Ev­ery road leads to a sea­side town, ev­ery meal ends with di­ges­tivi. KATIE PARLA is warmed by Old World hos­pi­tal­ity on a road trip along the heel of Italy’s boot.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - OCT - Pho­tog­ra­phy ED AN­DER­SON

We take a road trip along the heel of the boot, where ev­ery road leads to the sea and ev­ery meal ends with di­ges­tivi.

The hottest place in Italy that swel­ter­ing Au­gust night was our train car­riage. It was crowded, of course, on Fer­ragosto, the an­nual hol­i­day cel­e­brat­ing the As­sump­tion of the Vir­gin Mary and the start of the Ital­ian sum­mer-hol­i­day sea­son. We were head­ing south overnight from Rome to Sa­lento, the sun-bleached re­gion in Puglia that forms the stiletto on the Ital­ian boot, and any­where else in the world the win­dows would be open on such a night. But not here. A draft on a sweaty neck causes colpo di vento, or a stiff neck, which Ital­ians avoid at all costs, even in Au­gust. So by the time Gi­ampiero and I ar­rived in Sa­lento af­ter nine hours in a sealed car­riage, we were thirsty and di­shev­elled.

His fa­ther picked us up at the sta­tion in Lecce, the cap­i­tal of Sa­lento, in his four-wheel drive and we headed to a café for freshly baked pas­tries and cof­fee with al­mond milk. Risk­ing a colpo di vento, we sat near open win­dows with a warm, fig-scented breeze waft­ing in. Gi­ampiero’s fa­ther, a psy­chol­o­gist, wore a gold watch and an ex­pen­sive suit, but he was also an in­vet­er­ate for­ager, equally at home in the pas­ture as the of­fice. In the next week he rarely drove more than a kilo­me­tre with­out pulling over to pluck a dozen figs from a stranger’s field or some prickly pears from a clus­ter of cacti – how did he do that with bare hands? When we went to the beach he dived for sea urchins, slic­ing them open with a curved blade to ex­tract the roe. At the lunch or din­ner ta­ble he’d dili­gently peel the fruit he’d stolen, dis­tribut­ing plump figs or prickly pears to ev­ery­one at the ta­ble be­fore head­ing to the freezer for a bot­tle of Petrus, a di­ges­tivo that con­cluded ev­ery meal.

Gi­ampi’s dad sort of sums up Sa­lento and the Salen­tini for me: un­de­ni­ably el­e­gant, but with a wild edge, a rev­er­ence for com­mu­nal meals, and an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for lo­cal flavours. This was my im­pres­sion of Sa­lento on that first hol­i­day 12 years ago with my now for­mer boyfriend, and it’s one that’s con­firmed with ev­ery visit. I’ve made a habit of re­turn­ing at least once a year, es­pe­cially in sum­mer when hot days are cooled by breezes car­ry­ing the sweet scent of ripen­ing fruit.

Sa­lento lies at the south­ern­most tip of the long coastal penin­sula of Puglia, at the con­flu­ence of the Adri­atic and the Io­nian seas. Hot and dry, it’s known for its olive groves, for­est-clad plateaus and towns em­bel­lished with in­tri­cately carved stone façades. The re­gion’s prox­im­ity to Greece and the Balkans has made it cov­eted ter­ri­tory since classical an­tiq­uity. The Myce­naean Greeks were fol­lowed by the Ro­mans, then a long line of in­vaders: Lom­bards, Byzan­tines, Sara­cens, Nor­mans, Swabi­ans, Angevins, Turks and Vene­tians. They all left their mark, much of it at the ta­ble, and this makes shop­ping for food and din­ing in the towns and vil­lages of Sa­lento some­thing of an ad­ven­ture in time travel. Even now Sa­lento isn’t home to just one cul­ture; the in­te­rior, for in­stance, is in­hab­ited by the Griko, who speak a di­alect more closely re­lated to Byzan­tine Greek than Ital­ian or Salentinu.

