Tag: Italy

Travelling again: Salerno, the border of two Italies

Travelling again: Salerno, the border of two Italies

We’re travelling again. After a few fairly hectic business trips, we arrived in Naples with 10 days to explore its environs – the first time I’ve been to the region. We started our little tour at the busy port of Salerno, on the Tyrrhenian coast an hour or so’s drive south-east from Naples airport.

For a brief spell from 1816 until the reunification of Italy in 1860, Naples was the capital of the “Kingdom of the two Sicilies”, a name which puts me in mind that Salerno is really the “border of the two Italies”. To the West, the glitzy Amalfi Coast, which attracts a slew of tourists, many of them well-heeled. To the south-east, Calabria, a region which is agriculturally rich but has one of the lowest GDPs per capita in Italy. Heading down the coast road (the SP175 “Litorale”), I couldn’t help being struck by how down-at-heel the farms looked, especially when compared to a recent trip to the beautifully kept farmland around Padova and Verona. There were just too many derelict buildings, too many stretches of land with awnings that clearly should have been protecting crops but only served to cover bare earth gradually filling with weeds. When a stretch of coastline is proud of itself, its beaches and seaside restaurants have names like “Blue Gulf”, “Beach of the Angels” and so on: here, they have names denoting the desire to escape to somewhere else: “Malibu”, “Hawaii”.

Paestum – Temple of Poseidon

However, there’s a good reason to drive down this road, because after an hour, you get to the Archaeological Park at Paestum, which contains three of the best preserved Greek temples on the planet. The Temple of Poseidon  (or Neptune – they’re a bit inconsistent about whether to use the Greek or Latin names here), with its array of huge Doric columns, is nothing short of awesome: I haven’t been to the Parthenon, but I’m told by those who have been to both that The Temple of Poseidon is close to as exciting a sight; you can get far closer, with the added bonus in June of seeing it isurrounded by a carpet of wildflowers. Next door, the Temple of Hera comes close, although the columns are slightly more spread out, which reduces the “shock and awe” quotient. As you walk back towards the park’s exit past various ruins of Roman settlements, which include a particularly noteworthy marble impluvium (rainfall collector) in the centre of a villa’s atrium, you pass the Temple of Athene, which is somewhat smaller. You come out with the feeling that you have just been thoroughly dipped into a large pool of the culture of 2,500 years ago.

Paestum – Temple of Hera

The Amalfi Coast (or “Costiera Amalfitana”) fully deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline on the planet. Picture-perfect towns and villages perch uncertainly on the small flat spaces between cliffs that fall into the sea, or are hollowed into them. Vertiginous stairways take you from the coast road, high above the ocean, down to grey sand beaches. The scenery is studded with the luminous green of lemon trees: lemons from Amalfi and Sorrento are the most famous in Italy. Along the way, a never-ending series of places to vist, stay and/or eat with dazzling views: the picture here is taken from the Monastero Santa Rosa, a 17th century Dominican convent now turned into a high end hotel and restaurant.

View east from Monastero Santa Rosa

Sophia Loren’s villa is not far, with its mildly alarming open elevator to take Ms Loren from the house down the cliff drop towards the sea. I have to agree with the Italian friends who told us that the best views of the Amalfi Coast are to be had from the sea. Salerno turns out to be a good place to start a boat trip: go to Molo Manfredi marina and you’ll find several companies happy to rent you a boat, either with or without a skipper; for the cost conscious, joining a tour will make more sense than doing a private rental. There are fewer companies than the internet would appear to indicate, so you’ll find the same boats on offer on several different websites, aggregators or otherwise (for example, we started on “Blue Dream Rentals” and ended up renting from “Blu Mediterraneo”). The boat was fine and our skipper was very personable. We chose an intinerary that started at Salerno, proceeded to Positano (past Amalfi to the West) and then back via a stop for lunch. The photo here is of Positano, as glitzy as you can get and apparently the favoured ancharage for oligarchs’ superyachts (we saw five very large yachts moored there). You can also go to Capri, but that’s a longer trip and if you want to spend a substantial time going round Capri, you might prefer one of the many fast ferries and hydrofoils and then get a boat when you’re there. Alternatively, start your trip from further West along the coast: there are popular trips to Capri both from Amalfi and from Naples itself.


