Down at heel? | Posted: 13 March 2015
Self-guided cycling holidays in Italy
Self-guided cycling holidays in Italy
Self-guided cycling holidays in Italy

'Poor man’s food’ and riches of the land – Inntravel’s Maria Rosaria Castriotta, a native of Italy’s ‘Deep South’ (Il Mezzogiorno d’Italia), tells a tale of culinary thrift in Puglia…

Puglia (the ‘heel of Italy’ – where I am from) used to be one of Italy’s poorest regions, and although things have improved markedly since then, this simple approach to life still remains – not just in the uncomplicated attitude of the Pugliesi, but also in their food. The region’s proximity to the sea, together with the fact that it is bathed in warm sunshine for much of the year, means that it is blessed with an abundance of natural produce. And in the spirit of cucina povera (‘peasant food’ that placed an emphasis on local ingredients harvested for nourishment), the people here have learned to make the most of their agricultural bounty. Although I was a vegetarian for most of my teenage years, I never felt as though I missed out: the meat or the fish component – if it could be afforded, of course – always felt like a secondary consideration, compared to the bumper supply of fresh produce we enjoyed. And although I never thought it would be possible to survive on a diet of little more than bread and vegetables, with the dinner table groaning under such a delicious array of side plates, it felt like no hardship at all.

In Italian cuisine in general, but here in particular, the raw ingredients are king – and their flavours seem to shout at you. And it tends to be food from the ground – from the earth itself – that has become such a staple of local cuisine. The red-ripe tomatoes, of course, are fresh off the plant, and their juicy flavour is on another level entirely, when compared with that of the shipped-and-chilled fare on British supermarket shelves. There are countless herbs, too; plus chickpeas, grains and other pulses; and besides the ubiquitous olive groves, orchards and vineyards, whose harvest helps to produce myriad oils, jams and robust Primitivo wines, these landscapes of broad plains and low-lying hills also make excellent grazing pasture for countless dairy herds. Chief among their output, perhaps, is cheese; and the names – Mozzarella, Provolone, Ricotta, Canestrato, Pampanella – trip off the tongue in an almost mouthwatering cascade.

Related Holidays & Further Information

Pedalling through Puglia

Discover the unspoiled landscapes of Salento, Italy's heel, and stay at several typical masserie Pugliese, as you cycle through this little-known and most deeply traditional of regions.

More about our self-guided cycling
holidays in Puglia >

A Journey through Puglia

Alternatively, travel by car and on foot as you journey through a land of olive groves and picturesque coastal scenery, taking in Baroque treasures and ancient trulli (conical-roofed houses) along the way.

More about our fly-drive journey in Puglia >

Most famous of all these is mozzarella from the town of Gioia del Colle (also known as Scioo, or ‘Joy’ in the local Apulian dialect). Personally, though, I would opt for a generous slice of provolone piccante, or even burrata if I can get my hands on it. Literally meaning ‘buttery’, this delicacy – so fresh it should be eaten on the day it is made – is absolutely typical of the area, and of the locals’ sense of thrift: their determination to make the very best of whatever is available. Really a by-product of mozzarella production, the ‘scraps’ and strips of left-over cheese are shaped into a pouch, into which is poured a little cream. Burrata may have once been ‘poor man’s food’; but served fresh, as my father would sometimes do on his return home from work, it is absolutely exquisite.

Caciocavallo (‘cheese on horseback’) is another favourite of mine. Looking more like an earthenware pot than a cheese to the untrained eye, the stretched curd from sheep’s or goat’s milk is fashioned into its distinctive shape through a process of energetic stretching by hand (to realign the proteins) and then a kind of culinary pottery. And the caciocavallo artisans have had plenty of time to get it right: this cheese is so old that it was mentioned by Hippocrates as far back as 500BC, and its method of ripening – in pairs, hung together by string across a wooden beam or rafter for up to three years, gives rise to its unusual name.

But what I love most about Inntravel’s holidays to my home region are the masserie Pugliese – the ancient, fortified farmsteads that have been converted into such delightful places to stay. They not only occupy some of the most beautiful spots, but also make (and often sell) the most delicious food you can imagine. I adore the typical Salento olive oil made at Masseria Panareo near the historic port of Otranto, and the fig marmalade I tried at Masseria Montenapoleone a little further north was a real delicacy. You can enjoy some marvellous meals at these places too, of course; but one of my favourite dishes, and one which is truly representative of the area, is a supremely simple one called orecchiette alle cime di rapa. The ‘little ears’ pasta is made freshly by hand (in fact, you can still see women doing this in the old streets of Bari), then it is served with the green leaves of ‘turnip tops’ that have been fried in olive oil with garlic and a little chilli. The pasta’s unusual shape means that, while the hollow of the ’ear’ tends to scoop up the sauce, the more wrinkled outside surface (created by rolling out the ‘snake’ of pasta by hand without flour) retains some of it, too. An added anchovy might be the only ‘luxury’, but the result is absolutely delicious. That’s what cucina povera is all about: the simplest of ingredients from the land, transformed into the most mouthwatering of meals.

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