Puglia on a plate

Quite simply, when it comes to food and wine, it's difficult to go wrong in Puglia.

Michelin star-gazing is missing the point of Puglia but there is plenty of high-end dining. The interesting thing about what's on offer, though, whether you favour gastronomy or authentic country grub, is that you'll find that the ingredients tend to be common to both which says a lot for local pride and a true sense of terroir. Quite simply, when it comes to food and wine, it's difficult to go wrong in Puglia.

Until you can get there, here is a passable Puglian feast at home with ways round some of the more esoteric ingredients. For Society members at least, getting hold of the wines will be an Adriatic breeze.

Janet Wynne Evans

Puglia is relatively flat, the land carpeted with olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields, artichokes, aubergines and tomatoes Puglia is relatively flat, the land carpeted with olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields, artichokes, aubergines and tomatoes

All recipes serve four as part of this four-course menu. If you want to serve the pasta as a main course, double the quantities given.

Read Janet's Food for Thought piece on a memorable holiday in Puglia >



ANTIPASTI

Aubergine Salad Aubergine Salad

Everywhere you look in rural Puglia, you'll see hectare upon hectare of olive trees, some of them centuries old. Their fruit is ubiquitous. Meals begin simply and deliciously, with fresh bread and fruity oil, a plate of lemon-marinated olives or a bowl of crunchy local crudités which might include barratiere, a round, green item with the texture of a melon and the taste of a very fresh cucumber. More substantial offerings might include the salad below which can be supplemented with slices of interesting salami for a substantial supper-time platter.

I ate countless aubergines in Puglia and have been making this kind of salad off and on ever since, but this recipe from Jane Baxter ticks all my boxes. It was published in The Saturday Guardian Cook supplement in the column she shared with Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon chain of fast and fabulous food. As they recommend, scour your local middle-eastern corner shop for some proper knobbly, sun-kissed eggplants rather than our perfectly glossy but essentially bland hothouse ones. But even those are plenty good enough to mop up the deliciously sweet-spicy dressing. The freshness of the ricotta cools things down.

A good rosé will cope with salt and spice. One that hits the spot with unerring, red-fruit generosity, especially in the gorgeous 2015 vintage, is Brindisi Rosato Vigna Flaminio

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PRIMI

Eat Your Greens Orechiette Eat Your Greens Orechiette

Puglia's signature pasta is orecchiette, for which the classic partner is cime di rapa, a pungent brassica that goes variously by the name of turnip tops, turnip greens or broccoli-rabe. Unless you grow it or know a posh specialist importer, don't break your heart running it to ground. Adding a good handful of chicory, red endive, radicchio or similarly bitter leaves to tenderstem broccoli is a good cheat. This is what I did, with apologies to the peerless Anna del Conte, to whom I defer in all matters Italian. The recipe is based on the her Orecchiette con le cime di rapa, from Classic Italian Recipes (Hamlyn, 2011).

The fragrance, well rounded fruit and lemony freshness of The Society's Falanghina will temper the greens beautifully even if it comes from over the border in Campania.

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SECONDI

Baked Halibut Baked Halibut

The taboo surrounding red wine with fish is, dare I say it, cod philosophy at its worst. At the very least, people should try it before they recoil in horror. They may still do so, but at least it will be informed horror. If the balance is right, and that's the trick, I love it.

Zinfandel is a close relation of primitivo but I was surprised to see pesce con salsa di zinfandel on the menu of a splendid fish restaurant in the precariously perched seaside town of Polignano a Mare. The fish itself was a local hero I didn't know but this kind of lip-smacking sauce works beautifully with firm, meaty white fish like halibut. The secret is to use a sweet, fruity red and not a dry or very oaky one as the basis of the sauce.

Below is my own reconstruction of the sauce. It's quite rich and a little goes a long way so accompaniments should be either very simple - a crown of briefly cooked cavolo nero, spinach or kale - or equally brash, like slices of roasted aubergines, fennel, courgettes and red peppers. In idle moments, I make great trays of these to reheat when I need them because they add instant colour and deep flavour to just about everything.

Here, I'd choose a full-throttle primitivo such as I Muri. The former works better in the sauce: either is delicious in the glass.

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FORMAGGI

I've always felt that cheese deserves a hand-picked wine of its own, not the dregs of what went before or a so-so bottle on the assumption that at this late stage of the meal, expectations will have dropped. Standards must be maintained and Puglia has the answer to this too.

Apart from a rampaging and very blue Dane, a murderous Roquefort or a Stilton in full throttle, I know of no formaggio that will faze Graticciaia, the unique and velvety 100% negroamaro from the Vallone sisters. Its secret weapon is an underlying sweetness, the result of sun-drying the grapes on straw mats or graticci which line the flat stone roofs of the winery at Castelserranova, Vallone's flagship estate.

If you want to go authentically southern Italian, seek out the pleasantly sharp cacciocavallo piccante from a good Italian delicatessen. Otherwise, select three or four hard or washed-rind cheeses in peak condition and garnish with tiny sweet black grapes, ripe figs in season or dates and nuts at the end of the year. A good, plain biscuit will keep things in order but raisin bread is delicious here too.

Graticciaia is by no means a pudding wine, but it works brilliantly with dark, liquorous, chocolate-based sauces to serve with mature beef, venison, hare and the like. Here it's the perfect end to a nice bit of escapism (currently out of stock. Try the Amarone della Valpolicella Corte Giara, Allegrini 2015 instead).



Read Janet's Food for Thought piece on a memorable holiday in Puglia >

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