If you choose to take your course at la casa di Silvestro (Silvestr0’s place in the historic centre of Lecce), who will you meet?
….For starters, you’ll meet these folks…. and they will be just tickled to meet you too.
Mornings here in Lecce, Italy, always start with visits to Gracious Antonio, likely the sweetest man you’ll ever meet.
He’s the owner of the cafe where we rendezvous each morning, His two sons now work here too, as does his wife, and they’ll all greet you warmly each morning for your morning espresso and pastry. Just walk in the front door: they’ll take care of everything else, re-enforcing the concept of hospitality, generosity of spirit, galvanizing why the South really excels at it.
In the colder months Gracious Antonio tempts with the hot chocolate that he makes from scratch each morning. In the warmer months, he offers his espresso flavoured granite, topped with fluffy, hand-whipped cream, the jolt of caffeine, sugar and cold replenish the body and soul, one little perfect icy spoon at a time.
But most locals just order espresso, served searing hot in tiny cups, which he pulls from a tray of boiling water, seconds after you order it. (Hint on Southern Italian coffee culture: order simply, expect it all to be served so hot that you risk a blistered lip. Beans tend to be roasted longer here too, offering the widest expression of coffee flavour).
Students at the school often say that they feel that they ‘live’ in Lecce during their time here, versus just ‘staying’ here, and I think Gracious Antonio plays a big part in this: your trusted barista who knows you by your first name and remembers what you ordered yesterday, his warm smile and eager machine, all famous parts of our local culture, all of it in his case, offered graciously.
‘How come I had never heard about Lecce before’, is a question we’re asked every week at the school, so famous is the city inside of Lecce, yet so virtually unknown by those that don’t live on the Italian peninsula.
And you’ll really get a sense of this paradox while here, mostly because Simona, our artistic guide is so brava at what she does: explaining the history of the city through its architecture, decidedly some of the most famous in all of Italy. And that she does this for our students, which to date, have come from 31 different nations, each with a different cultural background and wide spectrum of familiarity with European, art, culture and languages.
In short, she’s brilliant at it, rendering it not only accessible, but fascinating and immediate.
‘Listening to Silvestro discuss the food and wine of the Salento’, says Simona. ‘I’m always reminded how the same factors- materials, culture, invasion, weather, etc- informed our local architecture in identical ways, historically. Here is a 500-year old arch designed to display the wealth and culture of the then ruler. And here is a dish designed to do exactly the same thing, still every bit as consumed today,’ she says. ‘Yes, they are different disciplines, but the messages transmitted from those that lived 500 hundred years ago to those alive today, are hauntingly similar’.
Simone is third-generation green grocer, the first one you see when entering our public market in Lecce, where our little schools does most of its shopping for our lessons.We tend to treat the market as an extension of the classroom as well, working talks right into the morning market visits: the value of preserving with salt in the days before home refrigerators, how butchering differences in Latin Europe, why dry, factory-based pasta can be every bit as good as fresh, and what are the three characteristics of the good brands, etc. why variegated tomatoes are preferred in salads in Italy, etc.
Curious about a type of peach you’ve never seen before? Simone will have a knife through it and will be passing it to our students even before I think to ask.
But what I like best about Simone is that he can look into the perfect stack of perfect local cherries and determine which are mine: only the best of the best of the best.
Cradling a bunch of spicy, local rughetta or straining to lift the perfect melon for our lunch, it’s clear why he’s in this line of work, each item chosen for us, as if his life depended on it.
Question: Why is our produce so good at the school? Answer: Because we’re not the only ones that wants it to be.
And that his face lights up as we enter the market each morning, baskets in hand, it’s clear that he enjoys the exchange nearly as much as you will.
At only 20, Federica is now a third-generation meat cutter and yet another member of the small army, all progeny from just a single butcher. To know her is to watch the formation take shape: As a young girl she was brought in to work the cash register on slower afternoons. That she was more a mascot than cashier wasn’t wasted on anyone, except maybe her. Folks would wrench their backs just to lean over the counter to pinch her cheeks, her quick smile a well-performed little flash.
