Despite an encounter with 007, it was the food in the South of Italy that really left a mark, writes Carla Grossetti.
The sky is like a perfectly clear pane of blue as we take a fork in the road to find our first row of trulli dwellings in the region of Apulia (Puglia), in the south of Italy. The drystone huts with conical roofs pop against the blue backdrop, looming on the crest of a hill like some kind of Smurf fantasyland.
A few kilometres down the road, our bus pulls up outside one of the whitewashed huts, where a young man appears in the doorway, smiling and waving. Francesco Sibilio ushers us out of the bus and down the path into the kitchen of his family home to meet his mother Maria and father Carmelo. It's day three of our South Italy Real Food Adventure and we're on the outskirts of Bari, the capital of Puglia, to learn how to cook like an Italian nonna.
"Benvenuto!" shouts Francesco, who leads the group to the family table for an informal cooking class. "Today we are going to learn to make fresh orecchiette [little ears] with my mum. And today," says Francesco, his eyes shining under a mop of black curls, "you are going to be treated like family."
Maria claps her hands together, sending puffs of flour into the air to mingle with the perfume of a passata bubbling away on the stovetop. The warm smell fills the family's little cartoon holiday house as Maria rolls out seven large ribbons of fresh pasta and passes them around to the six members of our group.
Francesco is on hand to translate his mum's instructions, delivered in beautiful sing-songy Italian, as we learn how to press the pasta into hollows with our thumbs and form perfect little orecchiette orbs.
"Mum has done this since she was 10. This is how we do family dinners … everyone is in the kitchen helping prepare the pasta," says Francesco, who as well as working as an Intrepid Travel tour leader is co-founder of What's in Puglia, an events and travel consultancy firm.
"This is not a business. This is a meal with a family. The same food you are eating is what I eat. This tomato passata on the stove was made this morning and I guarantee it will be the best you ever tasted," he says.
After we learned how to shape orecchiette, tiny fingers of cecatelli and cavatelli shells, Francesco gives us a guided tour of his family home, where he explains that all the trulli that appeared in the Apulian countryside in the 14th century were built by peasant settlers to circumvent the taxes that applied to the use of mortar.
"The trulli are so unique that Unesco gave them World Heritage status in 1996. The homes were built for economic reasons: they needed to avoid using mortar to avoid paying taxes," says Francesco.
"Italians know Puglia but foreigners do not. The famous stone houses have come to be a symbol of Puglia and of Italy itself and our home is like a living museum."
After the tour, we meet in the garden, which is full of summer colour with tomatoes, peppers and eggplant grown amid beds of other vegetables and flowers. In the centre of the courtyard is a wooden table laid out with our lunch: spiced peppers lolling in a tomato broth, orecchiette con cime de rapa, involtini di melanzane, ceco nero (black chickpeas) and zucchini with almonds and vinegar. The table is also laid with fresh focaccia and bottles of good Italian wine.
"We are vegetarian so it is a light vegetarian lunch, with everything coming from a 20km radius. This is how we eat," Francesco says.
Food lovers' paradise
We stumble across many more opportunities to enjoy traditional food in a trullo [the singular form of trulli] in the town of Alberobello, which our Intrepid Travel group leader, Giulia Del Grosso, tells us is known for its sun-ripened tomatoes, purple eggplants and seafood. We walk around the maze of cobbled streets to unearth the trulli that have been repurposed into restaurants and bars.
Trullo degli Antichi Sapori di Maria Concetta Marco has all you need: try the local salami, burrata, peaches and porchetta with a side of taralli, which Del Grosso says is "a really traditional regional snack to have sweet with almonds or savoury with anise".
Italy is undoubtedly a food lover's paradise. And the pull of a tour such as Intrepid Travel's South Italy Real Food Adventure is that the culinary adventures are all smaller-scale one-of-a-kind experiences. Apart from joining nonna Maria for lunch in Puglia, highlights of the tour, which starts in Rome and ends in Sorrento, include: dinner of cacio e pepe in a Roman trattoria; a farmhouse feast outside the Italian capital; a sommelier-led olive oil tasting in a masseria (fortified farmhouse); and a limoncello tasting in Sorrento.
Our close-knit group of antipodean travellers -ranging in age from 35 to 75 - also attends a gelato-making class, learns to make pizza in Naples and tries local specialities such as fave e cicoria (fava bean puree) in an ancient sassi (stone) cave dwelling in Matera.
Capital of culture
Matera, which has been settled since the Palaeolithic period, is carved into the mountainside in the region of Basilicata. Crowned the 2019 European Capital of Culture, the ancient city is having its time in the Mediterranean sun.
Moments after spotting actor Daniel Craig, who is in Matera filming 007's No Time To Die, we tumble down some stone stairs to find the rustic Agristores restaurant housed in a cavernous chamber lit with a soft light for which the town is Insta-famous.
The informal meal we enjoy here is, says Del Grosso, typical of the region's cucina povera. "Here we have food that is typically from Matera: peperoni cruschi, dried fava beans, black truffle with mushroom and dried tomatoes. It is produce with provenance and sourced at its peak," she says.
As the sun sinks low in the sky, Matera appears airbrushed, as the stone walls of this city worn by time are painted in a pink pearlescent shimmer. "Bellisimmi," says Del Grosso, smiling.
It's here, in the courtyard, where an elderly couple are playing cards, that we can see the town's history, as strong as a thread. The beautiful thing about this intimate Intrepid Travel food tour, which leads us far from the jostling crowds of Italy's north, is that if you pull gently on that thread, you can follow it from a humble trattoria in Rome through to a centuries-old grove of olive trees at a masseria in Rutigliano, around a field stubbled with new growth in Campagna, past a pizza oven in Naples and to a piece of dough being pummelled on a farmhouse table that connects you directly to the past. And, just like that, something as simple as making orecchiette alongside nonna Maria becomes the story that works its way into your heart. That appearance by Daniel Craig was merely a cameo.
Carla Grossetti travelled courtesy of Intrepid Travel.
Intrepid Travel's eight-day South Italy Real Food Adventure starts in Rome and finishes in Naples. It includes farm tours, cooking classes, leader-led orientation walks, pasta master class, liqueur tasting, street food crawl in Naples and a pizza-making demonstration. Priced from NZ$3115 per person twin share and includes accommodation, transport, activities and some meals. For more information, visit intrepidtravel.com