In 2019, food writer and chef Sophie Grigson packed up her possessions and moved to Puglia. Her TV show Sophie Grigson: Slice of Italy chronicles her sunny new life, showcasing beautiful Italian vistas, charming encounters with Puglian locals, and – of course – lots of incredible food. Ahead of a brand new season of the show, we caught up with Sophie to discuss her cherished food memories, her favourite Puglian restaurants and her best dinner party tips.
Sophie Grigson On The New Season Of Her TV Show Slice of Italy
The new season of Sophie Grigson: Slice Of Italy airs in October, giving us another glimpse into your Italian adventures. What’s your favourite thing about Puglian cooking?
When I arrived here, I thought I knew – I’ve travelled in Italy a lot, I’ve eaten in a lot of Italian restaurants, so I thought I knew a lot about Italian food. [But living in Puglia] has really brought home to me how regional Italian food is. So most of what we encounter and what we think of as Italian food in the UK is actually northern Italian food. And we don’t know nearly as much about the south, and it clearly has its own very strong regional food identity, and exploring that has been fascinating. I have learnt a huge amount. One of the things that I didn’t realize before coming down here – and this is something they do not just here, but across the south of Italy – is that they use cherry tomatoes as a cooking tomato rather than a salad tomato. They’re often used in relatively small quantities, for instance in pasta, where they’re used almost as a seasoning to add some acidity, rather than doing a big tomato sauce. And so things like that have been fascinating.
Also, Puglian food is quite simple. It’s very fresh. They eat a huge amount of fruit and vegetables here. And living here, I’ve learned a lot more about that. I always tell friends if they’re arriving as tourists that they should order the ‘antipasti della casa’ – the house antipasti – because that’s where you often find the most interesting things, and more fruit and veg. There’s fruit and veg here that I’ve never seen before, which has been fascinating.
Can you tell us a bit about your catering company, Trulli Delicious?
It’s going – touch wood – really well. We’re very, very busy, and we have been all summer – particularly this month, actually. We love doing it. It was very hard work in July with the temperature hitting 40°C, when you’re going into a kitchen where you don’t have any air conditioning, and you’ve got the oven on! But yes, it’s going really well, we’re really busy. We cook mainly for people who are here on holiday, though some people live here. We have done two meals for Italians, but I think most Italians wouldn’t employ two British women to cook Italian food for them – they think that the British can’t cook, and you have to explain to them that we’re pretty good at cooking! So we mostly go to people who are renting houses and villas, who are here for their holidays, and we take food for them and we go and cook for them, and it’s great. And I love it because you get to see lots of the interiors!
We often go down the lanes and roads I wouldn’t necessarily know. (And we get lost, but that’s another story!) Everybody we cook for is delightful. And funnily enough, the woman I’m now cooking with – my partner in the catering business – is somebody that I met because we cooked for her: she became a friend, and now she’s cooking with me. So, yes, I love it. And you meet all kinds of interesting people. And you can be nosy! Also, it’s so nice to introduce people to Puglian food – we cook other things, but mostly, that’s what we just do – and it’s lovely to be able to give them a little bit of a sense of place and of why certain foods are cooked here. And a little bit of history and local culture as well. It’s a it’s a hoot. I love it.
How did your love of food start?
My love of food started by being a guinea pig, really, for my mother’s cooking. She was just terrific. And she also taught me to be curious about food, and to try things. I think she got this from her mother, my grandmother: if you’re going out to a restaurant and you see something on the menu that you don’t know, that’s what you should order. Try the new thing, because that’s how you learn. When you go somewhere you’ve been to before, it’s very tempting to go back to one dish that you really love. Sometimes you do, of course, but you learn so much by trying new things. And that’s what I’ve done here. I’ve learnt about a whole regional way of cooking, a lot of which is not like the north of Italy, it’s very different. So, basically, I was very lucky, my love of food started in my home. And we talked about food a lot, rather like the Italians do.
What’s your favourite restaurant in Puglia?
That’s impossible to say – I have a lot of favourite restaurants in Puglia! One of them we filmed in last year, a little restaurant called Vino Fritti Cucina. They have lots of different-coloured tables, and it’s on a slope, so you have to learn to eat on a slope, which is a bit disconcerting! But the food makes up for that – it’s always reliable and terrific and people love that. But also, in this new series, we filmed at a restaurant which I hadn’t actually been before, I’m ashamed to say. It’s in a small town near us and it’s a social enterprise: they’re doing quite sophisticated cooking and they’re employing a lot of people with learning disabilities and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the food is fantastic. And there’s another one, Il Cortiletto, which I haven’t been to for ages, but I must go to – I love going because there’s a slight smugness about it, as it’s one of those restaurants which you would drive past and you wouldn’t notice. (In fact, I have driven past it myself). It’s in a small village which has turned into an incredible little foodie Mecca. And it’s beautiful, one of those places that we often go to for birthdays and things like that. I could go on and on – we just have great restaurants here!
What’s the secret to hosting a great dinner party?
I would say don’t get too het up about formalities. Keep it informal. I think the biggest mistake with dinner parties is to try out a dish that you’re slightly terrified about [and you’re not sure] whether it would work. I’ve never done formal dinner parties – I don’t want to do it all perfectly with everyone being rather formal and stilted. I love things that are for sharing. It’s about sharing; it’s about having people around that you love and sharing food with them and having a good evening. So keep it informal, cook food that doesn’t make you feel anxious. And if you’re going to do three courses, at least two of them should be things that you make in advance, so that you’re not stuck in the kitchen. You don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen sweating while your guests are having a nice time drinking! So that’s my advice. And enjoy it!
How do you live a balanced life?
Oh, I don’t really know what at balanced life is. But I lead a good life, a really good life. One that makes me happy. I probably should do this and should do that – I should definitely get more exercise – but I like my life. For me, that’s balance enough. And I eat lots of good food all the time. Probably too much olive oil, but it’s good stuff.
What is your earliest food memory?
It’s always hard to work out what’s a memory and what’s been told to you… I don’t really remember it, but I’ve been told that my first culinary experiment that I made was jam tarts, and I mauled the pastry so badly it was like leather. One of my earliest memories, though, is being in a charcuterie in France and being given a slice of salami while I was in my pushchair.
Which cookbook would you bring to a desert island with you?
That’s a really tricky one. I suppose I wouldn’t bring one of my mum’s because I know a lot of those recipes really well. When I left the UK to come to Puglia, I had to get rid of a huge number of cookbooks, and that was really, really difficult. So I bought a kind of capsule, and I’m thinking about that… probably A New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. I think it’s my most thumbed one.
Most memorable meal?
There was a wonderful meal I had years and years ago on a press trip with an oyster farmer in Brittany. We had been out to see the oyster bed and we came back and had a meal in a barn. And there were the most perfect cooked oysters. That was really memorable.
Sophie Grigson: Slice Of Italy airs from 9pm Monday 2nd October on Food Network and discovery+.