MASSERIA CIMINO HOTEL REVIEW – Mr and Mrs Smith, May 2010

Savelletri di Fasano, Italy, 29-31 May 2010

White and rust are the contrasting colours of the Masseria Cimino.

White for the walls and furniture inside and out, the raised boulders that form the swimming pool and a TV room so completely devoid of other colours that it feels like we’re watching Italian gameshows in heaven.

The rust appears in the supremely unfancy gate that rattles open on our arrival, in the vivid clay of the freshly turned earth that surrounds hundreds of scrunched and twisted olive trees, and the long-retired farming implements that line the walls inside – shovel heads, cow bells and six scythes pointing ominously downwards above the doorway to the restaurant.

It shows the stylish but unfussy feel of this 18th century collection of agricultural buildings turned 21st century retreat. Yes, you’re on a farm, but you won’t be getting your trousers dirty and you certainly won’t be expected to milk anything.

We arrived late at night and rather flustered. The Masseria is an hour’s drive from Bari airport, half an hour if you allow yourself to be harried beyond the speed limit by the endless headlight-flashing goons of the Italian autostrada. An incongruous moment of swanky treatment took place straight away, when a porter in a golf buggy arrived to drive our featherweight hand luggage, but not us, all of 20 yards to the reception.

After that it was straight into feeling right at home as the kitchen staff, working overtime for our benefit, instantly produced a wide array of local bits and pieces – courgettes in airy batter, pickled aubergines, chewy little cushions of foccacia bread and mozzarella so fresh it was like eating a cloud.

Mrs Smith and I gratefully ate our fill, sat back sated, and were presented with a thick broth of lentils, ham and robust local grain. “Soup? For pudding?” was my first thought before reality slowly dawned. This was not the late night snack menu but the full five-course bellybuster, and we had just consumed more antipasti than was strictly sensible.

“When you come to Puglia, you have to eat,” said our small, charming and somehow not massively overweight waiter, smilingly shoving fresh pasta, lamb stew and multiple cakes, all delicious, towards our bulging cheeks.

Hoisting our frames past the 13 smaller rooms in three different buildings to one of the two suites (where was golf buggy man when we needed him?) we discovered a proudly old-fashioned space joined to a private terrace large enough for an impromptu game of five-a-side football. The sitting room looked very like the one Grannie Smith only uses on Sunday afternoons – decorative crockery and paintings of fruit on the walls, two creaky rocking chairs, fully-loaded Sky TV tastefully hidden in an antique cabinet and a yawning fireplace that could double as a walk-in wardrobe.

The bedroom, with its towering domed ceiling, floaty curtains and light from two sides, was a tempting place to remain, though (just like at Grannie’s) a cross above the bed featuring Jesus in five different action poses threatened to put a dampener on any funny business.

Buffet breakfast brought with it a further opportunity to help ourselves to cake. Our crumb-encrusted persons could really have let ourselves go at this point were it not for the other guests, a catalogue-worthy collection comprised mostly of Italians whose four-year-olds were dressed more stylishly than us.

Reassuringly, the complimentary bicycles were less pristine, as rusty as the food was rustic. We groaned off down the dusty lane towards the slice of Adriatic Ocean visible from our balcony, a brief trundle that allowed us to spend more time pedalling along the rocky seafront. We passed the closest fishing village – compact, unremarkable Savelletri – as well as a gleaming seafront fish shop, Ittimar Basso Adriatico, that grew its own mussels out back, and a man selling vast basil plants from the back of a lorry. “What’s that smell?” Mrs Smith kept exclaiming, but in a good way.

On our return we could have played golf on the adjacent, highly rated San Domenico course, with green fees of EURO70 and no need for hotel guests to book. But Mrs Smith confessed she would rather swallow a 9-iron than caddy for me, so it was back in the car for the short drive to the hillsides and the “white city” of Ostuni.

We started to think this area was taking the white thing a bit far when we parked up and a dove immediately landed in front of us. Even the green and blue wheelie bins looked striking around these pale, up-and-down lanes. Reluctantly passing up our knowledgable receptionist’s other two lunch recommendations – local specialists Osteria Piazetta Cattedrale and the converted stables Osteria La Sparacima – we had to visit Osteria del Tempo Perso, tipped by absolutely everyone as the best spot in town. Puglian specialities such as courgette flowers in tempura batter stuffed with mint-scented ricotta, the wholemeal, ear-shaped orecchiette pasta with green turnip tops, and pure di fave (smooth, salty pureed fava beans) went beautifully beyond common perceptions of Italian food.

Back at the Masseria Cimino, wishing for a bath as we bashed elbows off the walls of our cubbyhole shower, we concluded that a stay here isn’t about conventional luxury. If you want that, head over the road to the newly opened, heavily gated Borgo Egnazia, which looks like a dictator’s summer residence.

But this place is luxurious in other ways – in the relief of not having to choose what’s for dinner, the homeliness of a deliberately chipped plate and the simple beauty of butterflies (white of course) dancing over a vegetable patch. We were sad to see that little weathered gate close for the last time.

www.masseriacimino.com

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