At the height of a Mediterranean summer, the air is quiet and still. A breathless heat reverberates from the road and I pedal faster to feel a hint of breeze.
My guide Andrea and I are on the first leg of a 40km cycle through the Puglia countryside.
Past olive groves and dry stone walls, on tiny roads which meander across the undulating landscape, we ride through abandoned streets of dusty villages, where church clocks never seem to keep true time and buildings show signs of decay.
But here are tended pots of what look like begonias and nasturtiums overflowing from windowsills, and there, parked haphazardly at the roadside, is a blue Piaggio Ape, a lightweight, three-wheel truck that is to the Italian countryside what the Vespa is to its cities. These vehicles – pronounced “ah-pey”, which means “bee” in Italian – zip down the back lanes of towns, carrying everything the land has to offer.
We hardly see anyone until, going around a bush-lined bend, we encounter several contadini, or Italian farmhands, bent over and picking scarlet tomatoes from vines, then loading them onto a nearby truck.
I ask Andrea to stop so I can take a few photographs and, inadvertently, attract the attention of the group’s foreman, rotund of belly and cheek, with skin the same rusty brown as the earth under his fingernails. He smiles and I try my luck, asking if I can sample a tomato.
The foreman happily offers me one of each type grown in the field, a long San Marzano and an orb he calls a…
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