‘Does this really count as agritourism?’ asks Mr Smith. He is horizontal, shaded by a fig tree and a linen canopy, pool water lapping inches from his copy of Private Eye. I look around for a combine harvester or an errant cow to herd but all I can see are the sun-baked, white-washed walls of our 16th-century masseria, the gnarled trees of the olive groves and a limpid expanse of pool. In fairness to him, we are deep in the Puglian countryside, but on this blazing May afternoon, behind the ancient stone walls of our southern Italian farmhouse, the closest we’ll get to any actual farming will be removing an olive stone or two at lunch.
If we crane our necks from a poolside slumber, we can just about see the conical roof of our Puglian home, a suite tucked into one of Masseria Cervarolo’s traditional trulli (Italy’s answer to a Kentish oasthouse), which are scattered throughout the rolling landscape of the surrounding Valle d’Itria. When our host, Teo, swings open the door to our room, he explains that the shape of the construction pulls energy up from the earth – the other story is that they could be dismantled easily when the taxman called – but if it does, we haven’t been possessed by it yet. Here at Masseria Cervarolo, the days are long and lazy, which is just fine with us.
We keep meaning to go out for lunch – Teo has provided us with a booklet with enticing descriptions of the local towns and hilltop villages. But once we discover that the ‘snack’ lunch at the masseria is a medley of citrussy salads, burrata cheese, rosemary-scented salamis and deep-red tomatoes, plucked straight from the pages of a Jamie Oliver cookbook, we can’t tear ourselves away.
Luckily, we don’t have to journey far for a dose of local history (the estate has its own hidden treasure, a beautiful little chapel with a baroque altar and smattering of frescoes) or culture, as the masseria’s sommelier, Teresa, has invited us to a wine-tasting hosted by a Puglian producer before dinner. So for now, it’s time to observe another strictly upheld tradition here in the south of Italy: the siesta. Who are we to argue when possible locations include the poolside loungers, deckchairs under an olive tree, sunk into the sofa in the homely reading room or swathed in a blanket in the cool, quiet interior of our little trullo?
It’s only at around 6pm, when the sun nears the edges of that endless sky, that we are finally seized by the supernatural energy of the trulli. Either that, or a thirst for an aperitivo and a spot of people-watching in a local piazza. Nothing stokes the appetite like an early evening passeggiata, so Mr Smith swallows audibly, and slides into the driving seat for another version of Wacky Races, Puglian style, on the way to nearby Martina Franca.
The passeggiata is worth every white-knuckle moment – we watch from behind giant goblets of Aperol and soda, bowls of olives and the ubiquitous tarallini biscuits as the town’s elders, immaculately pressed and coiffed, promenade up and down the piazza in twos and threes, stopping sporadically for some emphatic gesturing, before recommencing their march. It’s so simple, but totally captivating.
This part of Italy is all about beauty in simple things. When I ask Teo for a restaurant recommendation – ‘something simple, not too flashy’ – he does that Italian thing of smiling and shrugging simultaneously, hands upturned, and says, ‘We don’t do flashy here’. He’s right. Masseria Cervarolo is not the place for you if you want to sashay around in a Cavalli kaftan or have Alba truffle shaved all over your muesli every morning. That’s not to say it isn’t fabulously elegant. The unpretentiousness of Teo and his wife Patrizia runs throughout the design, from the roughed-up textures of our Puglian-stone bathroom to the artful shabbiness of the restored furniture that fills our trullo.
As it turns out, dinner is also a masterclass in the virtues of simplicity, served on colourful plates – no square porcelain here – either alfresco on the terrace or in the stylish dining room, where metal funnels make light fittings and a mishmash of wooden dressers display wine bottles and local ceramics. Pasta with pesto has never tasted so good. (I mentally add it to my list of things that you should only consume on holiday: rosé wine, limoncello, grappa...) Neither have any of the other courses: risotto with artichokes and mushrooms, or grilled aubergine, studded with fresh ricotta and drizzled with truffle oil, or hazelnut ice-cream. Dishes are whizzed out of the open kitchen to every table – including Teo and family – at the same time, and then washed down enthusiastically with a bottle from Teresa’s wine list. Mr Smith snaffles the last of the biscotti and sighs contentedly. Agritourism? We’re converted.