Buongiorno! In this post we'll be travelling way down the boot of Italy to its stiletto heel, the province of Lecce. Here, we stayed in a beautiful converted farmhouse, wandered around the historic city centre and I enjoyed one of the best Italian meals of my life (!) Now I know I'm overly generous with the panegyrics, but I cannot recommend this restaurant enough. But first! To my quarters! I think you're going to like them...
So, where to stay in Lecce? Actually, we stayed outside it. We were in the countryside to the north west of the city, near a little town called Surbo. Oh, and the aforementioned converted farmhouse? It's so much more than a farmhouse. At Masseria Trapanà, owner Rob has done an unbelievable job on what was originally a slightly ramshackle 16th century masseria, or country estate - it's now a luxury hotel complete with restored chapel, croquet lawn and pool in the shade of a budding plum orchard. In the grounds, hammocks hang lazily from the branches of the sweet-scented orange and lemon trees that sprout up at every turn, and bikes can be rented for a free spin around the working olive groves. For breakfast (and dinner, if you want it - see below), you'll choose from the well-stocked buffet and be served teas and coffee by smiling staff in the lemon grove (watch out for falling fruit!) Oh, and the beautiful bathrooms are stocked with Aesop products. Yes - this place is paradise.
The palatial south suite on the top floor (originally meant for Papa and Mama Lim, but seized by opportunistic progeny due to necessity of circumstances after Mama broke her leg) is particularly impressive. The honey-coloured bedroom itself boasts a high, barrel-vaulted ceiling and a wood-burning stove and gorgeous Moroccan rug, ideal for curling up in the winter. A narrow staircase leads the intrepid guest up to the roof. Here you can sunbathe, or alternately gaze pensively out at a view that stretches out across the fields to the wind turbines on the horizon, or stargaze at night.
We stayed at the hotel for dinner on two occasions and both were superb. Rather than assign Michelin-starred types to the role of head chef, Rob has brought in a local donna to do the cooking, and this is creative yet simple Pugliese cucina povera at its best, all vibrantly coloured vegetables, toothsome pasta and freshly-caught seafood accompanied by beautiful, expertly selected wines.
A melon tiramisu, followed by limoncello, of course. A few nights later, we had a divine chocolate fondant. This rapidly liquefying moelleux, vying for independence from its cradle of whipped cream, had the magical effect of making me go weak at the knees in delight. (Though I had just spent the entire day in a Lecce hospital, so I dunno, could also be due to hypoglycaemia.)
Wind turbines at dawn. I was woken at 5 AM by golden light pouring through the casement and puddling on to the sheets next to me (much like the shower of gold that impregnated Danaë - once an art historian, always an art historian...) and couldn't help but tiptoe up the stairs to the roof to get some shots of the sunrise. An unforgettable moment.
A trip into town took us to Lecce's cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Croce. The wealth of sculptural ornamentation on the facade and inside of this Baroque confection leads to Lecce often being hailed as the Florence of the south. Personally, I think this is a slightly generous comparison, but perhaps I didn't get the full effect - the cathedral facade was unfortunately mostly covered with scaffolding for restoration.
After culture comes food. If you eat in one restaurant in Lecce, please make it Trattoria Le Zie (Via Archimede Costadura 19). It's an experience in more ways than one. Authentic, comparatively cheap, and oh so delicious. The best way to describe this wonderful little gem is by comparing it to being invited to your aunt's house for lunch (this is how you translate le zie, literally, 'the aunts'). Your aunt's a funny one. She's a little crabby when it comes to opening the door (yes, you'll have to ring the doorbell for entry). As you step into the hallway you can't help but notice the array of religious iconography up on the walls and conclude that church on Sunday is definitely the highlight of your dear old auntie's week. You relax in the parlour, although you certainly won't be putting your feet up on the sofas. Yes, your aunt might be a little old-fashioned in her interior design tastes. But dio mio, can she cook!
Fave e cicoria, a humble Pugliese classic: mashed fava beans with chicory, liberally doused in fantastic olive oil. Superb.
Stuffed squid, done incredibly well - sweet, meaty and cooked to perfection.
Parmigiana alle melanzane. Rich and satisfying.
Orecchiette with a simple tomato sauce.
Cassata, my desert island cake. Or should that be dessert island cake? Hm. A heavenly light sponge supporting a bolster of fluffy whipped cream shot through with shards of dark chocolate, topped with ambrosial almond paste. This is marzipan in my preferred iteration. None of that rubbish you get on top of a kid's birthday cake, neon-coloured and the width of a doormat. Oh no. You can actually taste the almonds in this - it's firm but yielding, sweet but not cloying in any way. Perfection. I actually dream about this torta sometimes.
Book yourself a table at Le Zie if you're heading to Lecce (recommended - santo cielo, your aunt's a popular lady). I promise you won't regret it.
The other restaurant we ate at in Lecce was Corte dei Pandolfi (Corte dei Pandolfi 3), recommended by the Masseria. I have to confess that after sampling the delights of Le Zie I was well and truly spoiled where it came to Pugliese cooking; this meal couldn't really hold a candle to the earlier star dishes of fave e cicorie and cassata. However, there were some interesting twists on classics here (like fava bean balls and chicory, above) and the salt-baked prawns were very good.
Come to Lecce for the sublime Baroque architecture and the big-town buzz (here, people come from far and wide to see and be seen in the streets in the evening). Leave Lecce with a heavy heart, unwilling to tear yourself away from the luxurious surrounds of the honey-coloured Masseria Trapanà or the addictive cooking of Le Zie. It's no wonder people like Rob come here and fall in love with the place. (Though, Rob, if you do ever find yourself wanting to sell up, you know who to call...)
Next on the itinerary: gallivanting around the Valle d'Itria to see the white city of Ostuni and the famous trulli of Alberobello!
P.S. A few little notes, unrelated to Italy. If you follow my Instagram you'll know I've been in Cuba for the past week and a half, so apologies for the gap between posts in my Puglia series! Also, I'm so happy to announce that this little blog has racked up well over 100, 000 views since its inception! I know there are those who might scoff at this milestone, tiny in the golden age of the Internet, but to me it feels like a huge achievement. In the beginning it felt like 90% of my site visits came from my mum (hi). Now I get visitors from all over the world, every day - from the US to Russia, France, Germany, Kuwait, Mauritius, Iran, Brunei, tiny islands in the Caribbean and so many more. Thank you so much for reading my posts, everyone - I value you all.