Head to the heel of Italy's boot and discover a region with reasons to celebrate local food all year round. Gourmet heaven, thy name is Puglia!
Consisting mainly of farmland and coastline, Puglia is famous for its fresh produce and delicious dishes. As elsewhere in Italy, but even more so here, there are myriad small-town sagre (local fairs) exalting various foodstuffs. Stalls selling food, drinks and t-shirts fill the streets and fairy lights adorn the trees. The main piazza hosts a party with live music - either taranta (local folk music) or banda (the local brass band) - and sometimes a beauty contest or old-time crooner will add to the carnival atmosphere. And, of course, food and drink can only be bought using a mysteriously complex ticket system - a hallmark of any Italian municipal event.
Food fairs date back to the days when farmers used to gather in towns to buy and sell produce. Today's celebrations are dictated by tradition, what is in season, and the town's whim; they reach a peak during the holiday season of July and August. Sample enough of the local delicacies and you'll soon be able to chat to the locals about who you think sells the best melons in town.
A foodie's festival calendar
The following calendar is a mere sample of where, when and what to eat. If you're already in Puglia, grab a copy of Qui Salento (a weekly magazine available at local newsstands) for a current festival program (in Italian only).
In mid-January Novoli (Lecce) celebrates Puccia dell'Ampa - wood-baked bread filled with pickles or ricotta forte (strong, spicy ricotta cheese). OK, so it's a sandwich - but a really good one.
On the 23rd head to Celenza Valfortore (Foggia) for the Festa della Pignata (Octopus Festival) and discover just how delicious a tentacle can be.
Santa Cesàrea Terme (Lecce) pays tribute to the ring-shaped, deep-fried cuddrura, an Easter sweet which was traditionally made at home; you can track it down in bakeries during this period. (Festival dates vary according to when Easter falls).
On the 23rd, the Festival of San Giorgio celebrations at Vieste (Foggia) are combined with celebrations of the more prosaic frittato (omelette).
What could be nicer than a festival of biscuits and wine? The Sagra dei Tarallucci e Vino takes place in Alberobello (Bari) from the 28th and celebrates both. The stars of the show are the little taralli - traditional sweet or savoury Pugliese biscuits.
Spring has sprung, wild flowers fill the fields and it's time for a festival of ciliegie (cherries). It takes place in Leverano (Lecce) on the 25th, and in Conversano (Bari) for a whole month, starting from the 15th. Expect blossom and more cherry-packed products than you thought possible.
Zollino celebrates sceblasti (Greek foccacia with tomatoes) in late June. The Greek influence is strongest in Salento; go flavour-spotting in any of the towns in the area, particularly around Otranto.
Anguria (watermelon) is widely celebrated this month. The sweetest you'll ever taste is piled high on every roadside.
Many towns hold festivals in honour of the frisella (a dried, bagel-shaped bread) throughout July and August. Dampen the frisella with water, top it with tomatoes, oil, oregano and salt, and it's ready to eat. It's the perfect food for farm workers; you can buy friselle year-round in local food shops.
In the third week of July, Crispiano has perhaps Puglia's most eclectic festival, covering fegatino (liver), lumache (snails), focaccia (bread) and gelato (ice cream).
August is holiday month for most Italians: emigrants return home, northerners head south, and sagre season reaches fever pitch. If you're here in early August, don't miss the Sagra della Polpetta in Felline (Lecce). It's the Glastonbury of meatballs, featuring little morsels of seasoned heaven.
On the 15th of August, Sannicandro di Bari pays tribute to the local hand-made pasta known as orecchiette (little ears), so-called because of their shape. If you miss the festival, you'll still be able to eat orecchiette all over Puglia.
Autumn approaches and Sammichele (Bari) celebrates with a feast of zampina salsiccie (a spiral-shaped sausage) served with mozzarella and good wine. Don't panic if you can't make it here in September - the curly-whirly sausages are the town speciality and sold all year round.
At the end of October, it's time to celebrate roast maiale (pork) in Muro Leccese and Ortelle. In the past, this Autumn tradition not only fed the farmers but helped visitors to stay warm overnight. The town of Cisternino also has a delicious tradition of fornello pronto (roast meat to go).
Look out for wine festivals this month: Locorotondo (Bari) is famed for its white wine production (elsewhere in Puglia reds are generally better) and holds the joyful Sagra del Vino Novello (Festival of New Wine) while Noci hosts the Vino Novello e Caldarroste (New Wine and Chestnut) festival.
This month's many seasonal festivities include that of Rutigliano (Bari), which hails the pettola, a tasty wheat-and-cinnamon fritter sprinkled with salt or sugar, served hot and dunked in mulled wine.
This article was refreshed in June 2012