“Take my mom to Italy and make olive oil.” That quote is on a Lululemon shopping bag.
I remember talking to my mom about her experience in Italy. She was 17 years old and traveling with her parents and siblings. The entire time she was in Rome, the family ate pastries and fruit. That’s it. No pasta. No pizza. No wine. Nothing really Italian. As vegetarians in a foreign country where they couldn’t speak the language and didn’t recognize any of the food, they had no idea what was “safe” to eat. My mom went to Italy 40 years ago and completely missed out on the Italian food experience! Obviously, this had to be corrected.
When the opportunity to travel to Puglia for an intensive food and culinary experience presented itself, I grabbed it. Seriously, just look at the itinerary and tell me you wouldn’t do the same. Not to mention, it was being led by two award-winning culinary nutritionists – Layne Lieberman, MS, RD, CDN and Robyn Webb, MS – they both are incredibly well-traveled and really know their food. After sending the itinerary to my mom, I was thrilled when she expressed interest in coming with me. With so many responsibilities and people to take care of, I’m not sure my mom ever really gets a break. At home, she’s taking care of my grandparents, my uncle, my dad, and my sister. When she visits me, she’s taking care of me and my husband, and my son. And when she goes to visit her mom in California, she’s taking care of her and my uncle’s family. It doesn’t matter where she goes, she’s planning, cooking, cleaning, doing…constantly. This trip was exactly what I wanted for her – a chance to explore Italian cuisine, to have everything planned for her, and to not have to think about anyone but herself for a change. So, I took my mom to Italy! We didn’t make olive oil, but I think eating our way through Puglia counts.
There’s too much information to tell you everything we did (plus, you really need to go yourself for the full-on experience), but here are the highlights:
If you imagine the country of Italy as a boot, Puglia is basically the heel. As a largely undiscovered region of Southern Italy, the food scene in Puglia is truly authentic Mediterranean cuisine, and the historic towns and cities are far from “touristy.” Our group was incredibly fortunate to explore what Puglia has to offer with local Italians who know the ins and outs of the region, as well as the history and, of course, the food. Our main guide, Michele Miccoli, did an excellent job of corralling 15 inquisitive women and answering our 10 million questions over a period of 6 days – he deserves an award. (For a little taste of Italian history, check out his Pinterest page – it’s awesome!)
Anyway, we started in the northern part of the region (in Bari and Monopoli) and worked our way south (to Lecce).
Bari Vecchia & The Pasta Ladies
The historical center of Puglia’s capital city is Bari Vecchia. We walked along the ancient streets and met with women who have been making pasta since they were 5 years old. They make pasta in their kitchens (or outside) and sell them in the narrow alleyways just outside of their homes. The ladies make it look easy (they are so fast!), but it takes a lot of experience to master the proper technique. We gave it a try, but I’m pretty sure our orecchiette (little ear shaped pasta) wasn’t up to par. The experience certainly gave me a greater appreciation for freshly made pasta – totally worth it, by the way!
Masseria il Frantoio
Our dinner at Masseria il Frantoio was beyond amazing. There is no set menu here. It changes daily based on the season and what the farm has to offer. This is what the Italians call a 0 kilometer meal – in the US, we call it “farm-to-table.” Our eight-course dinner included local wines, fresh made pasta, homemade bread, and so much fresh produce – from artichoke, to white eggplant, to cardoncelli mushrooms and sweet pears.
Masseria Brancati Olive Oil Estate
One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting the olive oil estate of Masseria Brancati. These olive trees date back to the 1st century AD! What’s incredible is that the Romans had a system for planting them. The trees are planted in rows, 60 paces apart, in order to maximize the root system of each individual tree. So, no matter which olive estate you go to, you’ll likely see the trees organized in beautiful, evenly spaced rows.
So, how’s olive oil made? Once the olives are picked (the oil tastes different depending on the maturity of the olive and what time of year they are harvested), they are ground into a paste using a mill stone. The paste is then placed into a filter and pressed so that the oil and water are squeezed out of the olives. The liquid drains into a basin where the oil naturally floats to the top (as it is less dense than water) where it can easily be scooped out and bottled.
