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TASTING APULIA

Let’s begin our journey in the “taste” of Apulia. Prepare your palate! Among the alleys of Altamura, every day is proposed a tradition, as ancient as the man that here has lived since ever, the bread’s ritual. The bread-making finds in Altamura its highest expression.
The Latin poet Horace defi nes the bread of the Murgia as “the best in the world”. Since antiquity the activity of grinding was at the base of the economy of this town. In 17th century there were yet twenty families of grinders in the nearness of Altamura. The mill was fundamental in the workmanship of the Apulian wheat. Severe laws controlled the production of bread, which could be only cooked in public ovens. The owners of the ovens owed so to provide themselves with real tools of wood or iron in order to brand the products to bake and cook with the initial of the family that had brought them. Bread was at the base of the diet: it was produced in big pieces, in the classical round shape with a cross in the middle and it was so big for two reasons: to satisfy the pleasure of the gluttons, but also because of its durability. Today as in the past the ritual is intact. The mixing, the rising, the cooking in the typical fi rewood ovens gift us with that ancient taste. The recipe is unique: a mix of different durum wheat, mother yeast (also called “sour pasta”), sea salt and water. Then a natural very slow rising and the cooking in the fi rewood ovens, with their stone base and their classical smoky chimney pot. Altamura bread has received the DOP mark, the maximum recognition in Europe.
Another principal element of the Apulian diet is milk and its derivates. From May to August the Apulian countryside changes its face. Wheat is reaped leaving round bales on sleepy fi elds. We stop for a while in the “Murgia del latte”, that is the territory embracing the towns of Gioia del Colle, Putignano and Noci, towns that have an absolute supremacy in the dairy products. The whole landscape seems to be moulded in the shape of the typical “pietra viva”, the typical calcareous rock characterizing this zone. Olive groves alternate with broad grazing, where many cows and sheep slowly move.

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In these three towns we can admire real scenes of rural life, mainly concentrated in the Masserias, the ancient rock buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century, which could be considered the real castles of Apulia. These are the farms where we can still find sheep and cows breeding and providing precious fresh first choice milk for the production of mozzarella, cottage cheese, burrata and other specialties of Apulia. This area is studded with a multitude of dairy firms conducted by simple families. In these small dairies every cheese master (here called “mastro casaro”) preserves his own secrets and tricks for the creation of inimitable product.
The choice is never ending, but we would remind you some products that you shouldn’t miss: first of all the Apulian mozzarella exclusively made out of cow milk; then the burrata, a small mozzarella case filled with little filaments of mozzarella poached in milk cream; the “primo sale”, a fresh soft cheese still soaked in whey with a light sour-sweet taste. Or the “cacioricotta”, a fresh cheese made with a particular hybrid technique, it often is combined with fresh pasta - it is incomparable when it is grated on our handmade “orecchiette”, with fresh tomato sauce and basil. For those loving strong taste there is the “ricotta forte”, a spreadable product with a bold taste, produced from the fermentation of the cottage cheese. It is unique on warm “frittelle”.
At the base of the Mediterranean diet there is the Extra virgin olive oil. One of the main activity of the agricultural production in Apulia is that of olive oil. Apulia is full of Masserias where every year in October begins the harvest of olives for the oil production. In particular we would like to tell how was oil extracted in the past, in the hypogeum oil mills, the so called “trappeti”.
They are, in fact, underground cavities where for several months every year a team of men and a couple of donkeys lived and worked together.
If you only taste the Apulian extra virgin olive oil, you can easily imagine the fatigue and the hard work that gave and gives birth to this golden liquid. The extraction by squeezing the fruits was done in the Trappeti. It was a kind of life diffi cult to conceive: months by months in the underground, sharing space with other men and animals used to turn the milling wheels. It was an hard work, but in that period was considered a fortune, even if it lasted six months. The hypogeum mills were largely used, especially in the zone of Salento, for a series of reasons: digging in the ground was less expensive than building, it didn’t require skilled workforce and it was easy to fi nd natural karst caves. Furthermore the highest temperature in the underground, due to the presence of men and animals in movement for a lot of hours and for several months, allowed to keep oil in a liquid status, so that it was easy to eliminate the impurities; transport and storage was made easier by holes in the ground, where the loads of olives were poured into the Trappeto. The workers remained for months in the underground, only going out in some religious occasions. The crew was generally made up of fi ve men and one boy for the minor tasks, and two donkeys. The process began with the “mammaredda” a small press used for the fi rst pressing of the olives. The fruits were placed in woven reed disks, called “fiscoli”, stake under a large stone that pressed them. It came out an olive mush, that was then poured to be milled in a large stone basin where a huge wheel with diameter of 2 or 3 meters, vertically placed, turned on itself and around a central axis. The wheel moved thanks to the force of the donkeys. The last passage of the procedure was a second pressure and then the golden liquid was stocked in big tanks and let in settle. Then the chief of the crew began to pray God for the good result obtained. The end of the work was celebrated with a fest, with rich meals offered by the owner of the mill.
The province of Lecce is full of these cavities. Towns and villages hosting them in their territory are gradually rediscovering them as an historical and cultural heritage, as a sign of tradition not to forget. Today those mills are attractive locations for tourists, where they can experience the magic of a distant ancient world.
