Wednesday, July 29, 2015

ESCAPES: Puglia, ITALY, Part 2: The Southern Salento

The southern part of the Salento region in Puglia boasts some of the most dramatic and stunning landscape in southern Italy. Here, you can head to an eastern, rocky Adriatic coast beach in the morning, then head west to the mostly sandy Ionian coast for sunset and aperitivi. And this can all be done in an hour's time. The water is the gorgeous turquoise green of the Caribbean, and then gradually deepens to a royal blue found in the most pristine waters of the North Atlantic. From the eastern tip of Puglia, you can look across the Mediterranean on a clear day and see Albania. I know from experience that you can pick up their radio stations as you drive along the coast heading south.

And it's here that you hit the most easterly town in Italy, the beautiful coastal mini-city of Otranto (pronounced OH-tran-to), which abuts the water and boasts a charming harbor, the city having served as Italy's main port to the East for 1,000 years. The beautiful seaside port belies a brutal history in the sack of Otranto in 1480, when the Turks and Venetians rushed the city with 18,000 troops and basically massacred everyone there, including the 800 survivors who were marched up a hill and beheaded for refusal to renounce their Christian faith. Some of these martyrs' remains are contained in a chapel in the nearby Cathedral. The Aragonese Castle (attributed to the 16th century Spanish) is another landmark in town that towers over the landscape. It's open for touring. Beyond this checkered history, Otranto and the Salento are lovely locales, packed with (mostly Italian) tourists and former residents-come-home in the summertime. 

The beaches in this area are gorgeous and bustling, and the coastline is a dramatic and stunning scape. You can see how this was originally a Greek outpost, just from the visuals: the Cerulean waters and arid land covered with ancient, craggy olive trees as far as the eye can see. The drives along the coast to the north and south of Otranto offer some of the best beaches in Puglia -- and arguably in all of Italy. To the north, there is the Baia dei Turchi (Bay of Turks), where translucent turquoise waters from tourist posters comes to life. Heading south, towns like Santa Cesarea Terme (home of a renowned Moorish resort) and Castro, with a small marina much like Otranto's, are worthy of stops down to the very tip of the Pugliese peninsula. And, they're not on the typical tourist radar.
There are also grottoes to be visited -- including Grotta Zinzulusa, most famously -- offering a subterranean glimpse into the rich cave formations of the region and, where there's water, an otherworldly emerald glow. The very southern tip of Puglia is capped by Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, with its lighthouse at the very end of southeastern Italian land -- and where you're only 44 miles from Albania. 

As for lodging around Otranto, like in most of Puglia, the masserie reign supreme. These former working farmhouses for communal living that dot the Puglian landscape have been transformed into the area's signature B&B/hotel, most of which have a central courtyard with a pool, and a functioning restaurant on the property, which usually uses local ingredients often procured on the masseria's land, from its garden, etc. One such lovely spot is Masseria Montelauro, originally constructed in 1878. Since then it has been a monastery, an herbal pharmacy, a restaurant -- even a discotheque. It now houses 32 rooms and suites refurbished in whitewashed Mediterranean minimalist chic, with wrought-iron beds, arched stone ceilings, flowing white curtains, and bathrooms in stone and marble. The on-site restaurant serves three meals a day (including poolside and room service), and uses Montelauro's own olive oil, herbs, and vegetables in the cooking. The pool in the middle of it all is the perfect place to while away the morning or afternoon, and then you can take a short drive to one of the coasts for a few hours at the beach, after breakfast or post-lunch. Part of the charm of Puglia is that, though it's an ancient part of the Italian peninsula, it's not jam-packed with must-see tourist sites. There are those, of course, but it's also about getting into the Italian rhythm of life, and vacation, which is decidedly slow. You may very well finish that novel you pack.

Across the region, on the western (Ionian) coast, there is the area around Punta della Suina ("Pig's Point"), a beach in an area of nature reserve where you walk through a small pine forest to get to the waterline itself. (That's a view of Gallipoli in the distance, by the way -- we'll get there in a minute). Here at Punta della Suina, there are stabilimenti (beachside establishments that include bathrooms, bars, and often restaurants or sandwich and pizza bars, from completely informal shacks to sprawling, mod-design aperitivo magnets with full-on DJs). Here, you can rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, indulge in a salad or a panino and a glass of vino or a cocktail, if you like. It's one of the charms of the area. There are also plenty of seaside trattorie where they serve local seafood dished up in various preparations. And this being Puglia, there is always a wealth of vegetable sides alongside the seafood stars. In short: you will not go hungry at the beach if you don't bring a picnic lunch.

