Puglia: Delicious days in the sun

By Chris Wiltshire

Chris Wiltshire feasts until he can feast no more in the region known as the bread basket of Italy.

The foundation of Puglia's wealth is its mass production of olives. The oldest olive trees in the region have been growing for more than 1000 years. Photo / Thinkstock
The foundation of Puglia's wealth is its mass production of olives. The oldest olive trees in the region have been growing for more than 1000 years. Photo / Thinkstock

If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, few places offer more pulling power than plentiful Puglia.

The region on the sun-kissed heel of Italy, known for good reason as the bread basket of the country, positively strains under the weight of sumptuous goodies. And that can only mean one thing - it's a foodie's paradise.

For consistent perfection on a plate, nothing compares to the simple yet delicious dishes served further south. And one course in particular will stay with me for the rest my life.

It is said the Italians put up with many things but never bad food. Their unpretentious restaurants with tacky murals and rickety furniture may often be crying out for a makeover but the cuisine is seldom less than perfect.

With such an abundance of food, prices both in the supermarkets and restaurants are often incredibly cheap. How does €3 sound for a large margherita pizza at a pizzeria in the lively capital Bari, or €4 for a platter of fresh fruit big enough to feed a family of 10 at a restaurant in Alberobello?

It's one of the reasons holidaymakers who regularly head to the rolling hills of Tuscany and picturesque Lake Garda are turning their attention to agriturismo hotspots in Puglia, both to visit and increasingly to snap up property.

Yet many areas are still refreshingly devoid of touristy paraphernalia, while the friendly locals speak barely a word of English.

The foundation of Puglia's wealth is its mass production of olives, or 'green gold' as it is aptly called. Gazing out from the airport window, the region around Bari looks like one giant patchwork green quilt glistening under the midday sun, interspersed by pockets of pretty whitewashed villages.

There are around 60 million olive trees in Puglia, many of them more than a thousand years old and four million are protected by government legislation.

They look like gnarled relics of a bygone era, often propped up by crumbling limestone blocks. But the rich, fertile land and wonderful Mediterranean climate helps them produce 80 per cent of the country's olive oil.

The chances are, if you've ever bought a bottle of virgin olive oil in Tuscany, the olives will have been sourced from the south. They have just 24 hours to transport the green gold to the processing presses, otherwise it becomes acidic and slightly bitter on the palate.

The best oils are said to be labelled Olivi Secolaridi Puglia, indicating they are from the oldest trees. They should be kept in dark cupboards and away from heat to stop the oil turning bitter - not in a transparent bottle next to the oven as I do at home.

Farmer Corrado Brancati has quite possibly some of the oldest trees at his charming working home, the Masseria Brancati, on the outskirts of Ostuni. His family has been making olive oil for more than 200 years and he believes some of the trees could remarkably have been bearing fruit since before the time of Christ.

Olives are just one of the reasons Puglia bears the hallmarks of conquering invaders throughout the generations, from the Normans and the Spanish to the Turks and the Greeks.

Most of Italy's fish is caught off the Puglian coast and 80 per cent of Europe's pasta - all 200 different types of it - is produced in the region.

As a keen fisherman, I'm salivating at the number of fish being caught at the quaint Savelletri coastal resort, a stone's throw from my base for the week, the magnificent Masseria Torre Maizza and its sister hotel, the Masseria Torre Coccaro.

The Maizza and Coccoro are among 250 masseria in Puglia offering tourists a heady mix of long summer days, character filled accommodation and the freshest of food.

Cycling groups are increasingly being attracted to the area by the flat roads and picturesque landscape.

Another must is a trip up into the hills to see the small but bizarre Trulli houses at Alberobello, which - from a distance - resemble a group of white-hatted Smurfs on a school outing.

If you're still hungry, head for the Gli Ulivi restaurant - meaning Olive Tree - and order the antipasti della casa as a starter. Then sit back in wonder as dish after dish of delicious meat, fish, pasta and vegetables cover your table until overflowing.

By the time the 28th dish arrives, my wife and I beg for mercy. The heart may be willing but the stomach can take no more.

It is, it has to be said, Trulli scrumptious.

Chris Wiltshire was a guest of Citalia.

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