If anything was going to bring me back to writing, it was going to be a baked peach.
Ever since the days of reading Jane Grigson in the greengrocers at my Saturday job, bundled up in knitwear and watching the clock on the wall tick laboriously by, I’ve dreamt of baked peaches.
In the summer, late August usually, an elderly Italian woman who lived in Bungay would bring in a crate of peaches; big and fat and rosy. They were from her garden, and I would buy three and take them home to savour. The shop is no longer there, but the idea of a peach tree in Suffolk – perhaps planted by a homesick immigrant – has stayed with me.
I ate those home-grown peaches with gusto – no time for baking – but I would think of Jane Grigson’s recipe for baked peaches as the juice dribbled down my chin. The hollow left from the stone is filled with crumbled amaretti – or coconut macaroons, this is after all 1980s Britain. The cooked peaches are then doused in sabayon sauce (zabaione to an Italian). At 15, this struck me as the height of sophisticated simplicity. A baked peach, a silky custardy sauce.
Every time summer has rolled around in the years since, I’ve thought about baked peaches. But the fruit is always too small, or too juicy, or too precious for baking.
Now I’m in southern Italy at harvest time, and peaches are everywhere. So on Monday I bought two of the ripest I could find, a bag of amaretti biscuits and a tub of thick mascarpone. I didn’t follow a recipe – sorry Jane – and I ate the peaches standing up at the counter, spoon darting from bowl to mascarpone tub. I meant to have one, but ended up eating the whole lot.
That’s when I knew I was onto something good. So today I went out and bought peaches to bake again, except I’m going to share them with you this time. While they’re in the oven, let me tell you about Puglia.
If, at the lip of darkness, Venice is like an oil slick – iridescent and all-consuming – Salento is a gleaming moonstone. It’s all shadows and stone down here at the heel.
We spend a lot of evenings after work walking through Lecce’s historic centre, sometimes ending up with a cocktail at Quanto Basta or a carafe of 4 euro wine at one of the places down by Piazza Castromediano. And in the darkness, when the sandy buildings are lit from below, the whole place glows like honeyed stone. It is a country of thousand-year-old olive trees, of rock, and of ocean as still and warm as a pebble in the sun.
Our journey down here was long. We drove from Cheshire to Provence where we spent two glorious weeks with Dom’s family doing nothing much at all except eating and drinking and swiming. Then in August we packed up the car again and followed the Ligurian Riviera to Parma, where we ate gnocchi fritti with a good friend before carrying on south. Our final stop was in Foggia – the part of Puglia that people don’t visit. The undulating hills of Marche slow to a stop, and instead there are quarries and the soft glow of industry in the distance. We passed a house on fire, flames crawling up the walls from the ground, as if its seams had been laced with petrol.
We spent the night at an out-of-town motel in San Severo (when we finally arrived in Lecce, the estate agent winced when we told him the name). But as it turned out, the restaurant attached to that motel served the best fish we’d ever eaten with the friendliest service, and it convinced us that we’d be alright here.
I bought a bike within the first week of arriving in Lecce, and every Sunday I cycle to a nearby bakery for warm pasticiotti – custard-filled pies scented with a hint of orange. And in the mornings I go to the greengrocer, the bakery and the deli. Sometimes the butcher and fishmonger too, although we’ve quickly become Pugliese in our eating habits: lots of pasta, lots of vegetables, not much meat and fish only when we’re feeling frivolous.
Life is good here. The accent is impenetrable, the whole world shuts down from one to five, and someone has already stolen our rubbish bins, but we’ve fallen into an easy rhythm. We still miss Venice, especially in these recent days, when the air has been tinged with autumn and the thought of a spritz in Campo Santa Margherita grips us tight. But we’ll be back.
For now though, let’s talk about those peaches. The recipe is simple: find the biggest peaches or nectarines that you can, then cut them through the middle and twist to reveal the stone. Remove it, and fill the hollow with a pile of crushed amaretti biscuits. Delia and Jane say to mix them with an egg yolk, but I say leave them as is, and top with a pat of butter instead. Bake them at 180 for 15 minutes, or until they’re soft and gooey, with a pool of sticky juices. Eat warm – sitting down optional – with a dollop of buttery mascarpone cheese.