In between the glitzy Amalfi Coast and has-seen-better-days Calabria sits Salerno. What’s striking is the patchiness of the investment here. Stroll along the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele and you’ll find shops that are as modern and brightly maintained as you might wish for, with plenty of the usual big brands from Italy and beyond – Max Mara, Bennetton, Foot Locker – mixing with more local businesses that are maintained to a similarly high standard. The smartest restaurants, like the Michelin-mentioned Pescheria, are suitably ritzy; Embarcadero is a great looking bar and gelateria on the seafront; the 089 (zero-otto-nove) chain of bars is smart and fun. You can also eat extremely well at mid-level and cheaper places: Vasilicò, hidden away in a small square just off the Corso and run by the delightful chef patron Anna Clara Capacchione, served us some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had at a decidedly attractive price (including one of my favourite Italian wines, Lacryma Christi from nearby Vesuvius, at €13 a bottle). 

There are other small businesses that don’t look like they’ve had any money spent on them in half a century. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to food, some of these are excellent: we had the warmest of welcomes and fabulously good salumi at the Salumeria del Corso; in the back streets of the old city, Dolci Sapori, run by a father-and-son team, gave us just as warm a welcome and a superb lunch (plus a great selection of vintage rock and soul music, which, the dad told us, were down to his son – he prefers traditional Neapolitan song). There’s a definite feeling of going back in time to pre-globalization days when supply chains were short, with local shops selling goods made in the local hinterland – a feeling that can be pleasant, as in the excellent handbag shop which reminded us of the days when a parent might have been thrilled with bringing a handbag home from a trip to Italy. In other places, going back in time didn’t seem so great.

Salerno from above – Piazza della Libertà in the centre in the distance

At the other end of the scale, there are huge architectural projects. Adjacent to Molo Manfredi marina is the gigantic Plaza della Libertà, 28,000 square metres of bright, shiny new square sitting atop a parking lot and completely empty except for a single crescent-shaped building (itself mostly empty). The square was completed in 2021 after an architectural contest whose brief was to “bring to reality a new image and identity of the urban waterfront: the definitive opening of the city to the sea”. It’s certainly an attractively designed and striking bit of urban landscape, but to my mind, given the immense backlog of building repairs throughout the city, that’s a vanity project if ever there was one. The car park was almost completely empty when we parked our rental car there, but that hasn’t stopped another immense waterfront car park from being under construction just a kilometre or so to the south.

In our small number of days, we didn’t attempt to go through an exhaustive list of the sights of Salerno, but I’ll mention a couple of notable places. In this part of Italy where the hills fall directly into the sea, almost everything is built on a steep slope. Starting at the Dolceria Pantaleone in the Centro Storico, walk a couple of steep blocks uphill and you will reach Salerno Cathedral, aka the “Duomo”, or, to give it its full name, the “Cattedrale di Santa Maria degli Angeli, San Matteo e San Gregorio VII”. It’s a beautifully proportioned, light and airy building which dates from the 11th century, a far cry from the baroque excess of so many Italian churches and notable for a glorious set of mosaics. The faithful can gaze in awe upon the relics of St. Matthew; the rest of us can admire the artistry and appreciate what a spiritual place this is.

