The Espressino Travel team took a well-earned break from perfecting our Food Tours in Puglia this past week, accepting an invitation to MurgiAMO, a four-day festival celebrating the food, art and culture of another fabulous area within the heel of the Italian boot: La Murgia.
North of our beloved Salento, the home of our Italian culinary tours, La Murgia stretches inland from the stunning and historic town of Trani all the way to the famous sassi cave homes of Matera in neighbouring Basilicata. La Murgia has a culture and cuisine that’s noticeably distinct from our summer home in Lecce and the Salento. And thanks to the generosity of the festival’s founder, our host, Vittorio Cavaliere, we were privileged to sample the very best of this unfairly overlooked slice of Puglia.
As much as we love the traditional rustic cuisine of the Salento, we were intrigued to see how Chefs and Masseria Owners of La Murgia are taking inspiration and building on Puglian gastronomic tradition to create exciting, challenging and distinctly modern interpretations of the classics.
Where to start?
Acquasale, a Pugliese salad of bread, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, topped with fresh pickles and mozzarella, created by the famous Pietro Zito of Antichi Sapori? Incredible.
Melanzane parmiggiana topped with burrata cheese, beetroot gelato and garnished with fresh almonds? Love it.
Cicerchia, a heritage legume similar to fava, with Cicoria, a wild bitter green, lampascioni, local spicy wild onions, with added sweetness of crumbled biscotti and fig vin cotto? Oh, it’s on now.
It was an honour to eat the food of Michelin-starred chefs in some of Italy’s most prestigious restaurants and stunning masserias. The highlights were too frequent to list here, but special mention must go to the dinner at the beautiful Masseria Torre di Nebbia, prepared by Taste of Peace, a wonderful organization where chefs from around the world, including Israel and Palestine, work in the kitchen together to prove that cooperation is always better than conflict. Their mix of Puglian ingredients and forward-thinking Middle Eastern flavours, served with the enigmatic Castel del Monte luminescent in the distance, was unforgettable, as were the beautiful words of peace Chef Sarkis Yacoubian shared with the assembled diners.
Another must-mention was a magical meal at Umami in Andria, whose Michelin-starred chef Felice Sgarra was joined in the kitchen by our friend, award-winning British chef Jane Baxter. Jane’s bean salad with bacala was simple sophistication on a plate, the opening salvo in a lunch fit for the gods.
We also learned that there’s much more to La Murgia than the finest of fine dining. The UNESCO Heritage City of Matera has changed noticeably since we first visited seven years ago, a trip that Robert documented in this story for the Ryanair Magazine. Back then the historic rock dwellings in the heart of the city, the sassi, were well off the tourist trail. Its streets are still a way from bustling, but Matera now has plenty of restaurants and bars to welcome visitors, while the city’s rock churches and sassi have retained their unique beauty, seemingly untouched by the passage of time.
Italy’s officially recognised top candy store, Mucci, was a welcome stop in the bustling town of Andria. You know you’re being treated luxuriously when you’re sampling chocolate coated in a fine layer of real (and perfectly edible) silver.
An unexpected gem came with an excursion to Altamura. A fascinating stop for anyone wanting to continue exploring Puglia after joining our Tours of the Salento, Altamura has a splendid old town, punctuated by a remarkable Duomo built (like the famous Castel del Monte) by Emperor Federico II and fascinating cloisters; military-minded dead ends that have been converted into adorable cul-de-sacs.
Altamura is generally regarded as home to Italy’s best bread – crusty, gently sourdough loaves so delicious they’re irresistible without any toppings. We were taken to one of the city’s ten DOP bakeries, where the Espressino Travel team was given the honour (or possibly the punishment) of shaping the precious dough in front of the assembled VIPs before putting it in the oven. No matter how many times the bakers showed us how a few simple tugs and pats on the dough could produce perfect pillowy domes, the best we could manage were a pair of splats.
Thankfully, Puglia’s best bakers, along with some of Italy and the world’s most creative chefs, were on hand to ensure that everyone ate beyond well for the rest of the festival.
Grazie mille to our impossibly generous host Vittorio Cavaliere, Christine Smallwood for introducing us to MurgiAMO and all the new friends we made in La Murgia. Alla prossima!