Experience Southern Italy
Take a quick glance at a map of Southern Italy to see how odd it is geographically, a series of islands and peninsulas, landmasses defined and outlined by the individual seas that make up the Mediterranean. After your home country, it’s likely that southern Italy is the first form that leaps out to you a spinning globe.
Odd then though, that the most most instantly recognisable part of Italy is also the least known, no?
Odd again to learn that Southern Italy and in particular Puglia, is the number one domestic tourist destination in Italy. It’s not for nothing that many journalists refer to Puglia as one of Italy’s best-kept secrets: Why is Italy so passionate about Puglia and the rest of the world has only barely heard of it? Good question.
As a region, Puglia has more coastline than most countries. It’s odd shape is in fact so long that few things are true for the entire region: Not the diet, the wine grape, the oil olive, the language, the flour used for pasta, or even the ethnic make up of the population.
Linguists will tell you that ‘Puglia’ comes from ‘Apluvial’, Latin for ‘place that doesn’t rain,’ ironic as Puglia is one of the few southern regions that does not have fresh water issues. It’s Italy’s luscious garden and fertile vineyard, dipping right down into the Mediterranean.
A large part of the domestic tourism to Puglia is based on the food and wine, easily accessible dishes and ingredients based on pure, simple flavours. The fresh ingredients astound, the wines delight and both are kept simple so that the flavours of the earth and sea come through, as if you were pressing the two together, then forced sunshine through them, the same way you make espresso.
But as you travel down Puglia you’ll eventually hit a point where the Adriatic is joined by a second sea, the Ionian, and that is more or less of where the Salento, or Salentine peninsula begins.
With very few hills to stop the moist winds coming off the two seas, it’s most Mediterranean breezes that drive the food and wine of the Salento like no other factor. The humidity is why we train our grape wines into thigh-high free standing trees – to allow for the passage of air, it’s why there are no pigs or cows – it’s too hot for both in the hotter months of the year, it’s why even if they did exist, we wouldn’t be able preserve their proteins in the form of aged cheese or preserved meats, too warm and moist the air.
This though, turns out to be a strength: Remove these elements, a robotic need for sugar and any culture whatsoever of distilled alcohol and you have The Mediterranean Diet, a way of eating so healthy that it’s actually protected by international law. It’s how your doctor wants you to eat. It’s how she likely eats, herself.
The Awaiting Table is located in the vibrant cultural capital of the Salento – Lecce, a university town of 100,000 people, famous for its world-class architecture, nearly all of it baroque. It’s a city of sprawling wine bars, set among well-lit but ancient architecture. School children travel great distances to see the architecture of Lecce, which makes up part of a the national education.
Inside Italy the city is famous as a bubble of modern intellectual brilliance (the city nowadays synonymous with nano technology) and liberal thinking (Puglia’s highest ranking politician is openly gay), together rendering the city one of the best of Europe.
It just might be the prettiest place you’ve never visited, the food and wine that you’re missing.