Is there an Italian region that is hotter these days than Puglia, or as we say in English, Apulia? I don’t think so. Granted, you can argue that Basilicata is the current Italian hot spot, with the New York Times celebrating it in their travel section as the number three of fifty-two places to go in the world in 2018, and with Matera being designated the European Capital of Culture for 2019, but I think, at least early on, Basilicata’s fire just adds to Puglia’s heat.
This is not meant to take away from Basilicata’s moment in the sun, something that I will have to address in a future piece, but just a way of recognizing Puglia’s special condition that, while notable in the present, has been simmering for centuries, perhaps with a varied richness that compares favorably to Basilicata’s more uniform earthiness.
Where to start? Olive oil, and its successes and tribulations in the region? Bari, and its vibrancy and connectivity, in addition to its own particular challenges? Fave e cicoria, and the spectacular produce of the region that it represents? Like many Italian regions, particularly in the south, Puglia and the pugliesi were vegans before veganism ever became trendy, or even existed as a concept. A recent article in the anglophone press that discussed how vegans might be able to present their offerings in a way that does not threaten the masculinity of potential converts demonstrates how, well, stupid and unsophisticated northern food ways remain. Forgive me, but it is far past the time that the world realizes that southern Italy, for all of its problems, has a wealth of culture to offer.
And yes, while it would have been nice had the taxi driver in Bari stopped trying to up-sell me on the trip from the ferry terminal to the train station after my first two or three demurrals, especially given that he was introduced to me by one of the border agents who puzzled over why I arrived on a boat from Durres instead of Dubrovnik, kitted out as I was in the best trekking gear that the United States and Scandinavia have to offer, and kept inquiring if I was sure I was in the right line, I realize that everyone has their job to do, and that every little bit matters. Still, I never encountered anything of the kind in Basilicata, which delivers its generous hospitality with an innocence and humility that its flashy Adriatic neighbor could never dream of attaining and preserving.
And while the focaccia that I found in my tiny mountain village in Basilicata sent me reeling with delight, even the offerings in the Bari train station thrilled my taste buds and nurtured my soul, after the many long hours of deprivation I suffered while traveling through Croatia and, God bless them, northern Albania.
It is still early days between Puglia and me, but already I sense its unique brilliance. What is it about the quickness of southern Italians? This is something that I have encountered in Puglia, Napoli, western Sicily and Pantelleria, and another person I know attributed it to Calabrians as well. Any honest and knowledgeable American will readily admit that, among English speakers, the British are superior storytellers; it is just something in their cultural DNA. I find that a similar quality, a kind of flashy intellect, manifests itself among southern Italians as well. Perhaps it is a version of a kind of aggressive hospitality combined with a particular charm and verbal acuity that generates this impressive capacity. Throughout Northern Europe I have generally encountered a kind of sensible earnestness, a seriousness and gravitas that is apparent in virtually all interactions — I can recall specific instances in Germany, Denmark, Poland, Sweden and Norway — and they were greatly appreciated, but in southern Italy, it is this other thing, this flashing wit and charm.
Of course, any attempt to characterize Puglia and the pugliese is incomplete if it does not include a discussion of the extraordinary generosity that one encounters in the region and among its inhabitants. I once booked a stay in a small house in Lecce for seven nights. Included with my lodgings, which were very nice and fitted out with all of the essentials, were: a panettone, a package of biscotti, numerous brioches, a chocolate bar or two, a bottle of Spumante, a bottle of fresh milk, a bottle of orange juice, a full tray of lasagne, also homemade, a full basket of fruit, a loaf of bread, a piece of cheese, and I cannot remember what else, but there was more.
In addition to these things, and in a way to be treasured even more, my hostess, a retired dentist, was extraordinarily generous with her time and energy: picking me up at the train station upon my arrival, taking me on a walking tour of the city, and introducing me to local vendors and restauranteurs, but also engaging me in a long, long texting session after seeing that I got onto my train for departure, and finishing by soliciting from me a description, in verse no less, of my experience in her residence, writing it in her neat hand in white marker upon the rugged stone wall of the cottage, and then taking and texting me a photo of it. All of this, after refusing my multiple offers to buy her a coffee during my stay, which I made during other, previous, texting sessions.
Never underestimate the hospitality of the pugliese, she told me. Indeed.
So there you have it. Puglia. Houses cleaned to within an inch of their lives, the freshest and most delicious food you can imagine, bell peppers as big as two hands, zucchini whose skins snap when you cut into them, and pork sausage so wholesome that the butcher di fiducia offers you a raw taste without any hesitation at all. You can find these and similar things throughout Italy, especially in the countryside, but I think only in Puglia and in the pugliese will you find them in such abundance. I could be wrong. I still have to tackle Basilicata as a region, but that will have to wait for now.