Among the most en­dur­ing tastes came from the 9th-cen­tury con­quest by Sara­cen Arabs, who brought re­fined cane sugar and al­monds, which were mashed into a paste to pro­duce marzi­pan, or pasta di man­dorla, which is a spe­cialty of many Salen­tine pas­try shops. Eg­g­plant, known to the Greeks and Ro­mans, was rein­tro­duced to Sa­lento by Arabs and a huge range of species flour­ish to this day, ap­pear­ing sliced, lay­ered and baked with tomato in a sum­mer dish called parmi­giana di melan­zane, or sim­mered with tomato and herbs in marangiane ’mbut­tunate. Most cit­rus, with the ex­cep­tion of lemons, had van­ished from the penin­sula af­ter the fall of the Ro­man Em­pire, but bit­ter or­anges were most likely re­turned to south­ern Italy by the Sara­cens more than a thou­sand years ago. To­day candied or­ange peel is sold on its own or en­cased in dark choco­late.

The Span­ish, too, left their mark be­fore be­ing ex­pelled by the most re­cent con­querors, the Ital­ians, in 1861. They in­tro­duced New World pro­duce such

The view next morning on the eastern out­skirts of Lecce is sober­ing. For two con­sec­u­tive har­vests Sa­lento’s cen­turies-old olive trees have been rav­aged by a deadly bac­terium, Xylella fas­tid­iosa, which leaves the trees bar­ren and look­ing as though they’ve been burned by fire. There’s no known cure, and it’s spread­ing. We head east through dy­ing olive groves to the coastal road, tim­ing break­fast with our ar­rival at an old-school pas­try shop called No­bile in the hum­ble sea­side town of San Cataldo. Half of my Salentino friends name No­bile as their favourite place for pas­tic­ciotti, served on gold-foil plat­ters at plas­tic ta­bles (the other half nom­i­nate Pas­tic­ce­ria Ascalone in Galatina). We take our pas­tic­ciotti with Sa­lento’s sum­mer drink of choice: caffè in ghi­ac­cio, chilled espresso flavoured with latte di man­dorla, a sweet al­mond ex­tract. From here we drive south, past the rugged coves of San Foca, Torre dell’Orso, and Sant’An­drea. The cur­rents have chis­elled the lime­stone cliffs of these vil­lages into a moon­scape of cres­cent-shaped grot­toes. In more ad­ven­tur­ous times I’d park on the side of the road north of Torre dell’Orso, de­posit my towel on the rough lime­stone plat­form over­look­ing the sea and join a queue of lo­cal dare­dev­ils to dive 15 me­tres into the turquoise wa­ters of Grotta della Poe­sia. These days I stick to a rock-hewn stair­case de­scend­ing to the beach near Tri­c­ase.

Af­ter a dip in the Adri­atic, we cut across the penin­sula to Sa­lento’s Io­nian coast, where sea­side towns bear names of the torri, the de­fen­sive tow­ers that pro­tected their in­hab­i­tants for cen­turies. At Torre San Gio­vanni, a fish­ing vil­lage and pop­u­lar sum­mer­home en­clave for land­locked Salen­tines, we meet

Enzo Bruno on his trawler. He leads the Padre Pio fish­ing co­op­er­a­tive, named for a re­cently canon­ised Italy’s heel. Long-dis­tance train ser­vices in the south have been scaled back in the past decade, mak­ing a driv­ing hol­i­day the best way to see this part of Puglia.

Lec­cesi treat their city like an open-air the­atre, and their nightly per­for­mance of see­ing-and-be­ing-seen be­gins with aper­i­tivo. Be­fore din­ner we stop at Quanto Basta, where bar­men Diego Melo­rio and An­drea Car­lucci serve craft cock­tails from a cor­ner shopfront. With chrome lights il­lu­mi­nat­ing a bar packed with rare im­ported spirits, Quanto Basta breaks the mould in a city that loves tra­di­tion, but the pair cham­pion lo­cal flavours in a way that lo­cals em­brace. “We make a lot of our syrups with fruits from this re­gion, so many in­gre­di­ents aren’t so un­usual,” Car­lucci tells me as he mixes mez­cal, Carpano An­tica For­mula ver­mouth, Choya umeshu and amarena. His Smoky Taboo sym­bol­ises the his­tor­i­cal cross­road that Sa­lento oc­cu­pies: in­dige­nous cher­ries and Ital­ian ver­mouth meet Ja­panese umeshu and New World agave. as toma­toes, cap­sicum, zuc­chini and pota­toes, while prickly pears and the cus­tom of trans­form­ing co­coa beans into choco­late are part of the sweet Span­ish le­gacy.

