I am sitting on a terrace by the blue Adriatic, white linen before me, like a blank canvas waiting for the creativity of Saleblu’s kitchens, the fabulous restaurant at La Peschiera Hotel. Francesca, my companion and guide, is explaining to me that Puglia has the soul of a mother. When a mother shows her love she offers food, and this is the Apulian way. You could be travelling through a remote village in the “heel” of Italy, surrounded by fields and dry stone walls, lost, and someone will appear out of their house; you’re about to ask for directions, and they will ask, “Would you like something to eat?” It is in every Pugliese’s nature. Puglia is a destination for those of us with a passion for simple delicious flavours and an interest in the provenance of food. The land is rich and bountiful, the 500 miles of coast offer a profuse fresh catch, and they pride themselves in “zero miles” ingredients.
So back to Saleblu at La Peschiera, a quietly stylish hotel by the clearest blue sea, which offers elegance with as little interruption to the surrounding beauty as feasibly possible. All that separates me from the water and the endless blue sky is decking beneath my feet and a white rope, yet here comes the waiter bearing my oyster martini, which I am assured is an excellent pairing with the iced glass bowl of pesce crudo. Red and violet shrimps are draped on the rim encircling sea urchins, muscles and molluscs which only the most sophisticated kitchens can reliably serve. He offers me olive oil and pepper saying some people like it, but the implication is it is so fresh and just perfect naked. Indeed he is right, as simple and naturally beautiful as the surroundings. Then comes scampi tartare chopped with green apples for a crisp texture, surprisingly with a lemon and ginger ice-cream and pretty drops of blue salt, sale blu. The waiter says the dish has hints of sweetness so proposes some chilled Fiano to accompany. Puglia grapes have traditionally been used to blend wines in other countries, but along with the recently evolving tourism business, Puglia is developing its own wines, like this headily scented Fiano di Salento. For primi, we have tortelli filled with fava beans, chicory, codfish, acquaviva onions, yellow Pomodoro eterno and of course, olives. This is the land of fifty million olive trees, historic gnarled trunks bearing witness to centuries of history. My final course is lobster. It tasted fantastic and I knew it had been in the sea but a few hours before.
I am too full to even look at a dessert menu – just a coffee I venture. Indeed Francesca admits, “In Puglia, we have a problem with size.” Each dish has been a selection of rare fresh delicacies but they have been presented with Puglia’s typical generosity of spirit. My espresso comes, and to my amusement it is no more than a teaspoon, albeit perfect coffee. “Yes,” muses Francesca, “we do have a problem with size!” Coffee itself is one way to tour Puglia. I am taken through the historic streets of Monopoli, a charming fishing town suddenly favoured for celebrity nuptials, to try a caffè speciale which comes with a twist of lemon, a shot of some liqueur, possibly grappa, and cream. I want several but hold back. In baroque Lecce, they do the same but with almond milk. We try an espresso with ice, in the cliff-hugging town of Polignano famous for the acrobatic diving championships. I’m shown how to swirl the coffee in the ice and listen to the cubes and liquid, giving the coffee an unexpected sensory dimension.
Even after the coffee tastings I sleep well, as my pillow in my suite at La Peschiera is 10 feet from the sea that laps over the rocks in a hypnotic rhythm. I am lulled with this soporific pleasure only to wake with a gentle knock on my door announcing breakfast. I step out to my terrace and stretch in the sun. My table is laid with delightfully enticing fresh fruits including cactus (Indian fig) from the gardens. But first, I step down gingerly straight into the sea for a refreshing morning dip.
After breakfast, I move inland to La Peschiera’s sister hotel, Il Melograno. This is Puglia’s most famous “masseria,” a nobleman’s country house and estate.
This prestigious, and one of the largest, masseria is more like a small village where the farmers worked the land, then returned to revels in the private piazza. It is easy to imagine the rhythm of this productive life as I meander past white-washed buildings, through bougainvillea-splashed alleys to my room. Here whatever can be preserved has been, leaving so much of its former atmosphere, with stone flag floors, cottage windows, even ancient olive trees growing through the dining room. In the bar, the drinks are kept in a stone trough indicating the floor was previously trod by cattle hooves.
At Il Melograno, they have hundreds of olive trees, each mapped and protected, and the estate produces delicious extra virgin olive oil. They offer me an olive oil tasting; we are sitting in Mùmmulo, the dignified restaurant, with dark wood antiques, white cloths and the intransigent ancient olive tree.
Rosanna is serious about olive oil – she is Official Taster for the Republic of Italy and representative of Il Melograno’s respect for fine produce. I learnt that there are blended olive oils, some with just a touch of extra virgin which Rosanna pronounced emphatically “disgusting.” Olives can be harvested any month they are ripe, unlike grapes, but the process is challenging – there is picking by hand, or the trees are beaten with a rope and the olives caught, or the trees can be shaken by a machine, or olives simply fall into a net beneath the tree, but this is risky as they can ferment and then they are “disgusting.” Olives are taken to the “grind dinger,” which was a mysterious and important part of the process, and took me some time to realise was the grinder, or press. Olives are not like grapes which live and mature, the oil must be kept in a darkened glass bottle and consumed within 18 months, or it is “disgusting.” It must also be stored at an even temperature – if it gets cold, it will also be “disgusting.” I thought of my bottle of oil chilling in winter weeks at my empty cottage, which I regularly desolidify on top of the cooker, and felt ignorant.
So we tasted Le Ferre Leccino oil, grass and hay, pronounced Rosanna, and because our throat is warm, while this oil is mild in the mouth, it suddenly becomes spicy in our throat. Le Ferre Coratina was bitter around the edge of my tongue. “This bitterness is not a bad thing; it is very good with fava beans, peas and meat,” Rosanna said. The Melograno oil she pronounces perfect. I might add it was fruity and light with an enduring flavour, and it was definitely the most delicious in the tasting, unsurprising as they have been refining their production for about 500 years.
I move to the bar for a cosmopolitan made with melograno, the pomegranate which ripen on trees in the garden. My appetite is sharpened, ready for a four course dinner which promises to include tiny quail legs and taglialinni with a rabbit ragu. While Puglia’s delicious food is usually sourced from the chef’s next door neighbour, epicureans should travel the world for the experience.