Farm to Table, Italian Style
In my career, I’ve always had to be a planner – nobody else is going to do it, for heaven’s sake. I’m famous for what I call my Bring-Up File, a huge accordion folder where things I need to follow up on are sorted by date, so I can “bring them up” in meetings, and so things never fall through the cracks. Jim, of course, gives me no end of grief over my vigilance. So you may be surprised at one of my idiosyncrasies: An intense dislike of reservations – of having to go to a dinner, or the theater, or any event at a preplanned time.
Granted, I like the idea of going, and I like the feeling of knowing I’ll have a table or a seat when I get there. But round about 6:00 on a Saturday evening, with 9:00 reservations at the trendiest place in town, I all of a sudden have a hankering to light a fire, pop some popcorn, and settle in for a night of Netflix.
About 95% of the time I acquiesce. But I want to be able to decide an hour before that I’m more in the mood for Thai takeout. Of course, when you’re on vacation it can be problematic, with no kitchen and no Netflix. And our reservations at the Masseria il Frantoio were no exception. I just didn’t want to go.
Let me back up. We’re staying in Ostuni, one of the charming White Cities of the Puglia region of Italy, in the heel of the boot. We’ve stayed in Puglia many times, but this was Yao Yao’s first adventure there. Vito, hotelier extraordinaire at La Sommetà, where we are staying, has given us some wonderful recommendation – everything from best beaches to top-of-the-line seafood eateries to funky bracerie, where they specialize in nothing but grilled meats – and with each suggestion he was spot on. He strongly recommended we make reservations for dinner at this particular masseria, having just eaten there himself only a few weeks prior. (A masseria is a walled farmstead in the Puglia region, many of which have been turned into tony restaurants and luxury hotels.)
Damned Internet: It’s seems to spread the word of any good eatery – so we’re finding that when we’re traveling, it’s harder and harder to wing it the way we used to.
Anyway, Vito made it clear that reservations at Masseria il Frantoio are for 8:00, and not one minute later – dinner is preceded by a farm tour that takes half an hour, with a 9:00 seating for dinner that waits for no man! And in keeping with the farm-to-table tradition, there was no menu, as everything was picked and sourced that day – we would have to be flexible. Truth be told, Vito called ahead and told them I ate seafood but no meat, and they said they’d be accommodating. At least somebody is . . .
So the evening of the reservations came, and I started my typical moaning about how I don’t want to get dressed up, how I don’t want to leave “my” Ostuni and drive somewhere (even though the restaurant is only 15 minutes away and Jim is doing the driving), and how I really don’t feel like a bunch of courses and wine pairings and a freaking farm tour! I want to sit on the terrace of our lovely hotel, have a glass of wine and a light supper, and contemplate the moon.
Funny, Yao Yao and Jim totally ignored my pleas. As a matter of fact, I don’t think they bothered to respond to me at all! In any case, get dressed I did, in distinctly non-farm attire: linen blouse, white pants, strappy sandals. I thought I looked breezy and Italian. I took my strappy sandals and bad attitude and off we went.
Masseria il Frantoio
As I may have mentioned, Masseria il Frantoio is still a working farm, with simple accommodations for the workers and the original manor house and various outbuildings making up the restaurant and hotel. Together with the lovely courtyard and various herb, fruit, and flower gardens; its ancient, well-tended olive groves; and the large courtyard (a perfect place for a glass of wine in the evening or espresso in the morning), it still gives off that certain feeling of casual elegance and upper-class privilege. After our walk around the lovely grounds, we were ushered into the hotel to ogle the memorabilia and sit for a short video, followed by a tour of the cellar and olive press (frantoio).
I think staying there a few nights would be a treat and made a mental note to tuck that into my list of next time. The dinner guests (many of whom were staying the night) ranged from local Pugliese to Romans on holiday to German tourists – we met few Americans in this off-the-beaten track region of Italy. And most of the diners were couples dining alone or with friends – there was only one other family. I’m not sure if that was due to the length of the meal (eight courses over a number of hours) or the cost of the meal (significant!). Whatever the reason, the evening we went, it was primarily senza bambini.
We sat down at our designated table, and the games began: Each dish was brought with an explanation of the source of the ingredients as well as the preparations and the (local) wine pairings. We sat, ate, talked, and even took a little break to walk some of the calories off. It was, in a word, meraviglioso! Here’s what we had, with Google Translator-level English appended:
Ostuni, 3 Luglio 2015
Crè, 2013 Fiano IGT Salento, Vetrere
Pizzelle col sughetto
Fried bread pasta with tomato sauce
Insalata di grano duro con “coriandoli” e cozze
Salad of durum wheat with vegetables “coriandoli” and mussels
(“Pendici”, Organic Oil)
Polpette di melanzane alla menta
Little balls of egg-plant (aubergines) with mint
(“degli Dei”, pitted Oil)
Le Ricordanze 2009, Semillon e Riesling, Taurino
Morbido di caprino allo zafferano con pere e composta di pere
Soft goats cheese with saffron, pears and pear compote
Punta Aquila 2012, Primitivo del Salento, Tenute Rubino
Nastri integrali agli odori dell’orto con zucchine
Home made whole wheat ribbons with garden flavours and zucchini
(Olio Monocultivar, “Leccina”)
Spada alle erbe aromatiche con patate velo al timo
Sword – fish with aromatic herbs and veil like potatoes with thyme
(“Tre Colline”, DOP Oil- hills of Brindisi)
Verza rossa e bianca in insalata
Red and white savoy cabbage salad
Quando il limone diventa… dolce
When the lemon becomes a cake…
As you can see, it was a delicious and visually stunning dining experience, from antipasti to dolci. As a vegetarian, I am always grateful and amazed when great chefs can pull together entire meals that rely almost entirely on the earth’s bounty (with a little help from the sea). And Jim and Yao Yao didn’t miss the carne in the least. It really shows what real genius – and no small measure of great planning – can bring to the table.