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Puglia revisited…. Cartapesta

Cartpesta Lecce

I’m recently back from Puglia and have been enjoying some time looking over photo’s from previous trips. In amongst them I found this selection of cartapesta making in Lecce.  Cartapesta is a paper making technique used for creating flowers and models, frequently angels and religious figures.

Cartapesta LecceLuigi and Maddelena Baldari continue this traditional craft and I was lucky enough to be part of a group shown the process of production from making the paper to crafting the models and then given a chance to create a cornucopia to take home. They are a wonderful couple, so much fun and enthusiasm for their art and wonderful teachers.

Luigi and Maddelena have recently transferred their cartapesta making to Squinzano and can be found at the Wine and Olive School.

The tour was organised by Ylenia who can create a variety of different experiences for groups.  Please take a look at her website there is far too much on offer to list here!

CartaPesta Roses

CartaPesta Roses

Mino – Magnifico!

Mino at The Table

I was lucky enough to be part of a large party at The Table in Woodbridge recently. This was no accident, we were there for the chef! Lovely Mino Mazzotta had travelled from the Salento, the southern part of the heel of Italy to be guest chef for the weekend.  On the Sunday the offering was a rolling buffet of wonderful Puglian flavours. Mino had created a wide range of fresh cold, hot, fish, meat and vegetarian dishes that are typical to his home area; from stuffed squid to gridded aubergines, salamis, octopus, beautiful meatballs – actually too many different dishes to list from memory.  The meal was great value and you could (and we did) go up to the buffet as many times as you liked.

I had not been to the Table in its latest incarnation but was really pleased that we had one long table for our large party, which gave the feel of a big Italian friends and family gathering.  The staff were really charming and we all enjoyed a long leisurely lunch followed by tiramisu, fruit salads and ice-creams; we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The food was always going to be great, having tried Mino’s cooking before in the warmth of Italy, the only question was going to be if it transferred successfully to Suffolk – of course it did!  There was a successful draw to raise money for Mino and his wife Val’s interests in supporting stray and injured dogs in their home area.  Take a look at the Puglia Pooches pages for more information.

Thank you to The Table for hosting and I really hope Mino will be back to Suffolk again in the spring; if he isn’t I’ll just have to wait until I’m back in Puglia again for those luscious fresh, flavours.

Postcard from Puglia 3 – Negroamarro

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Guagnano in Puglia is at the heart of the Negroamarro territory and last summer was home to a wonderful evening of wine, food, art and music in the form of  Terra del Negroamarro 2012. Earlier in the week Donna and Paola had hosted a tour of three cantinas in the area ranging from a small family affair, to a co-op, to a smart modern set up. The behind the scenes look at the work, lives of those involved and of course testing the products, with drivers and translators to hand makes for a great day out! They work hard to find the best places to visit and to arrange the whole experience so I won’t burst the bubble by saying which places were on the tour, but they are all very good.

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The evening event was wonderful, as usual arriving too early, the booths were still being constructed and there was not that much evidence of what would follow.  A short sojourn to a café and gradually it was evident that people were moving towards the old town centre. On leaving the café the ends of streets had candles alight and following them led to the town in all its glory.  Suddenly thronging with people and queues at the ‘casa’ discussing what tickets to buy. On this occasion a ticket would buy a glass for tasting and a certain amount of samples of wine or various options on numbers of plates of food.  Basically you exchange the tickets as tokens for food and wine.  Different cantinas had paired with restaurants.

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One of my favourites was the mozzarella stall, where they were making mini mozzarella fresh. There was such a range of dishes, candle lit roads leading to the stalls, fabulous wine, lots of live music and art shows to go with it.

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An evening for strolling in very busy streets doing the circuits with a new experience at every corner.

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The wine tour was arranged via Debbie and Bob hosts for the fortnight.  Donna and Paola both have villas too, follow the links under their names. I thoroughly recommend doing a wine tour with people who have researched the cantinas and developed valuable relationships, the behind the scenes views, translation (and transport) are well worth it.