Drive just north up the Ionian coast and you hit the famed town on the Golf of Taranto, Gallipoli -- which, fittingly, means "beautiful town" in Greek. The ancient city center ia an island joined by a bridge from the more modern (and much less interesting) part of town. The historic quarter is relentlessly charming, extremely photogenic, and definitely a must-see on any trip to the southern Salento. The perimeter of the old city is lined with sea walls, on top of which are perched pastel and whitewashed stucco houses, hotels, restaurants, and shops. The cobblestones streets of the old city offer much of the same: charming vicoli and back alleys from which echo the patter of sandal-clad feet, reminiscent of those historic towns of the Greek islands of Mykonos or Paros. You can linger for a serious gelato or granita, particularly at the entrance to the old city, by the port, or at Caffe' Duomo. There are some very lovely and stylish retail stores, including a personal favorite, Blanc, which sells everything from furniture and home design to women's accessories -- basically what you'd want your ideal Puglian trullo to look like, with you in it. The large space also contains a super-chic cafe' and lounge within its fabulous stone walls, perfect for a coffee or cocktail post-beach. Another amazing shop is Salamastra, a store specializing in fun shoes, leather and suede wraps and skirts trimmed in what's made to look like Pugliese eyelet lace, and jewelry made from lizards skins and leather. They also feature home goods made out of local shells, nautical rope and the like, inspired by the Salentino beachy style. The three co-owners also have a store in South Beach Florida. They divide their time between the two places, which is certainly a best-of-all-worlds scenario!

As for the food, Gallipoli's port is its pride, and it's all about fresh seafood here. Fresh catches arrive in the morning and again in the late afternoon, and opposite the port on the other side of the bridge, a fish market is set up twice a day until they sell out of goods. As to be expected in these parts, there are booths set up for the sole purpose of selling ricci di mare, or sea urchin. Some are meant to be scooped out and eaten on the spot, but many sellers clean the ricci at their booth and plop the little orange sacks into seawater-filled jars to preserve them.
These are sold cheaply for about 8-10 euros per small jar. We bought a jar and I added the sea urchin at the last minute to that evening's pasta, spaghetti con le vongele (with clams) -- it was a particularly rich and delicious Pugliese version! But the fish market in general is a gorgeous spot. You can bargain for great prices on the famous local red shrimp, beautiful scampi, swordfish...on all kinds of whole fish like branzino, and for octopus, calamari, and every kind of sweet shellfish you could hope for. So much of this delicious seafood is edible without cooking -- and here in Puglia, it's often best simply sprinkled with a little sea salt and some buttery-green unfiltered Pugliese olive oil, possibly a spritz of lemon. And that's it. Simple enough to do without lighting a stove, casually sitting there on your patio or terrazza or poolside at the masseria (or ask the chef where you're staying to prep it for you!). Add a little local rose' wine, and you're set. Southern Salento style.

photo credit: M. Sweeney
For more information on locations, lodging, and activities around the region, check out:

Masseria Montelauro
Uggiano Localita Montelauro

Strada Provinciale 358, 73028 Otranto
+39 0836 806 203

Via XXIV Maggio, 19
Gallipoli LE, Italy
+39 0833 26349

Via Antonietta De Pace 90
73014 Gallipoli (LE)
+39 0833 261577

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Capers are a curious little flower bud. Their briny touch of heat adds an interesting hit of flavor to sauces, salads, and main courses to which they're added. Caper bushes grow in harsh, semi-arid environments in Morocco, southeastern Spain, Italy, throughout the Middle East, and in parts of Asia and Australia. The plant thrives in intense daylight and temperatures of over 40 degrees centigrade in the summer -- though it doesn't do so well in cold and frost. Once it takes hold it acts much like a weed, growing through the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, creeping over ancient walls in Rome, and snaking between cobblestones and fortifications in Marrakesh and Damascus.

The caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to classical Latin capparis, which was borrowed from the Greek kápparis -- the origin of which, much like the plant itself, is unknown but most likely Asian. A different theory traces kápparis to the name of the island of Cyprus (Kýpros), where capers grow abundantly. The Sicilian islands of Salina and Pantelleria are justly famous for their capers in salt. There, rustic, often unpaved roads are lined with makeshift (and sometimes not-so-makeshift) stands selling local capers, often manned by a young boy who picked the capers himself. The island of Salina is the perfect place for every step in the caper production process, since the salt, too, often comes from the island's own salt flats (hence the island's name). It's the good fortune of nature that capers pair so well with the fruits of these islands: seafood from the surrounding Mediterranean, as well as vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers for which the cuisine of Sicily is renowned.

The caper buds, when ready to pick, are a dark olive green and roughly the size of a kernel of corn. They're plucked from the bush at the bud's base, then placed in a jar and brined in sea salt, or pickled in a salt-and-vinegar solution, and then eventually drained. Here, we're picking the little guys from a couple of bushes in the walled back yard of the B&B my friends Monica and Marcello run in the Salento region of southern Puglia, Italy. It was June and every day when we awoke, new buds were ready to be picked and put in a small jar, sotto sale ("under salt"), as the Italians say. This way they're perfectly preserved for future use -- though it's best to know a little in advance when you're going to need them for cooking, as they do well with several soakings in water to remove the powerful saline intensity they pick up from the salt. 