Mosaics at Salerno Cathedral

Coming out of the Duomo, if you don’t turn downhill but carry on gently uphill for many blocks, you will reach the Giardino della Minerva, the botanical garden of the city’s mediaeval medical school. This isn’t a garden for simple gawking at attractive plants: rather, it’s a kind of living encyclopaedia of medicinally or nutritionally interesting species: start at the bottom and you go up through a dizzying number of terraces, with dozens of species in each, to finish high above the city, with spectacular views. Inside the building, you discover that the medical school has been on this site, in one form or another, since mediaeval times. Furthermore, Salerno was one of the first places where women doctors practised and one of the first places where there was medicine specifically for women’s complaints. Perhaps the earliest text by a woman on feminine medicine was published here in the 12th century by “Trotula”, the alias of a certain Trota of Salerno.

Giardino della Minerva

We stayed in a lovely B&B, the Casa Santangelo in Salerno’s Centro Storico, once the apartment of an Italian marquis and now converted into some very smart suites. I couldn’t resist including this photo of our bedroom’s trompe l’oeil ceiling, painted onto fabric and tacked to the framework above.

Ceiling at Casa Santangelo

We’ve travelled to Italy a lot over the years, mainly to the north but also to Sicily and Puglia in the far south. It’s been our first time in this area: Salerno, the Amalfi Coast and Paestum have been completely new experiences. More antiquities await us at Pompeii and Herculaneum…

Sunset from Conca dei Marini, west of Amalfi
Around the world in 80 bakes, no.76 – Panettone from Italy

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.76 – Panettone from Italy

Christmas food in Italy is a whole lot more varied than in England, with all manner of different meats, fish, pasta dishes, cakes and biscuits (mercifully, the Italians don’t share our obsession with roast turkey). But there’s one thing that you’ll see at Christmas all over Italy: the cylindrical, sweetened, enriched bread called “Panettone” – the “big loaf”. Whenever I’ve been to a café in Italy at Christmas time, usually in or near Milan, the base of modern, industrial scale panettone manufacture and said to be its city of origin, piles of panettone pieces have been arrayed on the bar for everyone to nibble with their coffee. The aroma of citrus and vanilla in a bread of extreme fluffiness is unbeatable.

There are zillions of recipes, from the traditional candied fruit to those with more outlandish fillings: chocolate, hazelnut puree, tangerine paste, marrons glacés and so on. But there are a few things that distinguish a panettone from other breads/cakes of its type:

  • The dough is sweetened and enriched with egg yolks and butter, giving an overall flavour profile something like a brioche. But where you would try to get a brioche smooth and even in crumb, a panettone should be as aerated as you can make it: fluffiness is mandatory and large air pockets are completely acceptable.
  • The loaf is baked in a cylindrical case or tin. Originally, the chances are that you’d have reused one of the large tins in which canned goods were sold, but today, you are more likely to go for a single-use paper case made specially for the purpose: these are inexpensive and readily available both in the UK and the US.
  • To prevent your loaf collapsing down the moment you take it out of the oven – the fate of most heavily aerated breads and cakes – a panettone is cooled upside down: instead of collapsing, it gains extra height and fluffiness.

Making panettone turns out to be something of a project: it’s going to take you most of a day as an absolute minimum, with some recipes calling for multiple resting and proving stages taking several days, in order to develop the flavour to its maximum. I went for an intermediate, starting with a sourdough “sponge” at 6pm on day 1 and getting the panettone out of the oven around 24 hours later, to be cooled and ready for breakfast the next morning.

I ended up taking bits and pieces from several different recipes: Giallo Zaferrano, Great Italian Chefs, BBC Good Food. But rather than slavishly following a set of quantities and times, I relied more on getting the dough to look right at each stage, with my main reference being this video from chefsteps.com. You’ll see from the photos that my texture came out perfectly – I couldn’t have asked for better. However, my flavours beed adjusting for next time: I used a bit too much salt and not enough sugar and I was definitely too conservative about how much candied fruit to add. I’ve adjusted the quantities below to what I think I should have used (and will try for next Christmas).

Confession time: I was going by look and feel and not measuring all the quantities as accurately as usual. So if you’re going to try this, use your judgment.

