickly fabricating a mouse, a pig, a rat and an elephant, he concluded with a binky. As a sad aside, I later learned he had become lactose intolerant as an adult, possibly the result of having worked with cheese since he was 14. Ken

    • It was a rare opportunity to vist a part of the world that in certain respects remains much as once was, without the grinding poverty. You might interested to know that until the 16th century the area was Greek Orthodox (a nearby village was called Pezze di Greco, “Piece of Greece). The are a few photographs of a baroque chapel–behind the red door–that appear in my Flickr set, part of the Catholic Church’s efforts to win the area over to Roman Catholicism. Ken

  2. I confess that last week I was a bit worried when you said you would be in Europe and might not be posting this week. How would I start my Friday without the Garum Factory? In short, where’s the fresh mozzarella? I was so pleased to find this interesting installment in my in-box this morning (and a bit chagrined that I have not updated my own blog for a week or so and don’t have a trip to Europe to use as an excuse). I can’t wait for the recipes. Welcome home. Glad you had a wonderful, tasty experience.

    • You’re so sweet. It wasn’t all sea urchin roe and fresh mozzarella–Alitalia lost my bike–but perhaps it’s a testament to just how good things were that the bike loss was a bump in the road compared to being there. It was also humbling. People are passionate about food without seeming to make a big deal about it. We can learn a lot from that. Ken

    • Check out my Flickr link above to get a closer look at the “trulli.” Although Alberobello, where Jody is standing, is an entire town composed of trulli (singular = trullo) most of the time you see them in isolation, one or two on the side of the road or off in the middle of a field or grove of olive trees. Most scholars believe that the technique for trullo construction arrived with sailors from Greece, where a similar type of fieldstone structure can be found (but nowhere else in Italy). A trullo often rests, especially the isolated ones, atop a cistern with walls 6 – 9 feet thick. The visible walls of the above-ground structure actually rest on the inner portion of the buried cistern walls. The conical roofs are constructed of two layers of stone, the outermost one is made of slabs of split limestone, quite common in Puglian fields. The two layers prevent water from leaking inside the structure, diverting run-off onto the ground our down the walls where it can seep into the cistern. Much of Puglia itself rests atop a layer of limestone only about 6 feet below the soil surface. Children were often assigned the task of scouring fields for pieces of flat limestone, necessary for the roof, and lighter than the other bigger heavier rocks often used to build the walls. Regarding the cooking classes – this recent trip, arranged through Southern Visions, in Bari, sold out pretty quickly last year because so many of the people have previously travelled together with Jody. Right now we’re just beginning to think about someplace else to go next fall. When we have more concrete plans we’ll announce it on the blog. Ken

  3. Wow! Great Album!

    With walls at least 6 ft thick, the trulli converted into homes must be wonderfully nice and cool inside. I’d love to see them for myself some day – another place for my list. I’ll keep my eyes open for word of your next trip. If I start riding my back now I might be ready by next fall :-)

  4. Now that looks like a fantastic holiday. I love the fact that you did biking and cooking/eating. A great combo as you don’t feel so bad pigging out as you’ve done some serious exercise. The course looks wonderful – I love the communal food preparation and eating – all looks very jovial. In fact all your photos have been making me feel very hungry. Puglia is a wonderful place – don’t you just love the trulli houses – and as you said far less touristy than other parts of Italy. Did you go to Lecce – ‘the Florence of the south’? Looking forward to you sharing some of the regions recipes.

    • Hi, Torie–We did go to Lecce (the last town on our list), and as you suggested, gorgeous. (The tiny door photo in my Flickr set is from Lecce.) I think my biggest takeaway is the quality of what’s available to anyone in an ordinary open market–fruit, vegetables, seafood–just amazing. And for not very much money. I’ll be going back. Ken

      • It was through Southern Visions Travel (, with Jody teaching several class over the course of a week. SVT is based in Puglia. They run bike-wine-food tours in Puglia and Croatia. There’s a group of 15-20 folks who’ve been travelling annually with Jody on culinary biking trips–I think this was their third time together. We’re thinking about publicizing a future trip on the blog to see if there’s enough interest to generate a second annual trip–we usually plan them about a year out. I’ll keep you posted. Ken

  5. I can be eating sea urchin and/or mozzarella (maybe not so fresh and I know how fresh it is in Puglia) every morning but do not. ^^

    I did love eating in Puglia especially in Ostuni. The food at our masseria near Fasano was good, too. We did not have so much luck in Lecce as we arrived right before 1 pm when everyone closed shops and went home for lunch and there was nothing available for us to eat. There was one cafe open that served paninis and that’s where we ended up!

    • Hi, Ayako–Is there no place you haven’t been? :-) Our masseria was was outside of Ostuni and it is indeed a beautiful place, although for sheer physical beauty I think Matera was my favorite spot–I could have spent a few days there hiking up and down the ravine, photographing and visiting the caves. The trulli were also remarkable. We might do a post on taralli, the pretzel-like bread rings made with a sourdough culture that farmers sheltering in the trulli used to take with them because they would last several weeks. Ken

      • Haha. Because I have a good Italian friend (from Bergamo) I travel with, I have been to a few places in Italy. But still far too few. ;-)

        We did not go in the direction of Matera but stayed on the coast. We did go to Alberobello which was really cute. I cannot remember if we ate there; I don’t think so.

        I like taralli. There is a nice Puglian restaurant in Shibuya (my office neighborhood) that gives you a bag of homemade taralli to take home after dinner.

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