The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy


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Eating Easter: An Ode to Ricotta

As Easter approached in Molfetta, people began to get excited not only about the impending processions, but also at the prospect of eating their traditional Easter food. I’ve already talked about the chunky “pizzarello” sandwich, so now it’s time to turn to the various delights that sweeten up the Easter weekend.

I was told about the ‘scarcella’ at least ten times over the course of April, by my host family, by friends and by students. It took me that long to memorize the name: without seeing Italian names written down, they seem to go in one ear and out of the other. The ‘scarcella’, I’ve been told, varies depending on the tastes of the person who makes it but it can be loosely placed on the border between the categories of cake and biscuit (a bit like Jaffa Cakes, I suppose).  At Antonio’s house, I ate a fairly simple kind: a thick crumbly biscuit shaped like a big heart, or even like a dove, with a white sugar glaze and coloured hundreds and thousands. The lemon flavour was quite subtle, these were delicious with milk at breakfast time. I later sampled other ‘scarcelle’: one made by Antonella’s friend, this one softer with a lemon marmalade/jam/curd/whatever in the middle, and then one made by a local pasticcieria with the full Epicurean works. This masterpiece was filled with cherry jam and a layer of marzipan, then covered in an egg white glaze and chocolate piping.

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Another sweet discovery I made this Easter was the Neapolitan “pastiera”. The pastiera is a kind of wheat tart, made with a cooked grain, ricotta, egg and candied fruit filling. I’d never heard of such a thing but I helped Antonio’s mother make not one, but two tarts over the Easter period. Number one was consumed over a week or so in little aromatic squares: I suppose it could be described kind of like a solid rice pudding flavoured with some special essence called ‘Millefiori’ or ‘a thousand flowers’. Number Two was baked a couple of days before I went to Mondovì, up North in Piemonte, to visit Mum and Dad. The pie, 50cm in diameter, was sliced and packed with care in Tupperware and cling film and a big box with Botticelli’s Venus on the front. Then it was slotted into my hand luggage, all four kilos of it, and smuggled through security at Bari airport. I looked back at Antonio with an OK sign to show that the operation had been successful. But then, nowhere in Ryanair’s Terms and Conditions is there written ‘no food, no tarts’. Had they opened my suitcase, they might have thought I was some kind of dealer for Italian baked goods. Do they even exist? If so, someone get me in touch with one, I need my ricotta fix next year.

Italians take their love of gastronomy to an extreme level on national holidays. At Easter, families gather together around a table laden with food, wine and water, for a meal lasting three hours plus, bringing together several generations. It’s great, but really not healthy or reasonable at all. Still, it only happens a couple of times a year and at Easter, any guilt that we feel should go towards the Passion of Christ, not our waistlines. Let’s forget about gluttony, just for argument’s sake…

On Easter Sunday, Antonio invited me to have lunch with his family at a restaurant in the countryside near Ruvo di Puglia, a town near Molfetta. It was an “agriturismo”, a kind of farm located up in the Murgia, the gently hilly Apulian fields lined with olive trees and vines winding up tall stakes. The landscape is full of undulating yellows, greens and browns, the hills topped with a line of hazy light. We drove along the country paths from Corato towards the Coppa Agriturismo, and when we got out of the car, I was instantly reminded of Scuderia Castello in the hills above Lake Garda. That  eternal smell of horses, reminiscent of early morning feeding time, trotting after a wheelbarrow at the age of 9, almost getting our hands bitten off by a rogue piebald. Then a donkey rolling in the sun reminded me of the famous trio of placid animals that let us brush them the wrong way for hours at a time.

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At Scuderia Castello in 2012

We headed inside the restaurant, which was a refurbished stable with cool light bricks and a high arched ceiling. There were six of us around the table: Antonio’s grandfather was particularly jovial, calling me by a different name each time (Marilena, Gioconda, Josefina, Silvia and Silvana among the many) until I just looked his way every time a girl’s name was mentioned, just in case.  There was a lot of laughter and a lot of dialect and a lot of food, but that goes without saying. It started with at least eight different types of anitpasti, including roasted vegetable skewers, meats, freshly made ricotta and mozzarella, a variety of focaccia and fritelle. The highlights were some cute little toast canapés with designs of ladybirds and bumblebees. We took pictures to show Izzy, for inspiration. It was delicious but we were apprehensive about the shedloads of food still to come. The next courses were orecchiette with a lamb sauce and then some kind of crêpe stuffed  with the classic combo, spinach and more ricotta. Then it was time for a walk to try and make some room for the rest, fennel, grilled meat, and finally dessert and coffee. The chocolate biscuits and scarcella remained lonely and untouched as we reached maximum capacity.

