Families who took care of these orchards produced their olive oil underground to hide it from pirates.
The region of Puglia begins on the eastern shores of southern Italy, at the bottom of “the boot,” and runs north, extending more than 200 miles up the Adriatic coast. But its location is not the only reason one might call it the Achilles heel of the country. At the heart of the Italian spirit is Puglia’s affinity and commitment to traditional farming methods, family-focused communities, and food that’s gathered within walking distance of where it’s consumed. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the little-known, 5-mile long Dune Costiere Park in Brindisi, where olive orchards date back two thousand years to the height of the Roman Empire.
Throughout this coastal park, you can find a collection of fortified farmhouses—known as masserias—where the Puglians once produced olive oil underground. The masserias are still operational today as functional farms, and also double as small inns. Run like bed and breakfasts with gardens, fertile fields, and a focus on culinary and cultural experiences, these farmhouse-castle combos have turned to tourism as a way of supplementing income and spreading the word about their traditional lifestyles. The real goal, however, is to bridge the gap to the next generation. Dune Costiere is currently applying for UNESCO World Heritage certification, hoping to increase the price of the region’s olive oil. Maybe then, local guide Daniele Pomes says, the modern, younger generation can be convinced that our world still sees value in old-world farming.
Here are some where you can stay and experience the masserias firsthand.
The reason olive oil was produced underground in Dune Costiere Park five hundred years ago was to protect it from Ottoman Empire pirates. For this reason, most masserias are set back a few miles from the coast and perched up a few hundred feet above sea level. This allowed the Puglians to see the pirates coming ashore, which gave them time to hide the oil barrels in secret passageways and fortify the farmhouse for attack. The Antica Masseria Brancati, which looks more like a fortress than a farmhouse, provides an incredible glimpse into this era with its preserved underground olive-oil mill and thick, murder-hole equipped perimeter wall. A walk through its old stone barns is like a trip into your great-grandfather’s garage, filled with nostalgic items, including stone-wheel grinders, rusted bicycles, and farm tools used throughout the centuries.
The Masseria Il Frantoio is Dune Costiere’s best example of how old-world agriculture can fuel current-day agritourism. Crossing his wrists in front of his face, Owner Armando Balestrazzi will tell you that he “used to be in jail” at a corporate job before he bought the masseria. Today, his lifestyle embodies what it means to reconnect with the land, and he certainly celebrates his newfound freedom in full force. Olive oil, house-canned jams, fruit preserves, homemade liquors, and dried homegrown herbs are just the beginning. Follow along as he walks you through the old-world Puglian gardens, each positioned with a purpose to control its climate. The relaxation garden contains mosquito-repelling trees and sits a on a small hill adjacent to the masseria. The fruit garden is dug out behind the thick walls of the masseria, blocking it from the ocean breeze and raising the ground temperature to tropical levels. If we all learned to use nature as our ancestors did, Balestrazzi says, we’d break the chains of technology that quarantine us inside. We’d also recognize the flavorless, grocery-store bought food we eat on a regular basis is vastly inferior to those grown using these methods. It’s no surprise that the dining room at the Il Frantoio, which he refuses to call a “restaurant” because of the word’s commercial connotation, is regarded amongst Dune Costiere’s best.
In this part of the world, all chefs go to the most prestigious school the region has to offer: Their mothers' kitchens. Some go on to receive more professional training, but most don't need to. After all, the appeal of Puglian cuisine lies in its affinity for family recipes, not cookbooks or classic techniques. The cooking classes and culinary exploration offered at the Masseria Oasi San Giovanni Battista is essentially a trip into the chef’s home, an intimate instruction in the ways of Italian bread making. Learn to make rolls, loafs, and biscuits from scratch, and then how to bake them to perfection in a wood-burning oven. Oasi is a great example of the masseria’s terraced construction, built up to provide a view to the sea (to spot pirates). Today, these terraces provide great views of the orchards and the sunrise over the Adriatic Sea.
Even though the Masseria Salamina was built in 1600 and is considered “old-world,” its towering stone walls, numerous archways, huge interior courtyards, long outdoor porticos, and artistic, detailed turrets make it feel like a modern palace compared to the rest of Brindisi’s small masserias. In reality, calling it “Salamina Castle” would be more appropriate. Inside, its royal elegance, stunning architecture, and “noble” décor is a complete change of pace from the usual masserias, featuring furniture in the common areas that looks too nice to sit on. Although it has an on-site grove of olive trees and might be the most beautiful of all the buildings in Dune Costiere, the stature of Salamina separates you from nature a bit more than any other masseria. This is not to say you can’t connect with nature on your visit, nor does it diminish Salamina’s green efforts of conservation, such as wood-chip heating systems that bring back memories of log-cabin life. From its intimidating yet lovely exterior, you can infer that while it may have been on every pirate’s wish list, conquering it would have been another story.