Soon my life will change forever. It's the start of a new life stage, the end of 18 years of full-time motherhood. Sixteen of them on my own. My daughter starts university in a week. After a tough year, my annus horribilis, which I can't even talk about, we needed a holiday.
My daughter complains her childhood was punctuated with impromptu trips 'C'mon, pack, we are going to Morocco this afternoon' and she would trail after me, while I would quench my wanderlust. We never had any money for hotels and stayed in backpackers hostels, the back of the van, or camped. Everything was done on the cheap, a single mother's budget. The daily choice was always: a place to stay or a restaurant meal. We could never afford both. I remember going for a meal with another mum and her kids. After the pizza, my daughter asked if she could have dessert. This mum was taken aback, her kids always assumed they could have pudding. My girl learnt early that money was tight. Which is one of the reasons, apart from the typical teenager's reluctance to leave their bedroom, she hates travelling. Because that is what we've always done, travel, rather than 'go on holiday'.
This time I lured her with the promise of an actual holiday: hotel, hired car, meals in restaurants - the full Monty, just like normal families. Ok, we still have to be careful, no five star for us, I'm a freelance after all and I have to pay for two on one income, but this was a new departure.
But some things never change: I booked everything last minute. Three days on the internet, looking at hotels and flights and thinking my god, how do normal families do it? Everything is just so expensive. How can anyone afford to go on holiday? It costs thousands!
Finally, I booked a flight to Bari with an appropriate company, lastminute.com, by phone as the website wasn't working. Relieved I'd made a decision, I booked the hotel and the car hire. The next morning lastminute.com sent me an email: your booking has been cancelled. There is a security problem so we've decided, overnight, to cancel.
I remembered a strange phone call late at night from a heavily accented man asking to know my bank details and my address. I said no and put down the phone. That's the sort of thing they warn you about isn't it?
So I spent half the next day trying to get them to reinstate the flights. Why were they cancelled? I pleaded, after hacking through the thicket of call centre barriers, and rising stress, which the holiday was supposed to relieve, started to tighten around my neck and shoulders. You aren't on the electoral register, came the reply, that's why we cancelled your flights. Which is odd as I am, I even vote and... do you really have to be a registered voter in order to go on holiday with lastminute.com? Eventually they rebooked my flights and, as a big favour, said they would do it at the same price. And I was supposed to be grateful. Right.
|Goats on the beach|
|Expresso, figgy croissants, cannoli|
|Fishermans catch at Trani port; lumache|
|Carob pods; ricotta stuffed ravioli; the thinnest pizza and freshest, spiciest rocket; washing in Martina Franca|
|In Lecce, a baroque city in the south, they had a street football competition.|
|Gelato. I didn't think the icecream in Puglia was quite as good as elsewhere but we still managed to eat quite alot.|
|The baroque architecture of Lecce|
|My daughter ate these every day: orecchiette or little ears. The ones down south in Martina Franca were quite tough, they were softer by the coast.|
|Shopkeepers and farmers|
|I'm in love with these peppers: the round ones are called Ciliegino and they are harvested in September.|
|The Trulli houses in Alberobello. We also had a 'trulli' coffee.|
|Cucina Povera makes use of fabulous fresh vibrant vegetables. Almonds are also grown and can be made into a liqueur or syrup. Outside a house in Alberobello, I bought home dried figs stuffed with almonds and zest of lemon.|
|I was obsessed with spaghetti vongole; I ate it mostly bianco or 'white' but sometimes with tomato. Above left they served it with trofie but that's not as good a shape with this sauce as linguine or spaghetti.|
|The wine was excellent. Puglia is famous for the primitivo grape, but I also enjoyed the chardonnay and the lovely light 'vivace' wine on the left, which had a mildly petillant bubble.|
Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, is known for Cucina Povera, poor cuisine, whereby the creative natives have turned their lack of dough into... some of the best bread in Italy. In Clerkenwell, London, my parents often buy Puglia loaf, a large crusty wheel of stoneground airy sourdough at the local Italian shop. We mostly buy it by the quarter wheel. Puglia is also known for burrata, the cows milk mozzarella filled with cream and wrapped in a top knot of asphodel leaves.
The favourite pasta shape from Puglia is orecchiette, or little ears, which is frequently served with cime di rapa, a type of leafy broccoli.
To live in Puglia (or Apulia as it's known in English) must be to reside in a culinary paradise. Aside from the great cheese, vegetables and bread, it is one of the best regions for olive oil, olives and wine. Often I would order a small half bottle of local wine, at incredibly reasonable prices, to go with my spaghetti vongole. The miles of white sandy coast facing the Adriatic sea, dotted with charming ports, produce fresh and cheap seafood. The vongole veraci, small sweet clams - much smaller than we find in the UK - made a spag vong addict of me. I more or less ate that every night while the teen would always order orecchiette pomodoro. I wanted to learn how to make burrata, but I guess that will have to wait until another visit. I would recommend to any visitor a book by Puglia specialist Christine Smallwood 'An appetite for Puglia' to find out more about the food and the best restaurants of the region. I found it difficult to visit any of the recommended restaurants however, as most of them were closed in September.
That's another new thing for me, after 18 years, going on holiday in September. Parents are obliged to go away during school holidays, with high priced plane fares, in peak season. But I have to say I found going to Italy in September rather a mournful affair. The restaurants that were open, were deserted. Everything seemed shut. Is there anything sadder than a seaside resort off-season? A kind of melancholy reigned; shuttered shops and variable weather.
Italians of course, used to the heat, start dressing for winter, boots, coats and fluffy cardigans, the minute a cloud appears on the horizon, the minute August is over.
