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What they’re eating in Puglia

Once one of Italy’s most overlooked culinary destinations, Puglia is now firmly on the map for its plant-based dishes, pristine seafood and rising crop of converted farmhouses offering gourmet experiences.

Published 10 Dec 2019, 12:23 GMT
Wild and rural, Puglia's cuisine is rooted in the Italian tradition of cucina povera, or ‘poor food’.
Photograph by Getty

At the southeastern tip of Italy’s boot-shaped map, Puglia has become a magnet for food-focused travellers — its cuisine rooted in Italian cucina povera. The region’s rustic restaurants aren’t the only places serving this traditional ‘poor food’, converted masseria farm estates are dishing up contrastingly refined retakes on this classic peasant cuisine. Wild, rural and uniquely Southern Italian, Puglia, has one of the country’s longest stretches of coastline and is home to some of its most impressive ancient cave dwellings and rock-carved churches, as seen in the off-the-beaten track town of Laterza. Draped along a dramatic ravine — one of the largest canyons in Europe — in the heart of the Terra della Gravine Regional Park, the area surrounding Laterza is home to some 30 rupestrian rock churches dating back to the 11th century.

Like its unique landscape, the region offers some distinctive food. Here are some dishes that are not to be missed:

1. Focaccia Pugliese
Best-known for olive production, Puglia’s vast croplands were once almost entirely given over to wheat. Recent years have seen a renaissance of ancient varieties of grain but the region’s bready basics are heard to beat, such as taralli (bread sticks, often fennel seed-laced), and frisella (crunchy, stone-baked white bread). Puglia’s peppery dark green olive oil is a key ingredient in focaccia Pugliese, baked with intense heat, traditionally in a heavy cast iron pan, black olives and small tomatoes pressed lovingly into the deep cushion-like dough. It’s the hearth-bread ancestor of pizza.
Where to try it: Panificio di Fonzo, Laterza.

2. Mozzarella Pugliese
Not to be confused with buffalo mozzarella from neighbouring Campania, Puglia’s soft, spherical white curd cheese is made from cow’s milk. The fresh variety, served with basil and tomatom is the go-to, as is the indulgent cream-centred variant, burrata. But branch out: sample scamorza (smoked mozzarella), and caciocavallo, the tangy yellow ‘cheese on horseback’, named for its ageing and draining process, rope-tied over a wooden board.
Where to try it: Masseria Candile, a former post office on the Via Appia road to Rome, along which, among other goods, Laterza’s prized blue-and-white Majolica ceramics were once transported. Today, the masseria is a hub for cheese-making workshops. Contrada Candile, Laterza. T. 00 392 530 3845.

3. Wine
Malvasia, negroamaro, primitivo, aglianico… the list of punchy, sun-soaked Puglian wines is hard to exhaust. While white and rose are produced here, it’s the strong, almost black-red wines for which Puglia is famed.
Where to try it: In Terra della Gravine Regional Park, the wine resort of Masseria Amastuola produces organic wines and is home to a boutique hotel and a viticulture-focused fine dining restaurant (set in a smartly converted cowshed). The place is nestled in acres of vineyard-garden designed by landscaped architect Fernando Caruncho.

4. Orecchiette con cima di rapa
Possibly the most archetypal Pugliese dish: orecchiette is pasta shaped, as its name suggests, like ‘little ears’, made in simple Southern Italian style with flour, salt and water – no eggs. These are most typically partnered with cima di rapa, dark cruciferous greens (broccoli raab). Classic recipes will use salty, garlic-fried breadcrumbs with chilli flakes and perhaps some dried anchovies to give the pasta an umami kick, in place of parmesan (in the past, too-expensive to get a look in on Puglia’s cucina povera menus).
Where to try it: Il Vecchio Frantoio, Laterza:

5. Seafood
Puglia has the longest coastline of any mainland Italian province, and the tradition of eating just-caught, often raw seafood and fish is still firmly observed. Try sea urchins, either fresh from the sea (pick them up at coastal roadside stalls, where they’re shucked for you), or simply cooked with linguine. Crudo (raw dishes, usually seafood but sometimes also thinly sliced veggies), dipped in olive oil is a proper ‘when in Puglia’ experience not to be missed, notably in Bari, where crudo is said to have originated. Polpo (octopus), often served in a rich stew of local tomatoes, is a hearty, warm offering that sings of summer, even in winter months.
Where to try it: Street Fish, Laterza.

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