For our first adventure of 2018, the Italian Food Wine & Travel group (#ItalianFWT) heads to Puglia, the high heel of Italy’s boot. Well known in the United States for its wines made from the Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) grape, it’s also home to indigenous varieties like Nero di Troia and Bombino Bianco, which are less familiar.
There’s a lot to explore in this region which, as our host Katarina Andersson from Grapevine Adventures notes, lies “between two seas.” In addition to wine, Puglia boasts a wide variety of agricultural products. Artichokes, olives, eggplant, and tomatoes drive the economy here, creating a solid base for the local cuisine which also takes advantage of fresh-caught seafood, native grains, and the world-famous burrata cheese.
If you’re ready to embark on a quick trip to Southern Italy, please join us this Saturday, January 6th, at 11 am eastern time. We’ll be live on Twitter, under the #ItalianFWT. We’d love to hear what you have to say about Puglian wine, food, and travel, so don’t hesitate to chime in!
Here’s a preview of what the group will be discussing:
Tracy at The Traveling Somm will talk about A Taste of Puglia with “Little Ear” Pasta and Affordable Wine.
Wendy Klik at A Day in the Life on the Farm gives us a wine and food pairing tip with Primitivo and Pasta from Puglia.
Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares Handmade Orecchiette e Tormaresca Neprica.
Susannah at Avvinare shares Puglia – A Land of Abundance.
Jill at L’Occasion shares The Bush Trained Vineyards of Puglia.
Katarina, at Grapevine Adventures will share the article Wineries with a Long History and Tradition in Puglia.
Here at The Swirling Dervish we’re Traveling to Puglia via South Florida: My Adopted Italian Grandparents.
Although I’ve traveled to Italy several times, I’ve never made it to the sun-soaked fields and bright white beaches of Puglia. And while I’ve tried a few of the region’s wines, they aren’t widely available in my local stores, so I can’t say I’m well acquainted with them. But I do think I have a keen sense of Puglia’s heart, thanks to a couple I met when I first moved to Florida; people who welcomed me into their world before I’d had a chance to build one for myself.
When I relocated, I had precious few requirements for my new place: it needed to be within walking distance of the beach, and I wanted to be able to see the water from my apartment, which had to be bigger than my place in DC (an easy feat.) I didn’t care much for décor, fancy amenities, or being near the hot spots, so I ended up in a 1970s-era building full of retirees. But I had tons of space, a view of the ocean, and I was across the street from the beach. And my new digs cost half of what I had been paying in DC, for twice as much square footage. I was tickled pink!
A Day at the Beach
I quickly adapted to my new environment by including a daily beach walk in my schedule. Most days that meant a half-hour stroll in the early evening after work. On weekends, it meant spending the whole afternoon in the sun, in the company of a good book. I relished the quiet time, blissfully appreciative of the chance to disconnect from phone, email, and text messages. I checked in to my own desert island retreat and recharged my batteries, preparing myself for the week ahead.
After a few weeks, I came to recognize my fellow beachcombers, especially those whose schedules jived with mine. A few I recognized from my building, although we’d never met. We would always nod and say hello, then continue on our separate ways. One couple always seemed to be leaving the beach just as I arrived and, one Sunday, we struck up a conversation as our paths crossed.
Frank and Rosa were originally from Bari, the capital of Puglia, and had lived in New York City for decades before retiring to Florida. They were warm and welcoming to me, always extending an invitation to join their circle of friends on the weekends. And I was always happy to accept. They were so full of life, both of them brimming with optimism and energy; qualities I definitely needed more of at that time.
We’d sit on the beach for hours at a time, talking about everything – from the peculiarities of life in Florida to the challenges of dealing with family members. When they discovered that I had studied Italian during my time in DC, they encouraged (forced) me to speak it with them. Rosa professed that her two goals were to improve my Italian vocabulary and to convince me to go back to church. She was notably successful with the former, completely unsuccessful with the latter. Not that she has stopped trying . . . .
The Italian Social Club
As I spent more time with them, I realized that Frank and Rosa had a more active social life than most 20-somethings I knew. On more than one occasion I ran into them in the lobby of our building, as they headed out for the evening. Without exception they would be dressed to the nines, with Frank in a crisp, elegant suit and Rosa decked out in a sparkly cocktail dress complemented by a fancy up-do. It was date night done right, a throwback to times when everyone made more of an effort. It made me smile.
Their calendar revolved around the Italian social club, which met once a month for dinner at a local restaurant. When they invited me as their guest, I was intrigued and graciously accepted, wondering if I had anything fancy enough to wear. I settled on a simple black dress and heels, a reasonable option in most cases but, as I soon found out, quite lackluster for this occasion.