Day 1, around 6pm: the sourdough sponge, part 1

  • 30g sourdough starter
  • 170g strong white flour
  • 130ml water
  1. Mix thoroughly the sourdough starter with 30g of the flour and 60ml of the water. Leave to ferment for around three hours.
  2. Add the rest of the flour and water, mix thoroughly then leave to ferment overnight.

Day 2, around 8am: the sourdough sponge, part 2

  • 100g strong white flour
  • 4g dried yeast
  • 100g yoghurt (any active yoghourt should do, buttermilk or kefir might be better)
  1. Add all the ingredients to your sponge from the previous day, mix thoroughly and leave to rest until everything is bubbling nicely. This will depend on the ambient temperature: I left mine for around two hours in a place near my boiler which is around 30℃.

Day 2 mid-morning: make the dough

  • 400g flour (very approximate, do by feel of the dough)
  • 8 egg yolks, at room temperature (when you separate the eggs, keep a small amount of the white – you’ll use it for the glaze.
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 140g butter, at room temperature
  • zest of one orange
  • zest of one lemon
  • seeds scraped from one vanilla pod
  • 5g salt
  • 120g lemon peel
  • 120g sultanas
  1. If it didn’t start there, put your sponge into the bowl of your stand mixer. Add flour and egg yolks and knead using the dough hook for five minutes. Leave half an hour, then start kneading again, for perhaps another five minutes, until the dough is extremely elastic with the gluten very stretchy.
  2. Slowly add the sugar and continue mixing with the dough hook until throughly mixed in. The dough should loosen out as the sugar dissolves.
  3. Cut the butter into small cubes, perhaps 1cm on a side. Add the butter a little at a time, continuing to mix until it’s all incorporated. I found that the butter tended to clump around the side of the bowl, requiring me to stop mixing at regular intervals and scrape down the sides.
  4. Eventually, you should have a soft, silky dough whose gluten makes it stretch into thin sheets when pulled. Leave it to relax for ten minutes or so.
  5. Add the vanilla, the lemon and orange zest, the salt and the dried fruit, and carry on mixing until the fruit is nicely coated in dough – this is what will stop if from sinking to the bottom of your panettone during baking.
  6. Now leave to ferment until doubled or tripled in size – in my case, this took around three hours.

Day 2 mid-afternoon – stretch and fold

  • 1 panettone mould (or other cylindrical tin)
  • Oil spray
  1. Spray a non-absorbent work surface with oil; also spray your hands, your scraper and the surface of your dough.
  2. Transfer the dough to the work surface.
  3. Stretch the dough as far as you dare, then fold it over onto itself, trapping some air. Repeat a few times, respraying with oil as needed.
  4. Transfer the dough to your mould. It should reach half to 2/3 of the way up.
  5. Leave to rise. You’re hoping for the dough to reach close to the top of the mould, which will probably take at least an hour, maybe two. At some point during this, start heating your oven to 180℃ fan.

Day 2 early evening: glaze and bake

  • 20g egg white
  • 20g icing sugar
  • 20g ground almonds
  • 20g flaked almonds for topping – I’ve never liked the traditional topping of  “pearl sugar” which is often found on a shop-bought panettone, so I’ve just used the almonds. But you choose.
  1. In a small bowl, thoroughly mix the egg white, icing sugar and ground almonds to form a fairly thick, sticky glaze (add egg white if it’s too thick).
  2. Preferably with a silicone brush, paint the mixture carefully over the top of the panettone. Since the dough is very light an puffy at this point, you need to treat it gently: you really don’t want to be tearing holes in the surface right now.
  3. Scatter the ground almonds over the glazed panettone. You can press them in a tiny amount, but again, don’t risk tearing the surface.
  4. If you have an oven-proof temperature probe, insert it into the middle of the loaf and bake until the internal temperature reaches 94℃. I use one called a “Meater”, which is intended for meat cookery but works well for this.
  5. If you don’t have a temperature probe, you’ll have to guess: bake for around 40 minutes and then poke a skewer in through the side to look for signs of dough that’s still wet. Mine took just short of 50 minutes total, in an oven that was supposedly set to 175℃ but was actually running at 180.
  6. When the panettone comes out the oven, hang it upside down to cool for at least 12 hours before serving. There are various ways of doing this: most involve knitting needles or, in my case, Turkish kebab skewers. As you’ll see from the photos, I poked two skewers through the loaf and balanced the whole lot on a pair of towers of cookbooks. It was rustic, but it worked.

