Puglia, Italy: Southern Bella
Author: John Irving
Photography: lisa cohen
Once upon a time in Venice - the early 20s, to be precise, the Great War just over - a local orphan girl called Bianca Cinari fell in love with Natalino Briganti, a carabiniere (military police officer) from the south of Italy. The two married and went to visit the bridegroom's family in his home village in the Puglia region on the heel of the boot. Decades later, the bride, who had now become nonna Bianca, my wife's grandmother, described the experience to me. With a mixture of amazement and amusement, she recalled sitting down on a dirt floor with her husband's relatives to sup from a communal pot at the centre of a trullo, a tall, cylindrical stone dwelling with an unmistakable cone-shaped roof, typical of Puglia. Accustomed to the sumptuous palazzi of her native city, one of Italy's most cosmopolitan, she was shocked by the primitiveness of it all. "Mio Dio, where am I?" nonna Bianca thought - though she didn't dare say as much at the time.
Things have changed since nonna Bianca's days. Little did she know that at the start of the 21st century, revamped, modernised trulli would enjoy a boom as the most exclusive tourist accommodation in Puglia - arguably in the whole of Italy. As I found out last summer when I started a journey across the region, from Ionian to Adriatic, at Masseria Colombo, an agriturismo, or holiday farm, near the town of Mottola, in the sun-soaked province of Taranto.
The owner of the masseria - literally 'fortified manor house' - is the affable Benedetto Siciliani, part businessman and part farmer, who, in his spare time, breeds kurzhaars (German short-haired pointers, for the uninitiated) and hunts quail, woodcock and other game on this 650-hectare estate of his. Sitting under the awning of the outdoor breakfast terrace, he explained to me how he had discovered the 17th-century property 10 years ago and, investing heftily, restructured it to its present glory: a sprawling complex consisting of a main residence and six beautifully appointed trulli (bedrooms of varying sizes, day zones and kitchenettes; no more dirt floors here). Nothing fancy, but an ideal venue for a family holiday.
The historical origins of trulli are uncertain. It's said that peasants built them - no one knows exactly when - with rough limestone bricks, or chiancarelle, without binding them with mortar; in the event of government inspections, to avoid paying taxes, they could pull the cones down and reassemble them in a matter of hours. The thick walls and raised conical roof of the trullo, which accommodated both families and animals, created an air chamber that absorbed changes in temperature, meaning warmth in winter, coolness in summer. I can vouch for the fact that the system works; in August, with outside daytime temperatures approaching 40C, my trullo at Masseria Colombo was always a haven of soothing freshness.
Not that the charm of the place is confined to its buildings. Siciliani also owns a herd of podolic cattle, who wake guests in the morning with the tinkling of their bells as they plod off to pasture. This versatile, adaptable breed used to be common throughout Italy, but now only survives in areas of the south where grazing land is sparse and water scarce. Its aromatic milk is used at the Masseria Colombo to make the delicious caciocavallo podolico cheese, forms of which come with a characteristic large round base and small, ball-shaped top. Aged in grottoes or damp cellars for anything from a few months to three years, it's ochre-yellow in colour with a delicious, tangy taste redolent of freshly mown grass and vanilla. This is just one of the many cheeses produced in this dairy-mad corner of Puglia. Others include mozzarella fior di latte, ricotta and the delicate burrata, a cooked-curd pouch stuffed with buttery cream, tied with a knot and wrapped in the leaves of vizzo, a lily-like flower that grows in the area.
There's been a lot of talk in the media over the past couple of years about Puglia being the new Tuscany - whatever that might mean. To reason in these terms is to ignore regional differences within Italy in general, and the specific history and culture of Puglia in particular. In times gone by, the region was dominated by Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Lombards, Byzantine Greeks, Normans, Angevins and Bourbons, to name but a few of the sporadic invaders. Architecture, art, language and food all reflect their influence. Within 20 minutes by car from Masseria Colombo, for example, scattered across the rocky countryside around the towns of Mottola, Massafra and Gravina are scores of frescoed Byzantine cave churches and crypts. The tourist office in Mottola organises guided tours of the most spectacular sites - Sant'Angelo, San Nicola and Santa Margherita - every afternoon. On the day I visited, the group included a local family hosting relatives over from America. They seemed more intent on stopping the car to gather snails and wild chicory to take home for supper than to see the faded Byzantine Madonnas and saints that adorn the walls of the underground churches. Sometimes Italians aren't aware of the art treasures they have on their doorsteps.
