For some the South of Italy is a dream but for me, it’s terra incognita.
The only reason I moved to the South of Italy was because of work. There were certain career oriented goals that I had been working towards the past few years and, to make a long story short, I was offered a good position I couldn’t refuse and it just happened to be in the South of Italy.
As you know, one moment I was living in Istanbul and the next I was moving down along the southern Italian coast to my new home.
I had been to Italy twice before. Once to Padua and once to Florence but both times I was as happy to leave as I was to arrive. Neither made much of a lasting impression on me. But here in the South, I feel a resonance and a pull to discover more. The light. The quality of the food, the brilliance of the sea and the genuine warmth of the people make me feel at home in a place I know very little about.
I spent the past few days trying to do some research on the region and was surprised to discover that there is very little written about this part of Italy in English. For the most part here in the South of Italy, we are off the beaten path, with all the pleasures and challenges that this entails. The deeper south we go, the fewer English speakers we will find which is good since it will force me to use my currently non-existing Italian which I plan to improve along the way. (Fringe benefits of this new position include free Italian lessons.)
A New Map: A New Orientation
To say that we are in the South of Italy is to say that we are in the Mezzogiorno, a word stemming from Latin meaning south and referring to the sun’s position at midday. The South of Italy is also an area that was once called the Magna Grecia due to being extensively populated by Greek settlers in the 8th century BC – particularly the Achaean settlements of Croton, and Sybaris, and to the north, the settlements of Cumae and Neapolis.
This part of Italy is considered wild and rugged in its varied landscape and lawless with its mafia ties. The South is often seen as the ‘other’ to Italy’s more civilised and prosperous North. However, this all depends on how you define ‘civilised’ and ‘prosperous’. Where the North pushes towards modernization, the South continues to cultivate the century old traditions that give Italians their distinctive Italian character. Southern Italy is also home to 14 World Heritage Sites and several national parks.
Southern Italy encompasses the regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicily, Basilicata, Molise, Abruzzo but the one that I am most concerned with at the moment is Puglia.
Puglia runs lengthwise along the heel of Italy. Bordered by the Adriatic sea to the east, the Ionian Sea to the southeast and the Strait of Otranto and the Gulf of Taranto to the south, Puglia’s coastline is longer than that of any other mainland Italian region and it’s one of Italy’s most important sources of olive oil.
The Pugliese diet is made up mainly of pasta, fish and other kinds of seafood; particularly lobster from the Tremiti Islands and oysters from Taranto. Puglia owes much of its culinary heritage to Greece and some claim that their Soup Alla Gallipolina recipe – a soup made with hogfish, cernia, cuttlefish and prawns seasoned with hot spices and onions – has been handed down since the times of Magna Graecia.
Across the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Puglia faces Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, and Montenegro.
The capital city of Puglia is Bari and Bari is home. It’s the starting point of our journey; the point from which all directions extend.
A Little Bit of History…
Inhabited since at least 1500 B.C., Puglia and Bari, in particular, are associated with Peucetian settlement and then a strong Greek presence. The Normans permanently ended the broad influence of the Greek church and replaced it with that of the Roman Catholic rite.
The Romans named the city Barium and developed its port. Just south of Bari’s border with Foggia, near the Ofanto River, is where the Roman’s suffered their most humiliating defeat against Hannibal and his Carthaginians who destroyed an entire Roman army of 70,000 men, killing one of the Republic’s consuls (Lucius Aemilius Paulus) and 80 of its senators.
After the fall of Rome in 476, Lombards and Byzantines struggled for control of Bari until the 11th century when the Byzantines reestablished their rule over the area. The local revolts against the Byzantines which began in 1009 drew assistance from the Normans. In 1068 the Norman forces laid siege to the Byzantine fortress and three years later, in 1071, the Greeks submitted and yielded their last stronghold in Italy.
In the 11th century, Bari was designated as an important point of departure for Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land and this allowed the city to prosper. Saint Nicholas (Bishop of Myra) replaced Sabino as the patron saint of the city and when his relics were transported to the city, work immediately commenced on a basilica dedicated to him.
In the 13th century, the Swabian Emperor Frederick II rebuilt Bari’s castle and ordered the construction of a new port. In 1860 Bari became part of the Kingdom of Italy. In its Museo Archeologico, Bari boasts a significant collection of Daunian, Peucezian, and Massepican treasures.
What to Eat and Drink while in Puglia:
In the South of Italy food is a source of pride and nowhere else have I seen so much attention placed on quality. The vegetable sections of the supermarkets are stocked with all kinds of greens and it’s easy to find alternatives to gluten and milk based foods. The best thing about living in the South is that good food and produce including seafood is affordable, making it easy to include in your everyday life and the cost of living is quite low.
As for the local specialties to try while in Puglia…
According to Katie Parla, chef and author of Food of the Italian South, here is a list of what is typical to eat in this region of Italy. I plan to eat and drink my way through the list and update it as I discover new things for you to try.
Pasticciotti (cream-filled tarts)
Mustaccioli (cookies made with wine)
Fave e cicoria (fava bean puree with sauteed greens)
Gamberi rossi di Gallipoli (sweet red shrimp)
Pane di Altamura (hearty durum wheat bread)
Tieddhra di cozze e patate (casserole of mussels and potatoes)
Cozze pelose (“hairy” mussels)
Turcinieddhri (roasted heart, lungs, liver, and fat from goats or lambs)
Capocollo di Martina Franca (cured pork shoulder)
Orecchiette con cime di rapa (ear-shaped pasta with sauteed greens)
Cavatelli con pomodoro e ricotta scante (pasta w/ tomato & fermented ricotta)
Panzerotti (fried mini calzones)
Giuncata (soft, fresh cheese)
Rustici (puff pastry filled with tomato, béchamel, and mozzarella)