The Puglia Diaries

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


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From Puglia to Piemonte

In the beginning of May, school was out for few days of holidays. I decided to go and visit Mum and Dad at their new flat in Villanova Mondovì, a little town in the mountains pretty much as far away from Molfetta you can get while still remaining in Italy. That’s what we have low cost flights for, even though I must say travelling with a planeful of Italian can sometimes be a chore. It seems to be a universal understanding that no one takes hold luggage, instead choosing to cram as many items as possible into a suitcase that is clearly too big for the cabin. And they clap when you touch down, which British people would never do.

Landing in Turin, I had a big hug from Mum and Dad, along with the usual complaint that I am always the last one off the aeroplane. Lily and Cassie were obviously head over harnesses to see me, wagging their tails and covering my coat in little white hairs. I was taken back to the quiet little village, the brand new apartment and shown my bedroom, where about 1/5 of my stuff is kept.

I had a chilled time in Piemonte, in terms of relaxation and temperature. I went out without a coat on the 2nd of May and shivered all the way around Cuneo. Thank goodness there are so many arcades because it tipped it down. This didn’t impede the typical mother-daughter activities of shopping and lunch out, as well as shopping for sweet souvenirs for Antonio from the best chocolate shop in town.

The weather got a lot better the next day and even allowed us to go shopping for tomato plants and read in the sunlit garden. It seems very unfair to the occupants of the other flats that they have tiny triangular gardens while my parents have possession of a long lawn where Lily and Cassie can career around playing football and flattening herbs. Anyway, it works for my father’s gardening habits.

On Saturday we also hosted a dinner party: my dad’s colleague and his family came over to eat. The whole morning was spent shopping for the starter, wine, cakes, breadsticks, meat until we were quite worn out already. I spent most of the day cutting the tops of beans, burning my fingers on roasted peppers and cutting up strawberries. My job was also to ascertain which moka made the best tasting coffee because one of them was really appalling, sorry Mum but you need to throw that one away.

The evening was very busy for me from start to finish as I entertained two very active little girls, aged 6 and 2. I found that my Italian had improved a lot since the last time I saw them; really I spent an awful lot of the time answering two sets of inquisitive questions about nail varnish and Finding Nemo. There was a fight about who would sit next to me and a drawing workshop that continued all evening. I did manage to chat to their parents for a while, who teased me for the Southern Italian accent that I have apparently developed over the year. They did say that I spoke well though, so I have confirmation that the year abroad has been useful in that way.

On Sunday we went for a drive among the vineyards over the mountains, towards Barolo where we had lunch in a little Osteria that we had visited two years before. The meal was obviously accompanied by the famous red wine, the meat itself was braised in wine and I tried some other Piemontese specialities like ‘bagna cauda’ and hazelnut cake with zabaione. We chatted about the future, the dogs stayed silent under the table and we just felt the lack of Izzy, our fourth member, as we wandered around in the sunny streets of Barolo. Dad tested out his flashy new iPhone on the views while we were driving over the hilltops.

In the days I spent with Mum and Dad, I enjoyed the things that I always do at home, spending the whole of Sunday afternoon baking biscuits, playing Mum’s new piano and driving the car (probably the second time this year). It really is an impressive part of Italy: Villanova is nestled in a bowl of mountains, still topped with snow and clear against the blue sky and the trees. It’s a landscape entirely different from that in Apulia, but no less beautiful.

 

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Lecce, Brindisi and nearly Greece

And it was back on the Apulian road for the Cooke family, early(ish) on Thursday morning. Of course I was up first to take care of Lily and Cassie, who from 6am onwards demand breakfast, exercise and attention. I also made sure that Izzy had enough croissant and Nutella inside her to last until lunchtime. Although judging by this photo, you wouldn’t think so.

We drove southwards again, this time hugging the coast and following the signs to Bari first, then Brinidisi and finally arriving at our destination, Lecce. I’d been told by travel blogs and people around me that Lecce was like the ‘Florence of the South’ with its beautiful baroque architecture. The Salento is certainly a part of Puglia that I would like to see more of when the weather gets warmer. On the day we spent there in early March, the sun shone through the streets of the Centro Storico and I even had to borrow Mum’s sunglasses which went great with my thick duffel coat.