The next day, a half-hour drive down the Itria Valley, along the Appian Way, took me to the hilltop town of Martina Franca. If I thought I'd seen enough trulli already, I was mistaken. Their distinctive decorative cucurnei (pinnacles), pop up everywhere. Alberobello, a UNESCO world heritage site and unofficial capital of the valley, boasts as many as 1400 of these architectural oddities. When he stayed there, early 20th-century writer Gabriele D'Annunzio said, "I wake up and see a dream-like landscape". I could see what he meant.
Martina Franca itself is full of opulent Baroque palaces, churches and butchers' shops. The town is home to the finest cured meats in Puglia, especially capocollo, a name used in southern Italy to refer to the part of the pig between the neck and the ribs. Taken exclusively from locally bred free-range animals, the meat is washed with a solution of mulled wine and Mediterranean herbs and stuffed into pig's intestine, which is left on wooden boards to dry for about 10 days. It's then smoked over a smouldering fire of thyme, myrtle and laurel twigs and matured for up to 90 days in damp, well-ventilated chambers. The end result, capocollo di Martina Franca, is fragrant and tender with a slightly winey flavour. The Italian eco-gastronomic association Slow Food promotes the meat elsewhere in Italy and beyond through one of its 'presidia', specific small-scale projects designed to save rare artisan food products.
"While you're in Martina," Benedetto Siciliani advised me, "be sure to eat at Cibus restaurant down the road in Ceglie Messapica. It serves the best food in the area". So there I went. Siciliani also explained that the village of Ceglie was once famous for the beauty of its women, who traditionally went into service with bourgeois families in nearby coastal cities such as Brindisi and Bari, "servizio completo," he added with a malicious wink. My father-in-law, born and bred in Taranto, used to tell a different story; he called Ceglie "lu paese 'e pezzienti", the village of beggars.
It was during visits to my father-in-law that I first became acquainted with the cuisine of southern Puglia. As a young man he immigrated to Turin, in northern Italy, to work as a security manager for the Fiat car company, but when it came to eating he made few concessions to his adopted surroundings. That meant a daily diet of pasta (more often than not accompanied by beans, lentils, chickpeas or cime di rapa, turnip tops), fish every Friday, plenty of boiled greens and pinzimonio (raw vegetables dipped in oil) at the end of virtually every meal before the fruit. His favourite dishes were 'ncapriata (broad bean purée with wild chicory, virtually a meal in itself) and lampascioni, a sort of reddish wild hyacinth bulb dressed with oil. In Puglia, they make fresh 'poor' ingredients go a long way.
I found all these specialities and more at Cibus, where owner Lillino Silibello is committed to sourcing ingredients locally, boasting that they all come from within a 30km radius of the village itself. Prepared by his mother and sister, the menu reads like a Puglia gastronome's bible. It includes local classics such as orecchiette (little pasta 'ears') with tomato and cacioricotta, chickpea soup with baccalà, eggplant stuffed with baked pasta, gnumarieddi (chargrilled lamb offal, another delicacy of Martina Franca) and braised horse meat steaks (donkey and horse meat have always been popular here and large farms rearing the animals are still everywhere to be seen).
The final leg of my journey took me eastwards and seawards through a landscape - vineyards, olive and almond groves and azure blue sky - of gently rolling hills criss-crossed with dry stonewalls reminiscent of my native Cumbria in England. With the Adriatic sparkling on my right and the sun in my eyes, I eventually came to Masseria Il Frantoio (meaning 'olive press'), a converted 16th-century masseria standing among 72 hectares of olive trees - some of incredibly thick girth - carob and oak trees and Mediterranean scrub, just off the main coast road between Ostuni and Fasano, in the province of Brindisi. The owner, tall, bearded Armando Balestrazzi, was waiting under the entrance arch, which bears the clasped hands coat-of arms of the local Tanzarella family, who owned the place for centuries. "Benvenuti nella nostra casa," were his first words.
Later, over aperitivi in the courtyard, Armando explained how he and his wife, Rosalba, had discovered Il Frantoio during a Sunday afternoon drive in the early 90s. It was love at first sight. "The place was in ruins but there was something timeless and magical about it. I watched two falcons gliding over the farm and I felt like Frederick II." (A reference to the local historical icon, the man known as Stupor Mundi, or 'Wonder of the World', who became Holy Roman Emperor and, besides building imposing castles throughout the region, also wrote his celebrated manual on falconry, De Arte Venandi, there.) At the time, Armando, a trained chemist and manager at a dairy company in Bari, was desperate to get away from factory and city life. For him, Il Frantoio and a future as a hotelier-cum-organic farmer were a means of escape.
Today, after drastic restructuring, the masseria has become what he calls "una clinica dell'anima", a clinic of the soul, a place where guests are more than "mere numbers" - which is why each of the eight rooms, furnished in rustic-chic style with linen bedding, wrought-iron beds, period furniture and gauze curtains, is named after a flower.