After tasting different olive oils and learning about the taste and quality differences, we enjoyed another freshly prepared meal. It included focaccia (baked in an ancient oven), fresh salad and crudité, and a lentil-bean soup that was so hearty and comforting. We were eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet without even trying!
Are you noticing a trend here? All my favorite places were masserias (farm houses). I was so happy that we had the opportunity to stay at the Masseria Montenapoleone – and even better, we stayed here for mom’s birthday and had a cooking class, too! We took a tour of the beautiful property – where they grow everything from lemon trees, to cotton plants, to chickpeas in the pod, to peppers, and, of course, olive trees. In the cooking class, we made focaccia and different shapes of pasta. Plus, we enjoyed two incredible 0 kilometer meals here…I could get used to this.
This “green” fettuccine had arugula mixed in and the sauce was simply pasta water, olive oil, sage and romano cheese. So simple and probably the most delicious dish of the trip. I could eat just this for the rest of my life and be totally happy.
Itria Bonta Cheese Farm
Mozzarella, Burrata, Cacioricotta…it’s all freshly made and sold at Itria Bonta Cheese Farm. The farm has a herd of 80 cows (we got to meet some of them!), 30 of which produce dairy and are milked twice a day to make fresh cheese on site. The experts have been making cheese for a long time and they were nice enough to show us a few different techniques. It was pretty cool to try, but it’s a lot of work, so I think I’ll stick to just eating it 😉
Altamura – Di Gesú Bakery
Di Gesú Bakery has a long history of bread production – all the way to 1838. They use exclusively local wheat and have obtained European DOP status (Denominazione di Origine Protetta – Protected Designation of Origin).
The entire time we were at the bakery, these three men worked on auto-pilot while answering our questions. Two of them shaped the dough that was made the night before and the other worked on sliding each loaf into the HUGE oven with a giant peel. I was blown away by the efficiency and the thought that goes into this ancient craft.
Salento – Li Veli Winery
It’s not a trip to Italy without visiting a vineyard and winery. We had a personal tour of Masseria Li Veli and a delicious wine tasting lunch. The owners brought their wine-making know-how from Tuscany to Puglia and have elevated the quality and production of wine at Li Veli. The vineyard grows a variety of local grapes including Fiano Minutolo, Negromaro, Susumaniello (so much fun to say!), Primitivo, and Aleatico. You can find Li Veli bottles in the US, so if you see it, definitely give it a try. My personal favorite was the Susumaniello.
The Gallipoli Fish Market features local seafood at its best. The fishermen were proud to show off their catch and tell us a bit about what the Ionian sea has to offer. Here, we shopped for seafood that would be used in our intensive cooking class with a local food expert, Anna Maria (she has a cook book written in English with truly local recipes if you are interested!).
This cooking class featured some of the region’s most popular dishes including focaccia, fava bean puree with sauteed chicory, fresh-made pasta with clams and tomato, roasted peppers and fennel, potato “balls” in tomato sauce. We enjoyed getting our hands dirty and tasting every bite.
There was a lot more than this packed into this trip, including tours of historic sites like Ostuni (the white city), the Trulli Houses in Alberobello, the Sassi (cave dwellings) of Matera, and the Baroque city of Lecce. I just couldn’t possibly tell you everything we saw and learned and experienced in the week-long trip. You’ve likely never heard of Puglia before – I know I didn’t until I saw the itinerary for this culinary adventure – but if you’re looking to explore one of the lesser known, but truly authentic, regions of Italy and experience the Mediterranean diet at its best, I highly recommend adding a trip to Puglia to your bucket list.
The passion. The tradition. The history. The care. There’s so much that goes into food before it hits your plate. It was an absolute pleasure to get a little taste of the Italian life and meet with the people who produce and create the magnificent Mediterranean food in the region of Puglia.
[Disclosure: I funded this trip on my own and was not paid to write this post. All opinions are my own.]