Dreaming of Puglia...Italy's "heel" side.

Puglia and its varied food and cuisine

Gazing out across the Adriatic Sea towards Albania and Greece, Puglia has always been a point of departure and arrival for those traveling between western Europe and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Greeks, Romans, crusaders, traders, and many others shuttled back and forth over millennia, leaving behind them a fascinating potpourri of cultural and culinary influences that still define the region today. 

For millennia Puglia has been predominantly an agricultural region, producing around 40% of Italy's olive oil and a large proportion of its wine. Vast tracts of the region's territory are given over to farming, whether it be crops or livestock, and many inhabitants continue to grow their own produce.

This essentially agricultural nature means that the region's cuisine is home-country inspired, predominantly using the abundant local produce such as durum wheat, tomatoes, artichokes, fava beans, rocket, courgettes, beans, fennel, peppers, onions, beef and lamb.

Puglia's award-winning wine

If Italy is the largest producer of wine in the world, it is largely thanks to Puglia, which produces more than any other Italian region, about 17% of the total!

Viticulture is deeply rooted in local traditions but until 20 or so years a large proportion of Puglia’s grapes were used to add “substance” to wines produced in the rest of Italy and France. Thankfully this is no longer the case and Puglia now boasts 25 different DOC areas and some excellent vintages of its own.

The most widely grown grape variety is Negroamaro (literally ‘black bitter’). Almost exclusively cultivated in Puglia, Negroamaro is used to produce some of the region’s best wines, including Salice Salentino. The epithet of most famous grape, however, goes to Primitivo, whose wines, including the Primitivo di Manduria, are generally high in alcohol content and full in body. Curiously, the Primitivo grape shares its genetic make-up with California’s Zinfandel varietal.

White wines in Puglia count for less than 20% of the overall production but are gradually growing in importance. Local grapes such as Bombino Bianco, Bianco d’Alessano and Verdeca rub shoulders with international varieties including Chardonnay and Sauvignon to produce some excellent results.

Puglia's traditional simple 3-course meal for the weekend (serves 4)

Melenzane ripiene (Stuffed aubergines)

2 aubergines
50g breadcrumbs
4 teaspoons of grated pecorino cheese
1 clove of garlic, chopped
A bunch of basil
4 anchovy fillets
2 tins of chopped plum tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Cut your aubergines in half lengthways, place in a pan of salted boiling water for about 5 minutes and then take out.
When they are cool enough to handle, scoop most of the pulp and chop up. Heat a little olive oil in a pan and gently fry the garlic. Then add the anchovies, letting them melt, and then add the chopped aubergine pulp for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, season, tear in a handful of basil leaves and leave to cook on a low heat until you get a thickish sauce.

While the sauce is cooking away, heat the oven to about 220, place the aubergine on a slightly oiled baking tray and, when the sauce is ready, spoon it into the aubergines. Top liberally with the pecorino cheese and place in the oven for about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with a little more torn basil and serve.

Orecchiette con sugo alla ricotta forte (Orecchiette pasta was tomato sauce and ricotta forte cheese)

400g orecchiette
250g tomato passata
A few leaves of basil
150g ricotta forte
1 tsps chilli paste
1 smallish onion
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Chop the onion finely and gently fry until soft. Add the tomato passata, mix well and leave to cook on a low flame for about 10 minutes. After this time, add the ricotta forte and mix well so it amalgamates fully with the sauce. Add a teaspoon of chilli paste, mix well and take off the heat.

Cook the orecchiette in salted water until al dente. When ready, drain, add to the sauce and toss on a low heat, tearing in some basil as you go. You are now ready to serve up!

Zuppa di Pesce alla Gallipolina (Gallipoli style fish soup)

700g mix of grouper and white seabream filleted and cut into chunks
200g king prawns
1 cuttlefish, cleaned and cut into rings
300g mussels
1 onion
1 clove of garlic
1 glass of white wine
1 bunch of parsley
2 tins chopped, peeled tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
salt and pepper

The first thing you need to do is to ask your fishmonger to clean, descale and fillet all your fish and the cuttlefish for you. This makes life a lot easier!

Back in the kitchen, chop your onion and gently fry in olive oil in a large pan along with the clove of chopped garlic. Then add the two tins of chopped tomatoes and a tablespoon of white wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper, mix well and cook slowly with the lid on until the tomatoes have mashed. At this point, add the cuttlefish rings and a handful of chopped parsley, cover, and cook for around 10 minutes, being careful not to stir or mix. Add the glass of white wine and, when this is bubbling gently, add the grouper and the white sea bream on top. Season again put the lid back on and cook for another 10 minutes. Finally, add the peeled prawns and the debearded, washed mussels. Replace the lid once more and after about 5 minutes the mussels should have opened and the prawns cooked. If the soup gets too dry during the cooking process, add a little boiling water (though this is not a very liquid soup).

Sprinkle with a little more parsley and serve hot with some crusty bread and a glass of crisp white wine. 

* We have partnered with The Thinking Traveller (winner of Conde Nast Travellers Award '16-'19) to bring you exclusive editorial on Italy and its rich heritage.