Apulia, though it shares in the rich heritage of the rest of Italy, and many of its dishes and culture, is also very different than the rest of Italy. First of all, it is the least mountainous, with mostly gentle rolling hills, and second, it is very arid, with few rivers or lakes. Although the sea surrounds Apulia, water within the region is scarce. Despite its sometimes desert like climate, Apulia has always been important for its agricultural products. Olives, wheat, artichokes, tomatoes, and mushrooms are locally grown and key products of Apulian cuisine. Apulia is also the home of Italy’s second-largest plain, the Tavoliere delle Puglie, smaller only than the Pianura Padana, and the perfect terrain for growing wheat, beets, tomatoes, olives and grapes.
In Roman times, due to its rich agriculture and the important location between the East and the West, Apulia served as a key region in trading, connected directly with Rome through the Via Appia, which ends in Brindisi. With the rise of the Byzantine Empire Apulia was invaded, as much of Eastern Italy, by various groups, particularly the Saracens. In the late Middle Ages Apulia was used as a war zone several times, but later enjoyed a period of stability and fortification with the coming of the Swabians from Germany. The evidence of their presence in the region is visible today in the architecture they constructed. After the 1400s, the region became part of a sequence of kingdoms that encompassed various part of the South of Italy, hence establishing the cultural and linguistic ties to what eventually became united Italy.
During the period of being reigned by kings and nobles, a combination of feudalism, and the typical Italian phenomenon of transumanza (moving herds of cattle over various stretches of land, paying large landowners for the privilege) caused wealth to be concentrated in very few hands with widespread poverty over the region as a whole. Although the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Italy, and the economic recovery after WWII has vastly improved conditions, Apulia, like much of the South, remains a poor region. One benefit of less industrialization is that Apulia has vast stretches of unspoiled nature, including beaches and forests (the Gargano National Park), as well as well-preserved picturesque medieval towns, castles, and even some prehistoric sites.
What You Should See There
For me, Apulia equals sun and sea, bougainvilleas and multicolored morning glories, the smell of salt and jasmine and honeysuckle, long days at the beach, and nights spent watching the stars. As a native Italian, every year, my family would gather in Rome, spend some days there, and then trek down to Apulia for our family beach vacation. We rented a modest apartment about a ten-minute walk from the beach and just relaxed for a few weeks. There was a walnut tree in our yard, and I would spend hours tediously peeling fresh walnuts, my fingers blackened by the juice of the fruits. I cried on days where a particularly bad jellyfish bloom prevented me from spending all day in the water.
I love the Apulia of my childhood, but Apulia has so much more to offer than beautiful beaches and relaxed seaside towns. In the capital of Bari stands the beautiful Teatro Petruzzelli, built in 1903, and completely rebuilt in 2006, 13 years after a fire burnt it to the ground. The building itself is a lovely sight to behold, from the striking outside to the detailed interiors. The Petruzzelli also hosts ballet, theater, and opera with world-renowned artists, and is the home of famous firsts, like the performance of Iphigénie en Tauride by Niccolò Piccinni (which had never been performed after its 1779 Paris debut) and the never-performed Neapolitan version of Bellini’s I Puritani.
My personal reason to return to Apulia as soon as I can is Castel del Monte. This quirky little castle was built by Frederick II of Swebia in the 13th Century near Andria in the northern part of the region. It stands on a promontory, hence the name, like a crown on a hilltop. Castel del Monte was recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is a fascinating and unique structure. Its repeating octagons are not only unusual, but are also rich of symbolism–some scholars believe the building to be an homage to Muslim culture as Frederick was trying to end the Crusades, while others believe that the symbolism of the octagon and the various shapes and decorations point to even deeper “occult” roots and motives. The land around the castle produces red, white, and rose wines with the Castel del Monte DOC denomination. As a matter of fact, wine is an important export from Apulia, and wine tastings and wine-related activities are a great reason to visit the region.
Apulia is also famous for its iconic “Trulli” buildings. These buildings, with their striking conical thatch roofs, were once mainly used as barns and cheap and easy constructions (actually, for some time, their easy construction and deconstruction was an important feature, as they could be erected or demolished to avoid being counted as property during tax censuses). Now they are an important part of the character of the countryside vistas, and a big draw for tourists, both as sights to see and as one-of-a-kind accommodation. The city of Alberobello is particularly known for its Trulli, where they are protected as a World Heritage Site and many are available for rent to travelers, or used as shops or restaurants–you can contact us for a quote for a custom tour or the site or lodging within a trullo.
There are too many sites to list in this short article, but we also recommend the White City of Ostuni, a stunning medieval hilltop town, the Baroque streets of Lecce, and the splendid nature preserve of the Gargano National Park.
