Few things excite me more than the combination of food, Italy and art, so it’s not surprising that the beginning of a new Italy Unpacked series on BBC2 tonight got me very excited indeed. Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli first got together on TV for the series Sicily Unpacked three years ago. Such a success was this that two ‘Italy Unpacked‘ series followed. I often joke that in a future life I’d like to come back as one of these guys and be paid to travel round Italy in the way they have in these series. It’s really just my idea of heaven.
There were a few things that particularly delighted me with the first of the new series this evening. For a start, I felt that the two men had recaptured the wonderful sense of fun and friendship that was so evident in Sicily Unpacked but slightly lost in the first ‘Italy’ series. They are both such naturals in front of the camera that their conversations and banter come across as entirely unrehearsed (though I guess it must be to at least some extent) and they genuinely seem to like each other’s company. While Andrew inevitably takes the lead in the art talk and Giorgio the food talk, they both exhibit a good knowledge and love of the other’s subject as well as their own and thus the conversation that passes between them comes across as refreshingly real, open, honest and connected. The conversation flows just as a good conversation should: one person picking up the thread from the other and carrying it on; expanding it, questioning it. It’s intelligent conversation; the kind one hopes for, spanning the richness of life through art, architecture, history, the culture and politics of the places they visit and, of course, the food.
A further delight was their destination this evening: Basilicata and Puglia. The three main places they visited – Matera, Lecce and Trani – were places I went to with my daughter Nicola in September 2010 when we spent nearly three weeks travelling around the south of Italy. The programme brought back such wonderful memories for not only was it a special time with my daughter, but this region of Italy was so different from any other I’d visited and special in itself. Andrew and Giorgio’s first stop this evening was Matera, in Basilicata.
Matera is very special indeed, in fact it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and said to be one of the oldest towns in the world. The famous sassi – stone houses carved out of caves – are both magical and haunting. It’s a little like entering another world walking round it. There is a terrible history of harrowing poverty, touched on in the programme tonight, but the sassi are now being renovated and the town restored to glory. The first day Nicola and I visited it was pouring with rain – even though it was early September and everyone kept telling us that rain never normally arrived until November! Days later, when the sun at last showed itself, we headed back and took more photos, such as the one above. We didn’t though see the wonderful frescos – dating from about 1,200 years ago – that Andrew showed Giorgio, explaining that these were the ‘beginning of Italian religious painting’. They looked so incredibly beautiful and anytime I return to the area, I’d love to see them. From Matera the two men moved on to Lecce, in Puglia, a stunning baroque town with beautiful buildings made of local sandstone.
Nicola and I made a day trip there from where we were staying in Basilicata and loved it. We next stayed in a masseria – a kind of old farmhouse B&B – near Bari in Puglia. We drove through miles and miles of fields filled with old olive trees; everywhere you looked and far on into the horizon, olives were growing. We went to another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the town of Alberobello, which is full of trulli. Andrew and Giorgio seemed to make the same journey and gave a wonderful description of the trulli as igloos in reverse: their shape designed to keep out the very hot sun and thus be cool, while of course an igloo does the opposite and keeps you warm. You can see why the description fits in this photo of some trulli:
Alberobello was the most extraordinary place and Nicola and I wandered round for ages.
One of Puglia’s most famous dishes is orecchiette con le cime di rapa. Orecchiette are wonderful little ear-shaped pasta made from the durum wheat typical of southern Italy, which is coarser and contains more protein (they are my absolute favourite and I cook with them often). Cimi di rapa is a green vegetable of the area, similar to sprouting broccoli. It was fantastic to see Giorgio making the pasta with a local woman and later making this famous – and delicious dish.
One of the most beautiful places on the coast we visited was Trani, and that’s where this evening’s programme ended. Known as a ‘Pugliese gem’, one of the most spectacular sights in the town is its Norman cathedral.
We ate at a restaurant overlooking the harbour and were delighted to find a new bride and groom arriving for their reception at the restaurant just next to us.
I remember we ate at La Darsena, famous for its seafood, and that we had a brilliant lunch – but it was the days before the blog and I have no record of what it was and nor can I remember! I think I was too distracted by the fun of the wedding next door.
Well, as you can see, watching Italy Unpacked tonight was quite special and personal to me, bringing back all those wonderful memories. But even if you’ve never been – indeed perhaps, simply because you’ve never been! – to Basilicata and Puglia, don’t miss your chance to catch up on the programme from tonight and see the next in the series. It made me long to go back, just as a good travel programme should. Italy Unpacked really is TV at its best.