I must apologize for almost falling off the blogging wagon. This post started weeks ago, full of the accompanying sizzle of Summer. The sawing buzz of cicadas, aromatic breezes and emotions of recent experiences were still fresh in my mind, yet I had to leave it all on ice. These have been fallow times, due to the Summer holidays and the ensuing interference of offspring. I have sat here on countless occasions brimming with ideas and stories to relate only to be wrenched from my keyboard by the marauding troupe formed by my kids. The pattern is the same: a child screams, I try and zone it out, keep my thread – and after an initial surge of resentment and frustration the realization hits that I do actually need to intervene/mediate (also cater, serve, mop, wipe and appease, comfort). So I push my chair away from the desk and deal with the present – as well I should. I procrastinated involuntarily and repeatedly – but by the time the quiet of night rolled around I just felt that the passion had been steam-rolled out of me. I then uploaded a fat batch of pictures of Maratea, the place we stayed hoping that it would get me back on track (see below) but much like returning to a forgotten cup of tea the restorative warmth and curative aroma of which has long since disappeared, I was in another, cooler, less sunny headspace by the time I got back to it. Surely you’ve been there – you have a spontaneous, funny story to relate yet countless interruptions mean you never get it off the ground and, eventually, abandon the whole endeavour. After the repeated start-stop pattern and holding the thought, I had to resign myself to the fact that until school started back up – or I got some sort of help – I was not going to be doing anything meaningful for myself : no more than a cursory shower, minimal personal grooming, no formal exercise of any kind, no focused reading, no poring over cookbooks, no catching up with friends for a proper chat, in short: absolutely nothing that requires anything greater than 10 minute chunks. And so this Summer has really been about me making my peace with that and I figure that in terms of personal growth, this is no small feat. This double bind of emotional satisfaction vs intellectual and personal satisfaction is much of what constitutes parenthood. If I am honest I suppose these are simply the years of drinking many (maybe not exclusively) cold, abandoned cups of tea.
Writing about eating ice cream in the glare of the Mediterranean sun initially felt off key what with my premature autumnal blues precipitated by a cold, dreary London subjected to three weeks of incessant rain. Sick of the washing taking days to dry and being unable to defrost my toes I finally surrendered and reinstated the heating. I sighed with mixed feelings as the familiar dry and dusty smell of pipes gone a long time unused unfurled and flooded through the house one room at a time. We have all been plunged into Autumn with no gentle transition and suddenly here we are with the first sniffles of the season already to contend with, darker mornings and condensation-coated bedroom windows which little fingers trace pictures in for the world going by. Cries of “Is it Hallowe’en yet? How many weeks till Christmas? Can we watch Elf?” is too much. To top it off the kids have begun night-waking as their spirits have had the double jolt of new season and back to school to process. Since they thoughtfully wake in rotation this amounts to 5 separate times some nights, so I find myself crashing in to things like a zombie in the day. It is not the best basis for restarting to work out. All I want to do is eat toast and drink tea and I am damned if I am going to beat my self up about it. I am bowing to the seasons and to the current shape and pace of daily life: as I have come to understand that there is no point in being angry at the weather or overly stressed by the children. Even if I am out of shape, ungroomed, tan fading and voice breaking from all the yelling, well…I have decided to remind myself that it won’t be forever. Bad weather? Bad day? Gross hair? Screaming kids? Feeling fat? …Well this too shall pass. The flipside of the cup of tea that I forget to drink is that time passes too fast for some things and we can’t capture them, but it also passes so our trials and annoyances are relatively shortlived. There is light and dark in everything. This too shall pass. Expectation leads to disappointment, BUT…embracing the situation and making the most of it’s tiny details has been liberating! It’s raining in August? Let’s put our wellies on! It’s no longer sunny but cold and dark? Let’s bake something and warm up! Life’s contrasts – whether welcome or not – give life it’s contours. The little things, when you can actually pull them off – and that are often overlooked – can become huge pleasures: an uninterrupted bath, that hot cup of tea, a walk on the Heath, the school run home via the butcher and the ice cream shop. Seemingly banal events are becoming hugely important and precious to me because time is racing and turning my tea cold and making my ice cream melt – everything is transient and this is both good and bad. So I keep making cups of tea anyway, knowing that one day I will sit over one calmly, in a quiet house, pining for the small company and huge chaos that a cold one once signified. I will mourn and adore the turn of the seasons and feel overwhelmed with nostalgia a the memory of the excitement of those little hands sweeping up acorns and conkers.
