February is not normally the time of year associated with experiencing the very best of things. However, on a trip to Puglia last week there was an abundance of colour in every corner. Mile after mile of ancient olive groves to wander through, delicate almond trees heavy with blossom, empty Baroque towns, friendly locals imparting their knowledge and kindness, empty coastal roads to meander down and the peaceful tranquillity of the sea with not another soul in sight.
We were lucky enough to meet a local couple not far from the beautiful and ancient town of Tricase. Georgiana and Luigi work the land and olive groves throughout the year, and as we struck up conversation they immediately latched onto our interest in all things culinary and gastronomic. Before we knew it, we were whisked off to Luigi’s impeccable orto; set amongst the olive trees with a large fig tree as its centrepiece, it was a sight to behold. He proudly showed us around; beautiful, bright green fennel coming through, row upon row of perfectly arranged onion varieties, insalata, cauliflowers, broccoli, leeks, broad beans and peas. Tomato planting would come later along with aubergines and peppers.
The herb garden was just as impressive, thyme, sage, oregano, verbena, marjoram – basil, like the tomatoes, would be planted later. Georgiana asked if we would like to try her home-made quince paste, presenting us with a tray of small, individual squares of pale, golden yellow quince paste served on a beautiful Puglian ceramic plate. It was delicious, not too sweet with the full flavour of the quince coming through. They insisted we tried their olive oil too – stunning, grassy but light with a perfectly balanced acidity. To finish off we couldn’t refuse a glass of Nocino. We left happy and content, full of laughter, with a delicious taster of the Puglian countryside.
We found a different kind of abundance in the Baroque gem of Lecce. Managing two visits in two days such was our eagerness to soak up its beauty, vibrant atmosphere and wonderful street culture even in February. Never to be forgotten is an early evening passeggiata away from the Roman amphitheatre down Via Vittorio Emanuele. Just by chance we glanced to the left down a side street only to be struck by the sheer beauty of a magnificent piazza hidden away. Piazza del Duomo no less, set in a backdrop of the early evening pink, blue and gold light bathing the façade of the Duomo – simply breathtaking. We found a bar nearby and took a table outside under one of the heaters, ordered a Campari and bowl of home-made taralli whilst sipping, chatting and drinking in the intoxicating atmosphere of this beautiful city. I will certainly be back for more…