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    Undiscovered Puglia offers authentic Italian food, life
Zoe Williams
2006-03-18 07:22

PUGLIA, Italy: Puglia is the new Tuscany. So much is conveyed by that sentence the food will be tasty; you won't meet Tony Blair; you won't even meet anyone English; you definitely will not find yourself on exactly the same town-to-town perambulation as another English couple with the same guidebook.

My mother and I traversed Umbria once, in a slightly dislocated version of "Room With A View," in which she was much more skittish than Maggie Smith, and I was much less delightful than Helena Bonham Carter.

We went from Gubbio to Spoleto to Trevi we did it exactly as the Rough Guide instructed. I don't even think they meant us to go in that order. I think it was alphabetical.

Nevertheless, two very nice seeming English couples were on exactly the same trail, in the same restaurants, at the same hotels. They eventually became friends with each other. My mother refused to talk to them, on the basis that there's nothing worse than a middle-class person on holiday, unless you happened to be us.

Anyway, that won't happen to you in Puglia, which is in the heel of Italy, an area so undiscovered that only the Italians themselves have discovered it. This is where they take their holidays, apparently. I couldn't vouch for that, since it's hard to tell a holidaying Italian from one at work, what with all their scheduled napping.

You fly into Brindisi, and you get out of it as soon as you can, since although it sounds like a town from a disco song, which will sooner or later mention pina coladas and pretty girls, it is actually a depressed port town that, from the wrong side of the army base, looks like 1980s Monchengladbach (I've never actually been to Monchengladbach, I'm just trying to think of somewhere else with a lot of army bases).

It also has a bad reputation for pickpocketing, but then, so does my street I take information like that with a pinch of salt.

Travel in any direction at all, however, and you'll shortly hit some or all of the things that make the place famous; in no particular order, these are the masseria, great farmhouses converted into hotels; the trulli, which are funny little dwellings shaped like beehives; the centuries-old olive trees and assorted pretty landscapes; and the amazing food.

Some large percentage, which I would look up if I thought you'd remember it, of all Italy's olive oil, fish and pasta comes from this region. They honestly cannot mess up food if they try; you don't even have to order from menus, most of the time, you just smile like a person who wants something tasty, and they'll bring you something tasty.

Masseria Torre Coccaro makes only the briefest nod to its farmhouse past, in the sense that they still keep chickens and artfully whitewash their interiors, but it's much more high-end than that.

Think of a St Tropez beach club (a private beach, imposing Ottoman furniture on sand, a restaurant more sophisticated than any English beach will ever even conceive of, an eagle-eyed chap with a sixth sense for whether or not you want a towel) now remove the snooty service and the hilarious French over-pricing, make the food less fussy and better, and you have Coccaro's beach club.

The hotel is in the same mould, having cherry picked the best stuff from the posh Euro holiday scene, but taken out the oppressive poshness.

It has a cookery school and a golf course, a swimming pool and a spa; it is the perfect couples holiday for couples who don't want to talk to each other.

No, what am I saying? You can talk to each other if you like, but you have an option on learning how to make mozzarella instead.

The staff all seemed hearteningly proud, not just of the masseria, but of the whole region. My main evidence for that is that the waiter made me eat my breakfast outdoors, because there was a better view of the olive trees than there was from inside my bed.

Marginally more formal is the Villa San Martino, 16 kilometres away in Martina Franca, where the restaurant is like a gentleman's club, and everybody whispers over the speciality ham. Again, though, the place is charming spick, aristocratic grounds, understated luxury, long, swanky swathes of gravel... These are brilliant, sprawling, generously structured buildings; I'm sure there are ways a hotelier could go wrong, with one of these, but nobody seems to have done.

There are downsides to an area this undiscovered some of the apparently charming towns, Pescichi, for instance are indeed charming, but walk 20 yards, look at the sea, look at the rocky outcrops, wonder how many years they've got before the cliff-top houses fall into the sea, have an ice-cream and you've seen it all, in about six minutes.

Likewise, the masseria aren't uniformly advanced in the art of hostelry; the third we saw, Don Sante, was a tiny bit like a detention centre, though to be honest, the food was so good that it's possible they were keeping the decor spartan so as not to distract.

Mainly, though, Puglia is like the rest of Italy, without that slightly theme-park, on-a-plate tang that places get when tourists like them too much. Maybe its architecture is a little more Moorish; maybe its food is a little more moreish; otherwise, it's all the things you love about the country, only more so, being so unspoiled. Come on, if we all pull together, we can spoil it in no time.

(China Daily 03/18/2006 page10)


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