Travel

Burnt out by working long hours as a Melbourne chef, the author headed to Italy to study art and regroup. In the process, she found her passion for food was reignited. By Ella Mittas.

Rediscovering a love for food in Abruzzo

Sharing an al fresco meal in Giuliano Teatino, Abruzzo, Italy.
Credit: ELLA MITTAS

All I had known of Abruzzo was that it was where the montepulciano I drank came from. Now I was there, in Giuliano Teatino, two-and-a-half hours east of Rome.

I was in the old centre of town for an arts residency, a program run out of a house that had belonged to the great-great-grandparents of Nico, one half of the couple who had organised our stay. The house perched on a cliff that had been born out of a landslide one night, when the other side of the street simply sank. Most of the village had been evacuated in time, forewarned by a strange creaking sound. A blind man was left stranded in his house but was rescued a few days after the disaster. His house remains totally intact, encased in earth. Nico told us that when villagers eventually reached the man, and prised open his door, he was found kneeling in prayer.

In the years since the landslide, Nico and his partner, Lucia, had done a few minor renovations to their house, but nothing structural. They had made it more “bespoke”, as Lucia described it – taken away the plastic chairs and replaced them with wicker ones Nico’s great-grandfather had woven by hand; decorated all the strange alcoves of the house with handmade ceramics and Lucia’s prints. The walls were plastered pure white; the sheets were floral and flannel. The scratchy blankets reminded me of my grandparents.

I told myself I was at the residency to “make art”; pretended I wasn’t running away. I was a chef in Melbourne but had become burnt out. Working in commercial kitchens had proved too hard for me, my sensitivity no match for the extreme bullying culture. The relentlessly long hours of physical work had left me totally drained. And I’d been waiting for my apathy to pass, though the longer I waited the more diminished the idea of cooking had become. I’d drawn a line between the two sides of my brain – things I did with my hands and intuition, and things I did with my brain and intellect – and decided the reason I’d lost my passion for food was because it was all “hand work”. I was under-stimulated. I started to glorify going back to study, doing something more academic than cooking, something more important.

At the residency, we spent our first days talking, eating and exploring the surrounds. As we foraged for wild dock, lemon sorrel and dandelion one afternoon, I remembered reading that Abruzzo is known as the greenest region in Europe. Almost half its land is protected within nature reserves and national parks. The only thing not green around us was the blue hues of the Majella, the snow-capped mountain that lingered in the distance. It was cherry season, with all the trees we passed so full of fruit it fell to the ground as we gathered weeds below. Wading through overgrown grass with a mouthful of cherries, I was surprised at the humidity that clung to me. Cold mornings turned into hot and steamy afternoons.

Nico stopped to chat with an old man picking cherries and Lucia teased him while we waited, saying Nico was like a magnet for elderly men with war stories. Even in my short time there, I’d noticed that everyone in the village seemed so content. I watched them as they talked and attributed it to being content in what they did – of having one thing to focus on and be consumed by, a life in sync with a cycle of growing and harvesting. The old man’s ladder was balanced precariously on a single branch of a tree as he yelled down to us, his voice husky like a smoker’s: “Take some cherries! They’re all shit anyway.” Or at least that was the translation we got. The late rain had damaged much of the fruit, Nico explained, causing a rot. The old man’s fate was in the hands of the weather.

Back at the house, we all worked together cleaning the foraged greens and then braised them with onions and garlic. Sweet, bitter and spicy. We made a frittata from goose eggs that came from a neighbour down the road, their yolks more buttery than that of a regular egg. Nico made us chickpea pancakes that were crunchy from their oil content. We ate under a tree that looked over the edge of the cliff – rolling fields of vineyards striped the valley below, like a chequerboard of greens. They were mostly made up of dark-fruited montepulciano, but also of pecorino – the wine whose name is said to derive from the Italian word pecora, meaning sheep, because, apparently, it is their favourite grape to eat. The wind had picked up but only enough to make everything sparkle and to remind us we were outside.

Days would pass like this. Everyone working in the morning until voices and the smell of stovetop coffee from the kitchen would beckon us downstairs. There we would cook together, eat together. Sometimes in the afternoons we would forage, which then led in to dinner. No one got much work done. There was some purpose found in the passing of time.

When I did work, I flitted between painting and writing – spending all day trying to decide which one made me more content, only to end up mostly frustrated at my lack of direction. I drank coffees until I’d had too many, going around in circles trying to imagine my future life.

We visited the house next door. There, the grandmother of the family, also named Lucia, was in her garden, which was alive with spring vegetables, all the greenery of the garden set against the red poppies that litter the ground throughout Abruzzo. We followed behind Lucia as she ripped things out of the dirt and pushed them to our chests. Two shopping bags full of broad beans, garlic and leeks.

After loading us up as much as she could, she beckoned us to sit on the ground beside her. She apologised for speaking in dialect before telling us how her property was on the front line of the war. I looked up at the house, and beyond it to her garden that stretched into rolling hills and to the greenhouse that she’d recently built by herself, at age 84.

On the walk home, our Lucia told us that grandmother Lucia was somewhat disregarded by her family, because they saw her as a farmer, uneducated. It was clear, though, she was the backbone of that household – even as an outsider, I could see her importance. But hand skills, and intuition, are always undervalued.

We podded the broad beans together when we got back to the house on the cliff, sitting in a circle on the ground. They were young and tender enough to leave in their opaque skins. Nico cooked them for us with the garlic and leek from Lucia’s garden. The garlic was so sweet and mild that we could eat the cloves whole once they had been cooked down. The earthy, creamy braise was drenched in so much oil and lemon that it pooled in the bottom of our plates. Over a red checked tablecloth, we ate, each cutting hunks off a loaf of crusty white bread and a slab of parmesan placed in the middle of the table. In that moment, food seemed like the centre of the universe.

I watched our Lucia in the garden in front of our house that evening, among her own rows of vegetables. She told me that sometimes she watched them grow as though she was watching TV. I so wanted to be consumed by something as much as that. I wanted to choose the best thing, but how I was supposed to know what that was remained a mystery to me. In the weeks I’d been away, my idea of food was already beginning to move and shift and grow. How was it possible I’d forgotten its importance?

The next morning, I walked to the shops, listening to a recording of the writer Camille Bordas reading her short story “The Presentation on Egypt”. In it, the protagonist tells her friend she thinks people don’t get along because everyone is always trying to convince themselves the one path they have chosen is the most meaningful. Her friend disagrees, saying he doesn’t think mathematicians see everything through a maths prism; farmers never talk in farming metaphors – it is only writers who think they do. I laughed at myself then, walking around the village, trying to find something definitive to tell me which way to go.   

I returned to the house, grazing on the various cherries I passed, the Majella looking down from behind me. People who passed me every day had stopped offering lifts, after my many failed attempts to explain that I was exercising. Now, as I walked, they waved and beeped, laughing. I decided to pay more attention to where I was.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "A sense of place". Subscribe here.

Ella Mittas
is a cooking teacher, chef and food writer. She runs a food event company called Ela Melbourne.