Postcard from Puglia 2 – On Tour with Yle

Mama Julia

Mama Julia

This summer one of the great things was being introduced to Yle. This lovely lady is Puglian through and through; she loves the slow life and understands what makes the area so special. She is also prepared to share, and being well connected can introduce you to a range of experiences. Through Debbie and Bob a fantastic day was organised; Yle had set up a cooking experience (or pool day and eating for those who didn’t want to cook) at the stunning Masseria Provenzani.

Under the tutelage of Mama Julia we learnt to make orechiette and the tubes of pasta that together make ‘married’ pasta. As you will see from our pasta tray some were more uniform than others!

The Pasta Tray

The Pasta Tray

We also learnt the art of pastacciotto, chaos cakes, not the little versions that are eaten with coffee in Lecce; a larger family sized version for the whole group to eat. Then there were various breads, a tomato sauce and lovely faro polpette. The atmosphere throughout the morning was wonderful, gentle chatter, learning how to use the palestra della cucina, the kitchen gym – all that exercise, philosophy and opportunities to set the world right, some wine, more chat and the smells of the cooking filling the room.

Yle and Mama Julia with a completed dish

Yle and Mama Julia with a completed dish

There was the opportunity to look around the beautiful Masseria too, decorated in Salento style, simply bringing together modern tastes with rural history the effect is effortlessly tasteful.

There is a beautiful bedroom suite in this tower, complete with tree growing out of the stone walls.


There is a beautiful bedroom suite in this tower, complete with tree growing out of the stone walls.

By mid afternoon everyone was able to sit out, around a long table and tuck into the food that we had created, joined by the non cooking members of the group.  Once the meal was digested the rest of the afternoon was spent swimming in circles around the olive tree island. An amazing day; you can see more of the type of days Yle can arrange for you at her Cooking in Puglia site.

The pool with it's olive tree island

The pool with it’s olive tree island

Postcard from Puglia 1

Casa Mare at night

The snow is deep outside and I am finally checking through the pictures from last year’s trip to Puglia. No train this year as we travelled via Greece using the bus,  ferries and train to get from Skiathos to Brindisi. As in previous years we stayed with Bob and Debbie at Casa Mare, Contrada Cipolla a few miles south of Brindisi and right on the Adriatic.  With Bob and Debbie you are always assured of a fantastic welcome, great welcome basket and they have now become good friends. Sadly my camera is broken but Debbie gave me the use of hers, I’m tempted to adopt it!  Over the next few evenings I will write my ‘Postcards from Puglia’, they may give you some ideas of great things to do in the region.  This one though is just to give you a feel for Casa Mare, a fantastic base for a holiday, with all the key areas readily accessible from glorious beaches to ancient towns, food festivals for the greedy and water-sports or cycling for the energetic.  During out time at Casa Mare we had some great meals with friends old and new and I’ll own up to not writing any new stories about the Onion Cats, far to busy taking part in cook schools, wine tours, carta pesta classes and the like, pictures to follow in the next postcards. If you are interested in staying at Casa Mare or Debbie and Bob’s other property Villa Rosa at nearby Casalabatte  I would recommend taking a look at the websites for full details and booking sooner rather than later as they will fill quickly with repeat visitors in the next few weeks.

Casa Mare - Onion Cat

Salento – Sun, Sea and Winds by Train

When there's wind you can always watch even if you don't windsurf

Windsurfing at Lendinuso, Puglia

Just back after another vacation down in Puglia. The region around and below Lecce is known as Salento, named after ‘sale’ or salt (thanks Silvestro) but known as the land of sun, sea and wind. The whole journey was done from Campsea Ashe in Suffolk down and back to Brindisi by train. None of this would be possible without the man in seat 61, the guide to when and how to book the various stages of the journey. All the trains ran smoothly and the contrast between the halt at Camspea Ashe [sorry as far as the trains are concerned it’s Wickham Market, but it’s not] and the massive station at Bologna is amazing.

This year the upgrade to Leisure Select on Eurostar was well worth the effort as the at seat meal trays were tasty lunches and the journey times were perfect. The food on the night sleeper from Paris Bercy to Bologna was a huge improvement on last year and the company was first class; a spectacular French/Italian lady who layered conversations in both languages at fast speed. I’m sure we discussed everything from religion to cleaning plates with bread (making a little shoe in Italian – faccio la scarpetta) but whole chunks of it slid by with me nodding madly and hoping the nods were in the right places. It was a pity we didn’t have a bit more transfer time in France to meet up with family.

