Our holiday in Salento has become a habit. Tommaso and I go to Puglia to visit his uncle and aunt, his nonna, their house a few steps from the sea, where over the years I learnt to recognize the light and the rhythms. Now I know where the dishes and the pans are, where to take a shower outside, in the courtyard, on the way back from the beach, when it’s market day.
As every year, I arrive in Puglia brimming with expectations and with the longest to-do list: podcasts to listen, books to read, stories to write.Then, the hopeful idea of walking every morning, leaving home early with the goal of a caffè in ghiaccio, a coffee on ice with almond milk, in the town centre. This year, I said to myself, I won’t cook, we’ll dine out: every night a different place, a masseria, a farm among the olive trees, or a restaurant on the beach, overlooking the sea.
We arrived in Porto Cesareo after nine taxing hours of nocturnal driving, thanks to a thermos of iced tea and one of hot coffee. We settled in at home, spreading freshly laundered sheets on a double bed – now we are married – in a white room with a dim light. I had just begun to surrender to the idea that for once I would forget cooking, waiting for the arrival of Tommy’s relatives during the weekend, when I remembered that Thursday is market day in Porto Cesareo.
The next day we left early to start ticking off the list of what I wanted to bring back home, my supplies for the whole year: let’s face it, this is the main reason why we go to Puglia by car and not by plane, despite the long nine hours it takes us to get there.
I came back home from the market with a kilo of local almonds – those that have a distinct coconut flavour -, a kilo of meaty sun dried tomatoes and a bag of dry oregano, delicate and balsamic, two kilos of teeny tiny capers in salt, and a bag of sticky, black olives. I looked out over the dock, where they sell fruit and vegetables every Thursday, and I couldn’t resist courgettes, local green beans, with darker tips, white mulberries, and a basket of small, yellow plums. Signora, take two baskets, these are so sweet. Then the cherries, the cantaloupes, sweet as honey, and the first ripe figs, lying on their leaves.
You can not leave the town centre without visiting the local bakery: here we bought bread, pucce, soft buns with black olives, dusted with flour, and pizzi, even smaller buns, dense, studded with black olives, rich with stewed onions, tomatoes and a hint of chili pepper. The supermarket sells the products of a nearby dairy farm: I bought the mozzarella – the biggest one, the bomb they call it -, and a basket of freshly made ricotta, moving. It was still warm in my hands.
The idea of dining out every night dissolved on the way back home, faced with all the possibilities I felt there, in the weight of the straw bag full of vegetables, in the smell of dried oregano, in the warmth of freshly made ricotta.
The holidays I like
All of a sudden, I remembered how we used to spend the holidays at the seaside with my parents when I was a child. In the early morning, we would go to town riding our bike, to buy fruit and vegetables, then we would spend a few hours on the beach, swimming, walking along the shore and building sand castles. A quick lunch, then the afternoon was all for us, to read, draw or play in the shade of the pine trees or in silence, inside our rented house, while the adults would take a nap. And then back to the beach, until sunset, until dinner time.
We would always have dinner at home, as my parents would take us out to eat a pizza just once during our holidays. After dinner, it was time for a gelato in a cone, eaten while strolling in town, looking at shop windows or choosing old comics and second-hand books. Those holidays left a mark on me, an imprint. After months of work, cooking classes, projects and deadlines, there is no better way to relax and reclaim my space and my time. Cooking has always been part of the plan.
During these holidays, Giulia, be kind to yourself, I said to my reflection in the mirror just before closing the door and getting into our car, at a merciless hour when people usually come back home in the summer. This has been my mantra for the whole vacation: no obligations, a few hours every day to write, more to jot down my thoughts than to respect a deadline, walks along the shore and readings on the beach, and a summer effortless cooking made of lots of vegetables and fruit, whole wheat pasta, canned tuna and mozzarella.
Summer effortless cooking
A gas cooker on a corner of the kitchen and a white ceramic sink in the courtyard, where you can rinse your vegetables and splash yourself with fresh water whenever you need it. Short cooking, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to finish. Lots of vegetables, basil leaves and dried tomatoes.
As I cook on a daily basis for work and pleasure, when I’m on vacation my cooking style is essential, effortless, aiming to subsistence.
We clean the green beans sitting at the table in the living room, the shutters left ajar on the street that comes back from the sea: the last bathers return home dragging flip flops covered in sand, beach umbrellas and air beds. The children run home carrying the warmth of the sun on their skin, while the nonne stop to greet those who are already on their balconies, hanging swimming suits and beach towels.
Inside the house, in the cool room, bare feet on the floor, we look unseen at those who pass by, and in the meantime, we clean the beans, gradually dropping them with a thud in a large ceramic bowl. We exchange just a few words, absorbed in a repetitive and relaxing activity, fully addicted to these family rhythms, of summer effortless cooking.
These are a few recipes from the archive which perfectly represent my ideal summer effortless cooking.
Pasta with tuna, parsley, basil and capers
This is one of my favourite summer dishes, pasta with tuna, parsley, basil and capers. Nothing particularly refined, but so simple, immediate and fresh. While the pasta water boils just finely chop fresh basil and fresh parsley and a good handful of capers, then add good quality canned tuna and finish with a generous drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil. It tastes like summer, holidays, lazy afternoons spent reading your favourite book in the shade of an old tree, midnight swim and cicadas concerts. Get the recipe here.
