We’ll Always Have Apulia

Photo of typical Apulian feast
There’s always food first in Apulia

A traveller arriving to Apulia by way of Campania is greeted by rolling, seemingly endless, wide and flattened hills of wheat fields. If one is lucky enough to arrive in full sun of a mid July afternoon, it appears as though one entered an enormous treasury. All around, practically everywhere, for as far as the eye can see, to the ends of the horizon, there are interconnecting fields of wheat. Some pure golden, others in deep antique gold colour, some already harvested and loaded with bales lying around in a semi-scattered order, just like diamonds set in a necklace of a frivolous heiress, waiting to be escorted to some grand ball. One feels almost hypnotised by all that golden delight on both sides of a modern motorway.

Then, after a while, after tens and tens of kilometres of ripe wheat fields and nothing else, one notices slender white windmills dot the landscape of golden infinity. Somehow, they’re not obtrusive: in different sizes they line the soft borders of smooth hilltops in a never-ending sight. The immensity and vastness of it all is overwhelming.

After another while, kneaded within the gold appears a lonely vineyard. The vines are fascinatingly spread over a pergola-like structure the height of a man forming a rather dense shade overground. Gradually, the land gets filled with nothing else but vineyards. As much as everything was golden for quite a stretch of the way now everything changes to fresh and gleaming green. The landscape is still wide without an obvious interruption in visual field. Wherever one turns the head, all vineyards. Some are, for unknown reason (possibly some kind of a protection against heat? birds?), completely covered with what seems to be dense cloth of some sort. Again, tens and tens of kilometres of everything green. In awe, a first-time traveller to this fertile land needs to be pinched to make sure it’s not all a dream.

Apulia, Italy
An enormous olive tree by the road in Apulian inland

Every now and then an olive grove squeezes in between the vineyards. Those are huge olive trees, clearly very old even to an unaccustomed onlooker. Their crowns are almost as high and voluminous as those of chestnut trees in the north. How can they let them grow so big, one can’t stop to wonder. As a déjà-vu of some sort, step by step the land fills up with nothing but silvery green olive trees and it goes on and on and on. Once more, whatever you see for tens and tens of kilometres are gigantic olive trees.

Apulia, Italy
There’s a lot about olives in Apulia

Above it all, a painfully blue sky. A-l-l t-h-e t-i-m-e. The images of luxurious variations of gold, green, silver and blue are doomed to remain forever embossed in traveller’s mind. So, obviously, Apulia welcomed us royally. Although very hot and quite exhausted by a long ride, we were both continually being astonished by yet another kilometre of breathtakingly wonderful landscape.

Not to neglect the rows of colourful oleanders lining the motorway for hundreds of kilometres on end. Alternating in spectacular pinks and reds and whites, some of them are as big as houses. And fragrant too.

Apulia, Italy
Oleanders as big as houses lining the Apulian motorways

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise then, that once we arrived to Lecce, the heart of Salento, our final destination, we were nearly speechless. True, we were captivated even more by a soft pink sunset but the town is a precious haven even without it. The dusk, though, lends it a special feeling of magic-like magnetism.

Lecce, Apulia, Italy
An unforgettable view from our apartment’s window: St Matthew’s church in Lecce, Apulia

This is how our uncovering Apulia started. We fell in love with it on the very first day. So much so, that I’m enchanted even after a few weeks of everyday. It will certainly take more than one post of praise.

A breathtaking view from our apartment’s terrace over early evening Lecce, Apulia
A breathtaking view from our apartment’s terrace over early evening Lecce, Apulia

For any of you out there contemplating a perfect Apulian lunch (as presented in the photo at the beginning of this post) this is what you need:

(serves 2)

– a kilo of ripe, locally grown pomodori (firm and meaty, juicy but plump)

– a jar of large, green Apulian olives with pepperoncino

– a bunch of rucola selvatica (a woody silver leaf kind of rucola, extra sharp and spicy)

– a pouch of silky soft, creamy burrata, super fresh from Mercato di Porta Rudiae in Lecce

– sea salt

– Apulian extra virgin olive oil

– a bottle of Primitivo di Manduria

– a sunny day

– a roof top terrace in Lecce with unbeatable view over town.

That’s it. Buon appetito!

Lecce, Apulia, Italy
The magical terrace in Lecce

Do come back for more on our Apulian trip. This one post can’t do it all the justice.

UPDATE: my other post about our Apulian trip

and another one on Lecce

We need to talk about Istria, Croatia

A fantastic sunset colouring everything violet in Istria, Croatia
A fantastic sunset over Oprtalj

Oprtalj is a tiny hilltop town set in a countryside of lush Mediterranean forest, manicured vineyards and cultivated olive tree groves. In a word, it’s a land of infinite shades of green.

Manicured vineyards in Istria, Croatia
Manicured vineyards in front of Arman winery

Oprtalj is very similar to its neighbours Grožnjan or Motovun or Buje yet at the same time very much different. They’re all filled with charming stone houses and cottages, some derelict some wonderfully renovated, and all offer breathtaking views across the valleys to the Adriatic or inland.