Other attractions are a restaurant and gardens, replete with peacocks, a herb garden and orangerie, riding stables and an ancient underground pantry and, as befits the name, oil press.
When the project got under way all those years ago, Rosalba, an expert cook, promised to collaborate on one condition: "Tell me to cook orecchiette and turnip tops every day and I'll be your slave," she told Armando. "Ask me to change the menu every night and I'll become an artist." She didn't mean to disparage local cuisine; on the contrary, she wanted to prove her husband's theory that the cookery of Puglia was the most imaginative in the world. Translated, that means, once again, turning apparently humble ingredients into unforgettable culinary masterpieces. The fact is that behind its stylish, laid-back exterior, Masseria Il Frantoio is also a working farm that produces fruit and vegetables, patés, pickles, jams and honeys, herb liqueurs, oils and wine, all of which appear in Rosalba's now legendary multi-course meals. My candlelit dinner last August consisted of miniature fried pastries stuffed with ricotta and nutmeg, cauliflower poached with capers, rolled peppers with raisins, Gallipoli shrimp with ginger in white fava bean cream, summer bean soup, pork meatballs with rosemary and juniper and creamed baked potatoes, salad of porcellana lettuce (purslane) with regina tomatoes, fresh fruit salad and chocolate and orange mousse. All imaginative interpretations of the farm's produce, all accompanied by specific home-grown oils and wines.
The stretch of romantic coastline north of Ostuni now swarms with converted masserie at prices for every pocket - from the upmarket San Domenico to the swish Torre Coccaro, which boasts a cookery school, swimming pool, spa, golf course and beach club, to the more basic Casamassima, a dazzlingly whitewashed hacienda that looks like a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western set. Personally, I would have been happy to spend all my time at Masseria Il Frantoio, the most 'civilised' of the bunch. But all good things come to an end, even fairytales.
THE FINE PRINT
British Airways flies twice daily from Sydney (via Singapore or Bangkok) to London Heathrow with connections to 10 airports in Italy including Milan, Rome, Pisa, Venice, Bologna, Naples, Catania, Bari, Verona and Turin. For further information or to book visit www.BA.com. The area described in this story is very small, but it's highly advisable to hire a car to drive from one place to another. The nearest airports, Bari and Brindisi, are both served daily from Rome and Milan. By car from Rome, take the A1 autostrada, then the A16 to Bari, switching to the A14 at Canosa.
Hearty country cooking in a converted 15th-century convent. Great wine and cheese cellars. Via Chianche di Scarano, 7, Ceglie Messapica, Brindisi, +39 083 1388 980.
All the traditional favourites in a magical old town just out of the Itria Valley. Via Spirito Santo, 49, Noci, Bari, +39 080 4972 460.
Rolling hills, cowbells and trulli - the perfect country retreat. Doubles from about $135. 377 Noci-Mottola, Contrada Pandoro, Mottola, Taranto, +39 080 5242 431, www.masseriacolombo.it.
Masseria Il Frantoio
Splendid white masseria among olive groves just a stone's throw from the sea. Immaculate rooms, obliging service and unforgettable cooking. They also produce and sell five different varieties of extra-virgin olive oil, two of which are organic. Doubles from about $150. Strada Statale, Ostuni, Brindisi, +39 083 1330 276, www.masseriailfrantoio.it.
Masseria San Domenico
Another magnificently restored deluxe masseria, just 500m from the beach.
Doubles from about $590. Strada Litoranea, 379, Savelletri di Fasano, Brindisi, +39 080 4827 769, www.masseriasandomenico.com.
Masseria Torre Coccaro
A five-star resort in a 16th-century farmhouse with a swimming pool, beach, golf course and spa. It's also home to a cooking school where visitors can learn how to make orecchiette, traditional fish and meat dishes and cakes and biscuits. Doubles from about $420. Contrada Coccaro, 8, Savelletri di Fasano, Brindisi, +39 080 4829 310, www.gesthotels.com/coccaro_new/.
Flats and apartments down the road from Masseria Il Frantoio. More atmospheric than luxurious. Doubles from about $755. Strada Statale, Ostuni, Brindisi, +39 083 1330 265, www.masseriacasamassima.it.
Shop & do
The best place to go for a vast assortment of local cow's, sheep's and goat's milk cheeses.
Corso Mazzini, 195, Ostuni, Brindisi.
Tommaso Romanelli & C.
Sample Puglia's traditional cured meats at this institution. Via d'Itria, 8, Martina Franca, Taranto.
Mottola Tourist Office
For guided tours of the surrounding cave churches. A grasp of Italian will be useful here. Via Vanvitelli, 2, Mottola, Taranto, +39 099 8866 948, www.comune.mottola.ta.it.