Born and raised in Puglia
What was it like growing up in Puglia?
Well, I grew up in the North of Puglia, on the outskirts of Foggia, one of the region’s two great cities (alongside Bari). Foggia isn’t quite on the sea, but it’s close enough for you to feel the sea breeze, and, given the searing heat (frequently over 45 degrees Celsius in summer), my childhood involved lots of red-faced friends coming and going in the morning sun.
I was a pretty naughty child: in the late afternoon, as part of a group of other children, I used to run through my village stealing tomatoes from vines and cucumbers from the ground. The smallest child, poor thing, was always forced to scale the fence and do our bidding. We just couldn’t help ourselves; the food was so fresh and inviting.
Puglia is also quite a religious place: believe it or not, my sister, Maria Assunta, is named after my nonna, Maria Assunta, as is my cousin, Maria Assunta. As we all lived in the same house in the village - Pugliese families are huge, and very tight-knit - this made deciphering the intended recipient of post a nightmare.
Because it gets so hot in summer, you don’t cook at home, so we - as a whole family of 20 people - would go to the pizzeria: cousins, aunties, all were welcome.
Mine was a joyous upbringing, full of sunshine and food. In fact, I only saw snow for the first time aged 24, living in Austria. Can you imagine? Twenty four!
What are your fondest memories of Puglia?
My fondest memories were spent with my grandmother, my nonna, Maria Assunta. We were exceptionally close. We’d sit outside, every day, in the sun, and she could talk for hours - HOURS - about the war. She’d tell me everything; she recalled every single day.
My nonna is also the reason I love food, and cook. I remember learning to make orecchiette, Puglia’s famous pasta shape, with her as a little girl. This isn’t something you can learn at a school, or some chef’s practice. They’ll simply tell you to go home & learn from your grandmother. Only your nonna can pass on the tradition of making pasta.
I also remember my nonna singing as she cooked, and as she taught me to cook: she loved typical Neapolitan songs, and had a great voice. After she left us, she left me her special orecchiette knife, which had, in turn, been given to her by her nonna. Puglia is, and always will be, nonna to me.
What do you miss about Puglia?
BURRATA. A good, bloody burrata. This is a special, rich cheese from Puglia, and there’s nothing else like it in the whole world.
In fact, whenever I’d had a little bit too much to drink on an evening, I used to take a detour on my journey home and stop off at the caseificio, or cheesemonger’s, during the twilight hours. They made cheese through the night, and were always more than happy to accommodate my martini-induced appetite.
Funny, those cheesemakers: they’d tell me not to eat the cheese hot or I’d be up all night… seeing all the saints of Paradise in the toilet! To save you reading between the lines, burrata is best enjoyed cold.
Could you describe your favourite place in Puglia?
Vieste, a coastal town in the Gargano National Park. Frankly, leave me alone here. Every time I go home I stop off here, on my own, and stay right next to the forest and near the beautiful sea. I like to take trips on the boat along the Adriatic.
What's the most beautiful sight people should see in Puglia?
Fly into Bari. It’s not just the architecture and history that make this city so special, but the food is beautiful - something I can’t describe. The people are special, too: very open, welcoming and full of warmth.
In Bari, you can see many people sitting on the beach, watching the fishing boats come in. Sea urchins are opened, there and then, fresh with a knife, and enjoyed with a slice of lemon. It’s seafood at its absolute freshest… and this is a very Pugliese moment.
What is your favourite food, or food memory from Puglia?
Without a doubt: cime di rapa. These are a special type of broccoli, known in English as turnip tops, that are native to Puglia. To be honest, whenever I try cime di rapa that hasn't been grown in my Puglia, it just isn’t the same. I’m not sure what it is, whether it’s the water, but if you give me 10 plates of cime di rapa, I’ll be able to tell you which is the real Pugliese specimen.
In my region, we love to eat this vegetable with orecchiette, our favourite pasta, alongside garlic and chilli, sauteed in olive oil.
If you grow up in Puglia, you’ll also start to eat taralli as soon as you have teeth. In fact, even before then: you’ll suck them until they go soft. Taralli, a bread snack from Puglia, with a hole in the centre, are for when you come in from a long day at school, but your mum isn’t quite ready to serve dinner yet. The classic is with fennel seeds, but these should be very dainty: there is nothing pleasant about biting into a large fennel seed.
What are the famous foods or drinks from Puglia?
Oranges grow freely in the Gargano area, somewhere very close to my heart. I grew up nearby and loved visiting for freshly-squeezed juice.
Puglia also produces a special fruit, known as the ‘’fico d’India’’, or Indian fig, which is blended with orange juice and ice for a refreshing drink best enjoyed on the beach.
Are there any fun traditions or facts about Puglia?
Puglia is a place of mysticism, and superstition. Legend has it that, where the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas meet, ghosts haunt the area. People say that you can’t see the two seas connecting by night; you can hear just a noise, like that of a child, crying. The legend continues that a woman, who became pregnant during the war, threw her babies in the sea during the war - an act of desperation - and that their ghosts haunt the area to this day.
Tell us a regional expression or funny saying from Puglia?
Mò, e ci iè ddò! : Che meraviglia! (How wonderful!)
What is the number one reason people should visit Puglia?
When you visit Puglia, especially Salento, people will say to you: “Salento, il Sole, il Mare, e il Vento…”. In a sentence, this sums up why you should visit: sun, sea and the breeze.