Having started this post back in August with enthusiasm, then moving on to resentment, then resignation, I have come full circle and decided to go ahead anyway which, inevitably now, after so many false starts, has a totally different tone. So let’s share a shaft of Summer light – it may not be as fresh but it still has value, it is the Summer Yang to my Autumn Yin. It is just seen through a different lens now.
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And so to Maratea where we just spent a glorious week this Summer, and, most memorably, the most extraordinarily delicious ice cream I have ever tasted in my life.
There are times when you have to hold your hands up and simply bow in the face of brilliance. Instances when you are so in the moment that you know that a sensation is actually branding and permanent memory on to your soul with an almost audible sizzling sound. It is not always something profound that does it, more often than not it is something seemingly trivial and usually fleeting, that through a confluence of factors is just incredibly poignant and intense. Smells are often a part of these instances for me. Music. And of course food. For instance, once I had a barbecue on the beach in Sicily. I must have been about 14 and I remember padding about barefoot in a sarong with wet hair and rubbing garlic on bruschetta that I toasted myself over the woodfire with tongs, and then adding dried oregano to it and oil and salt. It was one of those memories which basically eclipsed almost all my other memories of the holiday because I happened to prepare it myself (pride) and it was the first time I combined those flavours (novelty) and it was offset so incredibly beautifully by the setting (atmospheric), yet it was a literally just a moment’s sensation that made that impact: The smoke from the wood fire, the savoury, the medicinally herby aroma, the salt in the air, the fact we were all relaxed and sun-warmed. And this year I had one of those moments.
So having stumbled across the South of Italy’s best kept secret (Maratea) we made the compulsory trip pretty on in our stay, to the port area of the town and the “main” (read tiny) square. It was sweltering hot, – 35 degrees at night! and everyone was spilling out all over the cobbles fanning themselves, the whole area lined with bars and ice cream shops. We had kids in tow so we made a beeline for the most promising looking one and the children not being particularly discerning when it comes to ice cream (yet), ordered with gay abandon. I on the other hand fell back and decided against ice cream. I just thought it all looked a rather lacklustre display of buckets full of cloying pastels. The others bought, we began the sweaty trudge back up the slope back to our parked car in the dark and sweltering heat. I saw the owner of the dive shop nearby where we had bought the kids goggles earlier that day, sitting on his own plastic chair outside his boiling warren of a shop (amazingly rammed with masks and snorkels and knives and tackle at civilian prices) eating a snow-coloured ice-lolly. I called over and asked him where he had got it and he directed me back 5 paces where I saw a modest little sign saying “Gelato Artigianale – Bar Emilio” with an arrow pointing down an adjacent alley. A load of locals seemed to be buzzing around its threshhold and I felt my pulse quicken. There it was, the best gelateria I have every stumbled across. Italians will simply not accept bad food. Even eating in a commercial behemoth such as Autogrill it is virtually impossible to have a dreadful meal in Italy, whereas in the French incarnation of Autogrill despite being in the country of the best baguette and the home of the Michelin Guide you will find microwaveable meals and sweaty wonderbread sandwiches when you stop for lunch. Wherever you see Italians gathered, it is good indication that the food will not disappoint.
Only a tiny hole-in-the-wall, with only a handful of humble plastic chairs immediately outside this place had something special at its heart. As I took in the tiny space, I noticed only a very concise array of flavours on offer, which was my first clue that this guy Emilio was taking things seriously. Once I became “a regular” (twice a night some night!!) I later discovered that there was a designated seating area manned by one waiter 20 metres away under a fabulously leafy tree, serving as lounging space for those wishing to make more of an occasion of their ice cream-eating, and let me tell you, this is highly advisable. It was an obsession for the time we were in Maratea, as every night a new flavour fell out of the rotation and another dazzling interpretation of a classic filled its place. We even prompted a steady stream of hotel guests to get their daily ice cream fix there, such was my envagelism. I worked my way to the front of the queue and suddenly, snapped from my reverie, it was my turn to order.