Then, a few years later she started part-time, while still in high school, rarely with a knife in hand: she mostly assembled ‘convenience cuts’, stuffing chicken thighs with sage and garlic and wrapping them with a piece of pancetta; forcing rabbit morsels onto wooden skewers, and soaking them in dried herbs and white wine; grinding secondary cuts into meatballs, meatloaf and all the dishes in between. (Butchers in Italy are often called upon to make up the difference now that most women work outside of the home. What surprises most foreigners is how little of these ‘convenience foods’ have ever seen the inside of a factory: Most are made by people you know on a first name basis).
Now Federica cuts more meat, breaking down whole carcasses into more consumer-ready cuts. And sometimes she’ll take my order, her innocent flirtation enough to redden my cheeks.
Cesare has been at the market only for four years now, taking over abandoned marble tables of the long-forgotten vendors, those who were put out of work when supermarkets came to town.
‘My grandmother shopped here with my mother. My mother with me. Now I work here, and I couldn’t be happier to play my little part in the market’s history’.
His soft voice caresses each carefully-selected word, a natural orator who has that singular ability to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world when standing in front of him.
As one of the most soft-spoken, gentle souls I know, Cesare underplays his own role in the Renaissance of our little market. He would never say this, nor even see it this way but he seems to have a unique gift, based on something deep inside of him, something that I can only call ‘humanity’ : the absolute delight of social interaction, that thing that makes us uniquely human. And no matter how nifty the spray misters in the supermarkets in the suburbs nor how bright their halogen display cases, as long as Cesare’s human touch continues to be valued here in the Salento, our market in Lecce will continue its cultural relevance.
Be certain to say ‘grazie‘, when you meet him. He’ll tell you the same, knowing full well that your very presence at the school helps to economically re-enforce things very close to his own heart. None of this is lost on any of us.
Luca doesn’t cook, but like so many males in Latin Europe, he sees his criticism of his wife’s cooking as an integral part of what happens at the table. What makes him stand out is that he’s particularly observant without being fussy, a trait all too rare.
Which interests me deeply, as Luca’s wife is one of the 55,000 folks from la Grecia Salentina, the 9 communities just south of Lecce that still speak a form of Ancient Greek. Buy a loaf of bread and you have Luca on demand, his recounting of the subtlest nuances of a dish, prepared by faithful cooks often just villages apart.
Where as I tend to the see the Salento as a core (the city of Lecce) and the periphery (the rest of the Salento), the entire land mass as a series of radiating ripples of culinary tendencies, Luca sees it more binary, either Latin leaning or the more Hellenistic.
Buy your bread from Luca and it comes with a lot more than just a paper bag.
‘You’ll break your camera if you take my picture’, Mimmino always says while waddling his way around the counter on our last days, when students insist on having their picture taken with him.
Our little school was on Dutch and Belgian television recently and guess who stole the show for the film crew!
The best part is that Mimmino had no idea we were filming, as he didn’t even notice the microphone clips or all the television cameras. He simply captured their hearts with his sad-dog eyes, his ready, self-effacing humour and uncountable slices of paper-thin prosciutto.
If the market had a mayor, it would certainly be Mimmino, who not only has the physical keys to the market, but always writes the schedule, not an easy matter in a country with so many national, regional and local holidays. But he also has to take into account how we celebrate each holiday as well, and which foods play a part in the festivities, facilitating longer open hours on the days right before.
‘I may look like a toad’, says Mimmino as I take his picture. ‘But luckily my cheese is good. And today it might be even extra extra good’.
‘My very first job was dispatching rabbits’, Ermanno says, without even a hint of irony or anguish. ‘I was ten. Once you know how to do it, it’s really easy and not remotely traumatic. So, aside from being born my father’s son- a butcher- I had had already done the hardest part. It never occurred to me to do anything else.
‘Last night, my wife made taieddha –buona– and some grilled chicken- buono– and served with a nice celery salad-buona. I’ll get the recipe for you if you want. Yesterday we had le orecchiette- buone– and then an ice cream out- buono. Have you tried that new wine yet’, he asks me.