If you get this far and have a lovely dome reminiscent of the cupola of the cathedral in Milan, bravo!

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.30: Focaccia from Italy

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.30: Focaccia from Italy

With apologies to ciabatta-lovers, focaccia is the Italian bread par excellence. Its pillowy, soft texture, coupled with a crisp outside, a slight crunch of salt flakes and the aroma of olive oil simply can’t be beaten. 

My focaccia recipe is, to be honest, a bit of a mongrel. Prior to this strange year, I was visiting Italy around twice a year, but the best focaccia I have ever had was not made by an Italian but by an Indian chef at a hotel in the mountains of Oman who swore by a triple proving. The softest, most pillowy dough – my ideal focaccia consistency – comes from the kneading method in the Persian flatbread recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana. I’ve gone for Giorgio Locatelli’s recommendation for flour (from his Made in Italy, via Felicity Cloake’s round-up recipe in her excellent “The perfect xyz” series in The Guardian), and done toppings as suggested by Italian-American Maurizio, aka The Perfect Loaf. Personally, I think the results are well worth the extra effort, but there are certainly shortcuts available if you’re pushed for time.

Two important variables are the salt and oil content. I eat a fairly low salt diet and the amount in here is about the maximum I can take. For some, even this will be too much; for others, this won’t be nearly enough compared to the salt hit they expect from a focaccia. My focaccia is also relatively low in oil: you may prefer to drizzle on a lot more than me. You’re just going to have to experiment until you get these to your taste.

Also, I’ve opted for a 40cm x 30cm tray, which gives a flattish focaccia with a relatively short, hot baking time. A variation would be to use a smaller, higher-sided tin and a lower temperature (say 200℃) for a loaf with a higher ratio of inside softness to outside crust.

  • 400ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 20g sugar
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 375g strong white bread flour
  • 375g OO flour
  • 10g salt
  • 100ml olive oil, plus 30ml for the drizzle
  • A tablespoon or so semolina flour (optional)
  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 24 black olives, pitted
  • Half a dozen sprigs of rosemary
  • 20ml cold water
  • 10g sea salt flakes

There are some options as to how to prepare baking trays. You’re trying to get high heat onto the base of your focaccia as soon as you can, so Cloake suggests that you preheat a pizza stone in your oven and “transfer” the focaccia to it. That’s all very well, but it’s difficult to transfer a large rectangle of dough while keeping its shape, without the toppings falling off. I opted for a metal baking tray placed onto the stone: metal is a good conductor and this did the job just fine. An alternative is to lay out your focaccia on baking parchment: if you don’t have a pizza stone, you’ll want to preheat the metal tray and then move your dough to the heated tray while still on its parchment base.

As ever, rising times depend completely on the temperature in your kitchen, and the alternatives should be obvious if you don’t have a stand mixer.

