Pizza with more pizzazz: Puglia is a food-lover's paradise
When Alex James fancied learning more about Italian cuisine, he headed off to Puglia – and soon realised that he'd landed in a food-lover's paradise
Saturday 29 November 2008
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to learn how to make a pizza – and that's why I came here. But as often happens when travelling, the world was taking me over. It was increasingly hard to stay focused on my task.
It's quite good to go on holiday with some kind of deeply personal mission in mind; it doesn't matter how whimsical it is. A mild sense of purpose, something to do, makes luxury so much more appealing and roughing it so much more meaningful.
I was staying at the Torre Maizza, a five-star converted farmhouse in Puglia, near the sea. By the time I'd been there for 24 hours, I'd realised that it is a strong candidate for best hotel in the world and – AND! – they have a cookery school.
Torre Maizza is a fairly rustic but historic and beautiful building that has been given a high-spec 21st-century makeover. It has all the usual five-star gubbins; it's lavishly but discreetly appointed with all conceivable whistles and bells; there's a golf course and spa. More importantly, the restaurant and the bar serve unparalleled delectable local organic wonders. In fact, the Torre Maizza grows its own vegetables, prepares its own herbal teas, cures its own meat from its own animals. Hell, they even make their own wine. As soon as the staff got a sniff that I was vaguely interested in food it was all over.
"I would like to find out how to make mozzarella," I said to the concierge and from that moment, my life was no longer my own. It's one of those hotels where everything you would like to happen happens with zero fuss in an abracadabra style. When he found out I was a cheese-head, Vittorio, the hotel's owner, took me under his wing. And so it was that the evening after I arrived we were sitting under the stars in Taverna della Gelosia, one of dozens of restaurants in Ostuni, a walled city apparently made from lace and icing sugar. It was about a 40-minute drive from the hotel and Vittorio drove with less verve than most Italians, so we could talk. About food.
We'd dropped in on a couple of his buddies en route to dinner, most memorably Riccardo, the proprietor of a kind of space cave in the hillside within the citadel: all neon and nibbles and big bass drum. Dozens of exquisite knick-knacks flowed towards us during the course of our aperitifs: tiny little sausages and betwiddled artichokes; weird mushrooms, cured pork with rare cream cheese stuffing, a gargantuan extravaganza. (Lunch had already been spectacular. The hotel had sent a car to pick me up and take me to its beach restaurant Torre Coccaro when the guys on the boat landed a particularly fine tuna. I was still reeling from that.)
So, I'd come to make pizza but now I was sitting in one of the most charming creeper-clad courtyards I'd ever seen, rolling my eyes at the food on offer. It was exactly the place I'm always looking for on holiday but can never find.
Vittorio contemplated the menu with compelling hauteur as I garbled on about how fantastic everything was.
"Well, she likes to make a lot of this middle-aged stuff, this lady. It's nice, but mainly stews," he explained, evidently slightly disappointed.
Frizzante arrived with tiny red berries moving in Brownian motion in the effervescence. We talked about food again: the 10 kinds of figs, the seven or eight kinds of tisane (herb tea) that they grow at Torre Maizza. The luxuries flowed through us like a cleansing river. My gorgonzola porcini was sumptuous.
"What are you eating, Vittorio?" "Oh, I don't know: wild boar or something."
I think I'll spare you the masses of exquisite effortless endless detail of that spectacular feast and skip straight to the pomegranate liqueur. As that arrived, I fell once more into gushing eulogies. "Is nothing. My granny make this stuff," said Vittorio, smiling.
He wouldn't let me have a dessert and took me instead for ice cream and espresso in a cobbled square on the way home. Italians always know exactly which place in town serves the best ice cream and they seem to have a new word for a new kind coffee every time I go back. Now they are drinking "espressino", which seems to be an espresso with about a teaspoon of hot milk and no foam. We still think lattes are glamorous but things have moved on here. In Italy, the culinary bar is always moving upwards – and it started really quite high.
British food has been getting better and better – and the best food in Britain is as good as anywhere – but in Italy the difference is that it is almost impossible to eat badly. Little boys are taught how to make pasta by their grannies.
