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Regional food and wine

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Puglia is known as the breadbasket of Italy. It’s the source of 80 percent of Europe’s pasta and much of Italy’s fish; it produces more wine than Germany and more olive oil than all the other regions of Italy combined. It’s famous for olives (from Cerignola), almonds (from Ruvo di Puglia), dark juicy tomatoes (often sun-dried), cime di rapa (turnip tops), fava beans, figs (fresh and dried), cotognata (a moulded jam made from quince) and for its melons, grapes and green cauliflower. The influence of Puglia’s former rulers is still evident in the region’s food. Like the Greeks, Pugliesi eat lamb and goat spit-roast over herb-scented fires and deep-fried doughnut-like cakes steeped in honey; and like the Spanish they drink almond milk, latte di mandorla.

The most distinctive local pasta is orecchiette, ear-shaped pasta that you will still see women making in their doorways in the old part of Bari. Look out, too, for panzarotti alla barese, deep-fried pockets of dough stuffed with tomato or prosciutto and ricotta. Otherwise, there is a marked preference for short, stubby varieties of pasta, which you’ll find served with peppers, cauliflower and cime di rapa. Not surprisingly, fish and shellfish dominate coastal menus. There are some good fish soups (zuppe di pesce) whose ingredients and style vary from place to place – the Brindisi version, for example, is dominated by eel. Vegetarians are well catered for with a range of meat-free antipasti, and combining pasta and vegetables is a typically Pugliese trait.

A local meat dish is gnummerieddi: resembling haggis, it’s made by stuffing a lamb gut with minced offal, herbs and garlic – best grilled over an open fire. There is little beef or pork eaten in Puglia, poultry is uncommon, aside from small game birds in season; as a result, horsemeat is popular, especially in the Salento area. To confound your prejudices, go for pezzetti di cavallo, bits of horsemeat stewed in a rich tomato sauce.

Cheeses are a strong point, including ricotta, cacioricotta, canestrato (sheep’s-milk cheese formed in baskets) and burrata (cream encased in mozzarella, a speciality of Andria). Pair these products with the local durum-wheat breads, the most famous of which, pane di Altamura, carries the DOP seal of quality.

There have recently been immense improvements in Puglia’s wines. While historically the inclination was towards mass production, yields have been reduced and grapes are now picked at precisely the right moment. Look for the formidable reds Primitivo di Manduria (aka red Zinfandel), Salice Salentino, and Negroamaro. Locorotondo is a straightforward, fresh white from Salento, a region known also for its rosati (rosé) called Salento Rosato, and dessert wine called Aleatico.

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