It has been over a week since I returned home from my mini-break in Puglia, Italy so it’s about time I tell you all about it! Why I went there, with whom, our activities but most of all about the food I enjoyed.
So sit back, relax and enjoy this (long) read 😉
For the past decade I have been traveling to Israel regularly. Sometimes once a year, sometimes even twice, and always on my own. To take a well-deserved break from being a wife and a mom. You can call it ‘me-time’. Visiting my best friend and other people I love, in a place I also call home.
For obvious reasons those visits came to a hold almost two years ago (as did our culinary travels ).
Two years without a break definitely left its traces on me. I felt trapped, overwhelmed and worn out a little.
And then all of the sudden I received this newsletter from Esther*. An invite to join her on an ‘inspirational trip’ to Puglia. To explore the possibility to buy a trullo, to pick her brain about writing a book or simply to get away and enjoy the Italian culture, sun and food. A great offer which fitted me like a glove! I only needed to make sure that it was doable as a vegan. Her answer was;” It might be a bit of a challenge, but definitely one I am willing to take on!”
I took the plunge, booked a flight and was added to a WhatsApp group with five complete strangers who took the same plunge I did.
After a month of getting to know each other a bit on WhatsApp, which provided a lot of pre-fun, we finally got to meet in person at the airport. A mix of excitement and apprehension was in the air.
We were picked up at Bari airport for an 1,5 hour drive south. On the way we stopped to have lunch in a cute little place called Polignano a Mare with a stunning coastline!
An absolutely delicious lunch I might add. A table filled with vegetables, roasted rosemary potatoes, tomatoes, pasta and the local dish fava e cicoria. Mashed fava beans (sort of like humus) with garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with chicory. Amazing flavors which took away the last bit of anxiety I had left about vegan restaurant options in the South of Italy, which proved to be no problem whatsoever during the whole journey!
With our tummy’s filled we continued our transfer to our accommodation: a few old trulli in an enchanting setting, including a beautiful, yet freezing cold pool. The owner has done a terrific job of restoring these remarkable buildings which are so typical for this region.
All of this stands on grounds filled with veggie patches, various citrus trees (oranges, grapefruits, lemons), pomegranates, strawberry trees, peppers, fresh Italian herbs and of course olive trees. The whole setting made me feel a little bit like being in Israel, or at least as close I can get at the moment.
After settling in we headed to the nearest village Ceglie Messapica for drinks and dinner. A little town with a clock tower in the central square which to me resembled a little bit the famous clock tower in Jaffo, Israel.
During drinks I had an interesting conversation with one of my fellow travelers, the only male in the group. As it turned out he has a Jewish background. That gave us lots to talk about and again that sort of gave me the feeling of being close to Israel. Joining this trip was already proving to be one of the best decisions I had made in a long time!
Pasta with the locals
Esther had set up a program of activities for the next couple of days. A few of us wanted to explore purchasing a trullo or apartment with the local realtor. One of us wanted to ‘bless’ his adopted olive tree by nailing a mezuza** onto it. We were allowed to witness the pressing of the olives into oil (in the midst of peak season).
We were also invited to have a cooking-workshop at the home of a local family. The lady of the house would teach us the skills of preparing from scratch the local pasta called ‘Orecchiette’.
While there is lots to tell about all of the above mentioned activities, I will spare you the details because it would take a small book to write about that. For now, I would like to focus on the cooking-workshop!
For the past years I have learned plenty of new kitchen skills, one skill at a time. For instance, I have taught myself how to bake vegan pizza with a good crust. I have immersed myself in the sprouting business. I have mastered the art of homemade humus and last Spring I started baking my own sourdough bread.
Next thing on my to-learn-wish-list was making pasta from scratch. So timing could not have been better!
If you ask me there is no greater honor than being a guest at a local family as a tourist. To have a peek behind doors that otherwise would stay closed. And to learn to prepare the local dish from experts. Our host spoke only Italian (as did the rest of the family). I don’t speak Italian, I do speak French and you’d be surprised how far the combination of English and French can bring you with Italian. Understanding that is, speaking is a whole different ball-game. Luckily, Esther spoke sufficient Italian to explain the all-important details.
Orecchiette is a shell shaped pasta which contains nothing more than semolina and lukewarm water. That’s it. Extremely simple! Mix the two together until a firm bouncy dough starts to form. Roll into a long tube which is cut into 2 cm thick slices. Then you roll each slice in long thin round laces, which you cut into pieces of approximately 3 cm. Then comes the skill into place. You take the point of a knife to press and pull the dough. In the meantime you put your finger on the other end. After that you take the flattened dough and shape it around your thumb into a little shell with edges that resemble the upper part of an ear shell. (orecchio is Italian for ear). After shaping al the dough you can let it rest for a couple hours under a clean towel. But you can also cook it right away. It takes only a couple of minutes until the pasta floats to the surface of the boiling water.
The traditional way to serve orecchiete in Puglia is with chime di rape (Italian broccoli). The original recipe contains anchovies, but we had a vegetarian and a vegan in the house so that was left out.
It is a delicious and wholesome dish, which is quite easy to prepare. We had a brilliant evening and once again it reminded me of Israel where the hospitality and love for good food is at an equal level.
Definitely worth mentioning is als our visit to Ostuni, a ten minute drive from our accommodation. Also known as ‘the White City’. A bit more touristic then Ceglie which could be named white city as well in fact. But Ostuni is beautiful, closer to the coast and an absolute must visit.
I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:
La dolce vita!
One of the good things about this mini break for me was that lunch and dinner was all taken care of. Instead of being responsible for preparing the daily meals at home, I really had some time off and the chance to taste new things. To let myself be inspired to new recipes, something I immediately put into practice after returning home.
In fairness, I have to admit I was sceptic at first. About the Italian people, about their food and as I mentioned, whether or not plant-based eating was possible. I had visited Italy only once before, 30 years ago. Back then I was impressed by the beautiful cities, their impressive buildings and culture. However, the weather was terrible at the time (just bad luck I suppose), people were not very accommodating, ridiculous prices for simple things such as coffee or ice-cream, so Italy definitely had not stolen my heart. I never returned up until now.
This new encounter couldn’t have been more different. I loved the friendly people. In every restaurant (often family owned) they took extreme pride and pleasure in serving incredible tasty food which clearly was prepared with love. Even in the south ‘Vegano’ was something they seemed familiar with. And yes, also the weather worked it’s charm this time.
I owe Esther a big thank you. For organizing this trip, for being an excellent host, for bringing a fun group of people together, to make her dream accessible to others, for sharing…!
I will definitely be back. This region is worth another visit and next time I’ll bring my family. I am confident they’ll feel what I have felt. In the South of Italy la vita e dolce!