Halfway through a four-day gastronomic tour of southern Puglia, we were struggling to digest the experience. At least I was, as the only one in our group who was not in the food business as a sommelier, restaurateur, or wine journalist.
At this point we were in a gently rocking fishing boat off the shore of Gallipoli on the Ionian Sea, perfect weather on a late May morning. “If you want to eat fish today, you have to catch it yourselves,” our host Aldo informed us.
We could jump into the open-ocean net pen floating alongside our boat, brimming with sea bass and sea bream, and try to catch some barehanded. (It was owned by Aldo’s family as part of their fish farm operation, InMare). Or we could take a rod and try to hook something conventionally, with the help of a fisherman on board for that purpose.
None of us landed a fish with our hands, though several were successful with tackle and bait. For those who came up empty on both counts, fish stockpiled by InMare assuaged our appetites when we gathered for a seaside banquet a few hours later.
“Fish” was one of five themes of our gastro-tour in Puglia; the others were wine, cheese, pasta, and chocolate. Add to that a setting on Italy’s heel, with its 800 kilometers of shoreline, Greek history, Roman ruins, medieval artefacts, baroque architecture, and modern sensibilities, and a trip to Italy’s boot becomes an experience for all the senses.
We began in Brindisi, a port city named for the shape of its harbour (from the Messapian word brunda, meaning “head of a stag”). That “brindisi” also means “toast” in Italian – the clinking of glasses, not the bread – suggests the fun-loving, light-hearted atmosphere of the place. Amid cafes and restaurants lies plenty of history, including Roman columns marking the end of the Via Appia, launch point for Crusaders to the Middle East. These are located on the Piazzetta Colonne, at the top of the Scalinata Virgilio, named after the poet Virgil who died in Brindisi in 19 BC. The twisting cobblestone streets pass convents, temples, and gates of artistic and architectural significance, all leading to the splendid “Via del Mare”, a wide walkway between the medieval town center and the Adriatic.
Torre Santa Susanna
Our first visit was to the Masseria Altemura in Torre Santa Susanna, half an hour southwest of Brindisi. (Transparency disclosure: this masseria is part of the Zonin wine family, sponsors of our trip). The winery’s 150 hectares showcase two of Puglia’s leading grape varieties – Primativo and Negroamaro – with five IGT wines and one DOC among its offerings. It is the largest vineyard in Puglia, producing 150,00 bottles a year.
Some of the structures housing the winery’s cantinas and tasting rooms date back 500 years; they have been redone in stylish rustic fashion by the Zonin family. A visitor may join an impromptu tasting and the opportunity to buy wine at competitive prices, but advance notice is better: by pre-arrangement a group of 10 or more can enjoy a tour of vineyards, cantinas, a structured wine tasting, and a fabulous meal prepared by women from the local community (cost of the latter: about €20-25 per person, including wine). An optional lesson in making orrecchetti is also available, though discouraging: it’s a lot harder than it looks to pummel flour and water into earlike shapes.
Our cheese encounter was with Casearia del Levante in Ceglie Messapica near Salento. The artisanal operation produces two typical local cheeses – Asquanta (a spreadable cheese) and Caciosalento, a classic made from ricotta and available in seven versions.
The milk used to produce both these cheeses comes from the Casearia’s own cows, which are treated more humanely than high-volume industrial operations. Owner Francesco Gallone is proud to show off his animals, and even more excited about the manure conversion system he installed recently
Along with the tour and tasting, we had the opportunity to watch mozzarella being “pulled” while it was still warm. The technique is as challenging as making orrecchetti but you don’t have to wait to taste the results. Our group decided that just-pulled Pugliese mozzarella was as delicious as its more famous Campana cousin.
The second morning saw us jumping into the sea near Gallipoli. Back on land, we found ourselves in Maglie for the next two days. Maglie is right at the heel of Italy’s boot, with a population of 15,000 and an unexpected attraction nearby: a botanical garden with one of the largest collections of cactus in Europe. La Cutura Giardino Botanico in Giuggianello (Lecce) is privately owned by Salvatore Cezzi and family. Mr. Cezzi transformed an 18th century country estate into a 35-hectare garden with more than 2,000 varieties of cactus, some found nowhere else in Europe.
You can tour the gardens anytime during open hours. If you are a group of 10 or more and arrange in advance, you might ask for Mr. Cezzi himself as your guide. You will need a translator into English, but his passion, enthusiasm, and knowledge of his creation won’t require translation.
Maglie also has two gustatory claims to fame — a pastificio (pasta factory) and a cioccolataio (chocolate maker), both of international renown.
The Pastificio Benedetto Cavalieri has been making traditional durum wheat pasta in Moglie since 1918. At the reception area for the company’s headquarters, visitors are invited to watch a video about Cavalieri. Viewing helps you appreciate the value of “delicate drying” in pasta production compared to the supermarket variety. The latter dries in three hours; Cavalieri products take one to two full days. If you make arrangements ahead of time, you may be able to tour the production area. This is not recommended during summer months though because it’s hot up there!
The Maglio family has been making fine chocolates in Maglie for 140 years. The Maglio Arte Dolciaria showroom on the outskirts of town displays the company’s full range of products, including cookies, dragées, and hazelnut spread. They are best known for their dark chocolate bars ranging from 60 to 81% cocoa, with single plantation origin specified. By prior arrangement in non-peak periods, a group of 10 or more can tour the production facility, indulge in a tasting, or perhaps take a lesson in creating their own mini-chocolates (for a fee).
Every day in Puglia, after the sensorial onslaught – historical sights, sounds of two seas, smell of melted chocolate, the touch of raw pasta in your hands, and the tastes (oh the tastes!) of everything on your plate and in your glass — all you can do is crawl into the comfort of a quiet bed and ready yourself for the next day’s assault. Where to do so is the focus of my next post — Puglia: Where to Sleep on Italy’s Boot
If You Go
Loc. Torre Mesagne Str. Prov, 69, 72028 Torre Sana Susanna (Brindisi) Italy
Tel. +39 0831 740485
Casearia del Levante
Via Scuole Pie Amato s.n.
72013 Ceglie Messapica (Brindisi) Italy
Tel. +39 0831 1985 370
Reho Snc Di Aldo Reho & C.
73014 Zona Industriale Gallipoli (Lecce), Italy
Tel: +39 0833 201 511
Pastificio Benedetto Cavalieri
Via Garibaldi, 64 73024 Maglie (Lecce), Italy
Tel. +39 0836 484 144
Maglio Arte Dolciaria
Via Zara 2, Zona Industriale – 73024
Maglie (Lecce) – Italy
Tel. +39 0836 427 444
Botanical Garden La Cutura
73030 Giuggianello (Lecce), Italy
Tel. +39 0836 354 164
Written by and photos by Claudia Flisi for EuropeUpClose.com