I’m off the whole twist concept. If I make a twist on a recipe, I want it to be really valid

Oct 31, 2021

You know Sophie Grigson. Many people feel they’ve grown up with her. She first amassed a loyal following in the late 1980s when writing the daily recipe column for the London Evening Standard. In 1993 there followed an award-winning prime time tv series for Channel 4 called Grow Your Greens, Eat Your Greens, with accompanying hit book. Her works on fish (1998) and organic food (2001) leaped straight to Number 1 on the bestseller lists. She’s spent years writing columns and features for Country Living, BBC Good Food, The Independent and Waitrose Food Illustrated, and appeared on everything from Britain’s Best Dish to Let’s Dance for Comic Relief.

Then in 2018, an interview with restaurateur Russell Norman about his book Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking (for which he’d spent a year living in the city learning to cook like the locals) prompted a life change. Sophie sold virtually everything in her Oxford home, packed her car and drove herself to Southern Italy. A Curious Absence of Chickens, her latest book, chronicles the move and her experiences as an English food writer settling into a new – and yet traditional – way of life in the Itria Valley.

Here she tells Jenni Muir how it’s all going. 

 

Why Puglia particularly? Why not (say) somewhere in France, which you’ve been visiting since you were a child?

Puglia was actually the first place I ever set foot in Italy – at 19 years old I got off the ferry here from Greece and I’ve loved Italy ever since. It has a joie de vivre, there’s a zest for making something out of little and loving what they’ve got. 

I love the warmth of Italy and the real warmth of the people. There’s a huge outdoor culture in summer. I like the sunshine. I love the buzz of passeggiata. I love that it’s a family-oriented place and the food’s good. 

I do love France very much and speak much better French than Italian. But maybe because I spent a lot of time in France as a child it’s kind-of familiar. And when we were in France, we were much further north.

Puglia is extremely long – it takes about four hours to drive from top to bottom. I’m in the Valle d’Itria, right in the centre, in a cluster of smallish white hilltop towns, most famous of which is Ostuni, which is completely hellish in summer because it’s packed with tourists.

I realized that I had to earn a living here and therefore had to be somewhere with a healthy tourist industry but Ostuni was too much. Ceglie Messapica is similar to Ostuni but also very different. The historical centre is full of charm but there’s nothing to visit that’s especially famous. It styles itself as a città gastronomica and even has a chef school but the restaurants are slightly quantity over quality, apart from a handful of truly excellent ones run by owners who know and care about the local dishes and produce.

Is there anything you’re missing about the UK? 

I miss Asian food, and being able to just pop out for a good Thai meal. But other than that, no. 

The differences between Puglia and the UK are huge, especially around things like production values. There are at least four small independent dairies that supply our town with cheese, and still so much of that kind of hands-on, artisan food production.

What I love is that it’s part and parcel of life here. It’s something that we used to have in the UK but it’s disappeared. When I was a little girl in Wiltshire, a guy called Tommy Topp supplied our veg and the local town had a couple of bakers. There were many more small independent merchants and suppliers, and buying from them was not the elitist sort of thing it is today.

Yes, there are new, small cheesemakers in Britain but they’re not necessarily part of an unchanged tradition. In Puglia, if I say to someone my favourite mozzarella is that from Masseria Seppunisi, we’ll have a discussion about it and it’s not a matter of sophistication.

How did you set about earning a living in Italy? 

I thought there were two things I could do: I’m quite good at teaching cooking, and I can cook. I don’t want to do a restaurant but I could do small-scale catering, so I formed Trulli Delicious and that’s been pretty good. The clients have all been lovely. 

In the UK, very occasionally I did a bit of catering for friends, which usually involved sweltering in somebody’s kitchen. In Puglia, people tend to be relaxed and laid back as they’re here on holidays, and quite a lot of them have since become friends. 

This year the American market has been almost non-existent, so I’ve mostly been cooking for Brits who have a house here. One of my little goals is for Trulli Delicious to crack the Italian market. There’s a huge number of northern Italians who come down to stay here but it’s probably a step too far for them to hire a British woman who’s only been here two years.

In the Acknowledgments for A Curious Absence of Chickens you credit your agent Heather Holden-Brown for “telling it like it is”. What did she say to you? 

I’ve known Heather Holden-Brown since she was an editor at the BBC. When I approached her with the idea for this book, I’d started working on it with a photographer. Heather was great. She just said: “It won’t sell. It’ll be expensive. Publishers are cautious. It won’t get commissioned.” 

So I put together a synopsis and she was totally right, damn her. 