As usual, our first thought when arriving was ‘where can we get some good Italian food?’ After almost two hours drive, we parked near one of the arches entering the old town and wandered through the stone streets, coming across a different church and ornate balconies on every corner. We happened across Piazza del Duomo where we stood in the sunshine for a while and bought a map of the main sights of Lecce. Dad and Izzy generously agreed that we could see everything I wanted to look at, provided that they didn’t have to go in any museums. Some things never change.

As luck would have it, Antonio had recommended a restaurant that we should try in the Centro Storico of Lecce. It was simply called ‘La Vecchia Osteria’ and we found it quite easily, using my shiny new map. Three pairs of puppy dog eyes (Lily’s, Cassie’s and mine) succeeded in getting the owner’s permission to bring them inside. So far, so good.

In fact, the meal was excellent. We all had some antipasti to start: mine was Anitpasti della Casa, a perfect mixture of all the Apulian things I love the most. If I could put together a personalised antipasti platter, that would be it. There were roasted peppers, capers, cime di rape, courgettes, ricotta, olives and more. Next we decided to have a pasta course: Mum went for some ravioli, while Dad, Izzy and I all followed Antonio’s special advice and ate ‘Ciceri e Tria’, one of Lecce’s specialities. This was essentially tagliatelle pasta with chickpeas in a sort of thin spicy sauce, with pieces of fried tagliatelle on top. We all enjoyed it very much: I’d definitely have this Salento special again. It was extremely filling though, so we were happy to walk off our meal afterwards. It had also become warm and crowded in the Osteria because a family party had turned up to squeeze onto one long table. An Italian family party is usually composed of lots and lots of people: this group was sat elbow to elbow, feeding children bread and tucking into the food being brought out every five minutes by hot-footed waiters. It looked like this banquet would last all afternoon.

Ciceri-e-Tria

Ciceri e Tria

We wandered around the old town in a slow loop, passing through Piazza Sant’Oronzo to look at the coat of arms of Lecce on the paving stones and the column with Sant’Oronzo, the city’s patron saint, perched on top of it. Dad went in a bookshop and bought a map (we would NOT be having a repeat of the day before) and we made our way back to the archway through small quiet streets glowing bronze in the sunlight. It was interesting for me to see the differences between the many old buildings of Lecce and the ones I have seen scattered across the province of Bari. I’ve grown accustomed to bright white stone cathedrals and Romanesque towers against blue sky but not so much that their beauty is lost on me. We also went to the Castle of Lecce but instead of looking round it, we chased pigeons by the fountain with Lily and Cassie, terrorising the neighbourhoods of Italy as usual.

This was plenty of exercise for us and also for the dogs, whose tiny legs are about ten times shorter than ours. I said arrivederci to Lecce’s baroque façades and we clambered back into the car to drive back up North. We would be taking a detour however, to find the vineyard producing the red wine that we had tasted on our first meal together in Molfetta. Of course. It wouldn’t be a family holiday without hunting for a vineyard in the middle of nowhere. Many hours of my life have been spent in a car, trawling across green nothingness and miniscule villages in France or Italy, searching for ‘Domaine so-and-so’ which doesn’t even seem to exist. And then a sign appears out of nowhere, with curly handwriting and a nonchalant little arrow, beckoning us to a country house and cool cellars, usually complete with a dog to stroke. This scenario repeated itself many times during my formative years but now that I’m older, I can at least have some wine when we finally arrive.

By some miracle, we came across the Tormaresca vineyard fairly easily. Once there, however, it proved very difficult to get inside. It seems that this site takes care of production and logistics more than sales to the public because there were two different entrances. We first went down a bumpy dirt track with puddles on it, spraying a poor scruffy dog that was wandering by the side of the road. This was definitely not the way in: warned off by signs of private property, we tried the next one. This didn’t look right either, but approaching the metal, factory-like structure ahead of us, we found an intercom and eventually gained access to the building. We headed down a long corridor with a thin window into the cellars: barrels stood lined up in rows, at least three deep, presumably with wine maturing inside them. We were received into an odd meeting room, told that we could buy some wine but not taste any. I suppose they didn’t want to open a bottle, but my parents are used to the generous French wine sellers of Languedoc Roussillon, who let you try so much that you can barely drive home afterwards.