Harvesting capers can be a labor-intensive, arduous process on a larger scale, since they're too small and delicate to be plucked by machine. It's all done by hand, which is what makes them a pricey comestible. The smallest, called nonpareil, are the most prized of the bunch, and the most frequently used in cooking. Mustard oil (known as glucocapparin) in the capers is released from each bud, which accounts for the bite capers have. When this oil is released, the enzymatic reaction forms rutin, resulting in the crystallized white spots you often find on the surface of the bud. If left to flower and come to fruit, caper berries are created, which are almost a cross between a traditional caper (bud) and an olive, with lots of tiny, crunchy seeds inside. The caper berries are usually pickled and are often served in Southern Italian and Greek aperitivi and mezze -- perfect pop-in-your-mouth cocktail snacks that, much like briny olives, help to fill the tummy while working up a thirst.

Capers are a distinctive ingredient in Italian cuisine, especially in Sicilian and southern Italian cooking. They're used in everything from salads and pasta salads to meat dishes, fish preparations, and pasta sauces. Two of the most famous uses for capers are in chicken piccata and pasta alla puttanesca. The latter, of course, is famously named supposedly because it was a pasta dish that was relatively easy for Neapolitan prostitutes ("puttane") to prepare for their clients...(yes, everything -- everything -- in Italy seems to come with a side of pasta!)...the thought being that every single Italian pantry contains, at the very least, canned tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies, and dried pasta. Whether this is true or not is a different story, but I've always loved this culinary origin tale, mostly because it paints the working girl-client relationship as more than just a business transaction, but as one during which they actually break bread, share pasta, have a few laughs, maybe a glass of wine. Which leads me to this fun fact about capers: in Biblical times, the caper berry was supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. The Hebew word abiyyonah (אֲבִיּוֹנָה) for caperberry is quite closely linked to the Hebrew root אבה, which means "desire" (the word even occurs once in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes). Ancient desire, the Wailing Wall, gorgeous Sicilian islands, friendly prostitutes in it turns out, the little caper is a mighty flower bud, finding itself in places sacred and profane, arid and lush, throughout history. Something to chew on.    

Monday, July 6, 2015

QUICK BITE: Borgoña, Chilean "Sangria"

I'm always looking for a new refreshing summer cocktail. And the search, of course, is half of the fun! In honor of Chile winning the Copa America this past weekend, I thought I'd introduce my readers to a delicious Chilean summer drink staple. While on a city tour in Santiago, Chile, my friend Jess and I were pointed in the direction of a very famous, time-worn dive of a bar/ restaurante favored by old men playing cards, eating overstuffed sandwiches and sipping on local wine cocktails. We knew once the the tour ended, we'd do a B-line for the place. It's called Bar Restaurant de la Union, and it seemed fortuitous that it was located on a street named for my home city: Nueva York. Once inside, we admired the dark wood paneling and the old-school waiters who looked like they'd been there since before Pinochet. We decided a snack was in order, so we enjoyed some delicious bocadillos (sandwiches)...and of course the drink that our guide had described to us as the thing to order here: Borgoña. This is a sort of Chilean sangria, refreshingly simple and using two star ingredients from Chile's rich earth: delicious red wine, preferably of the Carménère varietal, and frutillas, which is Chilean Spanish for strawberries. 

These strawberries, it needs to be stated, were some of the most gorgeous specimens I've ever seen in my life (and living in Rome for the better part of a decade, I know from gorgeous strawberries)! They most likely don't need any help in Chile, or in Rome for that matter, but if you can't find ripe, ruby-red strawberries where you are, you might want to add a touch of sugar to the mix. Now, like most things, this drink gets better the longer it sits with the fruit macerating in the wine. But you can also mix in the berries (sugar optional) just before you make a batch. Yes, "batch" is more realistic than "glass" -- this is not the kind of drink of which you make just one, if you know what I mean. And yes, there are variations on it. You can make it with white wine and strawberries, or white wine with peaches (great with a sauvignon blanc from Chile's Central Valley -- the peaches pick up the hints of stone fruit in the wine itself). This is called Clery or Ponche. You could add various kinds of berries, as well --- raspberries and red currants to tilt it towards tart, blackberries and blueberries to bring out the inky ripe berry flavors in the wine. 

The basic recipe is simple. Slice one cup of delicious, ripe strawberries, one bottle of Chilean red wine, and a tablespoon of sugar (optional). Mix with ice, or simply chill in the fridge, either for several hours or just 30 minutes, if you can't wait. And sip! That's it -- it's so simple, but so refreshing on a hot summer day. And it's the perfect drink to toast to the Chilean team, Copa America winners...and, while you're at it, toast the American Women's Soccer Team for a fabulous World Cup victory yesterday, as well! (Hmm...I may need to come up with a cocktail just for the women's soccer team....)

Bar Restaurant de la Union
Nueva York 11
Santiago Centro, Santiago, Chile
+56 2 269 61 821