Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:18 am

A taste of honey

Author and cook Patience Gray lived off the land for 30 years in Apulia. A fan and fellow writer visited her farmhouse to pay homage

We were two culinary pilgrims, and we were hungry. On our journey to Patience Gray’s farmhouse in the extreme south, the heel of Italy’s boot, we lingered a little too long over lunch in Naples. At an agriturismo filled with families in their Sunday best we ate fried courgette flowers, plump mozzarella, slow-cooked octopus, lemon potatoes. Now, full but late, photographer Jason Lowe and I would have to drive fast if we were to arrive before our hosts, Patience’s son, Nick, and his wife, Maggie, went to bed.

Hour after hour we roared down winding roads; the sea on our right, the night growing darker. As we rounded the final corner, the headlights of our car shone up on the carved stone figures that guard “Spigolizzi”, the Apulian farmhouse in which Patience lived for 35 years. At last, we sat down at the kitchen table with Nick and Maggie, grateful for a glass of the local primitivo after our long journey. Above us the whitewashed ceiling was decorated with horned and feathered figures, serpents and two-faced goddesses; on the wall opposite, a double-tailed mermaid held out her arms in welcome.

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This house, in all its peculiarities, was a place I had longed to see. Honey From A Weed, written and revised by Patience Gray over 20 years and finally published in 1986, is one of my most cherished books – a description of Mediterranean fasting and feasting as gripping as any novel; a hymn to a way of life that was disappearing almost as fast as Patience could record it. I read and reread it until finally I found myself desperate to see where it was written. Her son, Nick, who moved into the house in 2001, replied kindly to my request, and invited me to stay.

Patience Gray was a successful journalist and author with two grown-up children (Nick and Miranda) when she left England in 1963 and began a new life with the Flemish sculptor Norman Mommens. Through the 1960s Norman and Patience followed a “vein of stone” from Carrara in Italy to Catalonia in Spain, to the Greek island of Naxos, then back to Italy to the Veneto, before finally settling in Apulia at the end of the decade. In 1970, they bought and restored the masseria Spigolizzi, a ruined sheep farm that sits on top of a rocky hill and looks out towards the Ionian Sea. Here they embraced a life of almost prehistoric simplicity, forgoing running water, electricity and the telephone.

Patience Gray's kitchen©Jason Lowe

Patience Gray’s kitchen wall with baskets and cooking implements

Since Patience died seven years ago, very little has changed in her kitchen and though she eulogised the ascetic way of life in Honey From A Weed, she was not always equal to its self-imposed strictures. I was able to read some of her as yet unpublished letters, in which a funnier, self-mocking truth is often presented (see below).

Writing from Naxos in 1964 she describes to her sister Tania how the couple’s Lenten fast was broken through the generosity of a friend, American millionaire Carroll Donner and her husband John Stutchell: March 27 1964 “We have been going through a period of Holy Days, very interruptive & in the first week of Lent our diet was regularly inspected to make sure we were either fasting like everybody else or not fasting because we were foreign. In fact we weren’t because Carroll & John sent us a really sumptuous parcel of tongue and brisket which has put new life into us. We needed it because Normanno had been a very sick cat.”

. . .

When Norman and Patience settled in Apulia, they were beginning a 30-year stretch of solitude, until Norman’s death in 2000. They balanced their creative work (she also made jewellery) with the physically demanding cultivation of their three acres. Together, they grew garlic, tomatoes and black chickpeas, and made wine, a vino sincero that predates the current rage for “natural” winemaking by 40 years. They cleared the terraces, planted fig, quince and citrus trees, and pruned the ancient olive trees. Norman painted the kitchen walls with allegorical figures and carved stone sculptures, some of which now stand in the garden. The hilltop flourished under their care; surrounding the farmhouse is the macchia (a landscape fragrant with herbs, scrubby aromatics and ancient olive trees) whose fungi and wild herbs were such an important part of Patience’s cooking.