What You Should Eat There
When in Apulia, you should not miss the famous Altamura bread, renowned as far back as the first century in Horatio’s Satires, where he wrote about “the world’s most delicious bread—so delicious, in fact, that the discerning traveler stacks up on it for the rest of his journey.” The bread is also known for lasting very long, an essential feature in this region where many people spent long times away from home while herding their livestock, and many were too poor to have their own oven and would use a communal. The bread also has a distinctive yellow crumb (the soft inside of the bread) and crunchy crust due to the use of durum wheat (the same hard wheat that most commercial pasta is made out of, and one of the main products of Apulia).
Some other typical tastes are Seppie Ripiene–similar to Calamari, these are cuttlefish rather than squid, stuffed with mussels, squid, breadcrumbs, capers and pecorino. Definitely worth a try, if for no other reason than fresh squid is hard to come by unless you are there. Incapriata is yet another dish whose unique taste is only available in Apulia; it is a thick soup made of fava beans mixed with bitter chicory, a typical “poor” dish that takes advantage of chicory growing everywhere. If you are looking for something sweet, try Bocconotti. These simple shells of Pasta all’ Olio (Olive Oil Dough) are stuffed with Almond Cream and then can be filled with jam, candied fruit, and even Nutella!
Of course, there is nothing better than a fragrant glass of wine to go with good Italian food. The main red grapes of Apulia are Negroamaro and Primitivo (which is a cousin of Zinfandel and Croatia’s Plavac Mali). Apulia also makes fresh whites out of Verdeca in the North. The region’s southern province of Salento is famous for its powerful, inky reds and fresh rosè wines, such as those made by Schola Sarmenti. Vinters are increasingly experimenting with international grapes and new ways to make wines, such as the chilled red Fichimori by Tormaresca, one of the properties owned by the Antinori family.
Bring Apulia to Your Kitchen Table
Olive oil is definitely the key product of Apulian cuisine. As I mentioned above, even their sweets are made with olive oil. Olive oil is so abundant that people who live there hardly ever buy it–everyone has a neighbor or friend who has some olive trees and gets olive oil for little to nothing. Apulian flavors are simple, and olive oil is what ties everything together. Many Apulian people will tell you that a slice of Altamura bread dipped in Extra Virgin Olive Oil will tell you a lot about their cuisine. Pugliese Extra Virgin Oil tends to have a very robust taste, with a lot of spiciness, so they will really infuse your bread with a lot of flavor.
I took home a Corona delle Puglie Extra Virgin Delicato Olive Oil, and a Muraglia Delicato. My boyfriend had always wondered about the differences in olive oils, so I took the opportunity to use these oils, and what I generally use for cooking, to give him a little run-down, and hopefully enlighten my readers with this knowledge, as well. While there are sometimes astounding differences between olive oils, the main difference everybody hears is whether an oil is Extra Virgin or not. A non-Extra Virgin oil is called a refined oil. Extra Virgin is less processed and filtered, so it maintains most of the flavors of the olive. For that reason, many olives (and many pressings–heat tends to ruin the flavor) are not used for Extra Virgin, but have to be further refined to taste good. Olive Oils can easily taste bitter, or simply too strong. And that is why, generally speaking, Extra Virgin Olive OIl is used “a crudo,” i.e. cold, or raw, because when you cook it, it tends to concentrate and taste stronger, and the flavors of Extra Virgin can interfere with what you are cooking in it. On the other hand, as with the Extra Virgins I picked up from Eataly, many producers are aware of this fact, and make different versions of Extra Virgin oils, some more robust, others more delicate, so you can still get the benefits of a less-processed oil (nutrients and more interesting and complex flavors), while not overwhelming your cooking with it. As we were tasting, my boyfriend noted how he used to think he did not like his food cooked in Olive Oil, but started liking it once I did it, and he thought it was because probably some people who are less expert about the various oils would use strong Extra Virgin to cook, leaving that bitter aftertaste he does not care for.
We chose to taste-test and compare our oils, and found that the Corona delle Puglie was our favorite. While still very complex, with a pleasant spicy aftertaste, and a lot of energy from green olives, it was smooth and not bitter at all. It was perfect on a simple Italian roll, and it was a pleasure to see my man’s eyes widen as he took a bite and was taken by surprise by how flavorful his bite was. The Muraglia was also good, but definitely had a distinct spicy and bitter flavor that hit us right away and stayed with us, despite its “delicate” denomination. This would definitely be an oil I’d use on a more bland salad to take advantage of its intense taste. While I could imagine the Corona to add some body to my pasta sauce, I figured the Muraglia would be better to spice up a caprese. My tip for anyone who wants to do their own olive oil tasting? Ask the experts and go from there (Eataly is a great place to start!).
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