Safely at Villa Rosa this was destined to be an unwind holiday, with minimum travelling about, plenty of socialising with cooking from the abundant market and gorgeous meals out.

Of course there was the pilgrimage to Lecce, home of the purple bike, locks on posts and espressino freddo.

Top places to eat this trip were:

  • Bahianegra, Casa l’abate sea views, fish and pizzas the specialities
  • Il Botteghino, Lendinusso; mussels, in fact so much antipasti no more food was required!
  • Masseria Li Manchi, Squinanno great antipasti and fabulous courtyard setting
  • Cin Cin Bar, Lecce – central spot to drink Espressino freddo and eat pastries whilst people watching, go after 12.00 for the espression freddo, each one different depending on who makes it.
  • Also managed to find somewhere slightly better than the restaurants next to the station at Bologna.  Ristoranti Victoria, snappy service and pretty good nosh.

The high spot in terms of outings was a trip to three cantinas.  Debbie and Bob (owners of Villa Rosa) have linked with the wonderful Donna and Paola, Italian speaking Americans, to create a tour which ranges from a co-operative, to a high-tech winery, to a small family set up. The wines are all excellent award winners.  The glory is having the tour, the on hand translation, the story of the individual cantina and the chance to taste extensively from their ranges from light fizzy whites, to summery rosatto and robust reds with some stronger and sweeter wines to go with Christmas pud.

The reading list this trip:

  • Risk – the science and politics of fear by Dan Gardner.  Worth a read, I felt it laboured the point a bit and at times I wanted to scream. However, there are elements in this that everyone should read, about why we are frightened of the wrong things and not the things that are far more likely to happen.
  • Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes – well when in Italy…..
  • Map Addict by Mike Parker – I started this ages ago and then didn’t finish it.  I love it, my kind of book but then I share his addiction.
  • The Quiet Girl by Peter Hoeg – sort of a Scandinavian Psychoville
  • Mostly though it was Take off in Italian, I keep trying but still not sure if it my complete absence of learning or the fact that the Salento dialect is so different; most of my shopping is pointing strung together with a few key phrases.
One last comment.  Part way through the break I was determined that my blog post would mention the litter problem in Salento.  It’s mostly dry waste, plastic bags and water bottles some glass bottles and if ever they sort it out people will flock to this dusty heel.  You know what though, just when I thought I would talk about people respecting their environments I caught the British news and this was happening.
Puts everything into perspective.  But read Risk too and decide whether these images ploughing a furrow in your brain via 24 news coverage puts the story into the right light or not.
Huge thanks to Debbie and Bob, Villa Rosa (and the larger Casa Mare) is a perfect base for a stay in Salento – we had a wonderfully relaxing time, see you soon.

Italy by Train – Casa Mare – at home by the sea

The final post from the Italian holiday; just a few words about Casa Mare. It is a subject of good fortune that Debbie and Bob, who own Casa Mare and live there all year round, have now become good friends.  We had a fabulous time going out and about to the sagra and restaurants with them.   In the summer months they move into their basement and rent out the main house to paying guests.  The garden is large and they use one side with a patio and vegetable garden leaving all the terracing and the pool for the guests to use.

The villa has spacious rooms, free wifi, a large bathroom with bath and separate walk in shower and an extremely well equipped kitchen.  Debbie also provides one of the best welcome baskets, complete with home-made marmalade, chutney and lemoncello.

The house is close to the beach and some of the cats that have adopted Debbie and Bob like to stroll down to join the afternoon picnic.  The cats have become the subject of stories I am writing, where they are known as the Onion Cats.  The latest stories though have gone AWOL; I know I’ve put the handwritten notes somewhere, but where?

By the time we were ready to book for next year Casa Mare is already full.  It will be Villa Rosa, Debbie and Bob’s other house, that will be home by the sea next time.