Everywhere I looked, women sparkled in sequins, satin, and diamonds. Big diamonds, and lots of them! The men were muted in comparison, but still elegant and pulled together. Perhaps that was the unwritten rule: tonight was the ladies’ time to shine; all eyes should be on them. I, for one, was captivated.
After a cocktail, we sat down for dinner and I had a chance to chat with the other friends at our table. As the only single, I felt a little out of place but was quickly put at ease, and I relaxed into the evening. Rosa informed the group that they were to speak only Italian with me, and they obeyed. (Everyone does what Rosa says; it’s an axiom of life!) One-on-one I survived pretty well, holding my own in each conversation – at least at first.
As the night evolved, the chatter grew louder, and I started to feel lost. It became harder to understand the snippets of conversation I could pick out. I was overwhelmed, and it showed on my face. From across the table, Frank noticed my distress and he made his way to the empty seat next to me. “Lauren,” he said, (pronouncing it “Lo-owren”) “are you having a bad time?”
I said no, I was just feeling dumb, that I couldn’t understand any of the Italian I was hearing. He started to laugh, a big belly laugh, and put his arm around my shoulders. “Lo-owren, you don’t realize, at this one table there are five dialetti being spoken. I don’t understand most of them myself!” Then I remembered that, while most Italians speak the formal Italian language, almost all of them speak in their local dialects when among family and close friends. Phew, I wasn’t a complete moron after all!
Frank and Rosa Meet My Italian Husband
When I took a job based in New York City, I traveled a lot more, meaning I had less beach time and fewer afternoon chats with Frank and Rosa. But there came a day when I had to tell them the news: that I, who had been single for eight years, had met someone I was excited about. An Italian guy from New York.
Rosa, especially, was thrilled. She had begun to float the idea of setting me up with some single men she knew, fearing that I’d never meet someone on my own. She and Frank invited us to attend the Italian club’s Christmas Gala with them. Of course I said yes, knowing full-well that Rosa would insist on teaching Gabe a few Italian phrases, gently chastising him for not inherently understanding “his family language.”
The gala was semi-formal and would be held at a country club – quite a step up from the monthly dinners at the Italian restaurant. Gabe and I prepared ourselves to be blown away by the experience, but we couldn’t have imagined the splendor of this party. It was more like a wedding than a holiday bash.
Again, the women were the stars, sporting big hair, big jewelry, and big, flowing skirts. The men had upped their game, too, adding dinner jackets and cummerbunds in festive holiday themes. A big band played favorite songs from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, as well as traditional Italian tunes. And the dance floor was crowded with the best dancers I’d ever seen.
Most of the folks in attendance were in their golden years, yet they glided across the ballroom as if they were their grandchildren’s age. Watching them transported me to an old Hollywood movie set, where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and a hundred others tapped and twirled away. Gabe and I were no match for that crew! We did our best and had a blast, what with our four collective left feet and all that. It was a night neither of us will ever forget.
Time Goes By
We still socialize with Frank and Rosa when we are in Florida, but our meetings are shorter and less frequent now. Over the past few years both of them have had health challenges, slowing them down a bit. Rosa battled breast cancer but has made a brilliant recovery; Frank experienced some heart complications but is improving. Every once in a while, we will chance upon them as they’re heading out to see their kids – and their new great-grandson. And, while they might move a half-step slower these days, they’re still always dressed to the nines. Old school Italian all the way!
A Toast to Frank and Rosa
In honor of my warm-hearted friends, I recommend a Puglian wine that invites family and friends to the table, in celebration of the life we share.
2015 Cantine le Grotte Nero di Troia Selva della Rocca (14% abv; $15.99 retail)
The Cantine Le Grotte winery was created in 2014 to revive the centuries-old winemaking tradition of Fondo Grotte, the estate owned by Gruppo Franco Dell’Erba, a quarry in Apricena. The vineyards, lying at the edge of the Gargano Promontory, are rooted in calcareous soil rich in minerals. The vineyards cover an area of about 40 hectares (100 acres) and include Merlot, Syrah, Montepulciano, Petit Verdot and the indigenous Nero di Troia for the red wines, and Bombino, Trebbiano, Moscato, and Falanghina for the whites.
The Nero di Troia makes an interesting counterpart to the more familiar Primitivo: it is medium+ in body, with a ripe red fruit profile and medium+ acidity. The producer indicates it would make a great accompaniment to tomato-based dishes, grilled beef or lamb, and I won’t argue with that! We enjoyed it with a take-out pizza with Italian sausage and red onion, a match that warmed us on a chilly, snowy evening with friends. What’s better than that?