Campania & Puglia
When one thinks of Italian food, it is usually the food of Campania that comes to mind. Superb buffets of mixed antipasti, Stuffed vegetables, aubergines, courgettes and ripe cherry tomatoes from volcanic soil of Vesuvius with fresh buffalo mozzarella.
This is the region of true cucina povera or peasant food which looms large. The primary ingredients of Campania are so outstanding due to this intense soil that little needs to be added other than a drizzle of pungent olive oil. Of course Naples is the birthplace of pizza – but here it has a light, thin base with air bubbles – not doughy thick or crunchy bases – topped with the classic ingredients of tomatoes, mozzarella (fashionably now from buffalo – but traditionally from cow’s milk). Indeed so important is pizza in the region that it is classified as a protected food stuff as aSTG (traditional guaranteed speciality). Campania also features lots of dried pasta – often served very simply with passata of tomatoes and oregano or perhaps with a seafood sauce. The Neapolitans love street food – pizza of course by the slice to munch on the back of a vespa but also mozzarella di carozza (fried cheese sandwiches) and arancini rice balls. To finish the streets are filled with bars selling refreshing lemon granita or creamy indulgent ice creams from every flavour imaginable.
The local liqueur Limoncello is impossible to avoid – it varies from the electric yellow of commercial varieties (which is best avoided) to the home-made variety, usually offered in ice cold glasses at the end of a meal revealing its beautiful citrus flavours, made from the impressive lemons of the Amalfi coast.
The wines of the region were extremely famous in Roman times, and have recently been undergoing something of a revival. There are a wide range of indigenous varieties including the superb whites from Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino alongside powerful reds from Aglianco. On Ischia the indigenous grape varieties have strange names, such as Biancolella and Piedirosso.
Naples itself has a wonderful history and some superb architecture. As the capital of the region, it has a truly chaotic feel, as the Neapolitans have more joie de vivre than most. With Vesuvius looming large over the beautiful bay of Naples, this is a city undergoing a well deserved renaissance.
Puglia (known as Apulia in English) is the Southerm Italian powerhouse region which stretches the 210 miles along the Adriatic coast of Italy. Like most other Southern Italian regions it is fundamentally an agricultural landscape and even the flora becomes more wild and rustic as you travel to the ‘heel’ of Italy. The region is becoming much better known internationally and now produces more than Germany and almost as much as Australia. The production was formerly predominantly to be added into blends with other regions to supply mass wine production, however now it is being sold as purely Puglian wine and this is a great leap forward for the region. The quality of Puglian wine is impressive and the price very affordable. Salice Salentino, Primitivo di Manduria, Locorotondo, Squinzano et al may have burst onto the wine scene in this country only fairly recently, but this area has long been a source of good wine and with much recent investment and concentration on careful vineyard selections, the quality levels have soared.
Little explored Puglia is a fascinating region but the coastal towns are the prettiest along with the ancient Baroque town of Lecce. Lecce was a former Greek and Roman colony, and its later Baroque architecture is some of the best in Europe. The facades of the church of Santa Croce and the Palazzo del Govorno with its range of ornate carving. The Piazza San Oronzo (right in the centre of the city) is home to a Roman ampitheatre and a column once located in Brindisi to mark the end of Via Appia.
Another coastal gem is the pretty harbour town of Trani. Trani was once a bustling port with traders from Genova and Pisa plying their wares. Although still a port today, this small harbour is now more famous for its Norman Cathedral, with attractive sculptures around the rose window. The town’s prosperity declined under the Angevin and Spanish rule but many splendid Palazzi remain.
Traditional Trulli houses are more visible in Northern Puglia, these charming little houses are usually just one or two rooms with a cone shaped roof and (in the authentically traditional Trulli’s) a central stone at the top of the roof. The trulli houses are often clustered together and the effect is a classic Puglian scene. Local legend attributes this central stone as a device to avoid taxes, by pulling the stone out the roof falls in and the houses are no longer taxable. Apparently to do with the fact that if the building had no roof then it was not considered habitable and therefore the authorities were unable to levy taxes!
To our minds some of the most flavoursome food in all of Italy comes from this region. The high sunshine levels produce abundant fruit and vegetables. The antipasto are a speciality in the region, comparable even with those from the leading two gourmet regions of Italy – Piemonte and Emilia Romagna. It is historically very much a “cucina povera”, where the local produce was mainly vegetables. Puglian specialities include many things such as chickpea pasta, a garlic infused broad bean pureé and orechiette with broccoli and anchovies to name but a few. The local grape varieties include the very interesting Negroamaro which features in many of the wines from several of the DOC’s of Puglia.