French bean salad with hard boiled eggs and olives
This dish debunks the myth that all salads are boring. It fills you up and has a heady basil smell. But above all, it is vibrant in its summer colours: the olives wink among the French beans and the eggs add substance. Do not omit the anchovies, they will make a difference.
Add a plate of ripe tomatoes, some bread croutons and a fruit salad and you can easily feed a bunch of friends you have invited over for dinner. If there are any leftovers, or if you’ve been so far-sighted as to put some away, you’ll also have a ready lunch to bring to the office or to the swimming pool the next day. Get the recipe for the French bean salad here.
Sage and almond ragout, a three-ingredient pasta sauce
This is just the most essential three ingredient sauce for your pasta. You’ll need almonds, better if unpeeled, as this will add colour to your sauce, fresh sage for an aromatic note and your best extra virgin olive oil.
You can either chop almonds and sage with a sharp knife if you have time on your side, or simply throw them into a cutter. Hold the button until almonds and sage are finely chopped. Drizzle with olive oil, sauté for a couple of minutes, then toss in the pasta with some cooking water. Cook for two more minutes and you’re ready to bring this to the table to feed your hungry crowd. Get the recipe here.
Barley salad with vegetables
Whole grain barley has a rustic and almost crunchy texture, the base for an infinite variety of summer salads. Toss the barley with sautéed eggplants, zucchini and tomatoes, add a handful of black olives and tear in some fresh basil leaves. Drizzle with your best extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with dried oregano. Make it in advance, stash your barley salad in the fridge for a quick weeknight dinner or bring it to the next bbq. Find recipe here.
By the sea
From the sea, Porto Cesareo is a succession of low, square houses, with spacious terraces and light colours. Here and there, a few palm trees. The beach is getting narrower every year, overgrown with weeds and Mediterranean scrub. In those few meters left, just a couple of bathers: June is the perfect month, still far from the crowded days of July and August.
In the morning, during the walk, the sea is populated by old men, immersed in the water up to their knees, a faded tank top, their skin like leather, already toasted by the sun. They browse the seabed with bare feet in search of mussels. The nonne are wrapped in dark swimming suits, potbellied and proud, they walk in the cold water that laps their hips, to improve their poor blood circulation. They look like Greek amphorae.
As I get into the water, I realise I am inadvertently mimicking their position: hands on my hips, chin up, my gaze fixed on the horizon. Next to me Tommaso, hands behind his back, just like the old men savouring the peace of their sea at sunset. I hope we will grow old like this, looking forward, together.
Breakfast at the café
During the year, for me, breakfast is always at home, with a book or the radio in the background: a whole teapot of steaming hot tea in winter, in summer a mug of cold coffee diluted with almond milk. Breakfast in a coffee bar feels immediately like holiday. It is something different from the everyday routine: you take your time, sipping a coffee, sitting next to each other, talking and watching the tourists and the locals who pass by, already dressed for the beach.
When we are in Porto Cesareo, having breakfast in a café has become a ritual since the first time I visited Salento, a moment I look forward to for the whole year. This is essentially due to my equally divided love for pasticciotti and caffé in ghiaccio.
In summer, you can find cold coffee also here in Tuscany – caffè shakerato if you want to have it -, but it has nothing to do with what you have in Salento. A small glass with five ice cubes, a milky almond syrup on the bottom. Then they pour an espresso on top of the ice cubes. Stir with a spoon and drink: the flavour of the coffee is the first to hit your senses, then comes the sweetness of the almond syrup with its notes of amaretto, finally the ice cubes, which rest on your lips and instantly send shivers down your spine. Now I am awake.
The pasticciotti, on the other hand, are served warm. Crumbly shortcrust shells, ostentatiously made with lard, with a filling of thick pastry cream. There’s a hint of Strega, a southern herb-based yellow liqueur. In the centre, sometimes, a single sour cherry in syrup. They are the ideal contrast to iced coffee, the taste of Salento.
A few links of some of summer reading at the beach.
- Save me the plums, by Ruth Reichl. Trailblazing food writer and beloved restaurant critic Ruth Reichl took the job (and the risk) of a lifetime when she entered the high-stakes world of magazine publishing. Now, for the first time, she chronicles her groundbreaking tenure as editor in chief of Gourmet. I’ve devoured every book by Ruth Reichl, and this was, again, love at first sight. I laughed, I cried, I got inspired and I got hungry, but mostly, once more I realised why I love so much the food world. Such a fascinating book!
- Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. This book was a slap in the face, with an open hand. I was quite skeptical when I started it, I went on with some curiosity and then, when I read the last page, I realised the mental and psychological progress the book had helped me experience. I’ll have to think about it a a little longer, I’ll have to put into practice some of the tips and strategies, but I’ll definitely talk about this book again.
- Did you know that Sophia Loren, one of Italy’s most representative actresses, is also a food writer? Apparently also very appreciated. Here you can read about one of her books, which of course I have already added to my wish list.
- Anthony Bourdain Showed Me How to Travel. There was real reward in his unbridled curiosity for places more honest than famed. For me, the notion was a revelation.
Cooking with an Italian Accent, the podcast
There is no better moment than summer to listen to a podcast. Have you already listened to these episodes? They will put you in a summer mood:
In the new episode, I’ll tell you more about the recipes I cooked while on holiday in Salento. Don’t miss it!