If you take the train in Italy, down away from the busier, more jaded parts, you’ll find a place virtually untouched by international tourism, the part that is still so geniune as to charm completely. The food is excellent. The wine too. But it’s the people that make the region special. Here are some of my favourite.
Giuseppe has been with us longer than anyone else on staff, that is, six of the eight years we’ve been open as a school. From the southern part of the Salento, Giuseppe left Italy for both Spain, as a student, and New York, as an economic emigrant, working as a waiter in number of Italian-themed restaurants there. And he uses this seemingly incongruent skill set at the school all the time: when two large dogs began a bloody fight one day in front of the school, Giuseppe leapt from the window with a kitchen chair, borrowing a page from a lion tamer’s manual (‘si blocca la testa con la sedia’). When we needed red soil in the school’s garden, he had buckets of it within the hour, no questions asked. Need something fixed? He’s your man. And it is the daily challenge of running a cookery school where he really shines. Each week’s canning project, each time we forget the eggs, each time we change the menu to reflect the seasons, it’s Giuseppe that has figure out how to make it work. That he does this with a smile and a fun story about his time abroad makes him born to this job.
While not that much older than me, Anna still comes from that generation here in Italy that seems biologically driven to maintain a household with the power and urgency of sumo wrestlers. Cleaning for Anna means rigorous scrubbing with steel brushes and buckets of boiling water, with the quantity of elbow grease used to maintain and repair battle ships. I swear I’m not making this up, but the towel in her hand can actually move faster than human sight, the blur of humming bird’s wings. She’ll have mopped up the ring from your teacup before said cup even arrives at your lips. Under normal conditions all of this would be impressive. That she maintains this quirky 400-year-old aristocratic palace that is our Lecce school, it’s nothing short of extraordinary.
You’ll likely only get a sense of this though during your visit, as unlike the rest of my staff, Anna doesn’t speak English. She’s uncomfortable joining us at the table, partially because of the language, partially because her need to clean is bigger than she is, the expression unmistakable there on her face. She’ll drift off with dreams of finding maps to the sewer system below the school, Anna in her helmet and jumpsuit, the local fire department lowering her down below street level, her sponges and wire brushes already whirling in a scream as she disappears from view.
Those that know me, know that I am the worst sort of bachelor, rendered unhouse-broken by years of Neanderthal-like, hermetic seclusion. While I know that Anna didn’t actually invent clothing hangers, to me she did, because before her arrival, I barely knew they existed. She keeps my linen suits ironed and impeccable, my personal kitchen knives honed like razors, my bed sheets ironed and stacked as if they were office supplies. On your visit, it will be Anna herself that will have polished your wine glass to speck-less perfection, Anna again that will have scrubbed away the carbon from the pan where you burned the rabbit last night. She’s a force of nature, Anna, and I’m lucky to have her, both at the school, and as the governor that keeps me from reverting back to wearing a pelt.
For starters, Giulio isn’t really named ‘Giulio’, he’s Giorgio, it’s just that students got his name wrong for so long that we changed it for him, a fact he seems to enjoy as much as we do. Like all of us on the staff, Giulio moved abroad at some point, living and working in Ireland, Scotland and all over Spain, each location leaving a lasting impression on his speech (he speaks Castilian with a Southern Spanish accent, English with a brogue, as thick and sweet as stout).
But it’s probably his love for animals that impresses most about him. Forever taking in strays of every species, his success rate for rehabilitation enviable by those in the field, Giulio talks with birds, dogs and cats the way that you and I do with one another. (His ability to imitate their voices will certainly come out, especially when the wine starts to flow). And his love for animals isn’t limited to just those that are alive. When not working Giulio spends hours on his draft board drawing dinosaurs and entering them in international competitions. ‘I know it makes me a big geek’, he says with a shy smile, ‘ but I find them so rather fascinating’.
Like many language students here in Italy today, Emiliana not only studies Mandarin, she actually lived in mainland in China for a while, working in a factory there. ‘’Chinese food comes in two flavours’, she says. ‘Really, really good. And really, really weird’. The only staff member not actually from Puglia, Emiliana is from Basilicata, the stunningly beautiful mountainous region that borders the Salento to the North West. ‘It takes me only an hour by bus to go home for the weekend but it never fails to surprise how different the food is’, she says. ‘What you do miss about the food of Basilicata’, I ask. ‘Horseradish and pork’, she says. ‘And what do you miss about the food of the Salento when you’re home’?
‘Everything. I just wish my mother would let me into the kitchen every now and then’!
Annina is from Taranto, a pugliese town an hour north of Lecce, which at one point was one of the most important cities in all of Europe, when Greece relocated its capitol, from Athens to Taranto. Since then though, the city is best known as producing the best mussels in all of the Mediterranean. And to me, the cutest accents all up and down the Italian peninsula.
When folks talk about having a ‘gift for languages’, this is what they mean, I think, which of course is not a gift at all but a series of pragmatic acquisition skills. Annina has them. Mention a new word in English and she’ll study the context, without it ever even becoming apparent that that is what she is doing. She’ll then use it in a sentence a few times right away, cementing it into her active vocabulary without the need for pens or paper or hours locked away alone in a room with computer programme.
Around the table at the school, she’ll often tell the story of how she came to work at the school. ‘Silvestro asked me if I wanted a job where I eat for free, drank for free and was paid to speak English with interesting folks from all over the world who just happen to be mother tongue English speakers…..Naturally I said, Yes! Of course I couldn’t believe it! No student is that lucky with a job. After four years working now at the school….well, I’m starting to believe’, she says laughing.
This is il gattino who lives in the school’s garden. We can’t really call him ‘our’ cat, as none of us has ever even touched him, but he has been with us, or at least in our garden for a few years now, having first arrived about the size of your fist.
For the first week he was just a black flash out of the corner of your eye, the second, each time we opened the kitchen oor, a cotton-ball-footed scamper across the garden. We put out food for him and he’s been around ever since, his name- il gattino- the little cat-, more of a memory and formality, than any reference to his current girth.
‘What do you do with the leftovers ‘, is a common question at the school. We have a 101-year old neighbour lady and her son, who thank us for them with jugs of homemade wine and bundles of fresh flowers, gathered from local fields. As for il gattino, who carries himself like a rock star, he’ll eat only what he likes, no matter how hungry, the surest definition of a ‘gourmand’ that I can think of. Anna claims not to like cats, but tip-toe into the kitchen when she’s working and you’ll catch her lovingly remove ever morsel of meat of leftover fish bones, her voice sweet and sing-songy as she calls out, Gattino, vieni qua. Gattino, eddai, vieni.
And I’m Silvestro, the owner and director. Nine years ago I gave up my job teaching high school in Bologna and moved south to Lecce, the town that I had always loved more than any other. Even more so today.
It was a rocky beginning, as so few English-speaking travellers had even heard of Puglia, much less the best part of it, the Salento. I restored the 17th palazzo that is our school and opened with three walls still wet with paint. But slowly things started to build. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of nice write-ups and television appearances, both domestically and internationally. I couldn’t be prouder of our little school.
Six years ago I started closing the school for a few months each year and bicycling the entire Italian south, visiting wineries and cellars, making local pasta and cooking with old friends all along the way. Then I finally graduated as a sommelier here in Italy, which together, have made the basis for our new wine programme: I bicycle Southern Italian wine country each year for a few months, then teach what I learned over the course of a single week.
But I couldn’t have done any of this without the superb help of my staff, each with a very special talent, each with very special place in my heart.