I left full-time restaurant cooking in 2017, when I moved to Sardinia (how has it been 5 years?) and since then I have cooked nearly every summer season at Melisses, an idyllic home/hotel (hotel isn't really the word - too haughty - but B&B sounds a bit twee too - it is really a 'home' of sorts) on the Greek island of Andros, run by Allegra Pomilio, who is as bubbling and brilliant as her bouncing name suggests (it sort of sounds like a happy citrus fruit).
Allegra is suspiciously young, beautiful and talented; passionate about places, people and produce; soft but also very steely, and with a wicked sense of humour and a contagious laugh which begins as a small smile on her perfect face and then spreads into a full, unashamed, shaking guffaw. She has a brilliant eye for beauty and a wonderfully direct way with words, as well as plenty of wary wisdom. She sort of reminds me of my grandmother, also a woman with 'grande palle', as they say in Italian, and another Lady with a Little Dog (in my grandmother's case it was a little black pug that went everywhere with her, in Allegra's it's a fluffy, cafe-au-lait-coloured miniature poodle named Artu).
I met Allegra by chance, but we have become great friends and share many of the same ideas about what hospitality really means. She has created something genuinely beautiful and unique at Melisses, and it is a pleasure to cook there for the guests that come from all over the world every season. We cook what we feel like cooking, using what we find, and we eat with the guests, from sharing plates. It is natural, informal, interactive and without the strange barriers between 'staff' and 'guests' or 'chefs' and 'diners', which have always made me feel uncomfortable and even a little sad. Around Allegra's long wooden table (salvaged from Ebay) there are no such distinctions. I will be cooking there again in April and May. Before then, however, I am very happy that prior to getting my act together and organising something here in Sardinia (it will be next year now for sure, if not this one) Allegra is hosting a retreat at her home in Abruzzo, where I will help, teach and cook.
Retreat is a funny word for these tours/events we do, but then they're not really tours either. They are retreats into quiet, beautiful and unspoilt places where you can detach a little, and focus on the simpler things; eating and drinking well, cooking, walking, meeting producers, trying local specialities and visiting beautiful places. There is a sort of surrealism to them, exactly because they are so idyllic, a bit like living for a few days in a Luca Guadagnino film, all golden grass and humming heat and perennial dusk and soft lighting and billowing lace curtains and the steam from coffee and cooking pots and ripe peaches and snatches of distant bird song. They're retreats from what the Italians call 'il logorio' of modern life. And we really do eat amazingly well. I have met people on these retreats that have become life-long friends, they provide a wonderful blend of activity, learning, socialising and relaxation.
This retreat will be a little different, because it's earlier in the year. As Italian winter is so (wonderfully) short-lived (it is really Spring already here in Sardinia) I have been wanting to do something before the summer to make the most of the abundant spring produce and the fact that all of the 'sights' are blissfully tourist-free. I've never been to Abruzzo, but Allegra has talked of it often, and it has many similarities with Sardinia; a strong rural tradition, lots of sausages, sheep's cheese and saffron. It is also considered one of the greenest regions of Europe, dotted with national parks and nature reserves, and its motto is 'forte e gentile' - strong and kind - which sort of tells you all you need to know.
We will spend the few days cooking, walking, foraging and barbecuing in the open air, as well as tasting the famous local Montepulciano wine, and visiting some of Abruzzo's most beautiful villages. There are full details on Allegra's site, and otherwise I will look forward to seeing you there for a celebration of Southern Italian Spring.