A view towards the Adriatic from the terrace in Grožnjan, Istria
A view towards the Adriatic from the terrace in Grožnjan, Istria

Anyway, as many as there are similarities each little town has its own character.

One of many tiny courtyards in Grožnjan, Istria
One of many tiny courtyards in Grožnjan, Istria

Grožnjan exudes everything art, for instance. There are plenty of galleries and artists’ studios (some of them even work outdoors). There’s this gorgeous terrace acting as a main square with beautiful view, where excellent coffee is served along with homemade pies. At the entrance to the old town some local farmers sell their produce on the improvised tables under the safe shade of a huge tree.

Mediterranean smells abound in Grožnjan, Istria, Croatia
Mediterranean smells abound in Grožnjan, Istria

There’s a spectacular deserted graveyard behind St Martin’s church in Buje that’s filled with grave stones scattered all around a terraced lawn. Old gravestones carry all kinds of personal information about the deceased which might not mean much to today’s Facebook generations used to everything being published anyway.

Door leading onto deserted graveyard at St Martin’s church in Buje, Istria
Door leading onto deserted graveyard at St Martin’s church in Buje, Istria

There’s a last resting place of one lady from Umag, a woman of force, donna di forza, who left behind a devastated husband, had given all her heart into educating their three sons who all grew up to be prudent, and dedicated her life to taking care the poor recognized the power of Christ. Among other things. On some gravestones even crusaders’ symbols can be seen.

A stupendous but derelict graveyard monument in Buje, Istria
A stupendous but derelict graveyard monument in Buje, Istria

The sign on the town main square’s tower implies the sleepy town of Buje is not so sleepy all the time. The school is one of the buildings lining the square on the hilltop. The tower bears the plaque of Venetian lion since the town had been a part of Benetian Republic for several centuries. The Baroque church next to it was built on the sight of a Roman temple.

Football not allowed in main square of Buje, Istria
Football not allowed in main square of Buje, Istria

At some point, a lavender field amidst the vineyards surprises an innocent passer-by.

Lavender field amidst the hills of Istria
Lavender field amidst the hills of Istria

And then, when exhausted after all those steep hills and rocky lanes, a plate full of this fragrant dish might feel like a cherry on top of a much deserved cake.

Lunch of truffles over pasta in Livade, Istria
Lunch of truffles over pasta in Livade, Istria

Have no fear, there’s some fantastic wine to be enjoyed.

A box of wine by Franc Arman winery, Istria, Croatia

At the back of the Oprtalj village in Istria the view stretches over the endless green
At the back of the Oprtalj village the view stretches over the endless green

Istria NW map with some points of interest (added August 17, 2016)

Small Potatoes

There’s more to taking a day off than you might imagine when you apply for it at work. Trust me, I speak from experience.

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The last time I took a day off to have some peace and quiet at home our bedroom got (nearly) flooded. There we were in the small hours of a Friday morning watching the water pouring in through the ceiling. Don’t ask. The day was spent on waiting for the repairmen and cleaning the mess up. All’s well that ends well, right?

After a couple of weeks, we both took a day off and arranged to visit some friends who were vacationing on Krk, Croatia. The motorbike was fresh out from the service, the weather forecast was fantastic, no worries at all. Off we went. To cut the long story short: the brake problem caused us touring four countries including Slovenia, Austria, Italy and finally Croatia. In a day. Don’t ask. A serious rehearsal before taking the summer holiday.

Maybe this is the universe communicating we’re not meant to take days off. I don’t know.

One version of a simple potato salad - the addition of capers and kalamata olives makes all the difference

One version of a simple potato salad – the addition of tiny capers and olives makes all the difference

Cruising around the beautiful landscapes that day made me long for potatoes. The neat fields we were passing were full of flowering potato plants and green beans climbing up the poles next to them. I love potatoes prepared in almost every possible way but my firm favourites are:

  • mashed potatoes (irresistible when lots of butter and a spoonful or two of sour cream alongside the milk are mashed within)
  • potatoes braised in a roemertopf together with some carrots and a piece of meat (veal for instance)
  • French Fries (especially the Californian ones – the slim cuts).

So, while we waited at the bar adjoining the repair shop I found these two mouth watering (so summer) recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi: Green beans with peanuts and lime and Braised new potatoes with broad beans and pink peppercorns. To join the two vegetables … so good … yum.

Yes, it totally felt like a potato day.

 

The Reading List

We are nearing the summer solstice, which means we’re getting close to the end of the first half of the year. I don’t know about you but for me the first six months of 2016 flew by in a flash. It might be the right time to write down a selection of the books I particularly liked that I read within the past few months.

