Sunday 1 April 2018

La Primavera

About twenty years ago, Maureen and I decided we would go to Puglia, in the heel of Italy, for a week's Easter holiday.

The weather at home had been foul and we had both been working exceptionally hard without a break since Christmas, so by the time the holiday arrived we were more than ready for it.

There  was only one problem. It depended on a flight from Stansted to Bari early on the first Saturday of Holy Week and there was no way, that morning, to get from Scotland to Stansted in time. Indeed, since this was the first day of the holidays, there wasn't even a flight the evening before.

So we had no alternative but to drive through the night.

On my last working day everything that could go wrong went wrong and by the time I arrived home about seven o'clock my stress levels were already off the scale, never mind that in but a couple of hours I was faced with an at least six hour drive South.

But needs must and with the assistance of copious amounts of coffee, at about ten, we set off.

The rain was falling in Biblical quantities and the radio informed us this was unlikely to abate. By the time we were on the A66 and had had just about our fill of Whispering Bob Harris on Radio 2, the news bulletins were conveying police advice not to travel unless your journey was essential. But of course our journey was essential. So we pressed on.

Somewhere near Sheffield matters had got so bad that the motorway was closed by flooding and we were sent off in an interminable diversion, during which, for the first time, the thought arose that we might not get to the airport on time. Back on the A1, making the best time we could, that thought became increasingly a fear.

Still we went on. For some reason, possibly folk memory of its most famous citizen, Grantham seemed to be signposted for hours without ever getting noticeably nearer. And then, even when it passed our eventual destination seemed just as far away as ever.

All intention of stopping for a break had long been abandoned. Rain from the heavens fell torrentially but by this time was a minor irritation compared to spray and worse from the road. The "do not travel" radio warnings became ever more imperative.

We made it with less than an hour to spare. Parked the car and made the terminal, pausing only to get personally soaked to the skin in the process.

Exhausted was an inadequate word for our condition but we nonetheless boarded the plane.

Three hours later we were in the mezzogiorno.

It was still early Spring and relatively early morning at that, so the temperature was not yet the baking heat of high Summer but there was not a cloud in the sky and the Sun was shining in its full glory.

Bari Airport is to the north of the city so you initially travel south on a superstrada that takes you through the suburbs, albeit lined on both sides with Bouganville already in flower. Once you leave that urban sprawl however the road bends towards the coast and suddenly it rises and turns and you see the crystal clear blue of the Adriatic for the first time.

It was, quite literally, like a shot to the heart.

We carried on to Monopoli, where we had been before, and where we planned to lunch.

It was still to early for that so we parked and "took" a cafe and then wandered the streets of the old town.

Monopoli is a quite beautiful place, even in some of its modern parts, where it boasts a Scuola Materna dedicated to the great Anita Garibaldi, who died beside her husband while fleeing fallen Rome for surviving Venice after the failure of the rebellion of 1848. But the old town is yet more special. A Romanesque Church (what else!) a beautiful port with a small sandy beach and lanes and by ways leading everywhere and nowhere. All with the sun getting ever warmer and the sky ever clearer.

By now it was lunchtime.

We had intended to eat in the Trattoria Pierino l'Inglese  where we had eaten, exceptionally well, on our previous visit to the town (Not being Nationalists, we had no objection to its antecedents). But it was full!  And thus we fell upon the Trattoria del Porto.

One street back from the Port, it had an arched ceiling that marked it out as a one time wine cellar. It was busy but not to the degree that a table could not be found. Wine, water and bread appeared alongside the menu which we studied indecisively until the padrone appeared to take our order. "I would recommend the antipasto" was his counsel. So we agreed , together with a basic pasta dish to follow. Never has advice been so wisely accepted.

What followed was simply exceptional, Not just insalata di mare, which is kind of what we expected, but dish after dish after dish. Mussels in brodo certainly but also baked, unscraped of seaweed, in the oven. Polpo. Carpaccio di Pesce Spada! (cured raw Swordfish). Prawns, grilled and fresh. A flan, also with seafood. Sea urchins, sliced in half and to be scooped out raw. Calamari, both deep fried in batter and grilled. It just kept coming.

And as it did you slowly realised something. This was not "just" an antipasto, it was a Mezze. The Greek tradition of ever more and more small dishes until the guest cries enough.

And its origin? Well, you see, today, Puglia might be a part of Italy but before that it was part of "Magna Graecia", Greater Greece. I say before but in fact it was two thousand years before. Nonetheless, here, in the Trattoria del Porto, that folk memory had survived.

We struggled, if I'm being honest, to finish the traditional pasta dish which followed. And speedily declined the offer of a "secondo" of grilled fish. But we did have a sweet. Panna cotta. (My friends will know that if there is Panna cotta, then I will have Panna cotta).

But then something strange happened. Something I remember as much as the meal itself. I started to cry. And I couldn't stop. The Padrone noticed and, having been reassured it was not the fault of his food, inquired (of Maureen, in Italian) if I might perhaps have had a recent bereavement. I hadn't. And I wasn't crying tears of grief. I was crying tears of joy.

For Spring had come in one day.

Happy Easter.