Most of the flavours I would normally choose were not available, which made me initially waver. Every proposition was interesting however: Valrhona Chocolate, Pistacchio di Bronte, Liquorice, Lemon, Zabaione, Coconut, Coffee and the one I plumped for first, my love at first taste: Ricotta with Fig. Let me preface this by saying that I suppose I chose this to throw down the gauntlet in some way: I couldn’t see how it would be possible to capture the cream neutrality and freshness of ricotta and the elusive fragrance of figs. I didn’t think I stood much of a chance of loving it, but I thought it was an interesting pairing and figs were in season. I do have a bit of a thing about figs though. When they are good (ie. straight from the tree, still warm from the sun and paired with prosciutto, or simply eaten on their own) they are divine, but as a rule, not flown for miles in a crate and wrapped in tissue paper only to be disappointingly hard and tasteless at a price to make your eyes water. I love fig fragrances too, but that’s another story. To be honest, I was never much of a ricotta fan until a few years ago when one of my close friends whose family owns a restaurant (more on this in another whole dedicated section) gave me some with fresh raw honey drizzled on it. I hastily ordered as a line was forming behind me and I didn’t want to be a pain. I paid and rejoined my family outside on the road. Then the madness began. I took one bite, and, sorry to be graphic, but immediately I was salivating. I was in the middle of crossing the road, (as mostly Italians walk and eat their ice creams rather than going for a serious sit down affair) and I stopped in my tracks. I remember my husband reaching for my arm to pull me away from an approaching car but being rooted to the spot. He laughed and pulled harder and started talking to me and I took a few faltering steps to the opposite pavement and then put my hand up in the air, mute, gasping. “Please don’t talk to me” I said. A breath. “I. Just. Can’t. I. Need. To. Concentrate. On. This. Ice cream!” He immediately let out a huge guffaw in my face and looked at me as if I were mad. Which I clearly was. It was so intense! So acute! The collision of aroma and taste stirred up a whole series of images and feelings and memories past and present and future that filed by like a flashing series of synaesthesthetic pictures and sensations – not unlike that scene in Ratatouille when the reviewer Gusteau eats the Ratatouille and is blown away. At cold temperatures this is a real culinary feat as molecules of aroma and flavour are slowed right down, they are less volatile and therefore harder to discern. I have no idea how he did it! My ears were ringing and I really new in that very moment that I would not forget the look on my husband’s face, the view, the taste, the holiday in Maratea, and I would overlook the annoying hotel and the uncomfortable heat, just. Because. Of this.
Needless to say that we all went back again and again and that I skipped meals to incorporate this ice cream in to my diet – and not for health reasons, but because I wanted to enjoy it consciously and on an empty stomach. We tried almost every flavour, we tried the lollies which were out of this world. One night Emilio served me another ricotta e fichi ice cream but I didn’t enjoy it as much. It was sweeter and I discovered candied fruit in the cream. I asked if it was his usual recipe and he blushed and apologised and said that he had been distracted and had started making his Cassata recipe mid mix and created a hybrid. All in all, this culinary experience was so overwhelmingly human, artisanal and connected to the raw ingredients that it was exceptional. One of the locals I got chatting to at the beach explained how Emilio buys Pistacchi di Bronte (a very special, green, rich and large type of pistacchio from Sicily) to make his pistacchio ice cream, which costs 300Euros a kg! If good food is indeed the sum of locally sourced, highest quality ingredients, combined with love and talent, then this is the very epitome of it.
Although we stayed in a disappointing hotel in Maratea town up in the mountains, the holiday itself was great as a whole. Below I have included a little bit on Maratea and some pictures to give a feel of the vibe of the place in case you feel like going on an ice cream pilgrimage of your own next year.
Our hotel, although pretty at first glance, was very overpriced considering its damp rooms, poor service and surly staff. (I wouldn’t recommend you stay there despite it appearing upon our return in a Times article on Where To Stay (La Locanda delle Donne Monache). We loved the town and the views and the beaches and eventually, very late in to our stay we even found a great restaurant called Ristorante da Cesare, which on the other hand, I would recommend wholeheartedly.
Maratea is a little pocket of land that is about about 30km across – to quote Wikipedia “Maratea is the only town of Basilicata on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It has approximately 32 kilometres (20 miles) of rocky coastline, with more than twenty beaches. One of the main characteristics of Maratea is the variety of its landscapes, varying from breath-taking sea views to wooded hillsides and majestic mountains which sweep down to the sea creating steep cliffs.” It happens to be squeezed between the regions of Campania (in which Naples is situated) and Calabria – and is basically the way the Amalfi Coast would be today (ie. not a clogged, overpopulated, over-priced – if beautiful – tourist hotspot) if Campania had passed strict conservation laws like Basilicata in the 50s. It is like Amalfi was 60 years ago apparently, and so much better for it.