Actually, it was quite good because it made me look more carefully at what I wanted to do with writing. I hadn’t really written for ten years and I found it hard to get back into it – I’m one of the world’s great procrastinators. And knowing there’ll be no photos, you do really have to think about what you’re writing. In the end, I really enjoyed it and, being older, I wanted to be more honest. 

Honest? 

When writing articles, you generally say positive things, like ‘this is a family favourite’ when you’ve only had it twice. I wanted to be able to not say that. To look further and think about why things are as they are. To take time to work things out. And to write more, as opposed to just turning out another recipe – or even worse, turning out another recipe with a twist. I’m off the whole twist concept. If I make a twist on a recipe, I want it to be really valid – as opposed to slightly different from what’s been written a million times before.

What does a typical day’s writing look like for you?  

I wrote a lot during lockdown. I had already done a lot of living, learning and research here before the pandemic. It was quite chilly, so I sat at my desk being slightly bored about not being able to go out in the cold and get a coffee. I like writing at night or in the late evening. Lockdown exaggerated that natural circadian rhythm and I was often up till 4am pootling – I tend to write, then pootle, then write some more. There’s no pattern

I love going out, so once we could go out to cafés, I had a selection of “offices” around town. Just one place, Movida, stayed open throughout lunchtime and early afternoon. That does take a bit of getting used to! At 1pm in the off-season everything here closes and doesn’t reopen until 4.30pm. All Italians go home for lunch and the tourists wander around wondering where they can get something to eat. On the really hot days that head towards 40°C, a lot of small shops don’t open till 5.30 or 6pm. And Thursdays are half-day closing – I still get caught out by that regularly! 

Lockdown also prompted your move into online teaching. How’s that been going for you?

I really enjoy it – it’s so much easier than live cooking classes were in the UK. There’s not so much stuff to clean and wash up, no equipment or ingredients to buy for everyone in a class of twelve. No coordination required. We’ll certainly keep going with it because it’s great value for the participants and we don’t have all the overheads.

Back in the UK, about two years ago, we were quite cheap at £60 per person. Online lets us run a lesson for just 35-40 euros each, and that’s a positive. Sure, it’s not quite the same level of tuition (and you can’t say ‘Feel my dough’ to all of them in such a way that it becomes a silly joke between you all) but price-wise, the fact that it’s accessible to many more people is a great, good thing.

Students in online classes like stories – history and background goes down very well. I get quite excited by the fact that we have people attending in different countries… America, Mexico, Australia, South Africa (my books and tv series did quite well there). When you can have a class with people from anywhere, your potential audience is suddenly massive – the only limiting factor is the time difference. 

You say that Puglian cooking is different from what most people tend to think of as Italian… 

Yes, people are fascinated by that. We use a lot of veg, especially bitter greens.

And cherry tomatoes are used specifically to add an accent of flavour: when a recipe here says nine cherry tomatoes, that’s absolutely what it’s meant to be. Just this morning, I was speaking with an American woman in a café and a chap called Enzo told us that if you’re cooking cime di rapa, you should really only use one particular type of cherry tomato that’s hung on the branch for months.

What else has struck you as something we non-Italians haven’t quite grasped about the cuisine before?

Soffritto starts in a cold pan on the table! The oil and veg go in together there, and then the pan goes onto the heat.

It’s these small things that people say they take away from a cooking class – not the bigger recipe but the little technique. And tips like: if you keep cling film in the fridge it unrolls easily and makes life a lot smoother. 

You’ve done a lot of television work over the years. Do you miss it?

I love making tv and I’ve filmed in fabulous places. The last thing I did was a few series with the Travel Channel: Hong Kong; Morocco; Jordan really stuck in my mind. TV is powerful, it’s a key to unlocking places. It can be a pain in the butt but it’s a lot of fun, mostly. 

Writing is such a solitary thing and I like the teamwork of filming – and as the crews got smaller and smaller, the group you went away with became much more close-knit, which was a nice contrast. It’s a great way to get away.

What’s the main thing people who haven’t done tv tend not to realise?

It surprises people how much bad food we had to eat on the side – especially as budgets got smaller! I remember filming in Edinburgh with Clarissa Dickson Wright, who I’d known for years, and all the food on the shoot was lovely. Then we had to drive to Newcastle to shoot the next day and dinner was microwaved Ginster’s breakfast pasties from the motorway service station.

Another time we were on the late train to Birmingham and there was nothing in the train canteen. We had a half-hour window somewhere and the only food we could get was KFC, a Vienetta, and the last of the gin from the train – with very little tonic. There was a lovely irony that we were filming all this wonderful food and then eating complete crap.

To book classes or catering with Sophie in Puglia visit Trulli Delicious

Follow Sophie on Instagram @sophie_grigson_herself and @trulli_delicious, and on Twitter @trullidelicious

📸 William Shaw

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