Illustration by Tim Bulmer
I generally steer clear of urging holiday destinations on people - that's the preserve of travel writers, though some of those have scant reciprocal respect for my chosen trade. Like the one who enthused about a grand crue (sic) weekend at a stately pile in the derrière d'au-délà complete with wall-to-wall Châteaux Margo, Lafete and Lator (triple sic).
Sometimes, though, my zeal is uncontainable. Puglia is a case in point and fellow-members who have so far experienced the heel of Italy only through the prism of primitivo really should go. If only to visit the public toilets in Locorotondo.
But first things first. Puglia is every inch the foodie destination, though the complete antithesis of the one above. Here the stars are good, honest, earthy grub and wines that have transcended the earthy, while retaining the good and the honest. In late autumn you may find yourself, as I did, starting poolside in blazing sunshine, and ending by an equally blazing log fire, with a bowl of plump olives and slivers of unctuous capocollo, the local cured ham. In between, there's Lecce for baroque, Ostuni for whitewashed charm and Alberobello for hot-and-cold-running trulli. How's that for a packaged tour?
Typical houses with dry stone walls and conical-roofed trulli in Alberobello, Puglia
Puglian wine struck international gold when the primitivo grape burst juicily onto the scene, where its deeply fruity, unpretentious charm continues to enchant. If it's a bit of complexity you crave, though, there's negroamaro, neither as bible-black nor remotely bitter as its name suggests, and the brains behind Graticciaia, a velvety, thought-provoking red for the end of the meal and/or the beginning of meditation. Think of these two Puglian pillars as Rudi Valentino and Marcello Mastroianni, and decide whether you want to be carried off to a sand dune by your wine, or to have a thrilling cerebral chat with it. Whites, spearheaded by fragrant fiano and its blossomy, lemony pal falanghina are on top form, as evidenced by the stamping of the latter's card this year with a Society label. That's a Campanian, rather than Puglian expression of the grape, but this is a southern belle long overdue for recognition.
Of all the holiday dishes I've memory-banked, Puglia's are the most frustating because the ingredients are so hard to find here. Take cime di rapa, soulmate of the local pasta, orecchiette, or 'little ears'. Unhelpfully rendered in English as 'turnip tops', it's a brassica that looks like miniature broccoli but is so arrestingly bitter that no purple sprout or tender stem could compete. Take the orecchiette themselves, artisan-made, darker and nuttier to the bite than the weedy commercial white shell-likes on our shelves. Take donkey meat, which would utterly appal us here but, mixed with sweet spices, full-throttle tomatoes and a measure of blissful ignorance, makes unforgettable meatballs there. And cardoncelli, the distinctive mushrooms that grow on the roots of cardoons. I'll just have to go back.
The local pasta, Orecchiette or 'little ears'
So much for life's inconveniences, not something that can be said for a gabinetto pubblico after a surfeit of acqua minerale. Just make sure
you're caught short in Locorotondo,
home of Italy's premier '5-star toilets'.
They are presided over by a charmingly
insistent proprietor, who will think
nothing of putting aside the footie
results to escort you personally to his
inner sanctum. The donne, at least, is,
dare I say, lavishly appointed in pink, not
only with vintage hardware, but with a
retro television set, a stunning floral
arrangement and an eclectic collection
of china figurines, tenderly placed on
lace doilies. The press release
presented to clients as they depart
(left), alleges that Frank Sinatra once
used this remarkable facility. And, I
imagine, did it his way.
As I say, just go. Whether you need to or not.