Most Ital­ians visit the re­gion to bathe at sandy bays and lime­stone coves; I come for fresh fish caught by men I know by name, pasta made in dis­tinc­tive re­gional shapes, and home­made di­ges­tivi pro­duced ac­cord­ing to cen­tury-old fam­ily recipes. The open­ness of Salen­tini and their de­vo­tion to hos­pi­tal­ity make these es­sen­tial fea­tures of daily life ac­ces­si­ble even to first-time vis­i­tors.

We ar­rive in Lecce by train (mer­ci­fully air­con­di­tioned this time) and make a bee­line for Pi­azza Sant’Oronzo, the city’s main square of pietra Lec­cese, the honey-coloured lime­stone, wrapped around the par­tially ex­ca­vated ru­ins of a Ro­man am­phithe­atre and a mon­u­ment to the lo­cal pa­tron, Saint Oron­tius. My first snack in Lecce is al­ways a rus­tico at Alvino, an his­toric café beloved for its discs of puff pas­try stuffed with béchamel, moz­zarella, black pep­per and a touch of tangy tomato sauce. The café’s dis­play case of­fers a crash course in Sa­lento’s sweet and savoury snacks – al­mond-paste bis­cuits, mostac­ci­oli (bis­cuits flavoured with cin­na­mon and ca­cao), cream-filled bignè and pas­tic­ciotti, the clas­sic lo­cal break­fast tart filled with thick cus­tard – but we stick to savoury rus­tici here. Then we fol­low the cob­bled prom­e­nade to an­other his­toric café, Co­tog­nata Lec­cese, near the 16th-cen­tury fortress of Castello Carlo V, for its sig­na­ture co­tog­nata, a quince paste sim­i­lar to Spain’s mem­brillo. We buy a cou­ple of thick slices – you never know when you’ll need to re­turn some Salen­tine hos­pi­tal­ity – then pick up a hire car for a 200-kilo­me­tre clockwise loop around

Fran­cis­can saint, and he and a dozen or so fel­low fish­er­men are ded­i­cated to sus­tain­able prac­tices in the hope of fix­ing the dam­age caused by long-term over­fish­ing. “We have spe­cial nets,” he says, ges­tur­ing at the one hauled onto the deck, dot­ted with wrig­gling fish caught at dawn in the Sec­che di Ugento, a once-dec­i­mated shal­low na­ture re­serve. “They’re de­signed to catch fish only once they are a cer­tain length so we know they have reached re­pro­duc­tive age.” To­day he has caught mul­lets, At­lantic stargaz­ers and sea bream, as well as a few cut­tle­fish, which he sells at a shop near his moored boat. “It has taken time to ed­u­cate peo­ple that the sea won’t al­ways give us fish if we de­mand too much, so we have to limit what we catch. But slowly, we are help­ing peo­ple un­der­stand. If we want to keep do­ing this job, this is the only way.”

Next stop is the sprawl­ing town of Gal­lipoli. In an oth­er­wise non­de­script apart­ment block in the new quar­ter is the mod­est head­quar­ters of a fam­ily busi­ness that pro­duces a true taste of the south. In 2001 An­gela Mar­gapoti and her par­ents, Fer­nando and An­toni­etta, founded Amaro Mar­gapoti, an ar­ti­sanal liquor com­pany pro­duc­ing an amaro and other herbal di­ges­tivi ac­cord­ing to fam­ily recipes us­ing Salen­tine herbs. Fer­nando and An­toni­etta, re­tired teach­ers, had made amaro for them­selves for decades. “Since we had the sum­mers off and loved to travel, we would pack up our roulotte [car­a­van] and drive off to some part of Italy with pro­vi­sions, in­clud­ing our bot­tles of amaro,” An­toni­etta says, sit­ting in the kitchen where the fam­ily mac­er­ates cin­chona bark, cloves, cin­na­mon, bay leaves and other nat­u­ral flavour­ings with spirit. “When the bot­tles were empty, we knew it was time to come back.”

Most of Amaro Mar­gapoti’s cus­tomers are in the north, in Rome and Milan, but An­gela takes us to meet one of her lo­cal clients, chef An­drea Capoti, of Capi­toni Cor­ag­giosi, a har­bour­side restau­rant in the old quar­ter. Our lunch of lo­cal seafood – raw red prawns, mar­i­nated cut­tle­fish and roasted oc­to­pus – is paired with a rosato made from an in­dige­nous grape called ne­groa­maro, a com­mon cou­pling with fish in Sa­lento, and fin­ished, of course, with Amaro Mar­gapoti’s sweet and sour cit­rus flavours with a pleas­antly bit­ter fin­ish.

