Above: dining outdoors at Il Frantoio, near Ostuni, Puglia.
There's not much to see driving along the unfortunate modern highways which slice through Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot. It's far from the visual beauty of Tuscany or Piemonte. The land is flat. The earth is often red and looks scorched by the sun.
The dominant feature of the landscape is olive trees. They're mostly tall with green leaved afros atop impossibly thick and gnarly trunks.
In most years Puglia produces about two thirds of Italy's olive oil. Not surprisingly, olive oil pops up quite a bit in Puglian cooking, which has its origins in the region's poverty relative to its more affluent northern neighbours.
Orecchietti, the local pasta, is made without eggs because there were none. The local vegetables are mostly wild rather than cultivated crops. Until recently horsemeat was more common on a table than beef.
Il Frantoio, located about 10 km outside the white walled town of Ostuni, is one of a growing number of agritourismo operations in southern Italy. It's a fortified farmhouse and a working farm owned by the very hospitable Armando and Rosalba Belestrazzi.
15 years ago Armando and Rosalba, natives of Puglia, tired of life in the city and retreated to a more tranquil existence among the olive groves near Ostuni. The main house was built in stages over the last 400 or so years and was owned by one of the few wealthy Puglian families. Inside many of the old owners' clothing, photos and various other possessions, like gramaphones and old farming equipment, are still on display.
Most of the guest rooms are located in the main house. They're a little on the small side and probably not for those who like big service centred hotels but are very charming. There's a few larger and more private rooms just off the main house - these tend to be quite warm during summer.
There's not a lot do at Il Frantoio during the day. This is no place for bandanas and chalky fingers. Guests mostly lay on the beach a short drive from the property, read books in the property's gardens or visit the nearby towns. Most guests are at Il Frantoio for the food.
Rosalba and her small all-women team cook dinner about every second or third night. The menu changes constantly and depends largely upon what's in season and what's available on the farm or at the local markets. The menu is also a proud showcase to the many olive oils produced at Il Frantoio - with most of Rosalba's dishes prepared using the olive oil most compatible with the dish's flavours and textures.
The menu at Il Frantoio is set - there's no choice, no wine list and it costs about 50 euros per person (including wine). I enjoy eating at places in Italy where you have no say in what you eat. You sail into flavours and textures that choice might have snubbed. There's pleasure in not knowing what or how many dishes will arrive. Each dish is an unexpected gift. You're a guest at a dinner party, not a customer.
The downside is scope for disaster in the wrong hands. Looking into the proud eyes of an Italian cook at course one of ten and wanting to slit your throat rather than continue does not make for a great night. Not much chance of that happening at Il Frantoio though.
The night we dined the four starters were: salted bread with a wild onion pate; sweet and sour peppers with almonds and tomatoes; a small cake made from white aubergines and sesame; and wild onions in orange honey with artichokes cooked in sweet wine (pictured below).
The food was very good - assured but not elaborate, rustic in the best possible way and very true to the origins of Puglian cooking with the heavy emphasis on wild vegetables.
The unique and truly memorable part of dining and staying at Il Frantoio is the hospitality - Armando prouldly introducing each of his wife's creations, talking about his olive oils and why they suit each dish and generally fussing over you as if you're a very welcome guest at a Belestrazzi family dinner. And despite having no choice and not knowing what's coming you're actively drawn in to the dinner and the products and processes of the Belstrazzi's farm.
On the wine front, the white wine was a pleasant but unmemorable 2005 Sarolo Verdera.
The red a 2003 Nomas Sussumaniello. Sussumaniello is the grape and not one that I've been able to find out much about. According to Armando, Sussumaniello is very rare and this bottling a real labour of love. It was inky, fruity, a bit rough around the edges like many Southern Italian reds and probably tastes much better dining al fresco after a day on the beach than it would on a cold grey day in London. It would have been happier bed-fellows with slow cooked meat than sword fish - but by this stage of the meal I was having so much fun that I didn't give a damn.