Italy’s heel rebooted

Puglia’s new­est vil­lage re­sort has some of the best food in the coun­try

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CARO­LINE PHILLIPS THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

A JE­SUS look-alike is sit­ting in his shop sand­ing po­plar wood. Hand­made wooden mar­i­onettes and tam­bourines hang from the ceil­ing. He has cov­ered his walls with left­ist news­pa­per cut­tings. ‘‘This street’s full of fas­cists,’’ he con­fides. ‘‘I’m the only true com­mu­nist here.’’ His shop doesn’t have a name, though it has been here 36 years.

I’m in the city of Os­tuni, Puglia, in Italy’s stiletto heel. Across the road is a junk shop packed with Madonna stat­uettes and 19th-cen­tury olive jars. I’d love the owner to email me some pho­tos of his stock. He looks be­mused. No, he doesn’t have in­ter­net ac­cess. ‘‘ Io antico,’’ he de­clares. (I’m an an­tique.)

Puglia is a huge re­gion with an 805km coast­line. On ar­rival, my first im­pres­sions aren’t great. From Bari it’s a 45-minute drab, flat drive south­east along the coast to my des­ti­na­tion of Borgo Eg­nazia, near the fish­ing vil­lage of Savel­letri. En route, I drive past end­less light-in­dus­trial build­ings and a flat-roofed breeze­block subur­ban sprawl.

Puglia looks poor, and it is. It’s also a place where tra­di­tions run deep, where so­cial­ist bu­reau­cracy and com­mu­nism are still en­trenched. It’s still un­pol­ished, rea­son­ably undis­cov­ered and where peo­ple from Rome and Mi­lan spend their hol­i­days, set­ting up chairs on rocky beaches to bake them­selves a car­cino­genic ma­hogany.

Puglia’s charms be­come more ev­i­dent as I get closer to Borgo Eg­nazia. Sud­denly the air is scented with figs and oregano. Fields are en­cir­cled by dry­s­tone walls and burst with to­ma­toes, aubergines and cen­turies-old olive trees.

If you de­cide to hug an olive tree here, you’ll need to hold hands with three men, so thick are the beau­ti­ful gnarled trunks. For a while there was a brisk black mar­ket (about $12,000 each) as trees were smug­gled out for fash­ion­able gar­dens in north­ern Italy.

‘‘We’re Italy’s largest man­u­fac­turer of olive oil,’’ a lo­cal waiter proudly tells me later. ‘‘There are three mil­lion olive trees, nearly one for each in­hab­i­tant of Puglia.’’ A goodly num­ber of these trees stand like ranks of sen­tries look­ing af­ter Borgo Eg­nazia, which lies in 16 or­ganic hectares within a 101ha pri­vate es­tate be­side the Adri­atic.

Borgo Eg­nazia is not quite one of the seven won­ders of the world, but it’s close to it in re­sort terms. Borgo means vil­lage in Ital­ian and it’s mod­elled on tra­di­tional Puglian ones. It looks as if it has been here for cen­turies, but it opened fully only last (north­ern) spring. There’s also a creamy, dreamy Moor­ish palace, ac­tu­ally based on a for­ti­fied masse­ria but with a strik­ing con­tem­po­rary in­te­rior.

I wan­der down paved al­ley­ways, un­der arches and past the pi­azza to the town­houses made of vanilla-coloured lo­cal sand­stone. There are also pri­vate vil­las, like am­bas­sado­rial res­i­dences on the town’s edge. The whole thing cost $185 mil­lion, took 10 years to de­velop and six to con­struct.

It’s the brain­child of Aldo Melpig­nano, a for­mer in­vest­ment banker. He owns Borgo Eg­nazia with his fam­ily, who come from nearby Fasano. I take my sun­hat off to any­one who builds a vil­lage. But es­pe­cially one that show­cases ar­chi­tec­ture in­flu­enced by Puglia’s mul­ti­ple in­vaders, uses only lo­cal ma­te­ri­als and ar­ti­sans, and pro­vides the back­drop for French Vogue fash­ion shoots. Aldo has rein­vented the heel — it’s Puglia rebooted.

If a place could speak, Puglia would say: ‘‘Write about my in­cred­i­bly warm peo­ple and the best food in Italy.’’ Cer­tainly the friend­li­ness of the lo­cals epit­o­mises ev­ery­thing I love about this coun­try. It’s also a hot des­ti­na­tion for gourmet trav­ellers, with fer­tile land that pro­duces some of the best veg­eta­bles in the world, plus fresh seafood drawn from the Adri­atic. Its cui­sine comes from a recipe book writ­ten over the cen­turies by the re­gion’s con­querors — Greeks, Ro­mans, Goths, Nor­mans and Spa­niards — but it’s all based on peas­ant food.

They’re big on fish and olive oil here, even bak­ing and frying with the ex­tra-vir­gin va­ri­ety. I go to beach-shack restau­rants such as La Cam­busa in Savel­letri, a short bike ride from Borgo Eg­nazia. It has huge dis­plays of the morn­ing’s catch, and lob­sters on beds of ice plan­ning their es­cape. At Pescheria 2 Mari res­tau­rant, also in Savel­letri, I’m plied with plat­ters of raw oc­to­pus, squid, clams and sliv­ers of sword­fish — sashimi re­quir­ing noth­ing more than le­mon and a greedy mouth.

Masse­ria Cimino is an agri­t­ur­ismo (a farm­house where you can stay and eat) and is a quick walk across the golf course from Borgo Eg­nazia. Here, acres of home­cooked food are on the tables — taralli (like de­li­cious olive oil short­bread), freshly made orec­chi­ette pasta (the re­gion’s spe­cialty) and fresh, baked sea bream.

Mario Mu­soni, the Miche­lin-starred ex­ec­u­tive chef of Borgo Eg­nazia, is also big here. To try Mario’s del­i­cate sum­mer truf­fle risotto is to un­der­stand why the Ital­ian press dubs him the ‘‘king of risotto’’.

I don’t just ded­i­cate my­self to widen­ing my girth. I also cy­cle to the ruins of the an­cient Ro­man city of Eg­nazia, visit Al­ber­o­bello, ‘‘the cap­i­tal of trulli’’, those rus­tic houses with con­i­cal roofs, and Os­tuni, or the White Town, where my un­kempt shop­keeper crafts his wooden pup­pets. I visit the Byzan­tine-style cathe­dral and mar­vel at the ci­tadel. But, frankly, I spend just as much time in its spe­cial­ist food shops. Aside from the won­ders of Borgo Eg­nazia, it’s the culi­nary of­fer­ings that im­press me most. Puglia, the heel of Italy? Mouth, more like it. bor­goeg­ pescheri­a2­ masse­


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