Sometimes all you need is a Saturday afternoon – the sky an egg wash blue, bare trees crackling against the softness of it, like great lightning bolts. A bedbound husband, a coffee fast going cold and a cake in the oven. 40 minutes to spare. 40 minutes to tell a story.
I want to tell you all about Lecce and the honeyed streets. The way the stone was as warm and rich as a pat of butter. We spent 12 months there – the most permanent home Dom and I have known for a long time. Our apartment was on the seam of the old town. In the first few months, I would quicken my step to get through Porta Rudiae, into the heart of the city. But by the end of the year, the orbits shifted and this messy hem of flat-roofed buildings and cracked pavements fizzled into focus. Within a 5 minute walk, we had everything we needed: three pizzerias, four cafes, three greengrocers, two fishmongers, a butcher, and a bakery that only baked Pugliese bread, pasticiotto and ‘pizzo’ – little gnarled rolls studded with onion, tomato and black olives, stone included.
Sometimes we’d walk through the quiet streets of the centro storico before dinner and wish we’d found somewhere there instead – the solitude a far cry from the eternal honking and hollering that filled the busy piazzetta. But that little scrap of Puglia was ours. A place where dialect blended with the conversations of the groups of men, young and old, that spent the summer evenings holding court outside our bedroom window. Once we watched a drunk girl take a piss beside the telephone box opposite our front door.
But then on a spring evening we’d take a bottle of wine up to little terrace at the back of the house, and watch the swallows dip and dive so low you could hear their wings slice through the thick air.
Often we longed for Venice, especially on a winter’s afternoon, when the air was cushioned by a perennial warmth; when we just longed for crispness and water. And then last Christmas, we returned our British car back to Cheshire, scaling Italy in one day and stopping in Venice for a pitstop. We visited our soon-to-be wedding venue, ate fried fish under the winter sun, and I thought of how lucky we were to live in a place that could turn from olive groves to the Dolomites in a day. And that as long as we were living in Italy, nothing would be lost.
Within a month of moving, we started Italian lessons with Elvira, who had three degrees in Archaeology but had given up finding a graduate job in southern Italy. She came to our house to teach us, but soon we realised we were spending most of the two hours talking about food so we became friends instead. When she invited us to an impromptu dinner party, we brought homemade sausage rolls while her boyfriend cooked seafood pasta for 15, with wine from plastic bottles and a giant pasticiotto for dessert. “Try it, it’s crack”, said one friend as he cut me a slice.
Now, as I think back to Puglia in the depths of winter, I long for it. But that is the way with nostalgia. In reality, by last summer we’d already planned a departure back to the north. There is a city called Mantua that Dom plucked from a map, and it seemed to promise everything we missed about northern Italy. Then we got married (there is nothing profound I can say about the wedding for it was simply and bluntly the best day of my life). And in July, I found out that I’d been offered a research scholarship for a PhD in Galway. I’d applied a few months before – a New Year’s pledge that actually turned into action, and then success.
So we packed it all up and left. Suddenly we weren’t living in Italy anymore. It felt like something had been ripped from us.
Now we come to Ireland, but I’m not here to write about that. The cake has just come out of the oven and it smells like the one I ate for breakfast when I was an au pair on the coast between Rome and Naples. It’s a yoghurt cake made with lemons and Puglian olive oil – the last of the Leccese stuff that I decanted from a big tin and brought home in passata jars. I want to use it up because in 10 days we’ll be back in Italy, making a new home in a place that’s neither Venice nor Lecce. And besides, olive oil is nothing to be hoarded, even the good stuff. It needs to be used before it turns rancid; generously, lovingly, glugged into soup, drizzled over bread, or stirred into a cake that brings you home.
PS. That cake is everything I’d hoped it would be -– you can find the recipe here.