Experiencing the Unique Cuisine of Puglia
I’ve been home from Europe less than 48 hours and my jet-lagged mind is filled with memories… especially memories of experiencing the unique cuisine of Puglia!
I ended my recent eight-week trip in Europe with two-and-a-half weeks in Puglia in southern Italy. The Puglia Experience is one of our newest European Experience trips and one we’re very excited about. We welcomed our first three groups to Puglia in October 2021 and were delighted to host two groups this month. Our base for this trip is the historic “white city” of Ostuni, sprawled across a hillside with views across to the Adriatic Sea just a few miles away.
The Puglia Experience is a week of many highlights (see our website to learn more), but I think everyone in our groups would agree that the food was a real highlight of their time in this less-discovered region. The cuisine of Puglia is distinctly different than the cuisine of other regions of Italy and very different from what we find in Italian restaurants at home.
Puglia—the “heel” of the Italian boot—is one of Europe’s great agricultural areas. Its immense plains and rolling hills produce much of Italy’s wine and olive oil, vast quantities of its fruit and vegetables, and most of the hard durum wheat used to make its pasta. Located between the Adriatic and Ionian seas, with 500 miles of coastline, fish and seafood are abundant.
Many foodies consider traditional Puglian cuisine among the most wholesome and authentic in all of Italy, with many historic recipes passed down through the generations. Due to poverty in the region for much of its history, the food of Puglia is often referred to as ‘cuisine of the poor’ (cucina povera). Culinary traditions developed around affordable local ingredients and simple cooking techniques. Conquered over the centuries by the Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Spanish, and French, Puglian cuisine also reflects this multi-ethnic heritage.
Antipasti is an art form here, each restaurant offering a taste of a variety of dishes to begin the meal. There may be as many as eight or even ten different antipasti! Diners may be served an individual plate of several antipasti or plates may be passed family style. Antipasti is then followed by a main course (pasta, meat or fish) and perhaps a small dessert.
All our groups enjoyed experiencing the unique cuisine of Puglia. Our Sunday evening cooking classes and dinners with chef Anna Maria are especially valuable in understanding more about the regional cuisine. This year’s groups helped Anna Maria prepare focaccia and pasta, and several group members helped pastry chef Maria Carla prepare dessert cookies and sweets.
We also watched as Anna Maria and Maria Carla deftly prepared other dishes for our meal… a bountiful banquet was served in the big dining room of the masseria in the countryside. At the end of the evening everyone was excited to receive one of Anna Maria’s cookbooks to take home. We all plan to cook Puglian meals back at home, and many of us also bought wine at one of our two winery visits.
Puglia is the largest producer of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Italy, producing around 40% of Italy’s olive oil. Our groups are astounded by the miles and miles of olive trees (50 million of them!), including many ancient trees 1000 years old. Olive oil is a key ingredient in Puglian cuisine and is used in almost all typical Puglian dishes.
Our group visits an historic masseria (a fortified 18th century farm) hosted by Alessandro, a passionate olive oil specialist and the 7th generation of his family producing olive oil on this farm of 20,000 trees. We learn all about olive oil, including how to identify a true “extra virgin olive oil.”
Vegetables, Fruits and Beans
With its warm Mediterranean climate and long growing season, Puglia is an ideal region for agriculture. The vegetables and fruits in shops and restaurants are almost always sourced from local farms.
Tomatoes (pomodoro) are one of the most important vegetables in Pugliese cuisine. Other important vegetables are white onions (cippola), eggplant (melanzana), zucchini (fiori di zucca), wild chicory (cicoria), artichokes (carciofo), fennel (finocchio), broccoli rabe (cime di rapa), peppers (peperoni), and green beans (fagioli verdi). Most mornings we enjoyed eggplant or zucchini along with our breakfast eggs! Our vegetarian travelers found plenty to eat in Puglia.
The most memorable vegetables were drying outside an ancient and remote masseria, where our group enjoyed a very special lunch. Tomatoes and peppers hung from the rafters and will be used during the winter months.
Local vegetables are often jarred with extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, which preserves them for extended use, often on antipasti platters. (This method of preserving produce is called sott’olio.) Anna Maria served her delicious giardiniera at our cooking class dinners.
