Sarah Marshall discovers the delights of olive and grape producing Puglia

NEW hotels can boast of having a bar built around a national monument. But rather than being made from bricks and mortar, the treasured centerpiece of Masseria San Domenico’s al fresco dining area is a living, photosynthesising organism.

I’m sipping espresso and nibbling homemade taralli (small, circular breadsticks) beneath the heavily-laden boughs of an ancient olive tree.

According to an official census conducted earlier this year, there are 66 million olive trees in Italy’s southern state Puglia, some of them more than 2,000 years old.

“We consider them national monuments,” says the hotel’s marketing manager, Genny Mansi, explaining the trees were first introduced to the region by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC.

Nearly 50% of Italy’s olive oil originates from the region, and the autumn harvest period is one of the best times to visit. Locals pick fruits to make the pungent oil, or crush grapes for dark, inky primitivo wines; the sky is still a rich indigo blue and temperatures are in the high 20s.

Roughly an hour’s drive from either Bari or Brindisi airports, Italy’s agricultural bread basket has been criminally overlooked by British visitors, who have traditionally opted for holidays in Tuscany or the Amalfi coast.

But that’s now changing.

Food and hospitality are the region’s biggest selling points and the wonderful family-owned Masseria San Domenico offers both in abundance.

Surrounded by 200 acres of olive groves, just 500m from the Adriatic coast, the luxury adult-only hotel has its own olive oil production for use in the excellent kitchen and Thalassotherapy spa. Nutritionist Dr Agostino Grassi has even devised a diet championing the health benefits of olive oil, where pasta and red wine are both allowed.

But with so many memorable dishes on the restaurant menu – a creamy fava bean puree, fresh orecchiette pasta, and an indulgent ricotta cake – even an eating plan as liberal as this feels restrictive.

Puglia is also a region rich in history, something I’m reminded of on a visit to UNESCO village Alberobello, decorated with white conical-roofed buildings, and Polignano, the birthplace of Domenico Modugno best known for his international hit ‘Volare’.

Even the Masseria dates back to to the 15th century when it was used as a watch tower by the Knights of Malta.

The hotel’s owners tell me they are currently involved in a project to restore nearby cave dwellings, carved from the porous limestone rock in the 11th century.

To visit the Lama D’Antico site, I walk through a shallow valley filled with the thick, twisted trunks of olive trees, some with branches embroiled like lovers.

Some of them must be as old as the caves.

No doubt past inhabitants would have benefited from their health-giving properties, just as locals still do today.