One of my safe choices when it comes to cookbooks
One of my safe choices when it comes to cookbooks: Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray

1.) The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

I believe it’s more than obvious that I’m enchanted with that book. Because of it I urged the purchase of a pot grown lemon tree, a small one, a special variety, the kind that can be kept indoors through the colder months. When we brought it home it started to blossom and the whole flat was filled with a wonderfully seductive zagara. It went on for weeks. Now, it’s happily found its place on the balcony and I can see it’s started to form flower buds anew so I think it’s really happy with us. I hope it remains so. As for the book, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

2.) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Looking back on this book I can’t classify it by any subject it covers. Mostly, I found it to be a deterministic writing about race, about being black in the USA, about life in Nigeria, about (legal and) illegal migration to the UK, about being smart and young. I recommend it to everybody who is scared by current influx of migrants to Europe. But most of all, it is a valuable insight into the way of life of the modern young and educated. Very pleasurable read. To gain a wider appreciation of Nigeria (the land itself is unknown to me as is its history) I can propose the acclaimed Half of a Yellow Sun by the same author. Beware, it might open new horizons for you.

3.) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

A tender and contemplative narrative about the meaning of believing and the strength of prejudice. I read the original (English) and I must admit I struggled because the language is quite complex and the ideas about religion are not my strongest subjects (although I know a thing or two about Catholic guilt). Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book very much as it oozes deep wisdom and hope. During the progress I felt more and more liberated by the warming sense that the problems I think are problems are in fact only minor obstacles. I hope I’m not sounding condescending but if I were to recommend a book to someone who is considering finding a bigger meaning of life, this one would be it. The storytelling is exceptional.

The book I’m saving for summer holidays? I’m almost decided it to be Venice by Jan Morris. I’ll report.

A Bowl of Cherries

Finally, it’s the cherries season!

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I have this thing with cherries. You know how there are cat people vs. dog people? In my opinion there are also strawberry people vs. cherry people. I’m a cherry person myself, no doubt about it, and it’s the one segregation I don’t object to.

The best way to eat them is directly off the tree of course. Regrettably, this is a fairly rare indulgence.

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It’s not only the fruit that satisfies my appetite, I love to see a cherry tree in every guise. I love to watch the cherry tree’s transformation through the seasons: first, in the dead of winter, there are black trunk and branches with wonderfully patterned bark and nothing more. Then, in the spring the branches get covered in white fragrant blossoms, which look like quilted down sleeves. Next, it turns elegant dark green with ruby red fruits hanging in couples or triplets resembling the most precious earrings. Finally, in autumn, its leaves steadily become a sunset’s mirror as they turn the warm spectacular red before they fall off.

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I was growing up in a concrete neighbourhood of apartment buildings bordering on one side a highway and on the other a large area of detached houses. The houses typically had their cute little backyards, flowerbeds, kitchen gardens and at least one fruit-growing tree (if I were to inspect the area today I’d notice most of the front lawns transformed into parking lots since every household now has more cars than the side road can accommodate).

Needless to say, we, the kids from the boring urban community, shamelessly raided the cherry trees every June when they were laden with fruit. Some people didn’t really mind our self-invitation to their garden as long as no damage was done, but the great majority of them weren’t all too happy with sharing their fortune with us. Those trees were particularly attractive because by some unwritten rule they bore the sweetest, the reddest, the best fruit. Usually a group of four or five of us sneaked on the fence and snatched as much cherries as possible off the branches and straight into our mouths, continuing until we were discovered and made to run away as fast as we could. The cherry raids we called them, our expeditions. On a good day we had a chance to raid several trees in a row so in the end we would feel pleasantly full (and our mothers wondered how come we’re not hungry after a whole afternoon out).

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Also, my both grandparents, who lived in the countryside, had had a cherry tree each, so when I stayed with them in cherry season I could stuff myself dead with cherries until my stomach neared an explosion.

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Nowadays, I normally buy them from the farmers at the local market. I’m known to consume a kilo in one go all by myself. Day in day out. Yes, cherries are by far my most favourite fruit. Not only do I adore eating them fresh I also like to have them in desserts: clafoutis, cherry strudel, cherry and apricot gallette to only name a few. I might just poach them with a few slices of ginger and a strip of lemon zest. I might even buy a jar of those candied cocktail decoration stuff when I crave cherries out of season. I even used to freeze them – they freeze well. I never bother to pit them before using them.

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I simply love clafoutis but it’s probably been years since I attempted to make it myself. It’s not that difficult, it’s just that quite often I wasn’t really happy with the result. The best clafoutis I had was the one in  London at Le Cafe Anglais. To my deep regret the restaurant has been permanently closed but fortunately the chef’s Mr Rowley Leigh’s columns for the Financial Times are still running (too seldom though). I must admit it amused me to read his confession about the common disappointments in this classic French dish.

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Today I followed his recipe (yes, I separated the eggs) but I didn’t pre-cook the cherries. I don’t find it neccessary since I prefer the cherries firm. When I arranged them in the dish I tossed some little pieces of butter over them, sprinkled them with a spoon or two of sugar and a spoon of cointreau (in place of kirsch which I don’t stock). The rest by the book recipe (follwo the above link for it). It turned out remarkably well. Delicious too. Very much so, indeed.

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