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An appetite for Italian adventures

An appetite for Italian adventures


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mon ngon moi ngaySUMMER IN THE ISLANDS 

by Matthew Fort (Penguin £14.99)

Matthew Fort may be best known as a writer on food and wine (and a judge on the BBC’s Great British Menu), but he’s also passionate about all things Italian — a legacy of various holidays, first with his parents and later with his own family and friends.

Now in his 67th year, he sets out on a gently meandering trip to revisit some of the country’s islands — Sicily, Elba, Sardinia and beyond — on his trusty Vespa, Nicoletta.

At least that’s the idea. But halfway through his odyssey in the summer of 2014, he snaps his Achilles tendon and finds himself back at home in Gloucestershire with his plans on hold and his left leg in a surgical boot.

So the next summer he continues where he left off; and like a meal left to simmer, his enforced hiatus only enriches the flavour.

BBC Great British Menu judge, Matthew Fort, samples Italian areas and their cultures – and in doing so he reassesses his own past

His culinary adventures necessarily take pride of place, though few achieve the intensity of a spaghetti ai ricci he samples on Ustica — ‘rank and rich, slippery, oily . . . a distillation of marine life, meaty with mineral traces, notes of iodine and seaweed’.

But Fort also samples the distinct culture and history of each island, and in doing so reassesses his own past.

He attends a chaotic dress rehearsal of La Boheme at Taormina on Sicily, which ends at half past midnight (‘I was surprised that Mimi hadn’t died of old age long before consumption took hold of her’), he climbs hills, visits ancient fortresses, converses with fishermen, wanders round Napoleon Bonaparte’s house on Elba and whiles away hours on ferries as he journeys to his next destination, ‘devoid of motivation, compulsion or anxiety’.

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Share He also visits the tiny island of Lampedusa, now notorious for being mainland Europe’s jumping-off spot for immigrants seeking a new life, and observes a local population far more forgiving and generous than many might imagine. Like so much in this book, it’s heart-warming.

Mostly, Fort’s progress is stately, and only once does he sample the sort of crisis never far from the unwary traveller.

Arriving in Caltanissetta, a large town in Sicily, Fort realises his notebook with six weeks of observations has fallen from his pocket some time during the 30km journey.

It’s enough to suggest the age of miracles is still with us’ – Michael writes as he finds his lost notebook containing all his thoughts Torn between fury and wretchedness, he retraces his steps in a hopeless quest to find the journal, and just as he’s about to give up, he locates it, forlorn and scuffed.

‘It’s enough to suggest the age of miracles is still with us,’ he writes with obvious joy.

This is a beguiling chronicle of time spent away from humdrum everyday life. Inevitably, though, the ability to conjure up sights, sounds and flavours is the yardstick of success; and in this, Fort proves masterful.

Octopus as soft as kid gloves; bougainvillea like feather boas; elderly men nattering like rooks — Fort has a deft way of describing the Med in all its sensory glory.

If you can’t afford a foreign holiday this summer, this is the next best thing. Last one in the water’s Assisi …