It was around half past four by this time and still a pleasant afternoon. We followed signs towards Brindisi, planning to look at the port before heading back to Molfetta. It was not the nicest route I’ve ever seen, although by heading through the industrial area of the city we came across the long searched for Audi garage, only to find that they didn’t have any cables for iPhone 5s. Doh. The next misadventure was a wrong turn at a roundabout, which took us on a slow downwards incline towards a ferry. That’s right, we almost ended up on a boat to Greece, maybe even Albania. This provoked a swift reverse back up the hill and another bout of laughter. Eventually we made it to the seafront of Brindisi, which is actually fairly modern and well-kept, in time to have a walk in the fading pink light by the harbour.

 

Man, were we tired by that point…on the way back we stopped off at a big supermarket in Bari to buy some things to make a meal at home that evening. We shared a big salad and some of the wine that Mum and Dad had purchased, taking a break from incessant visits to restaurants and letting Lily and Cassie get some rest. There would be more walking to be done the next day.


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Winter’s Not Bad when there’s Wine

I am doing a bad job of keeping this blog up to date. Between work, eating, marking tests, more eating, going to the gym and doing other fun stuff, I have let my experiences in Puglia stack up, unwritten, as the time flies by. I can’t believe it’s nearly December: I’ve bought a pair of gloves, the Christmas tree is up and it’s only 27 days until Baby Jesus joins the Nativity scene next to the TV.

Last Saturday, I took to the winding streets of Bisceglie for a wine festival called “Calici nel Borgo Antico”, or ‘Wine glasses in the Old City’. Winemakers from all over the region had set up their collections in rooms dotted around the historical part of town: for 10€ you could buy a glass, enough tickets for 7 tasters and a bag of taralli, which are like curly mini breadsticks. The streets were full of people milling around with Bordeaux pouches around their necks, an excellent idea so that you could put away your glass while you walked between tastings. Maybe not the hottest look of 2013 but all the same a nice souvenir from the evening.

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We tried a good few wines, from sweet syrupy moscati to strong red Pugliese wines, none of which I remember the name. The servings were generous, more than just a sip let’s say. One of my friends got her savvy uncle on the phone to find out the best wine makers out of the 25 in attendance and we weaved our way through the streets to find them, comparing opinions and trying to keep ahead of the pushchairs biting at our ankles. Even if it was based on alcohol, this festival was certainly an affair for all ages, with families, groups of friends and children. I saw a couple of my students from school and let down my I-don’t-speak-Italian façade once again (oops).

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Walking around the streets lit with Christmas lights, I felt that the evening was the epitome of all things Italian. There was the wine of course, strong and dark, but also a variety of food on offer. I bought a plate of orecchiette pasta for 1 euro and helped my friends finish a cheese platter (meaning I ate the plaited mozzarella they didn’t like – I am basically a human dustbin). Still hungry, I got myself a piece of focaccia later on, smothered in roasted tomatoes and olive oil and still one of my favourite foods from around here.

Apart from food and drink, there was also an opera performance, with singers belting out well-known arias from a balcony in one of the main squares. Also in attendance were some less conventional performers playing with fire and chains. I love these kinds of events, all about being with friends and bumping into people you know in a crowd of people that mostly look genuinely happy with life.

ImageAfter a 1am ‘cornetto’ and a coffee, it was time to go back to Molfetta. The car journey was fun because we were listening to Fabrizio de Andre, whose music my friends grew up with. They sang the whole song without stopping or missing a lyric while I just sat there smiling. Here is one of the ‘choons’ in question.

The evening was pretty cold, and despite going out with hat and coat and layers, I was told I looked like one of those red-nosed little characters from Whoville, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Appropriately festive, but I did feel a bit of a cold coming on the next day. I fought it off by helping to put up and decorate the Christmas tree, and then picking clementines from the mini orchard right here in the garden. Overall, a lovely wintery weekend.