If you were traveling through Italy during the spring of 2019 you might have passed the British food writer and broadcaster Sophie Grigson rearranging her packed Chrysler PT Cruiser in a lay-by on the autostrada near Bari. Perhaps you might have thought you should stop and offer help.
Don’t worry, she was fine. “Some people see a middle-aged woman traveling alone and they feel sorry for her,” she says. “There’s no need. What you saw was me in the middle of completely changing my life.”
Grigson has been writing books and presenting TV cookery shows since the 1980s and until 2019 was running a successful cookery school in Oxford. Things were trundling along, she says, but as she approached her 60th birthday something bothered her.
“My mother [the renowned cookery writer Jane Grigson] died of cancer on the eve of her 62nd birthday. My own children had flown the nest and I was thinking about how my mum loved traveling in Italy and France. You never know when it’s going to be too late for an adventure, do you? And then I interviewed the chef Russell Norman [the restaurateur behind Italian-inspired Polpo and the much-anticipated Brutto] about his travels in Venice and I thought, ‘Why haven’t I done this?’ ”
After meeting Norman she began surfing the Internet and read that the authorities in the village of Candela, northern Puglia, were offering people $1,200 to move there. Within two weeks she was wandering its streets on her first exploratory visit. Eleven months later she moved for good, actually settling in the larger Puglian town of Ceglie Messapica on the heel of the Italian “boot”.
“The money in Candela had run out and also it was too small so I just got back in the car and drove further south. I parked, went out for a meal at random and knew it would be my home.”
Grigson had no partner — William Black, her ex-husband and the father of her two children, Florrie and Sid, died of a brain tumor in 2015 — no Italian friends and just a smattering of the language learned 40 years previously while studying for a month in Perugia, central Italy. Nevertheless, she paid $60,000 for a two-bedroom house and settled in.
Her neighbor, known as “Downstairs Maria”, spoke no English, but began summoning her to share an evening meal. “She just shouted, ‘Scendi!’ [come down] and I thought I was in some sort of trouble, but she just put a bowl in front of me — the best friggitelli al pomodoro [green peppers in tomato sauce] I have ever tasted, including in any restaurant.”
Early on she went alone to a bar in the town’s main square and posted a selfie of herself nursing a Campari spritzer on social media. It was intended to show her daughter Florrie, who teaches English in Mexico, and Sid, who works in tech in Germany, that she was OK, but a local expat called Wendy also saw it and invited her out for a coffee. “Meeting Wendy was wonderful. I didn’t want to be an expat who just hung out with other expats, but without the language I needed English-speaking friends. Especially with what happened next.”
From Bliss to Lockdown
Grigson enjoyed one wonderful Italian summer. Then early in 2020 she heard rumors that the Covid-19 virus was running rampant through Italy. “Wendy and I went out for a pizza one Monday night and by the time we came out of the restaurant the whole town was in lockdown,” she recalls.
For two months Grigson was stuck in her house, allowed one daily trip to the supermarket and to exercise within a 200-yard radius from her home. “Despite not being able to talk to each other, Downstairs Maria and I formed a sort of bubble, but the whole beautiful social fabric of this Italian town just disappeared overnight.
“I never once regretted my decision to come here, though,” she says. “I was bored of my life in England. I needed a jolt. And, let’s face it, living through a pandemic in Italy was a jolt.”
Grigson spent her time testing recipes and writing a book about her Puglian adventure. Part travelogue, part recipe book, A Curious Absence of Chickens recounts a lone female foodie’s peregrinations through southern Italy with humor and candor.
Grigson first explored Italy in her twenties and fell in love with it: Siena, the beautiful men, the wonderful food. Now, despite extolling the wonders of, say, focaccia sandwiched with tomato, mozzarella and ricotta, then baked in an oven with seasoned logs and olive prunings, she is honest about the unsavory things she has noticed.
“As with all love affairs, time and experience change how we perceive our beloved,” she writes. For example, where are the chickens? It’s never on the menu in Puglian eateries. Pork, beef, horse — even donkey — yes. But no chicken. The answer is: poverty. Chickens are too valuable to eat because of their egg-producing capabilities.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful country, but behind that façade life is very hard for some people,” she says, although she does eventually find a recipe called lu pollu cusutu n’culu (stitched-up-arse chicken). And where are Italy’s two million cows? Grigson never sees them in the fields. “They don’t graze; they are intensively reared in sheds,” she explains.
It’s not long before Grigson encounters the dark side of plump Puglian tomatoes too. “I am very upset about what I’ve learnt about local tomatoes,” she says. “They are harvested by workers paid a slave wage. It’s a racket run by the Puglian mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita.”
Still, Grigson is picking up the language and immersing herself in local customs. She is now an expert in gutting octopus (“You slit open and empty the fleshy mantle, then cut out the eyes”) and gradually acquainting herself with the country’s 90 types of artichoke. She has also worked bringing in the olive harvest, getting paid two liters of oil for a day’s backbreaking work. “Those are the moments that make it an adventure,” she says, chuckling. “After a meal in the field I was doing the washing up overlooking the olive groves. I actually hate washing up, but the experience was magical.”
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful country, but behind that façade life is very hard for some people.”
On the day Italy beat England to win the Euro 2020 football tournament, Grigson watched the match in Ceglie Messapica’s main square, cheering for both teams. “I tried to be diplomatic,” she says, laughing. “But it was really moving to see how much it meant to them here, especially the young. They sang the national anthem. They raced round on their mopeds. And someone handed me a bag of plums.”
Slowly but surely Grigson is earning a reputation as a formidable Italian cook, establishing a website called trullidelicious.com after the traditional stone cottages of the region that are often let out as holiday homes. You choose one of five menus, book and she turns up at your trullo ready to cook.
“The working men here talk about food with the same passion as English men do football. In my local café you’ll hear street sweepers, builders and plumbers discussing the best way to make a pignatta (a meal made in a traditional stone cooking pot). So you really have to prove yourself before they’ll accept an Englishwoman doing Italian cooking.”
Grigson talks lovingly about the men in the café where she has coffee every morning, not to mention the fun and flirtation of la passeggiata, the traditional evening promenade through the town. She writes that if she married again she would have an arrangement of beautiful local peppers instead of flowers.
Is she dating? “God no. Life is so much easier single. I’m not interested. Flirting is fun, but I have control of my life. I do what I like when I like. I couldn’t marry again. No way. Unless it was Johnny Depp, which might be dangerous.”
So far all she has missed are Thai takeaways, cheap paracetamol (“A blister pack costing 50p [$0.70] in the UK is about $8 here”) and her favorite delicatessen on Cowley Road in Oxford. “And my children, of course, but you have to be firm. They got a bit anxious about not having a base in the UK, but I explained: the nest is empty, this is my time, this is my chance.
“My advice to others wanting an adventure is — do it. Of course there are moments when you struggle. I’ve been trying to get an Italian number plate for my car for six months, but the local bureaucracy, especially after Brexit, is terrible. And there are certain people in the town who I suspect are local mafia whom I avoid. But every evening I walk past the church and it takes my breath away. And I say to myself, ‘I did it! I live here! This is my home!’ ”
Michael Odell is a regular contributor to The Times of London