Puglia, the region based in the ‘heel of Italy’, is a lovely rural part of Italia, with proper rural charm and excellent produce. The local food is really lovely here, defined by the rustic charm and usually making use of the locally produced olive oils.
One of my first local food discoveries was a sweet confection: sugar-coated almonds from Francavilla Fontana. Unlike brown sugar-coated almonds around the world, these Puglian almonds are actually white. That’s because the sugar doesn’t actually caramelize. They melt the sugar into a syrup before pouring it in a thin stream over the roasting almonds. We witnessed the hand-made production: in a tiny shop, a man was shaking the almonds over a wood fire, his wife regularly poured a ladle of sugar syrup over the almonds, her husband shakes the almonds, and for what seems an endless time this ritual goes on like this. The technique is unique to Francavilla Fontana, so if you ever go to Puglia you have to stop in Francavilla Fontana and go seek out the sugar-coated almonds.
You may have eaten Orecchiette, or even made my recipe from the blog – well these lovely, ear-shaped pasta shells are originally from Puglia. We learnt how to make them from scratch at the lovely Masseria Triticum, a working/teaching farm which offers regional cooking courses. It’s actually not that hard to make orecchiette, the secret lies in the rolling technique – you basically take the blade of a knife and roll it over a little pea-sized piece of pasta dough. The pasta slides back over itself, you then stick your finger into the middle and creates a little cavity in the middle – which, if you do it right, results in the typical orecchiette shape. It’s hard to explain, but you can see what I mean in this little amateur Youtube video.
Puglia is a really popular destination for weddings, so many hotels specialize in wedding receptions and create enormous, mouthwatering buffets displaying the best of regional food. We got to sneak a peek into the vast kitchens of the Tenuta Moreno hotel, and saw how chefs carved decorative vegetables (they even did cheese carving), and how they prepared wedding cakes and sweets. I felt like a kid in a candystore. It was really impressive!
Our last and most heartfelt foodie stop was at a little Masseria in the countryside, where we met a lovely elderly lady called Francesca. Francesca used to be an English teacher, she’s now retired and is opening her home to teach people how to cook regional food. Francesca grows her own vegetables, makes her own olive oil and even produces her own wine (which we drank that night). It’s a great example of how rural tourism can give you a real insight into the day-to-day lives here – how it must have been for hundreds of years. Francesca taught us how to make pasta, which she served in a lovely ragu sauce later. She also served us a really humble starter of fried aubergines with garlic and mint. A real stunner. So much that, while everyone enjoyed their pasta main course, I sneaked into Francesca’s kitchen and had her show me how to make her lovely aubergines. I’ve put up the recipe here on the blog (and I added a bit of feta in the end – I hope Francesca would agree…)