Patience Gray's Apulian farmhouse©Jason Lowe

A traditional Apulian pajare (stone dwelling)

She writes again to Tania: “Tuesday…early April… say 4th… dearest Tania… thanks to the rain we have been living on wild asparagus which is wonderful. You have to walk miles to get it & it is a wonderful excuse to examine the clover-deep countryside.”

In this harsh climate, icy in winter, roasting in summer, the conditions Patience and Norman lived under were often extreme, but they were tempered by delight in their work, the friends who visited, their love for each other and the place they found to live in. The macchia was Patience’s comfort and constant resource, and we too foraged in the countryside. We gathered wild chicory and fennel and picked huge yellow quinces from the garden. Patience’s cauldrons were used to boil the quinces and the copper preserving pan to make the jelly. Moscardini (little cuttlefish) from the fish market were cooked according to Patience’s recipe with tomatoes, parsley, celery and lemon zest.

Apulia countryside©Jason Lowe

On our last morning we got up at dawn to walk. We picked wild sage, rosemary and thyme on the hill Patience loved; climbed the steps that spiral round the small pajare (stone dwellings) that dot the hillside; and marvelled at the opacity of the Apulian sky. Later, in the streets of nearby Salve we found bakers baking bread in ancient stone ovens, bought jars of wild capers, bulbous puntarelle, mushrooms and bouquets of round red peppers. Our breakfast was the one Patience preferred – Damascene plum jam with ricotta and fresh bread.

Patience Gray wrote a singular book and lived a singular life. But the denial of comforts seemed to strengthen her. Here she writes to the friend she confided in most often, Wolf Aylward, and sums up her happiness: October 14 1990 “It was amazing to get back to cucina mia where we had some kind of merenda featuring bread (real), cheese (Sardinian), own tomatoes, garlic, real olive oil and a bottle of Fano wine, back to simplicity. Wonderful.”

“Honey from a Weed: Fasting and feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia” by Patience Gray (Prospect Books, £20).

Jojo Tulloh is author of “East End Paradise: Kitchen Garden Cooking in The City” (Vintage, £14.99).

To comment, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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Ricotta and plum jam on toast©Jason Lowe

Damascene plum jam

In Patience’s garden there is a plum tree that bears small, very dark blue fruits; with these she made an “astonishingly delicious and perfumed jam”. She called this jam Damascene, as the tree’s origin was Damascus. In her book she wondered if crusaders returning via Otranto and Brindisi from the Holy Land might not have carried dried Damascus plums with them, discarding the stones as they travelled on. One of these might have germinated and been the ancestor of Patience’s tree. She did not record her recipe for plum jam, but this method should produce a dense, aromatic jam similar to the one we ate at Spigolizzi made by Nick and Maggie.

makes about 6 jars of jam

2kg damsons

approx 500ml–750ml water, depending on how ripe the fruit is

2kg natural unbleached granulated sugar (heat the sugar on a tray in the oven at a low heat to aid dissolving)

• Pick over the fruit, discarding any that are overripe or blemished. Place the fruit in a colander and rinse with cold water. Place in a large preserving pan over a low heat, add the water and bring up to the boil very slowly.

• Cook the fruit until it is pulpy, stirring now and then to break up and release the stones. Check that the skins are very soft, as they will not get any softer once the sugar is added.

• While the fruit is simmering skim off any stones as they rise to the surface. This is a laborious but meditative task.

• Add the sugar, stirring continuously until it is completely dissolved. Bring the jam to the boil and cook quickly. The quicker the setting point is reached the better the flavour. Start testing the jam after 10 minutes. An easy way to tell is to dip a spoon in and hold it above the pan, if a drop of syrup remains suspended it will set. Skim the jam and pour into hot sterilised jars, seal with discs of waxed paper and keep in a cool, dark place.

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Broad bean purée with pancetta and chicory©Jason Lowe

Broad bean purée with wild chicory and pancetta

Wild chicory grows abundantly around the masseria Spigolizzi; in the UK you could use, with equal success, fresh dandelion leaves, which do not require blanching, or cultivated chicory, boiled for five minutes and drained well.