Fruits are also abundant, including lemons, oranges, figs, melons, table grapes, peaches, pears, apricots, and pomegranates.
Beans are grown extensively and feature in the cuisine, including fava beans, lentils and chickpeas. Mashed fava beans are often served with chicory, two staples of the traditional Puglian diet.
Meats, fish and seafood
Because Puglia was a poor area, meat was a luxury. The primary traditional meats are lamb, goat and (sorry!) horse. (Don’t worry—we don’t include goat or horse on our menus.)
Cured pork products—typically called salamis—are important in the antipasti course, especially Capocollo di Martina Franca, the most famous Puglian salami in Italy.
Bombettes are a popular meat dish in Puglia. These are meat (pork) rolls stuffed with cheese, salt, pepper, and spices and are specialties of the “Fornello” butcher shops in the town of Cisternino. Fixed by a toothpick, they are strung on a skewer and roasted on a barbeque. We watched Anna Maria’s friend Maria Carla make these for our cooking class dinner… and they were delicious!
Polpette Pugliesi are meatballs usually made from beef, breadcrumbs, egg, milk and Pecorino cheese. These meatballs are a traditional Pugliese food that once represented luxury in a time when meat was extremely scarce and was only eaten once a week on Sundays.
Our groups enjoyed a very special seafood meal in the town of Salvelettri on the Adriatic Sea. Mussels (cozze) are one of the most popular types of seafood in Puglia and can be found in many local dishes.
Sea urchins (Ricci di mare), squid (calamari), octopus (polpo), and shrimp (gambero) are other popular seafood. Oily fish (pesce azzurro) are another specialty of the region, such as anchovies, sardines, tuna and salmon.
Experiencing the unique cuisine of Puglia definitely involves cheese. Puglia is known for its cheese production, with a number of cheese varieties originating from the region. You’ll find cheeses in food stores and specialist cheese shops and served on antipasti platters. Puglian cheese can be made from the milk of cows, Italian Mediterranean buffalo, sheep, or goats.
Burrata is the best-known artisan cheese from Puglia. This tender ball of cheese looks like mozzarella, but when you cut into it, a delicious mix of stringy stracciatella cheese and thick cream oozes out. Burrata should be served as fresh as possible. It is most often served seasoned with just salt, pepper and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil but it also pairs with bruschettas topped with fresh tomatoes, prosciutto, figs, or fresh vegetables. My mouth is watering just thinking about this!
One highlight of our week is a visit to a family farm not far from Ostuni, where artisan cheese is produced on site using the milk from their herd of dairy cows. We all enjoy watching the cheesemaker completing the production process for mozzarella and burrata.
Later we sampled this just-made cheese at a casual picnic lunch, served in the courtyard of the farmhouse. Everything we eat– including the salami and the focaccia bread– is produced there on site. (They grow the wheat, mill the flour, and bake the focaccia daily.) Hosted by family member Daniela, we all enjoyed experiencing the unique cuisine of Puglia in this intimate setting.
Other cheeses of Puglia include Caciocavallo, a popular type of stretched-curd cheese, often found tied up and hanging from a piece of rope; Scamorza, a cheese made with cow’s milk, shaped into two connected balls, one smaller than the other; and Cacioricotta, a soft cheese, Puglia’s version of ricotta.
Snacks and street food
Focaccia is perhaps the most famous specialty of Puglia, primarily known as street food. Focaccia is served with a variety of toppings including onions, eggplant, vegetables, meats, and cheeses. Normally served warm and crunchy, focaccia is ideal for a snack, as part of an antipasti, or for a casual meal. Focaccia Barese is a type of focaccia from the city of Bari; the dough is made of flour and mashed potato, studded with tiny cherry tomatoes, olives and oregano.
Friselle is a crunchy, dry bread baked in a stone oven with a drop of olive oil, cut in half, and seasoned with tomato, garlic, oil and salt to make a small bruschetta.
Taralli are small ring-shaped snacks made using no-yeast dough, olive oil and white wine. Similar in texture to a breadstick or a pretzel, they are one of the most widely-eaten snack foods in Puglia. These little treats are most commonly served with wine or cocktails at aperitivo time. Taralli is made with a variety of flavors (salt, garlic, olive, chili flakes, fennel seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and other local ingredients) to give them an extra kick. You can buy them at food shops that specialize in local products.
