Things are happening down on the farm in Puglia…mostly they are turning into B+B’s and luxury boutique hotels. If you want to truly engage with the rural tranquillity that Puglia undoubtedly offers – the ancient olive trees, flower filled meadows and pretty, white washed towns, the abundant produce of the iron rich soil – some of the best accommodation can be found at converted ‘Masserie‘. It’s an Italian word with no direct translation but essentially a Masseria (singular) is a rather like a homestead. Generally they are a cluster of farm buildings, the main one originally housing the owners and surrounded by smaller buildings for the farmworkers and livestock – often there will also be a small chapel, an olive press and a watchtower. In other words, authentic rural properties, ripe for accommodating tourists. As Puglia’s international reputation steadily grows, for many, tourism is now way more lucrative than farming.
On a recent trip I visited four, very different, masserie:
The first, Il Pino Grande, is located in the rolling green fields of the Alta Murgia National Park just 4 kms from the spectacular Castel del Monte. This is still very much a working farm, an agriturismo, where ‘Slow Food’, a long established movement in Italian cuisine, is taken very seriously indeed. From field to fork with minimum intervention is the goal, and the restaurant here, under the helm of the enigmatic Giovanni is gaining much admiration for its innovative cuisine.
Il Pino Grande offers five simply furnished, rustic style rooms (prices from 60 Euro per room per night) but the restaurant is the main reason to come. Housed in the converted stables with a lovely vaulted brick ceiling, we sampled a typical four course menu – an antipasti selection of local cheeses served with Altamura bread and Coratina organic olive oil, soft lampascioni onions with citrus and vegetables, olives and dried red pepper ‘crisps’ followed by a wonderful capunti pasta dish with black chick peas, cardoncelli mushrooms, Capocollo cured meat from Marina Franca and baby tomatoes. For dessert, there was a smooth and silky caramel Panna Cotta with Toritto almonds (all items in italics awarded Presidio Slow Food status). And not to forget the paired wines, an organic Cefalicchio Rosso and Torre del Falco Nero di Troia. The menu changes daily depending on what has been foraged or is in season but a similar meal would cost around 35 Euros per head with wines at very reasonable 12-25 Euros.
Masserie traditionally had one of two purposes; agriculture or breeding. The next Masseria I visited falls into the latter camp and, again, is still very much a family home and working farm. Set in an oak forest, Masseria Tagliente near Fasano, close to the Adriatic coast is known for its pure breed Murgesi horses. Living wild in the woods, these beautiful horses gather in front of the main house every day to drink from the water tank before returning to the woods. The main building has an impressive, simple, white washed facade, dazzling in the sunshine against the deep blue sky and punctuated by green shutters. Adjacent is the small chapel and there are also complex of four original trulli housing the animals and used as storage – it surely is only a question of time til these get converted into accommodation.
Staying here, you get a true taste of traditional Pugliese country life with the delightful Fumarola family as your hosts. The lounge and communal areas are very much part of the family home. Come out of your room and you in their lounge complete with charming family photos, portraits and original furniture. The guest rooms are simple but elegantly furnished – they are available only between May and October with bed and breakfast rates from 110 Euros per room per night.
Heading further south into the Itria Valley, the concentration of masserie increases as does the shift in focus from pure farming to tourism. There are something like 280 masserie in this central area and the conversion process is on going.
24 years ago the Ballestrazzi family came across the 500 year old Masseria Il Frantoio, crumbling away after 20 years of neglect. They saw an opportunity to restore the farmhouse to its former glory, create a unique family home and along the way develop a unique and fascinating place to stay.
The masseria is close to the stunning white hilltop town of Ostuni but you know you are very much in the countryside as you approach it via a long track winding through acre upon acre of beautiful ancient olive trees. Il Frantoio means olive oil press and, at the heart of the Masseria are the magnificently preserved original stone olive mills. These days the olives are processed elsewhere but the farm still produces an impressive range of organic extra virgin oils as well as jams and liqueurs, all available to buy and impossible to resist. You can visit Il Frantoio simply to experience the place and have an olive oil tasting or enjoy a meal – there is no menu, a selection of dishes is prepared daily almost exclusively from the farm’s own produce – 0km cuisine at its very best (approx 40 Euros per head for four courses with wine). Stay longer though, in one of the delightful stone walled rooms (from 110 Euros) and you will fully appreciate how different and enriching the Masseria experience can be – you may never want to stay in a ‘normal’ hotel again!
Last but certainly not least, I visited one of the most upmarket properties in this area, the 5* Masseria Torre Coccaro. Opened in 2002, this is the highly polished version of a Masseria, complete with gorgeous bedrooms (from 284 Euros per room per night in low season), gourmet restaurant, stunning pool and luxury Aveda Spa.
With 40 rooms it has become popular as an international wedding party venue – you know you are somewhere special when you discover that Prince Harry, Pippa Middleton and the gang all came here for a society wedding last year! They have an instant repeat booking rate of 80% in peak summer months so you need to plan well in advance if you want to book. That said, despite the high end feel, they’ve still managed to retain the essence of rural tranquillity. It oozes understated elegance and there is lovely informal, friendly and above all relaxing atmosphere.
Wander through the grounds and admire the stunning vegetable and herb gardens, gaze out on to flower filled meadows filled with gnarled and ancient olive trees, breathe in the scents of orange blossom and wisteria. It’s utterly peaceful, soothing and calming – exactly what a rural retreat should be. And if that’s too lazy for you, they’ve come up with lots of ingenious ways to fill your days. Take the shuttle to the beach club (a few kms away), a gourmet bicycle tour, a cookery class, a painting or Italian class or enjoy a round of golf on the hotel’s own 9 hole course or the nearby San Domenico championship course.
I confess I am a bit mesmerised by Puglia as a whole and, in particular, the Masserie – they don’t just provide somewhere to stay, but a genuine experience, an immersion in tradition. You will meet charming and passionate Pugliese hosts who are only too willing to extol the virtues of the ‘slow’ movement. It’s not just a trend here, it’s an actual way of life! It’s a place, in this frenetic 21st century world of ours, to step back, slow down, reassess and truly appreciate the simpler things in life. I for one, cannot wait to return…