People throw themselves at Italy. They “do” Rome, Florence and Venice. Romanticism takes on a level of tenacious ambiguity, seizing the desire to experience the country through a lens three times removed. And yet, Italy remains unknown and intact, a stubborn opponent to globalization’s pin pricks and the pressure points of tourism.
Throngs of tourists thirsty for answers to the mysteries of the Italian way of life drink up the consumerist stereotypes- mesmerizing in its own right. But quietly in the background the Italians live their lives, upholding the values and secrets they’ve maintained for centuries. Family is everything, food is passion, corruption is everywhere. While you eat lunch you discuss what’s for dinner.
No region is more raw and unassuming than Puglia. It’s hardcore Virgin Mary & Madonna, a firm believer in local traditions and unassuming riches of which it can’t live without. It doesn’t welcome, it bodes. There’s no filter, there’s only pride. It’s the dear, strange cousin to the rest of Italy; loved unconditionally while it resists any suggestion of prowess or grace. Refusing to be touched or spoken to, it struggles to be left alone.
As someone curious about borders, wine once again gave me a lens into the microcosm that is Puglia. Who is Puglia? I found myself in Salentu, considering this weird paradox of trying to connect with the land and the people while trying to satisfy my insatiable urge for authentic wine and food…but it came together with genuine remittance of my desire to influence the outcome- I just let it happen, and it taught me more than words can say.
In Italy, the word “local” is redundant. If it’s not local, it’s not Italian.
Straight as a digestivo, on ice, or as an aperitivo with soda, the Amari (plural of Amaro) are a popular beverage across Italy but vary distinctly by region and by their base and method of production. Laurel is a very common shrub in Puglia, so not surprisingly it’s used in many digestivi. It has a peculiar tree bark quality mid palate with a hint of pine that brightens the end, a different balance than Amari from the north, like this Chinotto (myrtle leafed orange tree) based amaro from Piedmont.
Even in early March, the afternoon light pierces through the clouds with palpable heat. Silver in undertone, the hue is like wearing a pair of mica sheets for glasses and gives a particular two dimensional crispness to everything. A breeze twists through the side streets into alley ways and dances the laundry. Being the offseason, it was pretty easy to walk around and find the hidden nooks. Polignano a Mare was a subdued but electric greyishblue, muted green and chalky beiges.
It was late afternoon so immediately I began searching for places to snack, letting instinct take over and smells telling the tummy where to go. The aperitivo is a very important part of the day, not to be confused with afternoon coffee or dinner. It’s the place you go to get energized for the evening and stimulate your appetite before continuing to walk around more with before dinner. Between tiny flavorful bites and conversation you’re primed for another 3 hours before having dinner later on.
One place in particular I’ll always remember well because it was the first time I tried fresh uni, which was caught just hours before. It was also the richest, most beautiful uni in shell I’ve ever seen. They were presented to me with pride as I sat down and I mean, how could you say no? I found this place because I asked a butcher where to eat.
After eating (slowly), a walk is a good idea. I let myself meander towards the water and ended up finding this beautiful cove where I descended and sat for a while.
Fresh and in season is everything-unless it’s a preserve or salami. The plate of antipasti above was part of a buffet in a hole in the wall in Lecce, Osteria delle Travi. Amazingly flavorful: fresh twists of mozzarella di buffala, beets, cima di rapa, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, olives. We ordered the catch of the day, and plop! fish. So simple, so good. The guy who ran the place was sassy and critical of outsiders, but after some sideways conversation he ended up dancing around with the music turned up, we were clapping and at the end he said we were welcome back anytime. The best!
This was definitely the highlight of the wines I tried. An orange wine from Paglione, one of a handful of emerging natural wine producers in Puglia. The slow food/slow wine movement has been…slow…to arrive in Puglia but as with many things in Italy, a lot of the products are already made essentially in this manner but just don’t have the stamp or care to brand themselves that way. The other scenario is that Italy has a long history of producing quantity for export rather than quality for local or “artisanal” consumption, as a means to secure money for the family; in other words, one could pinpoint the global market as the source of divergence from quality. But now that international consumers have started to develop an interest in their own palates, the demand for terroir driven products is here. The question is, how and who makes these wines? Who is really in charge here? You get the feeling that the secrets include treatment of bodies and earth…looking around there is so much poverty that seems basically ignored. I start to wonder if I could even get a straight answer out of anyone, whether they knew or not or were directly involved. And just as quickly I recognize this can’t be an isolated chain of problems in this region….
Both wines from Paglione were part of a beautiful and very interesting list at La Bul in Bari. The young chef Antonio Scalera and Wine Director Francesca Mosele have created one (if not the only) completely modern take on Puglian cuisine.
Already noted by Michelin, they’re doing something completely forward thinking for what people are ready for in the area. Whereas the local trattorie are booked for weeks before any given Sunday, El Bul remains relatively open for reservations. You have to ring a doorbell to unlock the door, and then you are greeted by an open dining room with modern art accents, Spanish tiles and minimalist lamps over the tables. The food is thoughtful and progressive while remaining an unpretentious taste of place. I slept well that night.
An incredible dinner at Da Tuccino outside Polignano a Mare. Words don’t do justice to the freshness of the freshest fish anyone could ever dream to have. Whereas La Bul represents the evolution of Puglian cuisine, Da Tuccino is the standard of timeless excellence in Puglian terroir (since 1968, in fact). Our meal there was on a quiet, stormy night and the intermittent lights going pitch black throughout dinner added a curiously Buñuel allure. Just imagine, a seafood restaurant isolated on a cliff outside town, off season on a dark stormy night. The entire staff stands at the door to greet you, their first guests of the evening at 9pm. They study you up and down. You are served by a man who has been there since 1968 and the plate of epically fresh seafood being placed in front of you disappears as the lights cut out as the place goes pitch black. Someone inhales sharply, we pause, and the lights come back on. The waiters pick up from a standstill exactly where they left off and it continues this way for the rest of the evening. We chose the scorpion fish at the beginning of dinner. The system is spontaneous yet organized: you leave your table and head strait to the ice room where the fishmonger consults with you from behind his fish bar on what you’re in the mood for and how he plans to prepare it.
Indigenous white grape variety Verdeca (=Verdejo?) redefined my general idea of Puglian wines being heavy and uneventful. Intense yet graceful, highly aromatic and incredibly thirst quenching, an ideal accompaniment to eating large amounts of seafood.
Naturally sweeter Primitivo grapes coaxed to elevated sugar levels before harvest, going through appassimento and aged further in bottle. Only made in years which harvest allows. A typical and very delicious end to a meal.
The natural beauty of Puglia took my breath away. Somewhere between the olive groves, the jagged cliffs, ancient ruins and glass ocean, the sacred and delicate balance between earth and human remains intact. A community relatively untouched by the demands of tourism, global markets and branding, still keep their traditions and their language unchanged. Walking down any given street, you will find dozens of wedding dresses on display, a church, pastry shops and tabac with a few old men standing outside. Priorities are heavy with family and religion, and the young people seem to follow suit happily although with a slight disdain. I found pockets of progressive thinking- interestingly enough it was channeled mainly through food and wine, but people were generally closed and secretive. I let it sit quietly on display and tried to listen to the animals, the land, the buildings…The stuff beyond words, the essential, the undeniable that we always return to, no matter what walk of life we’re from.