Friday, 4 May 2012

Cookery courses in Puglia: Lecce, Florence of the South

Way down south, in Puglia at the heel of Italy, is one of Italy’s hidden gems. The sunnily ornate baroque buildings of Lecce have earned it the tag ‘Florence of the South’. Its northern counterpart might boast a more impressive list of native artists and sculptors – but Lecce scores on food. With its glorious Mediterranean climate, the Puglia region enjoys intensely flavoured fruit and veg, rich meats, and – with the dramatic Adriatic and Ionian coastlines never far away – fresh seafood. A visit to Lecce is a cookery course by itself.

The architecture itself is enough to get your mouth watering, even before you’ve visited the markets. The local limestone, formed from the remnants of unimaginable numbers of ancient seashells, comes out the quarries soft as clay – but gradually hardens in the air, making it easy to work but durable. Hence the city’s lovely architecture: exuberant, rich but never flashy — like the cuisine. The heart of Lecce is the Piazza Sant’Orono. This is the place to socialise and relax in the warm evenings, while deciding which of the city’s burgeoning new cafes or restaurants to visit. A Roman amphitheatre stands at the southern end, while in the centre is a Roman column that marked the end of the ancient Appian Way, the main road north. The Rome-bound traveller of two thousand years ago asking for directions would no doubt be told, in that smiling and laid-back southern Italian way, to just follow the road, you can’t miss it.

Consistency of style – mostly 17th and 18th century – is what makes Lecce so easy on the eye. The Cathedral is one of Italy’s most impressive, and the facades in the Piazza del Duomo were all built or reworked in that period.

Probably the best example of the Lecce Baroque style is the Basilica de Santa Croce, near the Piazza Sant’Orono. Food is never far away from the Pugliese mind: the Basilica’s facade has an array of intricately carved animals, vegetables and fruit, while the overall impression it gives to many is that of a giant wedding cake, complete with meringue and cream!

If you’re on the hunt for local Salento produce in the markets or restaurants, you’re spoilt for choice. As for snacks, the local bakery speciality is puccia, a mixture of bread dough with olive and onion, delicious by itself or filled with slices of meat. Rustici leccesi are pastries stuffed with meat or cheese. Pasticciotto is a sweet shortcrust pastry filled with cream and a drop of black cherry. And if you need a recommendation – for a cafe or restaurant, market stall or snack – simply stop and ask a local. They take eating seriously here and you’ll get instant advice on where to go for the tastiest food at the best price. But this is Italy – ask three people and you’ll get at least three different opinions!

1 comment:

Gantly and Associates said...

As someone who 'discovered' Puglia some years ago, Vieste, the Gargano, Luccera, Manfredonia, Brindisi, Ostuni and Alborebello, I hope it remains a ;hidden gem; for the few more years it will take me to explore it all.....