Picturesque undeveloped sea-sides, an abundance of unique natural produce and plantation, an ancient and simple reverence to food and togetherness paired with a refreshing emotional readiness of the people, makes Puglia, Italy’s “undiscovered gem”, rather easy to fall in love with.
Located in the long heel of Italy’s boot in the South, Puglia is often referred to as “the garden of Italy”, but not because of its flush, rolling beauty – it’s quite a stark, pagan landscape that is beautiful in its own way, and in part due to its bountiful agriculture; Puglia is Italy’s top regional producer of olive oil (making up for approximately 40% of total output) and produces more wine than any other region in the prolifically producing country (approximately 17%). Puglians have a phrase, ‘if you can’t eat it, don’t grow it!’
And with the help of locally available restaurants, delis, cookbooks and travel initiatives dedicated to the region, Londoners are starting to develop a taste for the distinctive, often bitter flavours of Puglian cuisine.
Hardens London Restaurants, an industry guide published in December 2014, highlights dining trends that are on the side of Puglian food trend growth: ‘Interesting restaurants are not only popping up everywhere, they come progressively in every national flavour, and indeed nowadays often a subdivision of national flavour. A decade ago, we usually described restaurants as, say, ‘Italian’. Nowadays they are often Sardinian, Puglian, Neapolitan.’
Hardens additionally notes the popular structure of dining has evolved: ‘If there has been one single decisive shift in recent years, it is that small plates – considered radical a decade ago – now seem very much here to stay.’
These trends aid the success of the small handful of Puglian restaurants and delis in London, including Ostuni restaurant in Queens Park in North West London, owned by Puglia enthusiast and half-Italian restaurateur Robert Claassen.
Opened in 2013, Rob tells us his motivations for starting his Puglian restaurant: ‘My mother was Italian, and I wanted to show the depth of understanding I had about Italian food by focussing on the region of Puglia. It was my undiscovered gem and I wanted to share my experiences at the tables of restaurants and homes in Puglia with Londoners…I wanted to spread the word.’
Using ancient stones from real Puglian trulli (dry stone huts with conical roofs) to decorate much of the restaurant, authentic terracotta from a thousand year-old Puglian pottery, plus importing hand-picked Puglian cheeses from Masseria Fragnite, dried meats (including their remarkable cured pork neck, capocollo) from Salami di Martina Franca, savoury and sweet biscuits and breads from Forno Allegrini, and boasting a completely Puglian stock of unusual vegetables including lampascioni (hyacinth bulbs), cucumber melons, and various atypical chicories, Ostuni is leading the pack when it comes to authenticity.
A mark of Ostuni’s success, Rob is seeking investment to develop another Ostuni in order to build on their unique positioning in London’s Italian restaurant scene, and indeed, the Puglian food trend in London.
Can’t quite make it to Puglia? To discover the Puglian food trend in London we recommend checking out water-coloured cookbook Sharing Puglia: Delicious, Simple Food from Undiscovered Italy by Puglian native Luca Lorusso and Vivienne Polak, and try knocking out some colourful Puglian classics yourself. Or, easier still, grab a table on Ostuni’s leafy Mediterranean terrace, and keep the antipasti, charcoal-cooked Puglian meats, wild bass, lobster and Puglian wines coming.