A taste of simplicity in Puglia, Italy

Our food editor learns the culinary lessons of Italy on a visit to Borgo Egnazia in Puglia, where it’s never complicated to be a gourmet


If someone offers you fennel during a wine tasting, you should smell a rat. “Fennel masks an average wine,” explains Francesco di Napoli. “It’s where the Italian word infinocchiare came from — meaning to be bamboozled.”

There’s no sign of it at Terre di San Vito, the vineyard di Napoli and his family created at their Puglia home, where we are having our own tasting. Landscaped gardens surround the vines, a beautiful rose bush at the end of each line. “The roses are not just for decoration: if there is sickness in the vines, the rose dies first. It’s an early warning system,” he explains.

The family produces five wines, olive oils and jams, including a purple carrot preserve — the Polignano carrot is a heritage vegetable and “poster root” of the Slow Food movement. We spend a happy hour tasting as we’re fed focaccia and taralli, an oval, crunchy savoury biscuit and local speciality.

The focaccia itself is from nearby Polignano, one of Puglia’s many tourist draws, a clifftop town precariously poised above the sparkling Adriatic. Along with local speciality espresso, topped with whipped cream, lemon peel and almond liqueur, it’s known for its fabulous ice cream — plus the Red Bull cliff-diving contest and being the birthplace of Domenico Modugno, who penned Rat Pack era classic, Volare.

So despite some unseasonal May rain, gelato is where we start, with our guide, Elena Dell’Aquila from local company Indignenus DMC introducing us to one of the many gelaterias.

The skies are mostly blue for our break though — one of the friendly porters at our hotel, Borgo Egnazia promises: “From June until September it is hot and sunny every day.”

The countryside is dotted with colourful flowers and filled with the scent of orange blossom and jasmine blooming among countless olive trees. Some are thousands of years old, many gnarled and twisted by fierce sea winds. Forty per cent of the country’s olive oil is produced in Puglia.

“They are protected by Unesco,” says Hermes Lacatena, our guide from Borgo Egnazia for a morning’s leisurely bicycle tour visiting a cheese producer, olive oil maker, fish restaurant and gelato maker. “You cannot cut the olive trees down so the land cannot be developed.”

The unspoiled stretch of coastline that results is timelessly beautiful. Borgo Egnazia, built only seven years ago, is styled to look as though it’s been here forever with owner Aldo Melpignano and architect Pino Brescia using local tufo stone. It’s convincing. My husband — not in on the secret — spends his first few hours trying to figure out what the buildings once were.

Welcomed by porters in designer shades, it’s also film-set ready. Madonna has holidayed here; Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel commandeered the entire resort for their nuptials.

The “village”, which Borgo translates to, is divided into three main areas, taking 10 years to develop and six years to build at a cost of €150 million. Il Borgo’s duplex rooms are built around a central square with clocktower, chapel (unconsecrated) and market square; La Corte — the main hotel — a cool, calm designer-looking Moorish Palace; and Le Ville, a collection of imposing pool villas built from the same stone.

It’s so sprawling that even in high summer, your only competition for space in the sun is with the lizards darting across the resort’s cobbled paths.

Our casseta, a two-level apartment with huge master bedroom, a second bedroom with pull-down beds, living area with (basic) kitchenette and two bathrooms, has a peaceful walled garden complete with lemon trees.

The hotel’s Puglian emphasis extends to the staff, 95 per cent of whom are from the region and taught their trade at the Melpignano family’s five-star hotels worldwide. Wine Experience Manager Giuseppe Copertino came to sister hotel Masseria San Domenico at 18, before being sent to train in Perugia, London’s Savoy Hotel and Gstadt; he’s now responsible for wine at the hotel and head of the local association of sommeliers. “We have 750 wine labels in the hotel, 500 of them Apulian,” he shares proudly.

The staff’s pride in the region is evident. During a pasta-making lesson, chef Rocco Levante, also locally born, tells us of the area’s Regina tomatoes. Irrigated with sea water and bathed in sea mist, the salt acts as a natural flavour enhancer and preservative. In the days before refrigeration locals hung bunches to eat over the winter.

With Levante we make pasta dough and turn it into a pile of orecchiette (ears), Puglia’s classic pasta shape, for lunch. Served with Levante’s own fresh tomato sauce, we devour it in the sun at the hotel’s open kitchen, Trattoria Mia Cucina, where you can book cookery lessons.

It is one of six places to eat at the hotel including Michelin star-chasing Due Camini, beachside fish restaurant Pescherie da Vito, La Frasca — an Apulian trattoria-style eatery and Da Puccetta, where children can eat during their day at the hotel’s kids club.

Villas also include the services of a massaia, a local mamma, who cooks for you, everything from simple breakfast to authentic local dinner dishes.

Three quarters of the ingredients used in the hotel’s kitchens are locally sourced too: we saw courgettes, celery and potatoes in the fields. And with the whole hotel group’s oil made by neighbouring Masseria San Domenico, foodies can book an olive oil tasting as well.

One final lesson? Olive oil should not smell of olives. Of grass, basil and pepper, yes, but never olives. And it is always gold, never green. In this beautiful part of Italy’s south, good food is always simple.

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