200g dried broad beans, soaked overnight and slipped out of their skins or, if you are in a hurry, dried broad beans that have already been split and halved

4 green onions, shoots only, or a small bunch of spring onions, greens only, sliced

1 small bunch of mint (or a clove of garlic and single dried chilli pepper out of season)

50g pancetta cut into strips

4 heads of dandelion (well washed and picked over) or one bulb of chicory treviso rosso

Olive oil

Sea salt and black pepper

• If using whole dried broad beans then bring them to the boil, drain and then squeeze them out of their pods.

• Put the peeled beans in a pan and cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer until tender. When the beans are soft and most of the water has evaporated, stir well with a wooden spoon to form a purée. While the purée is cooking, heat a skillet and fry the onion greens in a tablespoon of olive oil, and then add the mint leaves (or garlic and chilli in winter). Cook until wilted and then add the broad beans with some of their liquor. Cook for a few minutes then season well with plenty of salt and set aside.

• If using the chicory bring a small pot of salted water to the boil. Separate the leaves from the chicory and blanch it for a minute or two, then drain. Fry the pancetta in a griddle or frying pan and when nice and crispy add the drained chicory or the dandelion. Braise well. Pour the bean and onion mixture into a bowl and then arrange the leaves and pancetta on top. Add a dribble or two of olive oil and some black pepper. Eat with plenty of good bread.

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polipetti©Jason Lowe

Polipetti or Moscardini (little cuttlefish)

The very tiniest of cuttlefish might be hard to find but more commonly available cuttlefish cut into strips can be substituted.

serves 2

500g cleaned cuttlefish (ask the fishmonger to do this for you)

1 medium sized white onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp olive oil

2 or 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and fragmented

A slither of lemon zest

A few sprigs of celery and/or flat leaf parsley

1 small wine glass of white wine (approx 125ml)

The same amount of water as wine

• Wash the cuttlefish under water in a bowl until they are thoroughly clean. Then prepare an appetising sughetto (little sauce). Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a heavy frying pan and simmer the onion gently until it softens. Add the herbs, torn apart, the tomatoes and the lemon zest. Put in the cuttlefish and the glass of wine and then of water. Cook on a lively heat for 10 minutes and then leave to cool in their own juice. Eat with bread and black olives for lunch.

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Patience Gray’s letters on…

… spring

May 4, (year unknown), from Carrara

“Everyone is eating broad beans raw, like in Greece. Thirty people came on the primo maggio to eat on the terrace, all relations of Roberto [Bernacchi, a sculptor friend], and the feast was followed by a battle of bean-pods and a great deal of humour and comic improvisation. Demi -johns were emptied one after the other. Yes, the etruscans are still with us.”

… hospitality

April 16 1972

“Honestly I think I’m past trying to tell people things. Cooking. There’s a time when one lines one’s nest, there’s a time when one feels one is the ‘arbiter of taste’, there’s a time for telling … I am at the time in life of giving things away, and offering a good meal to someone who is coming through the door, and making things to celebrate a feeling of wonder and gratitude.”

... the cold

March 23 1982

“dearest Tania, perhaps you’ll think I have abandoned you but it is because of the rigours, March came in like a lion & in a fortnight we have had more winter than ever before, I hope yours has been different. Moored to the guttering gasfire in my room and nose down to the selected task is about as much as I can manage, one thus finds that cold like heat separates you from the world beyond. If someone appears at the rattling door it is a wonder, and only the brave.”

... her garden

1988

“Today there is a force 6 gale tearing at lovely spring garden, wish you could see it, an Impressionist painting, and nature having arranged the plants. Tall spires of malva in flower, a sea of Angelica, purple night scented stocks (I admit to have broadcast the seeds), a fountain of pure gold: the jade plants, now of enormous size, spilling over the rose-bed’s retaining wall… the lilies a while ago like Catherine wheels are unwinding, now. I always longed for you to see & photograph this wonder!”

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