One of the things I love most about holidaying in Italy is cooking and eating at “home” in the villa. Frequent trips to the local supermarkets give you ample opportunity to be inspired by and experiment with the local produce. Whilst eating out gives you lots of ideas for recreating or rethinking dishes on your own terms back at the villa. On this trip to Puglia we pretty much did a one-night-in and one-night-out routine, and actually some of the meals we ate ‘back at the ranch’ were exceptional. Following on from the theme of pure and bold flavours, we generally kept the meals simple: penne arrabbiatta one night, spaghetti vongole another, and perhaps one of my favourites (but stupid idiot me forgot to take photos) was the calamari followed by spaghetti puttanesca. Beautiful.
My absolute favourite lunch in the world is the one that we had practically every single day we were in Puglia: the cold meats and cheese lunch. Could anything be better? Mozzarella and tomato salad (sometimes switched up with the local burrata cheese), a selection of cold meats, olives, bread, and an ever-changing array of cheeses.
We focussed on cheeses that were typical to Pugliese cuisine. Having dutifully done my homework, I initially wanted to try Scamorza, which is a local cheese similar to Mozzarella but drier and with a stringier texture. The name Scamorza refers to the fact that the makers tie it about a third of the way down into a pear shape, so it looks like it’s been strangled. We really liked the bianco (white) but were less keen on the affumicata (smoked).
We had some absolutely amazing local pecorinos. The one pictured above was absolutely incredible. Uselessly I can’t tell you what it was as I was completely at the mercy of the lady in the formaggeria who picked out the best cheeses from the area for me. Anyway, suffice to say, it was belting.
The other local cheese of note is the caciocavallo, which literally means horse cheese. Don’t worry, it isn’t made of horse milk (though that didn’t stop me teasing Sven that it was) but it is thought that once upon a time it was made from mare’s milk. Anyway, it’s a hard cheese made from cow’s milk with a very mustardy yellow colour and a distinctive tear drop shape.
The selection of meats generally consisted of some kind of Prosciutto Crudo (mainly Parma ham as all the deli counter guys insisted it was the best) and different varieties of salami. Throw into the mix some beautiful Kalamata olives marinated in olive oil, oregano, red wine vinegar, dried chilli, etc, etc, some beautiful ripe tomatoes, local Pugliese bread, a huge bottle of Moretti and tell me you don’t have the most perfect lunch of all time. It only works in Italy though as (for me at least) it really only tastes right when you have the sun on your back and the smells and sounds of rural Italy in the background. Ah, la vita bella.
The seafood in Puglia was really amazing and as Sven and I are completely in love with all things shelly, we indulged as much as we could. One of the best was the Spaghetti Vongole (with clams) I did and it’s so simple I can practically give you the recipe in one or two sentences: Heat a couple of glugs of olive oil in a wide pan, add a sliced garlic clove, 1/2 dried chilli, salt and pepper and fry for a minute or so. Add 500g of clams (cleaned and any open ones discarded) and a handful of chopped parsley and toss to coat. Add a big splash of white wine and cover with a lid. Cook for 5 mins, shaking from time to time. Mix with cooked spaghetti and some extra virgin olive oil. OK that was more than two sentences – but it’s seriously simple and so. damned. good.
Another thing about summer holidays (as if I need to tell you) is the age-old rite that is the barbeque. With the boys manning the fire and the girls marinating the meat, we embarked on what really was a spectacular bbq experience.
We marinated the chicken quite simply in olive oil, lemon zest and juice, garlic, salted capers, dried chilli and rosemary for a couple of hours.
The marinade for the beef was much the same, but I think we switched anchovies for the capers as I think anchovies go so well with beef (and is very common in Italy).
We cooked the chicken and italian sausages first. The sausages were unlike anything you can get at home. I don’t know what they put in those suckers, but they really smack you across the face with flavour. I remember last year I made this recipe in Italy with the same sausages and could never recreate it at home. Same for some amazing sausage and chicken kebabs we made.
Aside: why can’t we get anything close to the amazingness of Italian sausages in the UK. The flavours are crazy good and I want to eat them at home – if anyone knows any sausage company that comes anywhere close then please let me know!!
The chicken was pretty damn fine too: lemony and herby, the salted capers gave them a distinctly southern Italian flavour which felt completely in tune with our surroundings. Of course, the slightly burnt tinges on the skin gave it that homely nostalgic feel too.
But I have to say, the beef was the real star of the show. We beat the hell out of it before marinating it for a couple of hours, and then we just seared it on the barbie for a couple of minutes on each side. The result was the most succulent and perfectly cooked chunk of hunk you have ever seen. I mean, just look at it. Come ON! Whoop whoop. Yeahaaarrr!
Needless to say, we had salads and other such accompaniments, among them was Esther’s rosemary potatoes, which deserve a mention. So good. (Making them tonight actually).
For my birthday, Esther and sous-chef (or chief chopper) Nick cooked me a dinner of king prawns roasted with sun-dried tomaotes, kalamata olives, chillies, parsley, and lots of garlic. I’d never thought of roasting prawns before but it actually worked really well. The flavours were very reminiscent of puttanesca – classic summery and fiery Mediterranean. She served these alongside different types of bruschetta and lots of bread. Again, so simple (how many times have I said simple in these three volumes on Puglia?) but just perfect.
She also made this barcardi and mint semifreddo.
With the leftover barcardi, we made this twist on the classic mojito (scrambled together with what ingredients we had): barcardi, lemon, sugar, mint and lemonade. Though not a mojito, they were actually pretty good. We dubbed the concoction the ‘Puglia Libra’. We got rather silly after that.
That’s what I love so much about villa holidays… for people like me who love to cook, the idea of being in a hotel for two weeks with every single meal catered for with all this wonderful food around is utterly repugnant. I want to get my hands on it. Cook with it. See what I can come up with. I had as much fun and enjoyment cooking at the villa as when we ate out. The whole ritual of going to the supermarket, choosing the ingredients, cooking at home with a glass of wine and then sitting down with friends in your own surroundings leisurely whiling away the evening chatting at the table. That’s as much holiday to me as grabbing a pizza and a gelato in the piazza. I love it.
As I’m sure you’ve garnered from these three volumes, our holiday to Puglia was right up there as one of the best holidays ever. The place, the people, the food, the weather, the company… it was all perfection. I can’t wait to go back and explore more of Puglia. I hope I’ve given you an insight into the place and if I’ve done my job right then you’ll probably want to go too. I recommend looking at sites like owners direct, holiday lettings, holiday rentals and pure puglia who all have a good selection of properties in Puglia. If you go, please let me know about your experiences and post any recommendations in the comments below. Grazie.