My wife, Jo Anne, and I had decided to go to Rome with our new baby. She was seven weeks new. Lucia: bringer of light. She brought it in abundance, day and (alas) night. Every now and then, we needed a break. It came in the form of Piera Bonerba, a striking, big-hearted young woman from Puglia.
Piera scooped Lucia up and brought peace—and sleep—into our lives. One morning she also brought us a jar of tomatoes that her mother had grown, dried in the intense southern heat and preserved with her own capers and oil. They had an earthy complexity that made me want to slow down time.
“What makes these tomatoes so special?” I asked Piera.
“The place they come from,” she answered.
Piera said I was made for a visit to the Salento, the province in the heel of the boot at the very tip of the Italian peninsula that she considered the best expression of the Puglian character. Here I would find an Italy of 30, 40 years ago. Remote; behind, in the best sense; not trampled by tourists. Framed by the Adriatic to the east and the Ionian Sea to the west, it had the cleanest water, the most delicious food. The people were as open as its sky.
It took us a while, but the summer Lucia turned three, we went. We stayed at first with Piera and her family near Ugento, where I spent several beautiful hours on a pristine sandy beach, taking note of local ways: people swam in the morning and again in the evening; in the baking afternoons the beach was as deserted as any local piazza or city street. Not every Italian has the body of a god. Women liked to accessorize their bikinis with pearl necklaces. Lucia alone among the children wore a full-body SPF sunsuit, causing one young boy to inquire, “Ha freddo?”—is she cold? The macchia mediterranea—local scrub made up of oregano, rosemary, juniper—perfumed the air as crickets sang and sang.
In between swims I learned that the Salento’s obscurity extends even to English-speaking travelers’ accounts, which are minimal. There is no complete volume on the food of the Salento in English, only parts in Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s excellent book Flavors of Puglia and chapters scattered through Honey From a Weed, a highly original work by the English writer Patience Gray, who settled in 1970 in the Salento without running water or electricity and brought a scholarly focus, and almost witchlike intuition, to her cooking and her writing alike. The Salento does have its own filmmaker, Edoardo Winspeare, whose early movies (Pizzicata; Sangue Vivo) turn a sharp ethnographic eye on the character of the region.
I quickly discovered that the Salentine Peninsula was made for driving through—as long as you stick to the prettier secondary roads. Though it is an exceptionally varied place, the region is not vast: you can make it from the Adriatic coast to the Ionian in less than two hours. Driving also showed me how flat the landscape is and how densely the olive trees grow in it—Puglia is one of Italy’s most prolific producers of olive oil and wine. Every so often the olives and the grapes were interrupted by gates made of stone and wrought iron that marked long roads to masserie, ranchlike complexes consisting of residences, barns, outbuildings, and workshops, that are the region’s indigenous architectural form. Many of the masserie have been abandoned, and their ghostly silhouettes contributed to the feeling I had that this was a landscape that has seen fortunes rise and fall many times over. But nothing stood out quite like the color of the earth, which was somewhere between blood and cinnamon and, when plowed, split into enormous, loamy chunks: it was like Mars, only fertile.
One morning I went to the fish market in Gallipoli, whose old Greek place-name, Kalè Polis, or beautiful city, seemed to me at least half correct: Gallipoli was indeed beautiful, though not quite my idea of a city. Its narrow, weblike streets spread out across a small island that once made its fortune manufacturing and exporting local olive oil, which was originally used for lighting lamps, not for cooking.