Puglia is quite far to the South of Italy and there are influences from Greece and Turkey, and even Arabic and Moorish touches to the architecture and cookery; all those ancient cultures rubbing along side by side for centuries. It's a bounteous place and Vittorio gave the impression of a child living in a vast and wonderful sweet shop.
In the morning, the chef from the hotel, who was called Giuseppe and looked like Morrissey, took me to meet the mozzarella man, who worked in a nearby market town called Monopoli and looked like Ed Norton. Ed was playing with what appeared to be a giant cappuccino machine, heating a vat of milk with a huge hose that blew mad professor amounts of steam from an intriguing plumbing manifold. In Cheddar, making cheese takes about a year and a half, but in Puglia they've got the whole process down to an hour.
It's so simple. The cheesemaker heated the milk to bath temperature, threw in some rennet and stood around looking cool while his huge blancmange set. The cows were outside so I went to say hello. When I came back in he was draining off the liquid, the whey, which would be fed to the pigs. He showed some decent knife skills as he chopped the curd, but once he'd cut it into pieces all he had to do was add boiling water and lots of salt.
He worked the curds in the hot water like pizza dough and it gradually got stretchier and stretchier. The heat polymerises the cheese molecules. He kept on adding more hot water and stretching as a queue of exacting cheese freaks formed in front of the dazzling cheese counter. I bought everything.
As we were leaving, the vegetable man arrived: fat grapes, cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, peaches, peppers, pears and mad melons. We were waylaid as Giuseppe and the vegetable man became embroiled in animated discussions on tomatoes, while a doubled-up granny crept out from somewhere and started sniffing the grapes carefully. Eventually, Giuseppe elected to take some tomatoes. They were the plumpest, reddest-looking tomatoes I've ever seen.
We scooted by the market on the way back. A million kinds of olive, mussels like big bunches of bananas, fish men, fruit men, men selling weird stuff that defied categorisation but looked like it probably lived in the sea. I was looking forward to my pizza by now and was wondering if we were going to pick some wheat next, but Giuseppe said that wouldn't be necessary, so after a snoot of espressino with the geezers in the square he insisted I see the church. It looked like it had been done by Versace, a swirling marble trifle, all domes and complex curves with cherubs, angels in niches and saints' skulls in the walls. Creepy.
I really wanted to learn how to cook a pizza, but I suppose I'd already learnt that the trickiest thing about cooking is assembling the right ingredients, which is probably why no one ever cooks anything they see being prepared on television. You need the right gear, too, and that means a pizza oven. Ever since I got home, I've been dreaming of building one.
Giuseppe took me back to the hotel's cookery school. There was a fire roaring and the executive chef let the pizza expert take over at this point. In no time he was twirling dough around. I may need to be shown how to do that one more time; making dough looked slightly more complicated than making mozzarella. But it was a long way short of bewildering, nonetheless.
I managed something resembling dough and pretty soon we were oven ready. Pizza oven ready. Conventional ovens don't get hot enough to cook a pizza properly. The dough needs to explode. But once you've got the ingredients and the oven, well it's a pizza cake. It's really just a cooked open cheese and tomato sandwich. And what could be finer than that?
The writer travelled with Citalia (0871 664 0253; citalia.com), which offers seven nights at the Masseria Torre Maizza from £1,035 per person, which includes return British Airways flights from Gatwick to Bari and breakfast (BA's scheduled service begins again in spring 2009). Car hire is available from £36 per day. Bari is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted. Alternatively, you can travel to Bari by train from London St Pancras or Ebbsfleet via Paris and Milan 08448 484064; raileurope.co.uk). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Taverna della Gelosia (00 39 0831 33 4736; tavernadellagelosia.it) at Via Gaetano Tanzarella Vitale, Ostuni. Open daily June-October; weekends only October-June.
Masseria Torre Maizza, Contrada da Coccaro, Savelletri di Fasano, Puglia, Italy (00 39 080 482 7838; apuliacollection.com).
Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk.
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