Despite this calorie explosion, Mother says I haven’t gained weight; that I’m just toned.  I’m inclined to believe her rather that admit that I’m on a one way street to “paffuto”. But ah well, no one can say I’m not making the most of the local cuisine. Especially ricotta.

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Why I Love Italians

This weekend, I paid extra attention to what makes the Italian people around me so special. Sometimes cultural stereotypes are nonsense: the French are no ruder than any other population and not all British people need extensive dental work. It seems to me though that the common perception of Italian people is not so far off the mark. Of course, there are exceptions to every general rule but my stay here so far has shown me that…

1)    The Italians DO have amazing food

What I love about Molfetta is that things grind to halt around 1pm so that families can have lunch together. This weekend, I was chatting to my friends about what we had for lunch, and every one of us had eaten pasta or rice. Of course every day there is a different sauce or a different accompaniment but this primo (‘first course’) invariably keeps you going all afternoon. It’s a shame that the concept of ‘Italian food’ is sometimes reduced to spaghetti and pizza. The Italian diet is so much more varied and uses loads of fresh vegetables. On Friday, I made myself a frittata con zucchine and although I spent the best part of the evening cleaning the tin, I was very happy with my efforts. Other culinary highlights include fresh fish and little pieces of knotted mozzarella that actually tastes of something. Oh, and the deliciously thick hot chocolate, best shared on a rainy afternoon, with biscuits and apricot jam.

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2)    The Italians DO love fashion

On Sunday morning, we went to look around the big shiny shopping centre in Molfetta called La Mongolfiera (which translates as hot air balloon – an interesting name for a supermarket). It was packed with shoppers and excitable children in Disney costumes. We browsed Zara and then looked at the range of six inch heels in Primadonna shoe shop. One of my favourite shops there is Oysho, a ‘loungewear’ shop that could satisfy the wishes of any pyjama seeker. It seems that the Italians are even stylish lying in front of the TV eating Nutella with a spoon. They are ready to dazzle unexpected visitors with their cashmere cardigans and lace-sleeved pyjamas.  I could spend a great deal of time and money in that shop: I almost went for some slippers that would perfectly match my giraffe onesie, which alas I have left in Leeds. All to say that Italians love fashion and usually dress well (apart from the teenagers at school who go around in track pants and trainers 24/7). Both women and men appear to have an extensive collection of shoes, and don’t even get me started on coats and handbags. Meanwhile, I sometimes dress like this:

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CUTE

 

3)    Italians ARE extremely expressive

There is a running joke that if you handcuffed an Italian, they would be unable to speak. Hand gestures are used ALL THE TIME. Some of them have specific meanings like ‘what?’ or ‘look at that asshole’ and some are just to give emphasis to their already emphatic speech. I now think that British people are creepily calm. They stay still when they speak and keep a regular tone in their voice even when they get angry. Italians are very quick to shout and throw their arms up in the air. Interjections make up a whole lexicon that I am slowly growing to understand.

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I went to see a volleyball match for the first time on Sunday evening. Molfetta was playing Trento and the atmosphere was loud and buzzing. There was a squadron of people in red playing drums and chanting to support our home team. There was a man exuberantly sounding a horn that I could have done without, but in general I enjoyed watching the crowd just as much as the match. At one point, Trento challenged a point that clearly belonged to Molfetta. There was a Mexican wave of Italians up in arms, yelling ‘VERGOGNA’ (or ‘SHAAAAAME’) and making an offensive gesture demonstrating the sign of the horns, which literally means ‘cuckold’ (you’ve been cheated on, man). It was rowdy and lively, and even though Molfetta lost, they put up a good fight and we went for ice cream from my favourite gelateria afterwards. I had cappuccino and lemon nougat flavour (che buono!)

