Held in a 16th century castle south of Lecce, this week-long cookery courses at the castle are larger than life celebrations - imagine yourself at a long table enjoying extravagant country lunches, overflowing with Southern Italian familial tradition. It will be your time around the chalkboard learning about wine, in the kitchen putting your knowledge to work, and at the table on the barons stone lodge that youll cherish most. Youre likely to find your next favorite grape here. Youll make friends from foreign countries. Southern Italy will never be the same for you again.
You will stay in a 16th century castle throughout the holiday.
Each meal, you will learn the history and culture of the region and how that drives the cuisine, then you move into the kitchen and using your own hands, turn theory into practice. Whether its making fresh pasta from scratch nearly every meal, grilling sea bass over olive wood embers, or covering impossibly ripe fruit with impossibly fresh ricotta, its always hands on, all the learning reinforced by doing.
And because you are staying in a working castle, these courses represent a rare, first-hand glimpse into the life of former European aristocracy. You will cook in the barons impressive stone kitchen, dine on his Bougainvillea sprayed lodge, and drink a cascade of local but world-class wine from oversized goblets in his underground olive mill - each lunch going well into the afternoon, each dinner late into the evening. In the warmer months, you will finish your evenings bobbing in the castles impressive pool with local bubbly in your glasses. If its cooler, you will gather around the barons stone fireplace with freshly split firewood from recently felled fruit trees.
Daily, you will visit the herb garden, and depending on the season, fill your cradling apron with rosemary, lavender, bay, sage, and basil. You will pick fruit from the barons hundreds of fruit trees, and you will burn off lunch by walking the stone walls among the nearby olive groves, with a neighbors overly-friendly dog tagging along with you.
What often surprises the guests is that the castle grounds make up a quarter of the historic center of a small Southern Italian town - exit the kitchen door and you are at the fountain in the main piazza. You will get to know Serena the greengrocer, Armando the butcher, and you will visit the local olive oil producer in her gorgeous palazzo, giving you a chance to take some extra virgin olive oil home with you.
Silvestro has been teaching the food and wine of Puglia and, in particular, Italy's Salentine peninsula, since 2003. He has a lot of very pragmatic, blue collar work experience in the food and wine industry. He baked bread, cut meat, decorated wedding cakes, made wine, picked olives, cooked in restaurants, waited tables, and picked artichokes. In addition to his knowledge of Pugliese food and culture, Silvestro is a nationally certified sommelier in Italy, and a staff writer for Wine and Spirits magazine, covering all their Southern Italian food and wine content.
As a region, Puglia has more coastline than most countries. Its odd shape is in fact so long that few things are true for the entire region - not the diet, the wine grape, the oil olive, the language, the flour used for pasta, or even the ethnic make up of the population.
Linguists will tell you that Puglia comes from Apluvial, Latin for place that doesnt rain, ironic as Puglia is one of the few southern regions that does not have fresh water issues. Its Italys luscious garden and fertile vineyard, dipping right down into the Mediterranean.
A large part of the domestic tourism to Puglia is based on the food and wine, easily accessible dishes and ingredients based on pure, simple flavors. The fresh ingredients astound, the wines delight, and both are kept simple so that the flavors of the earth and sea come through, as if you were pressing the two together, then forced sunshine through them, the same way you make espresso.
But as you travel down Puglia, you will eventually hit a point where the Adriatic is joined by a second sea, the Ionian, and that is more or less of where the Salento, or Salentine peninsula begins.
With very few hills to stop the moist winds coming off the two seas, it is most Mediterranean breezes that drive the food and wine of the Salento like no other factor. The humidity is why the Italians train their grape wines into thigh-high free standing trees - to allow for the passage of air, it is why there are no pigs or cows - its too hot for both in the hotter months of the year, it is why even if they did exist, their proteins would not be able to be preserved in the form of aged cheese or preserved meats, too warm and moist the air.
This though, turns out to be a strength - remove these elements, a robotic need for sugar and any culture whatsoever of distilled alcohol, and you have the Mediterranean diet, a way of eating so healthy that it is actually protected by international law. Its how your doctor wants you to eat. Its how she likely eats, herself.
The Awaiting Table is located in the vibrant cultural capital of the Salento, Lecce, a university town of 100,000 people, famous for its world-class architecture, nearly all of it baroque. It is a city of sprawling wine bars, set among well-lit but ancient architecture. School children travel great distances to see the architecture of Lecce, which makes up part of a the national education.
Inside Italy, the city is famous as a bubble of modern intellectual brilliance (the city nowadays is synonymous with nano technology) and liberal thinking (Puglias highest ranking politician is openly gay), together rendering the city one of the best of Europe. It just might be the prettiest place youve never visited, the food and wine that youre missing.
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Arriving from outside of western Europe: Most international destinations fly into Leonardo da Vinci International Airport (FCO) in Rome. It is by far the easiest way to arrive eventually in Lecce. Flying into local airports has been problematic in the past, mostly for delayed arrival of luggage. As always, youre free to arrive however you like.
Arriving from London or other destinations in western Europe: Depending upon the flights available from your point of origin, you might consider flying into Brindisi or Bari as opposed to Rome. This is particularly true if you are coming from London. Brindisi is a popular hub for many European airlines, and is a 30-minute cab or shuttle ride away from Lecce. Flights from Stansted fly directly into Bari and Brindisi, although the days of the week vary with the seasons. Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, France, and Spain all now arrive and depart from Bari or Brindisi. You can either take the shuttle for 13 EUR, or a cab around 60 EUR from the line of cabs out front. It is the same for departure from Brindisi.
You are recommended to take the train from the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport (FCO) to Termini. You can buy the train tickets anywhere, and the clerks almost always speak English. Ask for tickets to Termini.