Ciao a tutti, and welcome to the first of my posts about Puglia! It was a delight spending ten days in this beautiful region earlier this month: here, the people are warm and the food is inventive and utterly delicious. I can't wait to get started! First stop, Matera, which is in fact not strictly part of Puglia, but just over the border in Basilicata. Once condemned as the vergogna nazionale ('national shame') of Italy, it's been restored and is now a UNESCO heritage site fully deserving of the mantle of European capital of culture for 2019. Follow on to find out why...
Let's start with our lodgings, shall we? So basically we stayed in caves. Albeit the most luxurious, enchanting caves you could possibly wish to spend time in. At Sextantio, they've converted sassi - cave dwellings, inhabited in some form probably since the Palaeolithic era - into stunningly beautiful, luxurious hotel rooms, illuminated by soft candlelight and with a striking view of the Murgia gorge below the city. It's quite an experience taking a bath in a cave, I can tell you: reclining in the modern bathtub, gazing up at the pitted ceiling, still blackened with soot from countless years of candle flames. Also, it feels like being in Game of Thrones (was my sister's astute contribution).
My inner history geek/medieval Italianist practically had a field day in this place. I mean, it's understandable if you consider that I was eating breakfast in a former medieval cave church, confessional space hewn out of the rock behind me and tiny crucifixes on the wall...
A stroll at twilight is a must: as the skies darken, a tracery of neon lights up the town, providing a fascinating foil to the medieval Catholic and secular buildings that crop up at every corner.
Osteria San Francesco: ushered into this clean, elegant space by a beaming pregnant maitre d', this was the ideal way to ease ourselves into Pugliese cooking, with a handy window on to the kitchen allowing food nerds (hi, entire Lim family) to peek in at the preparations. Here's a few of the highlights...
A huge plate of antipasti with dried peperoncini, lamb rolls, cheese and aubergine to start.
Culatello del pollina (a delicately flavoured ham) with a burrata so creamy it bordered on milky, sitting on a tomato and basil emulsion. My delight on discovering that burrata and its ribbon-like sister stracciatella were specialties of the region was palpable. Arrivederci, lactose intolerance.
Creamy tagliolini with truffle shavings. Pure indulgence with a beautifully subtle flavour.
Guanciale di suino nero lucano - pork cheek braised in red wine with a crispy onion topping.
Gloriously strong, honeyed Cuban rum (a taste of my next adventure!) with rich dark chocolate. My first Italian faux pas - I forgot the word 'to share' (condividere) and accidentally ordered one of these for each member of the family. Cue a wobbly walk home through the winding streets...
Introducing the novel I read in Matera: My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I'd been meaning to get stuck into this series for some time and although the books are set in Naples, not Bari or even Puglia, it felt like an apposite read, as Naples is seen as the capital of the poorer south. This story of an unusual relationship was touching and funny, and I found that I had a lot in common with the bookish, competitive narrator. I'd love to read the next installment in the series soon.
Gigantic Materan bread, roughly the weight of a large baby.
I was fascinated by the door of the Chiesa del Purgatorio. Covered in skulls wearing everything from a crown to the papal mitre, the message seems to be that after death, everyone is equal in the eyes of God.
Pignata, our favourite restaurant in Matera. It has an unassuming facade - in fact it sells itself as a pizza restaurant - but it's so much more than that. This is authentic cucina povera, and the pasta here was some of the best we enjoyed over our ten days. The orecchiette with cima di rape and cavatellini with black and white chickpeas and crushed pepper were particularly excellent.
Surplus to our appetite requirements but a fantastic piece of theatre: the dramatic-looking pignata itself - a meaty hot pot topped with a doughy lid.
Gelato is practically part of the holiday diet when visiting Italy. And the offerings at I Vizi degli Angeli are superb: fresh green fig, cherry and chocolate, granite in a multitude of flavours. We actually managed to bump into the owner on the very first evening, wandering haplessly through the labyrinthine streets. He very kindly pointed us in the direction of dinner, and it was only later that we discovered that he owned this wonderful little gelato joint, which I'd been eagerly reading about before the trip. I couldn't help but feel a little starstruck...
Matera is also stunning by day, and on our second day we had the benefit of a walking tour from a Materan local. We learned a little about the history of this impossible city, including viewing a reconstruction of a cave dwelling. Here, we discovered that the people literally lived cheek by jowl with farm animals, with straw and stables right next to the beds - a taste of the 'stubborn poverty' mentioned by Carlo Levi, writing about the region in Christ Stopped at Eboli. We also had a walk around one of the rupestrian cave churches built into the rock of the Sasso Caveoso. Complete with some pretty incredible Byzantine frescoes and pilgrims' symbols etched into the cave walls, I'd say this is definitely worth a visit.
The Materan city walls are filled with shells and fossils, revealing that the area was once completely underwater - something I found hard to wrap my tiny brain around, being high up on a hill...
So here we come to the end of my Materan guide! And I leave you with my top tip or warning for this beautiful city: Pack sensible footwear. The streets are made of polished limestone, and as it's a hilltop town there's lots of treacherous slopes. Poor Mama Lim slipped down one such incline and injured herself. In typical stoic fashion she insisted that we all go to dinner instead of the hospital. Ristorante Francesca (above) had some great meat dishes, but I don't remember much else about the meal as we were all so worried about my mum. Three days later my mother finally allowed us to take her to hospital and it transpired that she'd broken her leg badly in two places. Mamma mia indeed. Oh, and it's good to have a reasonable grasp of Italian or bring along an Italian speaker if you're planning a sojourn in an Italian hospital - it was the first time that my choice of undergraduate degree (French and Italian) really came in handy.
I'd go back to this gorgeous hilltop town in a shot. It's a very romantic destination and will be of particular interest to anyone who nurses a fascination for history, be that Stone Age or medieval. Stay tuned for the next step of my journey, in which we journeyed down the heel of the Italian boot to Lecce and one of the best (Italian) meals of my life. A presto!