That was another thing, the lack of Italians. I do love to 'people watch' and Italians are both beautiful and entertaining. But, like the French, Italians have very proscribed lives. They eat, sleep, go on holiday at strict times and this is rarely diverged from. Again, like the French, they are chic because how they dress is also very conventional, with certain rules. They wear a lot of beige, caramel, nude and all those apricot hues which look great on their skin. Even the mechanics are chic, wearing gleaming unstained full racer gear onesies; laundered, starched and ironed by their wives, no doubt.
But the Italians do like their bling. At Milan airport, I watched one sumptuously groomed woman, tottering in full Donatella Versace/Nancy Dell'olio kit, repeatedly trigger the alarms in the metal detector arch. Each time she would retreat and shrug off yet another layer of metallic decorated clothing, a tiny tailored soft camel leather jacket with pastilles of bronze embroidered around the neck, a ochre metal tasselled belt, the studded wheaten calf leather booties, a spun gold scarf, heavy jewellery around wrists, neck, ears, waist, ankles until she finally emerged half-naked and passed security.
This visit made me realise how little I actually know about Italian food. Every town, every region, has a speciality and often the food is unknown or difficult to buy elsewhere. At the airport I bought liffa di mandorle, an almond milk syrup that was just divine, heaven sent even. I could have ordered coffee flavoured with this syrup in Puglia but I didn't know about it! Another discovery: bouquets of small red round pepperoncino chilli peppers. Oh my god! I brought back a couple of bunches of these chillis, both pointy and round. They contain just the right amount of heat, you can eat them, seeds and all, without fear.
You could spend years exploring the foodways of each region of Italy. Despite centuries as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Italy is like the Amazon forest, 90 per cent of its secrets are not yet known. On the other hand, sacrilegiously, I have to say, after nine days I was desperate for a curry. They only eat Italian food in Italy. It's mono cultural. And for a Londoner, when I can go into my hallway and pick up a dozen takeaway leaflets that promise the delivery of the world's cuisine to my door within half an hour, that's quite bizarre.
After gleaming Martina Franca, my parents left and we drove to Trani, a port in the North of Puglia. The self-catering accommodation we'd booked there was tiny, dark, overlooked and depressing so I rejected it It reminds me of Paris I told the owners and not in a good way and drove further north, not knowing where I was going. I could feel the teen seething in the car. You promised! She was silent but her eyes were accusing. No travelling! Only staying in one place!
Dusk crept in and we had no place to stay. We are going to have to stay the night in the car said my daughter bitterly. This was reminiscent of every trip we've ever been on. I drove slowly into Marguerita di Savoia, a shabby seaside town with modern apartment blocks. Despairing inside, feeling I'd utterly failed my daughter, at the end of the strip there was a deserted hotel with balconies looking out to sea. We took the room which was pleasant but there were no cooking facilities. It was frustrating for me to be in Italy without being able to cook. I'd pass by shops selling puntarella, cima di rapa, baskets of large crisp green olives, and sigh. (I also wonder why, on so many food bloggers trips abroad, the PRs never give you access to a kitchen or allow you time to shop and cook. It seems an oversight on the part of the organisers.) It's great to eat out and certainly restaurants in Puglia are cheap compared to London, ranging between 25 to 70 euros for two with wine. But over nine days, one gets sick of eating out. Thank god I took my pot of Marmite, for Italian breakfasts are sweet, with chocolate, fig, custard and fruit filled croissants, tarts and cakes, more like tea than breakfast. I want savoury in the morning.
Marguerita di Savoia was deathly dull. It doesn't help that in Italy everything shuts between 1pm and 6pm. So when you want to visit somewhere, say in the afternoon because the weather isn't great and you can't go on the beach, everything is closed. It's confusing. The shops don't look like shops in small towns. They don't have welcoming large glass windows, have everything on display. Shops often consist of small dark doorways, repellently shrouded with fringed plastic. Some places I thought were shops and cafés were actually people's houses. You could see a room with a table, a lady would be standing at the door. That looks like a nice place to eat I'd think but it would turn out to be somebodys front room. During the afternoon moratorium, it was hard to find a place to eat or drink. It reminded me of going to Edinburgh during New Year's Eve. The inhabitants seemed to be unaware that there were hungry and thirsty visitors that didn't have a mum to cook for them at home. The restaurants that were open were empty. Who wants to eat in a posh restaurant alone, being waited on hand and foot? It's embarassing.
I felt depressed and listless, bored and guilty. Guilty because I should have been out there, getting up at the crack of dawn, discovering how burrata is made or investigating some bolt-hole of gastronomy. But to do so I would have to overcome the massive resistance of my daughter, so heavy that it would be tantamount to pulling apart gravity itself. By day three I was a bit tearful. So this is going on holiday I thought, irritably. I read instead. All three volumes of The Hunger Games was gobbled up in 24 hours (first two great, last one a bit of a mess); I read another Swedish crime novel. Finally I started upon Game of Thrones which contains less sex than the telly series. Gradually, actually only on the last day, when the weather was hot enough for me to swim comfortably in the Adriatic without shivering, did I relax. I could feel my stress fat melting away, my shoulder and neck ache subside, my head start to clear. Now I was ready to start my holiday but it was going home time.
So I've been and I'm back. I don't think I know Puglia at all. I feel like I missed it. Maybe I've been spoilt by all the blogging trips I've had in the last year where I was escorted by PRs and food experts to the best places to eat, guided to experiences that you can't have on your own, as a simple tourist. To properly 'get' a country needs hard work, research, money and time. But that's a different trip, not a holiday.
Chic school uniform; a lute? player in Martina Franca
Ps: if you get a flight to Bari, you can take a train to Martina Franca, they run hourly.