If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, few places offer more pulling power than plentiful Puglia.
The region on the sun-kissed heal of Italy, known for good reason as the bread basket of the country, positively strains under the weight of sumptuous goodies. And that can only mean one thing - a foodie’s paradise.
Some of the most memorable meals in my lifetime have been served up in northern Italy, from a sublime ravioli dish of pumpkin and pasta at a Rimini castle, to an unforgettable feast of poultry at the Michelin-starred St Hubertus, high up in the Italian Alps.
But for consistent perfection on a plate, nothing compares to the simple yet delicious dishes served further south. And one course in particular will stay with me for the rest my life.
It is said the Italians put up with many things, but never bad food. Their unpretentious restaurants with tacky murals and rickety furniture may often be crying out for a makeover, but the cuisine is seldom less than perfect.
The foundation of Puglia’s wealth is its mass production of olives, or ‘green gold’ as it is aptly called. Gazing out from the airport window after my two-hour-and-20-minute flight from Gatwick, the region around Bari looks like one giant patchwork green quilt glistening under the midday sun, interspersed by pockets of pretty whitewashed villages.
There are around 60 million olive trees in Puglia, many of them more than a thousand years old and four million protected by government legislation.
They look like gnarled relics of a bygone era, often propped up by crumbling limestone blocks. But the rich, fertile land and wonderful Mediterranean climate helps them produce 80 per cent of the country’s olive oil.
The chances are, if you’ve ever bought a bottle of virgin olive oil in Tuscany, the olives will have been sourced from the south. They have just 24 hours to transport the green gold to the processing presses, otherwise the oil becomes acidic and slightly bitter.
Olives are just one of the reasons why Puglia bears the hallmarks of conquering invaders throughout the generations, from the Normans and the Spanish to the Turks and the Greeks.
Most of Italy’s fish is caught off the Puglian coast and 80 per cent of Europe’s pasta - all 200 different types of it - is produced in the region.
As a keen fisherman, I’m salivating at the number of fish being caught at the quaint Savelletri coastal resort, a stone’s throw from my base for the week, the magnificent Masseria Torre Maizza and its sister hotel, the Maizza Torre Coccaro.
Each morning, the hotel’s chefs select from the choicest supplies of fresh bream, scampi, grouper, lobster, oysters, clams and squid, before serving up meals fit for the gods.
Thanks to the skills of the hotel’s genial head chef, 29-year-old Vito Giannuzzi, one of the dishes will be etched in my memory for a very long time.
An exquisite meal of raw grouper fish marinated with red berries and lime, red prawns from nearby Gallipoli, scampi pearl, low-fat yoghurt sauce and ‘mint flavoured fizzy slush’ is enough to render me speechless and, I’m not embarrassed to say, just a little emotional.
This is washed down by a very agreeable ruby red Il Falcone wine, a full-bodied little number from the ancient farms of Puglia’s Cornia Valley, that came recommended by the hotel’s sommelier.
Vito, recently named one of the best young chefs in Italy and clearly destined for stardom, is proud of the hotel’s motto of ‘zero kilometres’. Only produce grown at the masseria - or fortified farmhouse - is served up at mealtimes, as well as the locally-caught seafish.
The Maizza and Coccoro are among 250 masseria in Puglia offering tourists a heady mix of long summer days, characterful accommodation and the freshest of food. Cycling groups are increasingly being attracted to the area by the flat roads and picturesque landscape.
Two of the cyclists staying at the Maizza, American ladies from New York and Boston, join my wife and I for a fun morning learning how to conjure up dishes at a cookery school before we enjoy the fruits of our labours with a chilled prosecco, gazing out over a pretty pergola overflowing with grapes.
A must is a trip up into the hills to see the small but bizarre Trulli houses at Alberobello, which - from a distance - resemble a group of white-hatted Smurfs on a school outing.
If you’re still hungry, head for the Gli Ulivi restaurant - meaning Olive Tree - and order the antipasti della casa as a starter. Then sit back in wonder as dish after dish of delicious meat, fish, pasta and vegetables head through the animated Italian diners and cover your table until it is overflowing. By the time the 28th dish arrives, my wife and I beg for mercy. The heart may be willing, but the stomach can take no more.
It is, it has to be said, Trulli scrumptious.