Summer is in full swing in Martina Franca How can we tell? Every day dawns with a deep blue cloudless sky. The sun is a fierce, white-hot star, heating up the landscape and sending us in search of the nearest body of water. Lunchtime reunites families at home for the day’s main meal, followed by a quiet so still and profound it’s as if the populace has been spellbound into silence. Even the dogs are inside napping, usually stretched out on cool stone floors. And all of this is only a preamble to the real heart of the day. From twilight until the wee hours, our town explodes with life, laughter and music during July and August. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Martina Franca shakes off its sleepy, wintry blanket in mid-June, delighting in the endless cycle of festivals, concerts, food fairs, saints’ days and street theater on offer for its citizens. We can’t begin to keep track of it all. Since we live in the centro storico (historic town center), we have a bird’s eye view on the religious processions, marching bands and nightly passeggiata (promenade) that wend their way through our town’s prominent pedestrian street. Excited voices drift up through our open balconies, so we always have a bead on when things are about to happen.
We crane our necks to see the life-size cartapesta (papier-mâché) religious figures held aloft by the faithful as they make their way through the twisting streets, returning to the basilicas and churches where they wait for next year’s outing. Our town band accompanies the saints and their bearers; we’ve gotten to know its repertoire and song sequence, including the moments when the high notes are sometimes just a little flat. During July’s Festival della Valle d’Itria, a renowned opera and classical music festival performed in the interior courtyard of the nearby ducal palace, we can hear the strains of the orchestra and the audience’s applause as they rise above the happy chatter in the streets, wafting their way up to us on our terrace.
Everywhere in the Valle d’Itria, annual food festivals featuring local specialties and much-loved local ingredients are launched, usually just for a few days at a time. But there are so many of them and they are all so representative of the tiny communities that host them that we don’t want to miss even one. These festivals, called sagre, honor local delicacies like homemade orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta shaped by hand), mozzarella, focaccia, arrosto (roasted meat) and the perennial favorite gnumeredde (tiny rolls of liver, lungs and kidneys wrapped with lamb or goat intestines and grilled or roasted in a wood-burning oven). It’s undoubtedly an acquired taste, but we’re hooked.
Along with the endless string of organized events, summer prompts the annual family exodus from Martina Franca to the surrounding countryside only a few kilometers away from town. It seems that everyone we know has a family trullo, one of those iconic UNESCO-protected stone houses with cone-shaped roofs that dot the landscape in the Valle d’Itria. When you come to the Valle d’Itria, you could stay in one, too. They’re deliciously cool in the summer because their stone walls are at least three feet thick. And these homes are typically surrounded by stone patios with shady, grapevine-covered pergolas, with more lavish properties boasting gorgeous stone-encircled pools. Extended families while away the delicious summer evenings out of doors, grilling fish or meat or firing up the wood-burning oven with olive tree cuttings to make a succession of focacce and pizze. There’s plenty of ice-cold local white wine made by nearby farmers from Verdeca and Bianco d’Alessano grapes, followed by someone’s homemade limoncello (lemon-scented liquore) or liquore d’alloro (an after dinner liquore made from bay leaves). We are happily making the rounds these days, reveling in the sociability that blossoms just like the fruit trees once winter’s chill is forgotten
Because we’re in Italy, everyone has his or her own recipe for limoncello. It goes without saying that everyone thinks his or her own recipe reigns supreme. Since there is plenty of guidance out there in the limoncello world, why not give liquore d’alloro a try? We love its herbal, aromatic flavor and are convinced that it really does provide digestive support after these plentiful Pugliese meals. And then there’s that lovely, mossy green iridescence that results when you infuse the alcohol with the bay leaves. See what you think when you make it at home.
Liquore d’Alloro—Bay Leaf Liquore
4 ¼ cups (1 liter) of pure grain alcohol (90 percent)
40 Mediterranean bay leaves (don’t confuse this with the California native bay)
5 cups (1.2 liters) of water
4 cups (800 grams) of sugar; you can use a little less if you prefer
Wash and dry the bay leaves and immerse them in the alcohol in a glass container that can be closed tight. Leave them to macerate for about 40 days, shaking the container every so often. At the end of the 40 days, heat the water in a saucepan and add the sugar, stirring continuously to dissolve it. When the sugar is completely dissolved, take the pan off the stove and allow it to cool
Filter the alcohol in which the bay leaves were soaking and add it to the cooled sugar and water mixture. Still the mixture well and pour it into a glass serving bottle with a tight lid. Refrigerate for a few days before serving and keep chilled in the refrigerator.
Serve chilled in small quantities after meals.