Culinary tourism is on the rise, and everyone wants in. Typically a delightful fusion of sightseeing, eating and drinking, food tours offer incredible insight into the inner workings of a country. After all, you can learn a lot about a culture by studying its people’s culinary practices.
Back-Roads Touring’s Slow Food Tour of Puglia – taking in six days of fabulous food, amazing accommodation and superb stops – is one of the best epicurean journeys to be found.
It embraces the notion of slow food, which was born in Italy in the 1980s. In 1986 the movement gained quite a bit of attention after it was publicised that Italy’s first McDonald’s would be built across from the Spanish Steps; journalist Carlo Petrini, along with a group of like-minded protesters, gathered at the steps and shared a meal of penne while chanting, “We don’t want fast food – we want slow food.”
Fast-forward to today and slow food is a mass ideology representing a global movement uniting millions of people across more than 160 countries.
The simple concept came naturally to our ancestors: food should be grown, produced and prepared ethically; food should be seasonal, organic and free of pesticides, and, of course, food should be enjoyed.
A large portion of sustainably created slow foods can be found in Puglia, a region flanked by two azure seas and often referred to as the heel of Italy’s boot.
In Puglia, the days are sundrenched, the climate is temperate and the soil is fertile. Here are three culinary reasons why you need to book a foodie tour of the region.
If you haven’t tried burrata, you haven’t lived. And its origin? Puglia, of course.
Essentially burrata is made of velvety curds enclosed in a stretchy mozzarella ball that’s shaped like a moneybag; when popped, the creamy curds spill out of the firm mozzarella casing.
On the Back-Roads Touring expedition, guests are lucky enough to sample burrata several times, but the highlight is visiting Caseificio Olanda, a cheese factory located in the pretty agricultural town of Andria.
Managed by the Olanda family since 1988, the factory is legendary for its superior cheeses, and the Olanda brothers are very well respected for their traditional cheesemaking methods.
They make cheese exactly the way their father taught them, and his father taught him, and his father taught him … you get the gist. It’s thanks to this deep-rooted approach that the cheeses are so good.
Upon arrival, guests are treated to a tour of the property before a decadent cheese-centric lunch, then it’s time for the burrata-making demonstration.
The brothers knead the buffalo curd swiftly, immersing the mixture and their bare hands in hot water to uniformly dispense the heat. Then they do it again and again, softening and stretching the cheese to form a malleable curd.
The trickiest bit is filling the thin, pliable patch of mozzarella with the creamy stracciatella cheese (fresh cream and tiny shreds of mozzarella prepared separately) and binding the top in a knot.
It’s traditionally served as an antipasti with fresh tomatoes, aromatic basil and olive oil, and once you’ve tasted it there’s no going back.
Need to know
· Burrata means ‘buttery’, but there is no actual butter in the cheese; the term refers to the creaminess of the centre.
· Interestingly, burrata was created to minimise curd waste. Cheesemakers didn’t want to discard unused curd, so they created the cheese to make use of any leftover scraps.
· Cheesemakers in Puglia create shapes with mozzarella. At Christmas time they even make Christmas-themed shapes and present the cheesy gifts to each other.
Orecchiette can be easily identified, as it looks like little ears. Traditionally handcrafted out of durum-wheat semolina flour, it’s Puglia’s go-to pasta, and you’d be hard-pressed not to find it on every menu.
Nowadays the pasta is still typically crafted by hand; it’s not uncommon to see local women skilfully shaping orecchiette in their courtyards or even together in the streets.
The pasta is for all sorts of sauces, the hollow shapes serving as tiny bowls (tomato and ricotta sauce and broccoli rabe are both popular options in Puglia).
The Back-Roads Touring experience involves plenty of opportunities to sample this local dish, as well as the chance to learn from a master; Rosa Lella manages Masseria Ferri, a charming farmhouse located close to the beautifully whitewashed city of Ostuni.
Visitors come to eat her delicious food, to holiday in the trulli guesthouses, and to learn how to cook authentic Italian fare.
The cooking lesson is hands-on. First Rosa demonstrates how to shape the pasta, then everyone else attempts to make it, usually resulting in plenty of odd-shaped pasta bits and laughter.
Fortunately the orecchiette served at lunch is prepared by Rosa’s expert cooks and served crowned with a big dollop of tomato and ricotta sauce. There’s also velvety burrata, juicy pork-mince rissoles, tangy tapenade enfolded in mozzarella and limitless wine on the table – all enjoyed slowly, of course.
Need to know
· Orecchiette was once known as peasant food in Puglia.
· Locals also use orecchiette pasta in soup. They cook the pasta with potatoes and water and garnish the concoction with garlic, chilli and olive oil.
· Although orecchiette can be eaten fresh, most Italians agree it tastes best after a few days of desiccation.
Not so long ago, Puglia was mainly known for its good-value rustic reds, but today there really is something for all palates, and the emergent scene is attracting wine connoisseurs from all corners of the world. As with slow food, slow wine must be produced ethically, cleanly and fairly.
Puglia’s warm climate is ideal for growing indigenous grapes; popular varieties include nero di troia, primitivo, negroamaro, montepulciano and malvasia nera. The Back-Roads Touring itinerary includes sojourns at a few wineries, where guests are able to sample local drops.
I Pastini, located just outside Locorotondo, is a small plot managed by the young and passionate Lino Carapelli. It’s a picturesque area – long rows of lush green vineyards frame a traditional trulli farmhouse, which is where tastings take place.
It produces a few reds, quite a few whites and a rose. And although a formal tasting does take place, the mood is relaxed, and Lino and his mother (or whoever is around at the time) take their time chatting with visitors.
On the other end of the scale, Castel di Salve is a much larger wine producer, and a visit here offers a completely different experience.
Best friends since they were youngsters, Francesco Marra and Francesco Winspeare fantasised about making wine together – and in 1990 they made that dream come true. Today the charismatic duo manage a number of vineyards, working onsite most days and closely following the cultivation process.
Like everywhere in Puglia, the whole experience is seductively slow. Wines, nibbles, laughs and questions – there’s never any rush.
Need to know
· The flagship red grape of Puglia is primitivo. Primitivo wines are generally quite heavy and full-bodied, and are usually served alongside food.
· Wine produced in Puglia has been improving for a number of years and is now gaining worldwide recognition.
· Reds produced in Puglia generally have quite a high alcohol content, a result of ripening early under the powerful Puglia sun.
It’s the whole experience that counts
Sure, food is the main meal, but Back-Roads Touring’s Slow Food Tour of Puglia also includes a number of spectacular non-foodie stops.
· The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Castel del Monte, one of southern Italy’s best-preserved castles.
· The historical trulli homes of Alberobello, made out of limestone and featuring distinctive conical roofs.
· Matera, the most intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region. Located just outside of Puglia in the region of Basilicata, it is home to hundreds of sassi (stone houses carved out of the cliffs and caves).
· Grotte di Castellana (also referred to as the Castellana Caves) was discovered in 1938, but it is thought to have begun to form 90 million years ago. The underground ether of stalactite and stalagmite formations is exquisite.
· Puglia is home to more than 800 kilometres of coastline. Picturesque seaside-town stops include Otranto, Polignano a Mare and Gallipoli.
Words: Tatyana Leonov