There are over 350 types of pasta in Italy! Some pasta on restaurant menus is dried pasta, but in many restaurants you’re served fresh pasta (pasta fresco), made by hand on the premises. Our group practiced their pasta-making skills in our cooking class with Anna Maria.
Several shapes of pasta are most popular in Puglia:
Orecchiette – the most famous Puglian pasta, with a name based on its shape (“small ears”). The shape gives them a unique texture—soft in the center and slightly chewy around the edges, ideal for soaking up any delicious sauce. Orecchiette pasta is usually served with tomato sauce, meatballs, ricotta cheese, or broccoli. A classic recipe is Orecchiette Con Le Cime Di Rapa – orcecchiette served with broccoli rabe. On the streets of ancient Bari you can watch local women hand-make orecchiette pasta on rustic work tables in front of their homes.
Foglie d’ulivo – a unique handmade pasta in the shape of olive leaves. Due to its cavities and the stripes on its surface, foglie d’ulivo is especially good for capturing sauces and flavors.
Sagne ‘ncannulate – a long, spiraled fresh pasta that resembles the twisting and swirling architecture in Lecce—traditionally served with a tomato and cheese sauce.
Troccoli – a traditional pasta made from durum wheat flour and water, sometimes with a few eggs in the mix. It looks like spaghetti but is a bit thicker and has a square or oval cross-section because it’s made using a troccolo – a rolling pin that cuts the pasta dough into strips.
Capunti –a variety of pasta made with durum wheat semolina, always handmade and characterized by its canoe-like shape.
Pastries, Sweets and Coffee Drinks
The people of Puglia enjoy sweet things, and pastries and little cakes are sold in bars, cafes, and artisan pastry shops. People often stop by a bar in the morning for a cappuccino or espressino with a croissant or pastry and then in the afternoon for coffee or an aperitivo.
Pasticciotto – small custard-filled pastries that originated from Lecce, traditionally filled with black cherries, and usually eaten hot for breakfast. (It’s sometimes served at our hotel’s breakfast.) But this is a tasty sweet snack at any time of day. Variations include vanilla, lemon, hazelnut, chocolate and pistachio.
Caffè Leccese – an iced coffee beverage enjoyed in the summer, developed in the city of Lecce. The simple drink includes ice, almond milk or syrup, and hot expresso. Stir and enjoy! Sweet and very refreshing!
Espressino – another coffee beverage enjoyed in Puglia, prepared with equal parts of espresso and milk, with some cocoa powder on the bottom of the cup and on top of the drink.
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But as I write this and reflect back on my two Octobers and many meals in Puglia… looking at hundreds of photos from these trips… I realize that the best part of any of our meals in Puglia was always the community of fellow travelers, sharing conversation, enjoying the good food and wine, and experiencing the unique cuisine of Puglia together around the table.
If you’re interested in experiencing the unique cuisine of Puglia for yourself, come with us in 2023! We’re returning to Puglia with two Puglia Experience groups in October 2023: October 5 – 12 and October 12 – 19. We’d love to have you join us!
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All our European Experiences trips include memorable meals featuring local specialties. It’s a delicious and fun way to learn about local culture! You may enjoy these food-related blog posts focused on other European Experiences destinations:
Dinner at L’Arôme – a Memorable Meal in Bonnieux
A Cornwall Experience: The Wonderful Food!!
Duck, Duck, Goose… Walnut!! The Cuisine of the Périgord
A Chianti Experience: Lunch with Janet & Stefano
Kathy and Charley Wood founded European Experiences in 2006, offering week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe. Their trips include The Luberon Experience in Provence, France, named one of the top 50 tours in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Kathy has personally hosted over 130 Experience groups. She hosts Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, the Cotswolds, and Normandy. Charley is now mostly retired but continues to co-host The Cornwall Experience and our Christmas trips with Kathy every year.
Kathy has been traveling in Europe for 30+ years and loves sharing her special places in Europe with other travelers. The Woods have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.
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