‘Buono‘, I ask.
‘Ah, si? Buono’, he says, and continues with his knife.
You’ll likely never speak with Aldo. And it’s a pity, because while he’s a sweetheart of a guy, he’s also a horsemeat butcher, an ingredient that we still can’t offer at the school, even nine years into it.
I really wish we could, as carne equina is historically the most consumed red meat in many parts of Italy, and not just the poorer south.
Personally, I eat horsemeat often, certainly more than beef, which has to be imported from up north, usually Emilia-Romagna but often as far away as France or Spain. (If you doubt me, check out the lavender-coloured dye in the primal cuts the next time you’re anywhere in Italy.)
Domestic journalists routinely ask me if we have to dumb-down our cuisine to make it more accessible to foreigners. I always say ‘no’, but sooner or later it comes back to Aldo, and why so many foreigners view horsemeat as barbaric. Especially when nearly all of them arrive from nations where eating the flesh of cows and pigs is a national pastime.
In seven years, the jokes in the market have rarely varied. ‘I’m into Slow Food but that’s too slow’. ‘I can’t eat any meat that comes with a head’. ‘I could never eat ‘Sea biscuit’ or ‘Mr. Ed’. I always smile politely and say only, ‘While carne equina is an important part of our cuisine here in the Salento, we won’t be having any this week’.
He’s our official cab driver, even if many female students prefer to call him ‘Fabio’, apparently the name of American model that appears on the cover of pulp romance novels. If the American pulp model spends hours a day in the gym and beauty salon, and has the tendency to pose verses stand, flex versus stretch, then I guess the reference makes perfect sense.
But Antonio also has the ability to drive his large cab into spaces that give pause to your average race car driver, at speeds that cause them to flinch. A touch of a button and Antonio’s cab’s mirrors retract, with clearance measured in millimeters, the blond stone walls flashing by outside his car windows, always far from forgiving.
For the all the good-natured ribbing, we can honestly say that in 7 years he’s been our official driver, he’s never once let us down, the inside of his cab a little throbbing techno discoteca, replete with the permanent smells of sun tan lotion, protein powders and litre upon litre of cologne, apparently applied by teams of zealous orchard sprayers.
Giuseppe and Pina
And then there is Pina, who has the most tender heart of anyone you’ll ever meet.
Everyone loves Pina.
Students buy her flowers. Folks knit her stuff. She gets post cards and she beams and beams as she shows them to me, her pronunciation of foreign cities as cute as cute can be. Nearly everything we’ve made in the last few years- our annual tomato sauce, our quince paste, our vincotto, all our preserves, pickles and potions- some of our production ends up on Pina’s table. And I couldn’t have a more receptive audience.
‘Look how beautiful these apricots are, Silvestro’, she’ll say. ‘Apricot marmalade’, she’ll continue to prompt, a twinkle in her eye.
He’s our fish guy, a role that we don’t take lightly. My home answering machine often has messages from Mimmino, from early mornings when he unpacks his daily fish. ‘Beep. Nuovo messagio. Silvè, Tonno, rosso e freschissimo’ (‘Silvè, Tuna, red and really fresh BEEEEP’.
Many, many mornings come 6 am, I already know what I’ll be having for dinner that night.
Mimmino- like most folks here– has a profound preference for one coast or the other (we have two, the Ionian and the Adriatic). He prefers the Ionian, and would only snicker at the thought of fish coming form the other. His mussels come from Taranto, easily Italy’s most famous. His octopus from Porto Cesario, his home town.
‘Even after working with fish my entire adult life, I still find that there is something magical about them’, he says. ‘I mean, you look out over the sea, and see nothing but drop a line or a net and you can have some of the best food in the world, pulled from this magical, invisible world under the sea’.
On my mornings off he and I talk for hours about fish, which species is best for what, and how each responds to various methods, matching it all mentally with local wines. Our relationship is one of my most treasured.
When folks talk about ‘quality of life’, these are the people whose smiling faces who flash into my mind’s eye. I’m richer for knowing each of them.
And you will be too.