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A setting for the senses

It begins with a taste. Then Puglia drenches you in its magic: incredible cuisine with a blue-heaven backdrop.

February 25, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

LECCE, ITALY — SIX years ago -- or was it a dream? -- I spent a day and a half in southern Italy on the Adriatic coast, and there I was left mesmerized by the sun-bleached stone, the blue sky, turquoise sea and dazzling white hilltop towns with twisting cobblestoned streets. I feasted on exquisitely pristine seafood and savored homemade orecchiette sauced with limpid green olive oil and bittersweet rapini served in shallow bowls decorated with blue dots. And I'll never forget the taste of the creamiest burrata cheese, still dripping with whey.

Good food and faraway places cast a spell on me. It may take months, it may take decades, but eventually I find my way back. And I finally did, returning last September to Puglia, one of Italy's most mysterious and compelling regions. Of course I got lost. Over and over again. But getting lost only makes getting found more interesting.

Our trip was delightful insouciance, full of surprises and serendipity as we negotiated the meandering roads and the starkly beautiful landscape. We set out to discover the pleasures of an ancient, agrarian cuisine, and we found ourselves seduced by a way of life deeply rooted in this tradition.

We started off one morning last fall. There were four of us: my husband, my Korean friend Sonya and an Italian friend, Roberta, from Seattle who grew up in Turin. Roberta's family comes from the outskirts of Bari, and as a little girl, she used to spend summers at her grandmother's house, where the family had a little grocery.

Before the trip, Roberta lavished me with memories of the bread -- huge golden loaves her grandfather used to cut with a knife into thick slabs. So of course one of our missions was to track down that bread. The other was to discover the regional cooking of Puglia.

Italian cooking is a misnomer. There is no such thing, only regional cooking -- Tuscan or Piedmontese, Sicilian or Ligurian -- and like much of Italy and especially the South, Puglia doesn't really have a restaurant tradition. Other than seafood, which is grilled or cooked practically minutes after it's been pulled from the sea, the best cooking is la cucina delle donne -- women's cooking, at home.

Wild greens and all sorts of grains and beans, sea urchins and sweet shrimp, rabbit and baby lamb awaited. And so the four of us arrived in Puglia, hungry to taste everything the region had to offer.

A trek for bread

FINDING the bread wasn't easy. Ambling through stony white hill towns, we'd see a bakery and Roberta would dash in only to rush back out shaking her head, "No, no, no, that's not it."

We took to snacking on taralli, crisp semolina crackers, shaped like miniature teething rings and flavored with fennel seeds or peppercorns. Where, we wondered, was the bread? We thought those huge golden loaves would be so much a part of everyday life, you'd find them everywhere.

Eventually we realized we'd need to go to Altamura, a town perched on the rocky highlands between Bari and Taranto that is famous for its bread.

Our drive took us from Ostuni, where we were staying, through Martina Franca, another hill town, this one chockablock with baroque and rococo buildings. We spent a couple of hours strolling through streets lined with carved stone facades and curlicue ironwork balconies leaning so far out they almost kissed overhead. At lunchtime, we bought sandwich makings and ate in a park where elderly men gossiped on park benches and teenagers straddled their Vespas, smoking.

Our next stop was Alberobello, a minuscule town with so many beehive-shaped stone cottages, or trulli, that it has been designated a World Heritage Site. Sadly, it's also full of tacky trinkets and busloads of tourists pulling up to inspect prime examples of the region's vernacular architecture -- and a kid who tried to hit us up for money to see the family trullo.

We lost our way to the ceramics town of Grottaglie, and when we finally asked for directions, two policewomen got into an argument attempting to put us right. On our inevitable meandering way, though, we passed through a fantastic landscape of red earth and ancient gnarled olive trees, fortified farmhouses -- the whitewashed masserie -- where jasmine and fuchsia bougainvillea clamber up the walls and cactuses cast shadows on white screens of old stone.

What with stops for espresso, snapping pictures and a visit, finally, to the renowned Nicola Fasano ceramics studio where we lusted after huge terracotta pots incised with geometric patterns, the afternoon was waning. And by the time we reached Altamura, we were more than ready for our bread. We spiraled upward, climbing ever closer to the center, until we found a trio of young men hanging out in a tiny square, having a smoke.

Roberta slowed down. "Where's a good bakery?" she called out.

They're all good, said one. Roberta raised a raven eyebrow.

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