I’ve just returned from two sunny, happy and very tasty weeks in Puglia. Puglia is the “heel” if Italy is a leg kicking Sicily. It is famed for stunning baroque architecture, a huge coastline and ‘cucina povera’ – the cooking of the poor – the practice of making the most flavoursome dishes out of the most humble ingredients. This works out pretty well for vegans as it means making pasta without eggs and a diet rich in vegetables: olives, artichokes, fava beans, figs, chicory, tomatoes are all in abundance.
Puglia is pretty damn magical. Home to seemingly endless olive groves and vineyards, sparkling hilltop towns, swaying palm trees and the clearest seas. I loved seeing swifts, tiny lizards and bats hanging around our villa and the heavy smell of jasmine in the air.
As we were staying in a villa – the most romantic and rustic converted farmhouse – we ate a mixture of meals out and cooked at home. For most of our groceries we went to ‘Familia’ – a supermarket in Ostuni which I recommend to anyone – vegan or not – as it was nothing short of epic. Of course they had an incredible fruit and vegetable selection, loads of pastas and fresh bread, but they sold a tonne of vegan-friendly products too.
They sold as many dairy-free milks as you could shake a stick at, loads of vegan cheeses including parmesan and mozarella. They also stocked vegan Cornettos, yoghurts, hot dogs, burgers, a whole freezer-full of various vegan ice creams and sorbets, frozen lasagne, vegan faux-Nutella, hummus, tofu, loads of vegan-friendly chocolate and these particular banging tomato-flavour crisps I’ll dream about forevermore.
As well as Familia there are fruit and vegetable stalls throughout the towns in Puglia. We visited a sprawling market in Ostuni and my oh my, the fruit & vegetables were incredible. Tomatoes of every size and colour – from the teeniest cherry tomato to the brawniest beef tomato. The watermelons they sold were so huge you’d need to be Andre The Giant to recreate the “I carried a watermelon” moment in Dirty Dancing. Pineapples, lemons, pulses, beans, nuts… it was nothing short of a vegan paradise!
The pizzas in Puglia were gorgeous and the waiting staff – even through my broken Italian – knew that when I ordered a Marinara with extra veg – usually zucchini (courgette), cipolla (onion), rucola (rocket) and pomodorini (cherry tomatoes) – not to include any mozarella or parmesan. They were also dead cheap – a Marinara was often about three Euros.
Lots of our meals kicked off with antipasti and the Italians are not messing about. Plate after plate would arrive until we literally had to rest some on our laps as there was nowhere left on the table. For vegans and veggies there was creamy mashed fava bean with chicory, dough balls, sliced aubergine sauteed in garlic, fried balls of mashed potato, sundried tomatoes, fritelli (fried donuts topped with sweet onions), courgette, zingy salads and soft chewy bread. Often I was unbuttoning the top button on my jeans during the antipasti; so loose clothing is advisable!
The region’s signature pasta – orecchiette – is made without eggs and is shaped like little ears and is, without question, the tastiest pasta I’ve ever eaten. Often served with a tomato sauce or with broccoli you can buy it at restaurants or in shops and I’m kicking myself hard for not buying an extra suitcase and filling it with orecchiette.
I should also say that I was shocked and delighted at how easy it was to spot vegan food in Puglia. In pretty much every town I visited there would be a cafe or a restaurant advertising vegan food. I saw signs for vegan burgers, vegan kebabs, vegan ice-creams and even if there wasn’t vegan ice-cream you could cool down with a granita or a sorbet. Lots of menus when we ate out had marked vegan items or allergen symbols so you could easily see if the dish you were about to order had any eggs/cheese in it.
Even when we were stuck for an extra four hours at Bari airport waiting for our delayed flight (*shakes fist in the direction of Ryanair*) and I was starting to fret that I’d be really famished I found a couple of vegan-friendly sandwiches in Relay -the newsagents- and the Tofu, Zucchine, Pomodorini e Crema al basilico one was genuinely delicious. If Pret could please make something like this it would be great, thanks. Also paprika Pringles are vegan-friendly pals. C’mon!
It was also easy to find vegan and cruelty-free toiletries before I went – with Superdrug selling sun lotion – and let me tell you I needed that factor 50; it was hot hot HOT! – showergels, shampoo, conditioner and toothpaste at budget-friendly prices.
Where we went:
Alberobello – a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for it’s trullo-lined streets. A trullo is a conical-roofed, whitewashed tiny home unique to the region and I defy you to visit Alberobello without saying “Trulli, Madly, Deeply” at least once. Although lots of the trulli are now puveyors of trullo-shaped tourist tat, wandering around Alberobello is still a charming experience and ours was especially magical as we saw a Bollywood movie being filmed with the most beautiful actress dancing on top of a trullo.
Matera – my favourite town we visited and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Matera is one of the oldest inhabited settlements in history and has two sassi (neighbourhoods) of cave dwellings. In the early 19th and 20th century poverty was rife in Matera and families would live, alongside their livestock, in one-room caves/stone rooms without heat or plumbing. Malaria was rife. The situation became so dire that the Government forced most of the resident of Matera into a new sassi they constructed nearby. The caves are now being restored and the whole town is maze of caves, winding alleways and churches cut into the hillside. We woke up really early so we could explore Matera as close to sunrise as possible and it was an unforgettable, magical experience, made even better by stopping for an espresso at a cafe that played back-to-back Elvis Presley.
Ostuni – Every single time we drove towards this hilltop pearly-white city I was awestruck by how beautiful it was. Winding streets, studded with chic cafes, lead up to the fifteenth-century Duomo at the top of the hill. Stunning.
Locorotondo – I loved visiting Locorotondo and not only because I LOVE saying the word ‘Locorotondo’. Another hilltop town of tiny winding streets, window-boxes overflowing with vibrant flowers and gaggles of old men shooting the breeze, it is such a magical place. I also met this gorgeous dog every time I visited Locorotondo – he was a very good boy.
Bari – frenetic, chaotic, noisy. I absolutely loved vibrant Bari. Whether it was the streets lined with women busy making orecchiette by hand, the lines of washing straddling pretty much every walkway or the scores of horns I heard tooting a wedding party near the Cathedral, I could have spent days exploring Bari and would return in a heartbeat. And next time I do I’ll make sure I pop into the Basilica of Saint Nicolas, home to the relics of St Nicolas (more popularly known as Santa Claus)!
Otranto – A beautiful seaside town where my favourite attraction was the Cathedral which had both an ornate golden ceiling and a twelfth century mosiac floor which is genuinely jaw-dropping.
Polignano a Mare – We dropped by Polignano a Mare to gawp at the great view of the beach and watch the local young kids climbing the cliffs and jump into the sea, but the old town had beautiful churches and cafes too.
Cisternino – Yet another hilltop town blessed with historic churches, swanky squares and gorgeous trulli. Cisternino was especially great for vegans with it’s very own all-vegan cafe (Micro – which was, gah, closed everytime I went to eat there), Bar Fod – a cafe in the main square which served gorgeous vegan ice cream and the very fancy Osteria Bell’ Italia – a restaurant with clearly-marked vegan options including the Broad Bean Puree with vegetables (and the best chips I’ve tried in a long while) and a very lovely Chocolate Marquise with raspberry glaze and almond biscuits.
Puglia is a truly (I stopped myself from saying trulli) magical place that I am already itching to return to. I can’t imagine anywhere in Italy I wouldn’t love to visit but I can certainly vouch that Puglia makes it very easy – and delicious – for vegan and vegetarian travellers.