“It’s the squeak in your mouth as you chew,” a bystander whispers as traditional Italian cheesemaker Anna Casulli transforms a bowl of curd into the plaited bright white mozzarella I recognise from deli counters at home.
Fresh food is almost a religion in Puglia, the long region in the heel of Italy’s boot, where local producers speak about their creations with enthusiastic pride and passion.
They may lack the style and sophistication of dishes created further north, but nowhere else will you find eating more connected to local culture.
The olive, the grape and wheat are staples here, symbols of family peace, abundance and fertility printed on tablecloths in local trattorias.
Anna’s organic farm, Azienda Nuovo Muretto, around 30 minutes from Alberobello, serves local “peasant” cuisine.
Focaccia made with tomatoes and dipped in local olive oil tastes softer and lighter than what I’m used to at home. And then there is the cheese.
We are filled to the brim with chewy mozzarella, plaited treccia, knotted nodini, and scamorza (a smokey flavoured cheese similar to mozzarella). Traditional pasta follows – little ear shaped orecchiette – handmade and cooked al dente with a simple tomato-based sauce.
“We don’t buy anything,” Anna’s husband Angelo says with a proud smile. When I suggest they must visit the supermarket for something, Anna insists “only cleaning products”.
The 80-hectare farm has pretty much everything they need – cows for both meat and milk, chickens, fruit trees and fields filled with vegetables.
The couple, aged in their late 50s, lead a simple, self-sufficient yet hardworking life, and farm the land themselves with no outside help.
It’s a Pugliese way of life that goes back decades. Even Alberobello’s most famous tourist attraction, the trulli, have links to this agricultural and pastoralist past – the cone-roofed stone buildings were once used to store wheat for pasta or bread, and some housed families and their animals.
“In Alberobello, the trulli have all been converted into boutiques. None really remain as before,” says Angelo, who owns 10 of them.
Slowly, slowly – it’s the only way to dine
The traditional way of life is also popular further inland, around an hour’s drive away, in Altamura.
Mina Castoro, who opened the Tre Archi restaurant Via San Michele with her husband Peppino in 1985, delights in telling me about Altamura’s strong message to McDonald’s when it opened there some years ago.
While every other part of the world seems to have one on each street corner, the residents of Altamura voted with their feet. “It had to close in about a year,” she tells me.
Locals do not want to eat food fast. They want to savour wholesome, tasty produce, the 48-year-old, who grows much of it in her own garden, says.
“In Puglia, it is important to us. It is about quality. For us, it’s a tradition. We eat well together for three hours, slowly. It is a way of getting to know each other.”
Our meal in her restaurant lasts a little over three hours – and what a tasty time it is. (A four-course menu – although with all the antipasti it feels like much more – costs €35, including wine.)
We feast on Mina’s favourite, pure di fave e cicorielle (pureed broad bean with wild chicory), cialledda (the traditional bread salad), pizza fresh from the wood-fired oven, and more handmade orecchiette pasta.
The highlight for me is the melt-in-the-mouth braciole (beef and vegetables slow-cooked in a clay pot).
After lunch, Mina guides us through a pasta-making class, where I attempt to roll the short capunti into shape and delicately craft shell-like orecchiette.
Bread is king
Bread is a staple in Altamura, I realise as I watch locals queue up for freshly-baked loaves outside the Di Gesu bakery. It’s a few decades since the family-run bakery hosted a neighbourhood oven – forno di quartiere – used by those living nearby to bake their breads.
With hundreds of loaves baked at a time, the bread would be branded with a family stamp to ensure everyone claimed the correct dough.
I’m transfixed watching Giuseppe Di Gesu knead and twist the dough into shape with the speed that comes from a lifetime of experience.
The 44-year-old is the fifth generation of his family to work in the bakery, which now sells various products including focaccia, taralli (the traditional tiny doughnut-shaped crunchy snacks) and Pane di Altamura – labelled to show it is only produced in that region, using local grain.
He jokes that he is really 65 but puts a youthful appearance down to the power of the bread.
His uncle Luca’s daily routine of rising at 4am after around five hours’ sleep to help in the bakery six days a week, has me wondering – if an 84-year-old can do that and still appear sprightly, maybe there is some magic in the bread…
So why is this €2 loaf, available to buy in the shop a stone’s throw from where it is baked, so good? “It’s written in the Bible. And because I make it!” says Luca with a twinkle in his eye.
I haven’t been able to find a passage in the Bible mentioning Altamura specifically, but I can certainly vouch for the local bread’s light taste and crispy crust. Eating it fresh from the oven is a bonus.
I finish my trip full of the most wonderful food – not to mention full of good intentions to bake my own bread and make my own pasta. I just have to get my appetite back first.
How to get there
Explore (01252 884 723; explore.co.uk) offers an eight-day Taste of Puglia trip from £1,295 per person, including flights, transfers and some meals.
The trip includes a pasta-making class, olive oil and wine tastings, visits to the bread makers and the cheese farm, and walks of between one and three hours on five of the days.