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4)    The Italians ARE very friendly

Okay, so maybe this isn’t just an Italian thing. I’ve met friendly people from all over the world. But generally, Italians are just more outgoing and publicly affectionate than their British counterparts. They talk to strangers on public transport. They stand remarkably close to you in conversation and squeeze your arm for no particular reason. The boys at school are constantly slapping each other on the back and engaging in massive bear hugs between classes, something that I imagine never happens in a British school. On Saturday evening, I went out with friends to a pub in Bisceglie. Four of us squeezed into the back seat of the car, and then in the bar itself, all fifteen of us had to squash up into an impossibly small booth, taking up all the space the benches would offer. The process of sitting down was 20 minutes of chaos and noisy confusion. We were sat practically on top of each other and cut up our pizza with our elbows tucked in. On the way home, we compared an Italian night out with the typical British outing on any given Friday or Saturday. My friends were surprised/shocked to hear of student partying, of us going to the ‘discoteca’ every weekend (sometimes more than once) and told me that everyone knew the British have a reputation for getting horribly drunk. To be sure, pre-drinks and smoky nightclubs are very different from late night pizza, a single beer and then if we’re feeling indulgent a coffee and croissant. Both nights have their very separate merits but I have to say that doing the latter has a lower risk of being sick in a plant pot on your way home.

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(Apologies – due to lack of own pictures, one of these is from a  website called ‘titillate’ and the other from a toothpaste advert with a scary looking man in it)

With my family situation becoming more complicated now that both Mum and Dad are living in Italy, it seems that this country is slowly turning into my ‘permanent’ home, if such a place should exist. I am happy because I feel increasingly that I belong among these wonderful Italians, making eye contact in the post office, raising my voice and catching the smell of freshly baked focaccia drifting from open doorways.


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Prepare yourself, Puglia

In one week, my year abroad will finally begin. After months of telling friends, family and strangers what I will be doing, I am going to actually start doing it: I will move to Molfetta, a coastal town in Puglia. On the 1st of October, I start my British Council Language Assistantship at an Istituto Tecnico, a vocational technical secondary school.

So before I start worrying about my role as a teaching assistant, what am I looking forward to about life in Molfetta?

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Living by the sea

Judging from photos and a few awkward attempts at Google Street View, Molfetta is a proper Italian town. With its ubiquitous green shutters, intertwined alleyways and the impressive Duomo right on the water’s edge, it seems to promise eternal summer and lots of fresh sea air. I can picture myself riding about on an old bicycle and never getting bored of the bright blue Adriatic. Cue the classic Italian guitar track.

Meeting new people

On my arrival in Molfetta, I will be lodging with the vice-president of the secondary school. It was my top goal to live with Italians and luckily for me, I have avoided the hassle of an accommodation search and instantly got a link with the locals. As well as experiencing the community of Molfetta, I am also in close reach of the student hub Bari, so I’ll have somewhere to go in search of shops and urban scenery.

Travelling

I have never been to the South of Italy, let alone Puglia, so this will be an opportunity to explore. I could start with the highlights of the area: the Baroque city of Lecce and the famous Valle d’Itria, with its little houses called trulli with conical roofs. Will they be conical and comical? We shall see.

Food

I’m going to pretend that food isn’t the top thing I look forward to. But I have heard such raving about the pasta, seafood and fresh vegetables on offer in Puglia that I believe I might have gone up a dress size by the time I get back to Leeds. Apparently the typical pasta shape of the region is orecchiette, meaning small ears. Lovely!

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Improving my Italian

So far at university I have managed to get by on good written work and the occasional timid oral presentation, but not next year! My first assignment is to telephone the school to make sure they know I’m coming. This already scares me. But I will have to get used to total immersion from my first week dealing with banking, telephone contracts and other administrative thrills. I have a feeling that progress will be inevitable!

My friends are already far-flung, having already begun their adventures in France, Spain, Germany, Canada and Wales, so now it is my turn to embark on my year abroad. Let the final countdown begin.