Giuliana, our bubbling wellspring of Puglian knowledge, wants to take us to the beach. She usually swims at Porto Cesareo, where she has another house that The Sailor Man and his brother (The Tinker, The Soldier or maybe The Spy?) inherited from their parents, but today she is taking us to the sand dunes, bathing waters and pine forests of the charmingly-sounding, Pig Point. Or Punta della Suina, as it is known locally.
Before we leave, I prepare tonight’s dinner of ribollita, a slow-cooked vegetable and bean soup of Tuscan peasant origins, traditionally made using beans, greens and tough-as-old-boots bread, and perhaps some leftover minestrone. I’d soaked a bowl of cannellini beans overnight and, as The Husband packs up the towels and bathers, I boil them up in one pan whilst sweating down the rest of the ingredients that I gathered from the fridge and garden in another. This morning some of those ingredients are not particularly authentic, which I’m sure is the most authentic way of cooking ribollita. I turn off the heat just before we leave, and let the soup stew under its lid for the afternoon.
On our way to the coast we stop in at the post office in Lecce to buy stamps and send the postcards that the children had made in Bologna. There’s something so momentous about buying stamps in another country; the novel pictures, the foreign alphabets, and the peculiar currencies make the small, simple act of delivering a short message on the back of a picture a grand performance. The children sit on the doorstep of the shop, lopsidedly sticking each stamp onto their postcards before feeding them, one-by-one, into the open mouth of the letterbox.
It’s an half hour drive to Punta della Suina, mostly along an undistinguished dual carriageway. But five minutes off the busy road, and during the height and heat of the midday sun, we find ourselves bouncing dust up along a chalky stone lane leading to a car park managed by a crinkly man in reflective glasses. As he sits rocking away on the back legs of a plastic chair, feet up on the barrier, he nonchalantly invites people to pay the small entrance fee. After handing over our money, we park up behind Giuliana and then proceed to perform our daily ceremonious unloading of the boot and its many contents, as any good British family holiday-makers would. Giuliana watches us carrying her handbag, which clearly contains a thong and a small hand towel.
The walk to the beach takes us through a mythical pine copse, muted in colour and clime by the shade offered by the needle-heavy branches above us. It’s as if we are passing through the pages of a folklore storybook, which closes when we reach the undulating dunes and brilliant blue of the beach beyond.
We spend the next few hours splashing in the sea, which is some of the nicest water I’ve been in. Rocky and sandy, blue glass clear, just cool enough for real swimming, and amiss of the floating bottles, women’s sanitary wear and plastic wrappers that I have become accustomed to in some places across Europe and the British Isles. The beach is framed by an endless strip of marine pine forest the colour of moss and yellow-gold ridges of sand that spread out like a creased blanket warming the coastline. There are craggy inlets and the water, shallow for some distance, is teeming with flashing schools of small fish that get the children exploring further from the shore.
Back on dry land and we watch the flashing schools of Italians as they drift in and out of the sea, whilst nibbling on Giuliana’s mother’s novelty arrancini. Stuffed with her daughter’s favourite processed, triangular-shaped cheese, they are as tasty as they are unauthentic.
We buy friselle at the beach bar for a small fortune – Giuliana informs us that this typical Salento cucina povera would cost no more than a couple of Euros to make or buy elsewhere – but the children are hungry and we have run out of nonna’s pirated rice balls. A combination of teeth-breakingly hard bread (itself called friselle and twice-baked specifically for this dish), which has been soaked and softened overnight in water and then covered in good olive oil, fresh chopped tomatoes, torn basil and a sprinkling of salt before serving. Today the beach bar is treating us to an additional topping of bocconcini (small egg-sized balls of mozzarella), and it is utterly delicious. Even if it costs an arm and a leg, and was basically tomatoes on toast (which, incidentally, was my favourite childhood supper.) With more than a hint of disdain, Giuliana – Italy’s only vegetable-hater – says that The Sailor Man takes a box of fresh tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and friselle on long sea voyages, and makes this dish for himself and his crew every day, soaking the solid bread in salty sea water to soften it. Evidently she can’t think of anything worse than being stuck on a boat with her husband and a tonne of tomatoes.
After a little more swimming and watching the children engage in international negotiations with some local children over their buckets and spades, we head back to the car park as the geckos also call it a day. We stop in the shadows of the pine forest to climb trees and buy the sweetest honeydew melon from an Albanian man who has since set up shop to hawk his fruit to beach-weary passersby. We sit next to him and borrow his knife, eating the delicious nectarous flesh as the wasps hum around. This, of course, encourages The Husband to once again entertain us with his own special haka.
Back home and the ribollita, which has been infusing all day, is just reward after all that swimming and insect war dance. Before bed, we shower off the salt from our bodies in the bathroom where the lights flicker each time a tap is turned on. Yes, it really is like The Mother-in-Law’s House here.