  1. Combine water, sugar and yeast; leave for a few minutes until frothy
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours and salt and stir until mixed evenly
  3. Add the wet mix and 100ml olive oil to the dry mix
  4. With the standard paddle, mix for a minute or so until you have a smooth dough: you should find that it comes away cleanly from the sides of bowl
  5. Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes
  6. Leave to stand for 10 minutes, then knead for another 2 minutes. Repeat this.
  7. Brush a little olive oil over the surface of a large bowl, transfer your ball of dough to it, cover and leave to rise for around 60-90 minutes.
  8. If you’re using baking parchment, line your baking tray with it. Optionally, dust a tablespoon or two of semolina flour over this.
  9. Knock back the dough and shape it into a rectangle covering the whole tray, Make it as even as you can: you’ll get some resistance, but you can pull it around with little danger of tearing.
  10. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for another 45 minutes or so.
  11. If using a pizza stone, put it into your oven now. Otherwise, slide the parchment sheet off your baking tray and put the tray into the oven.
  12. Preheat oven to 250℃ fan (or as near as you can get).
  13. Leave the dough for its second rise, around 45-60 minutes. 
  14. Meanwhile, prepare  your toppings: chop of blitz the rosemary very fine, halve the cherry tomatoes. If your olives came in brine, wash them thoroughly to remove the salt.
  15. Uncover the dough and with a finger, press a pattern of 6 x 8 indentations into it with a finger, going deep. Press the cherry tomato halves and the olives into the indentations in a chequerboard pattern (that’s why I’ve been fussy about the numbers). Sprinkle the rosemary evenly over the top.
  16. Cover with a tea towel again and leave for another 30-45 minutes.
  17. Prepare a mixture of 30ml olive oil and 20ml water, whisking with a fork until emulsified. Spread this evenly over the focaccia.
  18. Sprinkle the sea salt flakes evenly over.
  19. Now work quickly: open the oven, take out the stone or tray, transfer your focaccia to it, replace it in the oven and close. Now reduce the oven temperature to 225℃.
  20. Bake for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
  21. Remove from the oven, slide the focaccia onto whatever board or tray you’re going to serve it on, and leave to cool for a few minutes before eating. This may be the hardest thing in the recipe, but you don’t want to burn your mouth!

Olives, almonds, grapes and the sea: food and wine in Puglia

The first things that strike you are the olive trees. On the way from Bari airport to our first hill town, Ostuni, we pass untold hectares of them. When we visit the Masseria Brancati, we get to see them close up, laden with leaves and fruit, which is still unripe – it’s August and the earliest harvest is still a couple of months away. Some of the trees, named the monumentali, are very, very old – 2,500 years or more: their trunks are several feet wide, gnarled, looking generally grumpy at what they’ve seen.

Masseria Brancati - near Ostuni
Olive trees at Masseria Brancati, near Ostuni

Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. But this ancient part of the nation’s culture is vulnerable, as evidenced when you drive past Brindisi and see the road – the old Appian Way from Rome – lined by thousand upon thousand of dead trees, standing upright but with their leaves scorched. They’re the victims of a single subspecies of bacterium, the xylella fastidiosa subs. pauca: since 2013, farmers and government scientists have been engaged in a desperate struggle to save the olive trees: there are signs of some recovering or being replanted, but the lines of brown trees are still a desperately sad sight.

Martina Franca - Bruschette at Bistrot Garibaldi-2
Friselli with tomatoes and basil

In Italy, food defines everything. And Puglia is where the food is grown, so it’s all about doing simple things with the local ingredients. The centro storico of Ostuni is packed with shops selling local food items to the well-heeled tourists from further north, of which the most important is olive oil. Apart from details of terroir and whether or not the oil is organic, the principal differences between oils lie in whether or not they are first pressing (the Italians tell you to keep extra virgin olive oil for salads and not use it for cooking) and the harvest date: early harvest olives (mid-October) give an oil with a distinctive strong flavour, whereas late harvest olives can give a smooth oil with a long aftertaste.