About half an hour’s drive east of Gal­lipoli, fourth-gen­er­a­tion wine­mak­ers Paolo and Gabriele Nutri­cato grow ne­groa­maro, mal­va­sia nera di Lecce, prim­i­tivo and a few lit­tle-known white va­ri­eties for their win­ery, Cantina Su­per­sanum. Greeks in­tro­duced grapes to the penin­sula dur­ing the Iron Age and the vines have f lour­ished ever since; the re­gion’s high-al­co­hol reds have been used in blends since the 19th cen­tury to im­part colour and struc­ture. Cantina Su­per­sanum is among a grow­ing group of small pro­duc­ers fo­cused on low-yield or­ganic and min­i­mal-in­ter­ven­tion wine­mak­ing.

The broth­ers climb aboard and to­gether we drive from their cantina – a con­verted garage in the vil­lage of Su­per­sano – to their vine­yards. Stand­ing among the vines, Paolo ges­tures across the road to a des­o­late olive grove af­flicted with Xylella fas­tid­iosa. “In the post-war era, sub­si­dies were of­fered to farm­ers to pull out their vines to plant olive trees, so you had this whole trend to­wards mono­cul­ture,” he says, adding sadly, “Na­ture re­belled.” With their dark ruby colour, Su­per­sanum’s rosato wines would pass for reds else­where, but they have pleas­ant acid­ity that ren­ders them light and drink­able, per­fectly suited to Sa­lento’s fish and veg­etable dishes. I buy a few bot­tles at the cantina to share with my friends at L’Orec­chi­etta, a shop and trat­to­ria in Guag­nano, about an hour’s drive north.

L’Orec­chi­etta is named for the re­gion’s sig­na­ture du­rum-wheat pasta, ear-shaped orec­chi­ette made from scraps of dough dragged across a wooden sur­face with a knife. Lisetta Scar­ciglia started sell­ing fresh pasta to busy cooks at her shop in Guag­nano in 1991 and soon the busi­ness grew to in­clude a full menu of dishes to take away or en­joy at an ad­ja­cent trat­to­ria. Now her whole fam­ily works here. “Ev­ery­one in Guag­nano used to make pasta at home – ven­dors would go around

town sell­ing iron tools for spe­cial shapes – but things have changed,” Lisetta tells me as she rolls sagne ’ncan­nu­late, twisted pasta rib­bons.

L’Orec­chi­etta is packed by early evening. Lisetta is busy in the shop, but her chil­dren, Si­mona and Mino, join us at our pa­tio ta­ble be­neath a magnolia tree for one of the re­gion’s sig­na­ture dish, pezzetti di cavallo, cubes of lean horse­meat sim­mered in tomato sauce. Around us ap­pear slices of airy focaccia stud­ded with cherry toma­toes, and plates of orec­chi­ette dressed in pas­sata and dusted with ri­cotta salata. The wine list is im­pres­sive for such a ca­sual venue, but our BYO Su­per­sanum “Sin­er­gico” rosato is the first our hosts have tasted. Wait, I urge, and race down to the car to fetch the co­tog­nata. With the quince jelly, a wedge of pecorino and glasses of ne­groa­maro, we toast old friend­ship and south­ern hos­pi­tal­ity.

PRE­VI­OUS PAGE La Grotta della Poe­sia, north of Torre dell’Orso in Puglia’s Sa­lento re­gion. Above: Sant’Oronzo, Lecce’s pa­tron saint, over­looks the city.

Clockwise from top: fish­ing trawlers at Torre San Gio­vanni; Aperol Spritz at Caffè Parisi, Nardo; chef

An­drea Capoti from Capi­toni Cor­ag­giosi, Gal­lipoli; a catch at Pescheria del Porto fish­mon­gers.

Left: caffè in ghi­ac­cio (cof­fee with al­mond ex­tract), caffè mac­chi­ato and pas­tic­ciotti at Alvino in Lecce. Op­po­site: Otranto, mid­way along Sa­lento’s Adri­atic coast.

Above: Orec­chi­ette be­ing made at L’Orec­chi­etta in Guag­nano. Op­po­site: Barocco Lec­cese-style architecture in Galatina; prawns, cut­tle­fish and crudo at Capi­toni Cor­ag­giosi in Gal­lipoli.

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