A wood-burning fire roars from the stove as I sit down at the table. From where I’m sitting I can see stone archways overhead and the large stone wheels of the olive press in the next room. It all dates back about 500 years, to a time when this farmhouse was in the glory days of its olive oil production. This is the region of Puglia, which extends from the heel of Italy’s boot a few hundred miles north up the Adriatic coast. I’m currently in the province of Brindisi, one of six that together comprise Puglia, visiting traditional fortified farmhouses, known as masserias, in a regional park called Dune Costiere. The enchanting, white-washed medieval city of Ostuni sits upon a hill just outside its borders, overlooking the park’s five miles of ancient, seaside olive orchards and old-world, land-connected communities.
At the table, plates start coming out. Fresh bread to go along with bowls of artichokes and tomatoes. Baked olives served warm. Carob-based pasta. Roasted pork. Everything explodes in my mouth, the flavors deep and active.
When the chef emerges, I ask him about the ingredients. He pulls out his phone shows me a photo of himself holding a baby pig. The photo was taken a few months ago, he says, just down the road at one of the other farms. Then he points to the others. They bake the bread and grow the olives and artichokes out back; the carob is from a farm a kilometer away; the tomatoes, called pomodori regina, are grown only in this region. This brings to light what would become a buzzword the rest of the trip: We were eating a “zero-kilometer” meal.
Here, it takes longer to go to the store and buy something than it does for a chef to walk outside and pick the ingredients himself.
“Farm-to-table” is a trendy phrase in North America, where food is trucked into the depths of cities from “nearby” farms. Here, it takes longer to go to the store and buy something than it does for a chef to walk outside and pick the ingredients himself. Or, better yet for everyone, bike to the next farm over and trade a basket of tomatoes for a block of cheese.
You see, chefs in this part of the world learned from their mothers, not from a class or cookbook. Preparing these Puglian family recipes with “zero-kilometer” ingredients is what gives each meal the potential to be the best you’ve ever had. And being in a place so connected to the land is special. It’s not just about eating well. Hidden under the excitement of the food quality is the fact that Dune Costiere is a living, breathing museum, one that is preserving ancient traditions of farming and its lifestyle.
People fight their way through crowds in Rome, desperate to see the remains of the Roman Empire. Here the ruins here are still up and running: the olive trees date back an average of 2,000 years, and every year they each still produce hundreds of pounds of fruit. The masserias themselves were were constructed in the 1500s as half farmhouses, half castles to both produce and protect the region’s olive oil from Ottoman Empire pirates. As such, most have lookouts to the sea, a thick perimeter wall with murder holes and underground production facilities. Today, these masserias continue to serve as working farmhouses, producing everything from olive oil to cheese, vegetables and livestock.
Luckily for people like me, they also double as guesthouses. A walk through them today is like one through your grandfather’s garage, with old cars and rusted bikes and stone-wheel grinders. The past 500 years are preserved within them, their inhabitants living by the same philosophies.
Yesterday, I biked along a dirt road through the seaside olive groves. I was full from lunch, the never-ending kind that makes some people smile and others sigh. I could see the green nets that had been cast below the trees to catch the olives. A man in his mid-eighties was tilling a field with a shovel. He waved at me as I passed. It’s likely that he had a literal hand in creating the olive oil I enjoyed this week — and next year’s batch as well. There was nothing about him to suggest he was going to slow down. After all, he was fitter, and definitely ate better, than many of my thirty-something friends. I guess it makes sense, given the ancient, healthy trees hovering above him. This is just another day at the office for the Puglians, in a place of zero-kilometer philosophies and family-focused communities that form the backbone of the Italian spirit.
Dune Costiere Park is part of the Mediterranean Experience of Eco-Tourism (MEET), an initiative funded by the European Union that offers alternatives to the typical “sand, sun and sea” ideas of mass tourism and provides alternative livelihoods for local people, creating opportunities for more authentic exchanges in less frequented places. As such, you can stay, eat and drink in many of the working masserias, an experience I find mandatory to fully immerse in the region’s culture. Look into rooms at the Antica Masseria Brancati, Masseria Il Frantoio, Masseria Oasi San Giovanni Battista, and the Masseria Salamina. If you’d like a biking, trekking, or culinary tour of Dune Costiere, inquire with Madera Bike Tour about seasonal opportunities, demonstrations, and cooking classes. Plan dinners or day trips into the nearby whitewashed villages of Ostuni, Cisternino, and Locorotondo to discover their medieval personalities. The nearest airport is Brinidisi (BDS), an hour flight from Rome.