You may have seen a piece in The Sunday Times on 19th September by A A Gill on Puglia – try and find a copy if you can.  I agree with some of the things he says (yes it is litter strewn and there are incomplete buildings), but I will continue to return. I don’t think I’m an ‘English fantasist, braying at the architecture’ and I would be delighted if no other English people discovered it; it is quite nice to remain a rarity in a holiday destination.  Also anyone describing it as secret Italy is clearly wrong the northern Italians have been holidaying there for years.

Puglia by Train – Old towns; Lecce and Matera

The penultimate post from the summer holidays, the old towns of Lecce and Matera. Lecce has featured in this blog previously and as tradition would have it, here is the espressino freddo, from the Bar Bar Cin Cin.

Yes, Lecce is a beautiful baroque town, that out baroques baroque but it is also home of perfect iced coffees, no two are ever the same.

Lecce is also a gorgeous venue for a wedding with picture perfect architecture as a backdrop. As we strolled around the town several weddings were taking place, the little cornucopia that once held rose petals was evidence, but best of all was the bride, groom and entourage touring the streets in their quadricycles.

We also used this trip to travel further afield to Matera.  A town where up until the 1960’s people still lived in the cave houses.  These were then bought by the state and it became a UNESCO world heritage site.  Gradually the area is being restored and some of the dwellings have now been incorporated into very smart hotels.  It is an area that has to be seen to be believed and photos can not do it justice the town clings to the side of a steep-sided gorge and the colours are all muted, natural stone.

There are plenty of ancient towns to visit in the region but Matera which counts as Basilicata and not Puglia is well worth crossing over the border to discover.

Italy by train – Sagra

This was the year we finally tracked down a sagra or two.  The Southern Italians are famous for their food festivals, the difficulty though is that whilst they can be very well publicised, little details like exactly where in a town they are taking place or at what time have to be gained by a process of absorption.

The first and largest was the Sagra delle quattro stagione, in Torre Dell’Orso on the coast not far from Lecce.  We went with our hosts Debbie and Bob from Casa Mare; after meandering around we found the huge site full of people, food stalls and set up ready for the pizzica music.  The routine is that you buy meal and drink tickets then queue up for your plates of food.  I had swordfish steak, fava and chicory and a sausage, each was served with chunks of bread and glasses of beer or you could have the local fizzy wine.  Below is a short clip taken with an ordinary digital camera of the pizzica. The music really gets under your skin, this is music of the Salento region, the very tip of the heel of Italy.  The pizzica tarantella is based on a traditional dance supposed to drive out the damage caused by a poisonous spider.  It is worth watching the video just for the reaction to taking an apron off!

The second Sagra was a much more low-key affair, set at the top of the beautiful town of Oria.  The idea was that it was a mediaeval re-enactment.  Here we changed Euros to mediaeval coins and then into some mugs of potent red wine and meatballs followed by cake and lemoncello. We sat down at the long tables set out in the square where everyone sits together whilst they eat.  There was much walking about by knights, but we just did not have the stamina to stay up for any battle which may have taken place later.

Fancy some more pizzica music?  Go Here for Spotify list – I defy you not to be spinning round your kitchen in your apron by the end.

Puglia by Train – Water Sports

Puglia is the recipient of long dry summers and although intensely hot, the heat is often kept under control by the sirocco and mistral winds.  The nature of the beach changes.  The Italian’s themselves don’t tend to play in the waves as Brits do at the seaside.  Once the waves are of above a gentle roll the local holiday makers seem to loose interest in swimming, standing or sitting in the waves.  However, a few hardy souls, the windsurfers start to appear and the sky is filled with what appear at first to be coloured crows, but are actually the kites of the boarders turning pirouettes as they turn.

On the water-sports front though the thing I enjoyed most works best once the winds have dropped.  This holiday I  learnt to snorkel.  I have never done it before; seeing shoals tiny silvery fish that were like meteor showers, larger fish with dark eyes that followed me around and the thrill of watching a cuttle fish making its way around a artificial reef. Now that I am confident swimming out of my depth and feel strong enough not to panic when I wander off away from the crowd, snorkelling is a real pleasure.  In addition to as snorkelling at Contrada Cipolla we also took a trip to the Torre Guaceto nature reserve.  Here you can snorkel in protected water and the range of fish and the number of sea urchins, sponges and other creatures is greater than ever.

Next time I could do with a waterproof camera – any recommendations?

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