Are you Puglia(ing) my leg ? Italy's best food region ?


Arriving in Bari from the giant flying bus station that is Stansted airport I expected very little except warm air. And there was none of that as the mistral was blowing in from the Balkans and the locals were zipped up in padded ski jackets complaining about the cold, primarily because we couldn’t eat outside with the sound of the sea lapping against the rocks (better than sand for seafood). Polite introductions were made and our host ordered us some of everything, both raw and cooked. We were eased in gently; cold octopus salad, something else with octopus, rice & mussels paella style, poached salmon, swordfish carpaccio and delicately battered whole fried red mullet (don’t eat the head or tail). Top tip; always watch how your host consumes something if you aren’t sure and then follow their lead. And then the raw seafood platter arrived; calamari “spaghetti”, oysters in the half shell, halved black anemones exposing fluorescent orange lines or roe, clams & mussels whole and closed, raw peeled prawns and a scallop shell filled with “foam of the sea” (a mixture of tiny fry). Our excellent host immediately understanding we were lost began to open the clams (locally known as ‘nuts of the sea’) and mussels and pass them around (smelling to make sure they were good before handing them over). After a tentative start and a couple of glasses of wine my colleague was gulping down oysters like a pelican, hoovering up the ‘foam’ and generally joining me in digging in. Another of our hosts seeing us fight over the anemones then ordered a large plate and lots of excellent sourdough bread (to scoop out the roe). All the seafood was local and we filled our boots and were ready for a good nights sleep. Not yet as a mandatory pasta [or risotto] was to be consumed. We chose pasta as Puglia is both the breadbasket and the wheat belt of Italy. An astounding Spaghetti ai frutti di mare was soon devoured and we were done. No chance, now a main course was ordered and after a sneaky fag break outside, just fresh sea air for us non-smokers, we returned to a platter of Norwegian lobster (nephrops norvegicus); Scampi to you and me. Given that 50% of the annual 60,000 ton catch is off the coast of the UK I took this as an opportunity to bang on about how the best fish in the world is British and ends up in the primary markets of countries where fish is truly appreciated. Our hosts displayed a kindness and chose not to point out that the Adriatic is also an area where Scampi are widely distributed. I then launched into a wide ranging and blistering attack on the idiocy of exporting delicious natural wild cold water scampi from our fair aisles in favour of importing tasteless shelled warm water tiger prawns grown in mangrove swamps. Needless to say this withering review took in pesticide residues, human pollution, mangrove destruction, carbon footprint. Not content I also complained bitterly that beyond the UK top 4 [tuna, salmon (farmed), cod, (imported warm water) prawns] the amazing variety and quality of UK fish e.g. monkfish, turbot, halibut, hake, bass, are too easily discounted and consumed in relatively tiny volumes and again all the best stuff ends up in Paris, Madrid, Rome etc . We finished off with a Sorbetto and I managed to swerve the ‘liquore digestivo’ i.e. flavoured alcoholic throw-up/hangover in a glass. Following a lively day of olive discussions and eye-opening tastings e.g. aromatic castelvetrano olives in laurel & fennel brine, sweet olives picked straight from the tree frozen and then fried in a pan and eaten hot we were taken to another local hostelry 2 km from the sea. It was declared that due to the distance the fish would not be fresh enough so meat and dairy became the main focus. In resonance with the previous evening our host ordered some of everything; organic nodini (little knots) of mozzarella, capocollo nostro (homemade cured collar), sformato di formaggio (cheese soufflé), carciofi impanati (sliced fried fresh artichokes). These were declared to be excellent and two more large plates of artichokes arrived and quickly consumed. Another fag break and then “Puglia on a plate”; 
homemade orecchiette with cima di rape (called broccoli rabe in the US), Rapini are like sprouting broccoli with more leaf related to the turnip family. Full once more we attempted (unsuccessfully) to decline any further food and immediately a large mixed platter of lamb arrived; little chops, tasty steaks, spicy sausages and 2 specialities; involtini (a piece of meat with casing [i.e. sheep intestine] wrapped round it like a crispy, chewy, tasty, rubber band) and bombette (spicy minced lamb wrapped in streaky bacon). I was really, really full so our hosts ordered a mixed platter of incredible desserts; fresh Puglian ricotta & pear cheesecake, a chocolate & artichoke! square and 3 chocolate based puddings of increasing calorific content. The afternoon and evening blurred into a semi-comatose digestion marathon, I briefly got my head up to admire the walled old city of Bari with the Basilica of San Nicola. As I stuttered up the [twice closed] M6 dodging average speed cameras at 2 a.m. I wondered if it had all been a dream, and if so then Stansted to Manchester at less than 50mph was my rude awakening.