Where's my wine?
I'm at a 16th-century fortified farmhouse, now an exquisite boutique hotel in Puglia, in southern Italy on the heel of the boot, whose tower once guarded against attacks by Turkish pirates.
But the only invasion the Masseria Torre Coccaro is bracing for today is a gaggle of hungry North Americans, for a class at its renowned cooking school. We're supposed to be making panzerotti, little pockets of dough filled with mozzarella made from local water buffalo milk, tomatoes and capers — but I'm so busy chatting with the glamorous, fluent-Italian-speaking woman next to me.
I notice to my dismay everyone's sipping a Locorotondo, a fruity white wine, but me.
One of my classmates, who turns out to be a sommelier and restaurant owner from Los Angeles, is telling me how she turned a bunch of 17th-century trulli nearby into her vacation home (and house rentals when away), the Masseria Cacatosto.
Since I've just spotted my first trulli today — adorably odd conical houses that look like they're inhabited by gnomes, found in Alberobello and nearby, unique in Italy — and this woman doesn't resemble a gnome in the least, I'm enchanted.
Suddenly, we're ordered to make orecchiette, the ear-shaped pasta of Puglia, so I'm kneading wheat flour and water — really, doesn't pasta come in boxes? — rolling the dough, then dimpling it with my thumb.
Tagliolini is much more fun: we press dough against a chitarra (Italian for "guitar") — a wood frame strung with music wire — and tap it, resulting in perfect long strands of pasta so easily, a fellow classmate actually claps her hands in glee.
Dubbed the "new Tuscany" for its rich agricultural heritage, Puglia produces almost half of Italy's olive oil, most of its pasta, and much of its wine from endless olive groves, wheat fields and vineyards.
It's also fish-rich, thanks to its Adriatic and Ionian seacoasts.
Cooking is always a history lesson, and an apaella-like dish we work on reflects the Spanish influence in Puglia, exemplified in the town of Otranto's Aragonese Castle I'd seen the day before. It's a massive, rounded hulk built by Spain, which then ruled the kingdom of Naples, after the Turks massacred 800 Otranto Catholics in 1480.
Always a strategic gateway to Greece and the Middle East, and once part of the Byzantine Empire, Puglia preserves the legacy in its many whitewashed buildings — which lend the region a Greek Cycladic island-like look, utterly distinct from the ochres and umbres found elsewhere in Italy — and in the Byzantine frescoes and 12th-century mosaics of myths and historical figures in Otranto's churches.
After our class, we dine under the pergola of our restaurant, whose facade is decorated with the same strange-looking symbols, both Christian and pagan, adorning many trulli. History, in my opinion, is best served hot, in the countryside, next to jasmine and bougainvillea, accompanied by free-flowing Locorotondo.
Puglia, once the home of an ancient Jewish community that tradition says began when Roman Emperor Titus expelled 8,000 Jews in the year 70 C.E. after the destruction of the Second Temple, held its first Festival of Jewish Culture in 2009.
The festival's concerts, plays, art exhibits and a film — mostly in the town of Trani, but also in Otranto's Aragonese Castle; Lecce, Bari and San Nicandro Garganico — were organized by the Puglia region and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities so the region where few Jews remain could rediscover its illustrious Jewish history.
Bari, Otranto and Trani were once important centers for the study of the Bible. In fact, Jewish scholars in Europe during the 12th century even had a popular saying, "The Law comes from Bari and the Word of God from Otranto," a paraphrase of Isaiah's words.
Forced conversions in the late 13th century, and Spain's expulsion of the Jews of Puglia in the 16th century — who dispersed mainly to Salonika and Corfu in Greece, Istanbul, and central and northern Italy — wiped out the community.
For information, see: www.pugliacenter.org and www.italiantourism.com.