The Air in Puglia

by Chikashi

Of all the destinations in Italy, Puglia is not one of the most popular or obvious ones.  This is despite having been ‘discovered’ so many times by travel writers over the years and touted as one of the next ‘it’ destinations.  Thankfully, the global tourism and hospitality franchises have not entered the region, and the prophecies of gaggles of foreign tourists invading the region have not materialised.  Puglia is a popular summer holiday destination for Italians but is hardly touched by foreign visitors.  By and large, Puglia has so far been spared of the sameness that has contaminated so many other regions.  To me, Puglia represents an ideal combination of characteristics for a holiday destination during warmer months.

For me to say this, it is something of a giant leap because Italy as a country does not even appear on my radar screen when planning a holiday.  Visits to other parts of Italy were usually driven by specific events, such as l’Eroica, or a sense of cultural obligation rather than desire, such as, ‘I ought to visit Rome at least once’ rather than ‘I really want to visit Rome’.  It is simply because there are plenty of other places where I would like to go and therefore appear higher on my list.  Therefore, my fondness for Puglia is a contradiction that seems impossible to reconcile, but I can.

As someone who is seeking to get away for a little while, it is an enormous relief to travel to Puglia and not be confronted by all the same shops that one finds elsewhere.  There are plenty of things to buy in Puglia, but the goods tend to be of consumable nature:  food and wine produced locally.  I am by no means an expert on food, but I love food.  To put another way, it is important to me.  Some on the list of places I want to visit never gets a tick because I fear that the food will be less than enjoyable; I will not be returning to certain places because the food was generally quite awful.

The typical Pugliese cuisine is called cucina povera.  Literally translated, poor kitchen.  Of course, it is anything but.  The ingredients are not the expensive sort.  Octopus instead of sea bass.  Chick peas instead of truffles.  The receipts are very simple.  No convoluted sauces.  The flaws cannot be hidden; the flavours of the ingredients are brought out in full, unimpeded by ambitious alchemy.  It is honest food that relies heavily on the quality of the raw material.  It is based on material that is grown or caught locally, not those flavourless vegetables and fruits grown in some far away country, places where the appropriate climate for a given produce is lacking (why are the Dutch major producers of things that look like tomatoes?),  or even other parts of Italy.  It begins and ends with the ingredients.  The approach is very similar to the various regional Japanese kitchens.

Food in Tuscany, for example, can be a bit hit or miss, but it is a lot more difficult to go wrong in Puglia, so long as you follow the conventional wisdom:  choose seafood by the sea, meat or poultry when inland.  One could be forgiven for thinking that there is a prohibition of canned tomatoes in Puglia.   

The cost of cucina povera might be low, but one cannot put a price on the quality of the material.  Because of its reliance on the characteristics and quality of ingredients, it simply cannot be replicated outside of the region.  It is one of many instances where one is reminded that it is much more difficult to do simple things well than succeeding on something very complicated.

One often thinks of Italians as being rather loud, enough to be the only serious Occidental contenders to challenge Americans and make Germans appear reserved.  The Puglieses do not fit that stereotype.  Many Italians do as much talking with their hands as they do with their mouths, but the Pugliese hands tend to stay put during a conversation.  It is perhaps a physical manifestation of the fact that Italy is not made up of a singular tribe but a collective of regions populated by distinct groups.  It reminds me of the difference between people from Osaka and those from Tokyo.

The charm of Puglia is an aggregation of things such as the Ionian and Adriatic coasts, food, history, people, architecture and landscape, but there is one intangible quality that stands out above all else.  Puglia is untainted by ambient middle class insecurities and anxieties.  I am sure that they exist to some degree, but unlike in most other places, it is not at a level where one can sense them in the air.  It is almost impossible to escape from them these days; they seem to be contaminating the air everywhere.  Except in Puglia.  And, Puglia isn’t some little village but a whole region. Puglia is a place where people feel comfortable in their own skin.  It is really quite unusual.  It is not something that one can photograph or adequately sketch in words.  Rather, it needs to be felt to be understood and appreciated.

The Vespas in the photo were parked outside a church located on a narrow one-way street in Lecce’s historical centre.  Parked in front of the church entrance was a mint condition, dark green, early 1950s Fiat Topolino for the bride and groom.  The Vespas were for the wedding party.  Topolino + Vespas:  utterly unfashionable; exceptionally stylish.

Traffic on the narrow, winding one-way street was backed up because of the wedding.  Most drivers had no idea why there was congestion in the early evening as they could not see the cause.  Yet, there was no blaring claxon, not even a sour face or a moan.  It is the sort of air that one is tempted to try to capture in an enormous pot and take home.