The evening after the first day of the olive harvest, the rains returned and we knew that the picking we had planned to do the next day was not going to happen. Andrea had taken the first three sacks of olives to the frantoio, the mill where the olives would be held until our harvest was completed. If our take reached the required three quintale (300 kilos) minimum, then our olives would be pressed separately from others meaning that the oil we got back would be exclusively from our olives. Andrea was very confident that we would easily exceed the 660 pound threshold.
The rain was coming with anger and it showed no sign of relenting. After a fulfilling meal of whole-wheat orecchiette dressed in baby clams and garlic warmed in fresh olive oil, Jessica suggested that we go exploring. We were in the car before we had any thought of where we were going but “there’s an app for that.” It’s called Puglia Travel Guide and is available on iTunes at ow.ly/dj1YI. The app is a compendium on what there is to do, see and experience in Puglia, Including, where to stay, eat and taste wine. The last of these is what we decided was our preferred activity for the evening. Puglia Travel Guide noted that there was a wine museum and cantina in Alberobello, the “town of the trulli” about thirty minutes from our villa, so off we went.
Once we got to Alberobello (albero meaning tree and bello meaning beautiful), we became hopelessly confused in the narrow, wandering streets. Try as it might, our normally reliable GPS assistant could not find the right path to put us on. In a stroke of pure happenstance, on a dark street adjacent to a pair of rail tracks, Jessica spotted a sign that had the word vini on it. At that point, that was all we needed. We parked the car next to the building on which the sign was affixed and walked into what appeared to be loading dock doors. We stood in the cantina portion of the facility and looked around. It seemed that in this area, wine from several makers in Puglia was tasted, sold and shipped. We had been told about the local custom of going once a week to a cantina with a five-liter jug and filling it up for 5 euros. Now we were seeing how it was done. The wine was kept in large stainless steel tanks. Attached to the spigot of the tank was a hose with a nozzle. Each tank was labelled with the kind of wine, the winery from which it came and the cost of a liter. The prices ranged from 1 to 1.50 euros ($1.35 to $2.03, at the time). A young woman spotted us and brought us two tasting glasses which we used to try the primitivo and the negroamaro reds from the tanks. The quality of both was outstanding and, while not wines that a collector would find interesting, they were easily drinkable and, for the price, great bargains.
I approached the young woman who had offered us the glasses and asked, “Dov e il museo?” Where is the museum? Surprisingly, she understood my Italian and proceeded to answer the question I had asked. Unfortunately, I was not prepared to receive a response and she must have seen by the look on my face that Her answer and I missed each other. She called to an older gentleman who we had seen setting out bottles of wine for purchase and he obliged by coming over and, with his just-enough English and our hardly-enough Italian, we understood that we were to follow the young couple on the other side of the cantina and their escort.
“They go also to museum,” he said. “You go too.” And so we followed the couple as they toured, first the cantina, then up a long staircase and into the museum space. Their tourguide explained things as they passed but we only understood a word here and there. In truth, the museum was just a collection of antiques that had commonality inasmuch as they had to do with winemaking in Puglia. Otherwise, it was a fairly uninteresting place and probably would have been even if we had the benefit of the language. After breezing through a few rooms full of old vats, presses and bottles, the four of us were invited to sit in front of a screen and watch a short film on Pugliese agriculture. Our friend from downstairs, the man with the English, had joined the tour and, before starting the video, asked the young couple if they minded his showing the English version. The woman said, “I would prefer English,” much to my surprise. Actually, though the idea of watching a twenty-minute film on farming in southern Italy may sound a bit less appealing than having a proctology exam, perhaps more like giving one, the film was quite interesting. Maybe you had to be there.
The last stop on the museum tour was the tasting. As we made our way from the film room to the tasting area, I thanked the couple for agreeing to have the video shown in English. In the tasting area, which was no more than a large room with about twelve small tables surrounded by folding chairs, we sat at tables not far from each others’. The tourguide provided the wines and commentary to the other couple and our friend from downstairs did the same for us. The wines were from the area around Alberobello and were surprisingly refined and clean. We got to the last of the wines to be tasted, a big red blend of primitivo and negroamaro. This wine was, to my palate, flawless: enough tannins to age it, but soft enough to drink now, full-bodied but without the fruit-forward characteristic that new world wines seem to cultivate.
“Buono,” I said to our server after a few mouthfuls.
“Si, ma e caro,” he replied. It’s expensive.
“Quante?” I asked.
“Venticinque euro.” Twenty-five euro.
“Posso avere due botiglie, per favore?” Can I please have two bottles?
“Oh, si!” he said and ran off to get them.
The tourguide had disappeared somewhere, so the four of us were left alone with what was left in our glasses. I took the opportunity to ask the other couple where they were from. On most occasions, I would not have. I’m not the gregarious type, you know, the kind of personality that can comfortably strike up a conversation with a stranger, make small talk for a while and then find another stranger to bother. I pretty much stay to myself and keep the interpersonal risks to a minimum. I’m so glad I stepped out a bit that evening.
Their names are Bernard and Maria. They were visiting Puglia on their honeymoon from their home on Malta. Bernard works for one of the Big Six accounting firms. Maria is the equivalent of the president of Malta’s press secretary. And they LOVE American television, especially the premium channel series like Sex and the City, Rome and True Blood. An eavesdropper on our conversation would have thought our relationship to be years in the making, yet it was minutes old. When the two bottles of wine came, I asked that one be opened and we drank it to the newlyweds happiness. Before we parted, we promised that we would see each other again, though little did we know how soon that would be.
Next: Our First Harvest – Part 3