Almonds are another important crop. If you’re an ice-cream lover, don’t miss their combined fichi e mandorle (fig and almond) flavour, and the shops have plenty of almond biscuits of various types. There are many types of hard biscuits (including the biscotti type familiar to us outside Italy), but my downfall was the mouth-watering soft ones, something between an almond biscuit and marzipan, that we bought from the Furne di Porta Nova bakery, towards the east of the old city in Ostuni. The bakery also makes focaccia, the Puglian version being delightfully light, with far less oil and salt than I’ve had elsewhere, and usually laden with olives and cherry tomatoes. Apart from focaccia, my favourite bread here is their equivalent of the Spanish pan rustico, an unevenly shaped sourdough loaf with a hard crust and a delectable soft, moist middle: in at least one bakery we visited, the sourdough starter was made with fruit. Hard crackers (taralli and friselli) are ubiquitous, handed out as snacks with virtually any drink you buy at a bar.

Alberobello - Astra - Burrata and mozzarella-2
Burrata (centre) with mozzarella

Puglia’s hallmark cheese is burrata: soft, white balls, usually 6 centimetres or so in diameter which are popular both as breakfast and lunch items. Cut into the skin-like outside and a creamy filling gushes forth, delicious on its own or as part of a salad (but be sure to eat fresh burrata the day they’re made – they don’t improve). Lunch plates are also likely to include caciocavallo, a hard cheese made of sheep’s or cow’s milk or, most deliciously, both. There’s also capocollo (a cut of cured pork from the neck and shoulder, somewhat fattier and somewhat stronger tasting than typical prosciutto).

Locorotondo - Perbacco Restaurant
Caciocavallo tart with salad and capocollo

And then, of course, there’s the wine. Various connoisseurs I know are rather dismissive of Puglian wines as being easy drinking and lacking in distinction. Personally, I love Puglian red wines: they’re scented, full of flavour and low on hard tannins. The predominant grapes here are Primitivo (the same variety as the US Zinfandel), Negroamaro and Malvasia nera; there’s a wine called Salice Salentino that blends either two or all three of these. There are others to be discovered: we didn’t get round to Nero di Troia, but the contents of our bottle of Susumaniello vanished without trace in a chorus of yums. I’m less keen on the whites here, but they make a mean summer rosé with Negroamaro.

A short trip to Matera in the neighbouring province, Basilicata, revealed another truly lovely red wine, Aglianico, said to be one of the oldest wines from Greek times (the name may or may not be a corruption of “Hellenico”). It tells you something about Italian regionalism that Aglianico was nowhere to be seen on the shelves in Puglia, even if you’re only half an hour’s drive from the border. If you’re buying a present for a friendly baker, a neat souvenir from Matera is a wooden bread stamp, used in bygone days to stamp you initials on your loaf when baking it in a communal bread oven.

What chilies are really for…

Even within the province, there is variability according to region. We stayed at Gallipoli on the Salento peninsula (not to be confused with the battle site in faraway Turkey), a town which has been a fishing centre for centuries and is celebrated for its seafood. At the fish market, stalls proudly announce that the produce is “recently fished”: the fish was very good; the clams and mussels were outstanding. The surprise of our trip were the gamberi viole (purple prawns), said to only be available in the Salento area and up there with the most intense-tasting shellfish I’ve ever eaten. When I asked the man in the market how best to cook them, his response was “anchè crudo” (don’t bother and eat them raw). I wimped out and showed them the pan for a couple of minutes and I’m glad I didn’t do more: they were fabulous, but we discovered in one restaurant that they lose their flavour if overcooked by even a minute or so (the restaurant, to be fair, replaced them without demur).

Fisherman preparing nets at Gallipoli

Our experience of Puglian restaurants was that they’re not particularly good at trying to be fancy. But when it comes to taking great fresh ingredients – even humble ones – and cooking them simply, they’re masterful. Portions, by the way, are giant: if you’re trying to leave room for dessert, be wary. Il Pettolino in Gallipoli, Nausikaa in Martina Franca, Il Guercio di Puglia in Alberobello and PerBacco in Locorotondo all served us meals that were thoroughly memorable without a sniff of haute cuisine. We’ll be back.