The economy of our splendid region is based on those good that the land offers. One of these treasures is the grape and wine. “Wine is the height of a territory, of a culture, of a lifestyle” as Ernest Hemingway once wrote. Words that perfectly suit the Negroamaro, a very popular varietal in the territories of Lecce, Brindisi and Taranto that, with their various product - like Negroamaro 100% or the Salice salentino DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) 80-90% made of Negroamaro and 10-20% made of Malvasia – are the basis of great part of the DOP Apulian Wines.
Negroamaro is intense like the passions of the Apulians slightly bitter like the life of peasants, scented like our cuisine tastes, our sea and out vegetation, perfumed of juniper and myrtle. Between the Negroamaro and the Salento there is an overlapping, a mutual cross-reference.
This black wine produced in the area of Lecce is easily adaptable, but it prefers calcareous soils and warm climate. Cultivators and producers care a lot about this: the local and autochthon product has to be proudly revalorized and reassessed. In the land of Otranto there is much space for Malvasia, Primitivo and Negroamaro and now the international wine and food tourism is curiously attracted by this varietal and its wine-making process. Group of visitors coming from every corner of the world look for what they heard as being excellent. And they don’t only find a divine nectar but also the symbol of a territory founded on peasant culture for centuries. The journey through the specialties of Apulia is quite never lasting, but we have so little space! Very interesting and above all very savory are the Easter sweets. Easter here means gluttony, fun, cheerfulness and especially... sweets!
The “scarcella” (name used in the province of Foggia, but it can vary from town to town) is one of the most typical Easter sweets that used to rejoice our grannies when they were little. A nice hardboiled egg is inserted in a short crust pastry in shape of a dove, symbolizing new life par excellence (the Resurrection) but it is also a sign of abundance after Lent. This pastry tradition is very strong in many families and it can be bought in many bakeries of the region, together with more delicacies that make the tables of Holy Sunday very precious. Today Easter eggs are the chocolate ones and the Apulian confectioners make them in their laboratories in different dimensions, taste and gift that is inside. But eggs are not a common gift: giving eggs as a gift is part of a very ancient rite. May they be sweet, painted, hardboiled or chocolate ones, when you give one, you are wishing a new life. Lamb is another symbol of Christian Easter, mild milking sheep following the “Good Shepherd”, Easter Lamb in Apulia turns into a marzipan pastry. It is very common in Salento area and it is very difficult to make.
We only tell you the main ingredients (almonds and sugar), so you have to taste it! Almonds and sugar are grinded together and then cooked at low flame in order to obtain this very sweet paste.
Often the lamb is filled with jam. To give you a list of the Apulian specialties is an impossible mission! So we invite you to taste them and enjoy the Apulian cuisine by visiting the local festivals. Considering all the Italian regions, Apulia is the one that has the longest list of festival and local celebrations. In a world where time and space have been substituted by a “double click”, town festivals remind us that the most genuine products of the earth and of work follow and will follow the changing of the seasons and the proper nature of each territory.
The word “sagra” (festival) derives from the Latin word “sacrum” (sacred). They represented moments of union and celebration, in order to thank God for the harvest. Since ancient times festivals characterized seasons and their fruits, that is the reason why in Apulia, in every little village or town there is a Sagra.
We suggest you only some of them. In the province of Foggia there is the Feast of oil and broad beans in Carpino; or the Mushroom festival in Castelnuovo Daunia, the Festival of Oranges in Rodi Garganico. In the province of Barletta, in the village of Trinitapoli is celebrated the artichoke in the Sagra del Violetto. Festivals reach their peak though in the province of Bari, in the numerous districts many events are organized attracting people from the whole region to celebrate local products. The famous Sagra della Zampina - a roll of coal roasted sausage made of simple ingredients, pork meat and salt - in Sammichele di Bari people come from anywhere ready to honor this famous DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) local product with a glass of wine. In the towns by the sea instead we notice the Sagra del Polpo in Mola di Bari, an event celebrating a protagonist of the sea, octopus, taking place in the principal square by the sea.
Always by the sea, in Monopoli, a big town in the South East area of Bari, is organized the Sagra della Paranza, a very important summer festival where the fi shermen are directly involved in the preparation of fried fresh fish, or the Sagra dei Panzerotti e Carne alla brace (Festival of Panzerotti and grilled meat) events that take place in the country districts of the town.
A particular mention must be done for the autumnal festivals in the town of Noci. In November the historic centre of the town becomes the cradle of the good new wine by sampling beforehand the smooth wine from the best winery in Apulia. Bacco nelle Gnostre (Bacchus in the lanes) is a celebration not only for the local wines but also for other products of this area, such as chestnuts, local meat, orecchiette or the Pettole - typical delicacies of the Christmas period made of dough and then fried and garnished, when still hot, with honey or sugar. In facts, in the first week of December the Festival takes the name of Pettole nelle Gnostre and in this occasion you can taste all the specialties in a particular atmosphere with the town that is transformed in a little crib, in a spellbound village with Christmas decorations, soft lights and traditional folk music. Your eyes and your palates will thank you so much!