There’s been a recent move back to local food, but there’s no reason to tell the olive oil, wine, and cheese makers or seafood chefs in the Puglia region of Italy, which makes up the “heel” of the country’s geographical “boot”. They never got away from the local scene. Perhaps it stems from the fact that each individual town was practically its own kingdom in past eras, but in an age when you can get a crisp New Zealand apple in the supermarket on Broadway in Lower Manhattan, many provisions often don’t make it to the next town in Puglia. And that’s what makes this region so gastronomically unique. In winemaking, we call it “terroir”, though it can certainly apply to food as well. It’s the taste, the smell – the absolute essence – of a place that courses through the things that grow and are consumed there. Stick your nose over a bottle of olive oil and you can literally smell the field in which the olives grew (which you almost certainly passed on the way to the restaurant). Now go to the next town and do the same thing. It’s like a thumbprint for your taste buds.
Sure, you can find delightful DOP Italian olive oils and cheeses around the world, but most of the time you only find the really good stuff tucked away close to where it was grown and crafted. Yes, they keep the really good stuff for themselves. Who blames them? In the early morning, we stroll down the oceanside promenade in Porto Cesareo and marvel at the variety of fish, squid and mollusks that the local fishermen sell straight from the bows of their colorful wooden boats. Want a pound of shrimp that were swimming laps minutes ago? Just bargain with the guy who hauled them up. Forget about even trudging to the local market. And if you want it prepared like no other place in the world, let alone region, just sit down at one of the outdoor restaurants a few feet away and dine on the freshest hyper-local fare in the world.