Puglia proves Italy's gastronomic diamond in the rough.
Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi go on a culinary tour of Italy's southern province in search of fresh inspiration.
Holidaymakers intent on sampling a slice of Tuscany are overlooking Italy’s slightly rougher, but certainly sparkling, diamond further south - Puglia.
Granted, it is difficult to beat Tuscany for sheer refined beauty. However, sealed off from the rest of Italy in a microclimate of sun and temperate weather, Puglia’s daisied meadows, fields of olive trees, azure Adriatic beaches and mix of ramshackle and elegant towns make it a destination not to be dismissed.
But the one thing that the region can certainly match and even outshine Tuscany in is food.
Puglia is Italy's largest producer of olive oil and durum wheat. The bread is yellow and angerously good in all its forms, particularly foccaccia, which actually gets better with age. The region is also Italy's second-largest producer of almonds, resulting in irresistible nut creams, tarts, mousses, sauces and, of course, marzipan.
Fish markets, such as the one in Mola di Bari, sell the day's catch to householders and chefs alike: monkfish, bass, prawns, sea urchins and squid dominate.
The cheese is equally impressive. The local burrata is a creamier version of mozzarella, canestrata is a piquant and flaky sheep cheese, and caciocavallo, made from cow's milk, is shaped like a gourd and hung somewhat obscenely from string in cheese shops.
Vegetables take a central position on most menus. They are bursting with flavour and a testament to how happily courgettes, tomatoes, fava and broad beans, chickpeas, lettuce, artichoke and chicory grow in such climes.
I discovered all this while accompanying London restaurateurs Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi on their trip to research local Puglian cuisine.
Katie is writing a definitive Italian cooking bible and Giancarlo is a Tuscan chef. The pair have three restaurants, two in London and the Caldesi in Campagna restaurant in Bray, which they took over at the end of 2007.
Despite their Italian expertise, neither of them knew much about Puglian food, and so we were all there to learn.
First stop was lunch at Pasha in Conversano, which was too fussy for Giancarlo's "simple is best" take on Italian cooking. However, even he had to concede that some of the dishes were staggeringly delicious and made vigorous and inventive use of local resources.
We began with sea urchin shells filled with whipped fresh ricotta and urchin roe and sprinkled with blue sea salt. My asparagus soup (asparagus is a principal spring vegetable here), served with mini hen's eggs, parmesan and lashings of the most powerful olive oil I've ever tasted, sent us all reeling with its powerful richness. A generous mound of chicory interwoven with broad bean paste was earthy in the extreme, while a thick soup of rice and mussels, served in glass jars, floored the Caldesis.