Food writer Letitia Clark puts the sweet and sour of Sardinia into her book, Bitter Honey
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You’d think getting your hands on a batch of homemade olive oil in Italy would be pretty straightforward. Even in lockdown times. But if you’re in Sardinia and want the good stuff, you’ve got to put the work in, says food writer Letitia Clark.
And by ‘good stuff’ she means olive oil that’s passed to you “in an unlabelled petrol container” and is “amazing”. The trick, it turns out, is to “know people” and develop a “supply chain of friends who have their own olive groves”, she says. Helping out with the harvest boosts your chances too, as does a bit of bartering (“swap it for wine”).
Clark, author of new cookbook Bitter Honey, has lived in Sardinia for almost three years. Born in Devon, her initial plan was to become a writer, but she got to university and realised she spent all her time “procrastinating and cooking, instead of doing my research and working”.
After attending Leiths cookery school, followed by stints at restaurants including Spring and the Dock Kitchen (where she picked up an interest in Italian styles of cooking) and Morito in London, she fell for her then boyfriend’s stories of home – Sardinia – a “forgotten pocket of Italy that’s really beautiful and wild and undiscovered”.
Everybody just loves food and sitting down and having a long leisurely lunch with their family
Fed up with city living and as Clark’s interests turned more towards home cooking than restaurant food, they relocated. And although they broke up last year, Clark decided to stay put. “I love everything about Sardinia,” she explains. “I thought it would be sad to leave and lose everything I’d built.”
Bitter Honey captures some of her feelings for the Mediterranean island, as well as the dishes and cookery techniques she’s discovered living there.
The book’s name, she explains, comes from the rare, slightly bitter honey made by bees from Sardinia’s strawberry trees, dotted with tiny red pompom berries – and the contradiction appealed. “Sardinia’s a bit of a contradiction as well,” says Clark. “Life is full of sweet and sour.”
Now based in a little rented place in the countryside, Clark is hoping to open up a B&B at some point, host cookery workshops and grow her own vegetables. But she is careful to avoid presenting Sardinia in the book as offering an Instagram-worthy “fantasy lifestyle”.
“I don’t have an insanely perfect life,” she points out. “I don’t live in an idyll, I wanted to be realistic.” So while the book is sun drenched and golden, it has balance.
“Sardinia has parts that are completely like a paradise, but it’s also a very human place,” Clark explains. “There’s a lot of things wrong with it, the same way there are a lot of things wrong with everywhere.” However, she can’t deny it can be “really charming, funny and eccentric”, and the eating culture is definitely something to aspire to.
“Everybody just loves food and sitting down and having a long leisurely lunch with their family,” says Clark, “and I think, now more than ever, it’s a really good time to enjoy being with people that you love, and spending some quality time together.”
Clark has also picked up a taste for mocha pot coffee (although it took a while). “Sardinians will say that’s the true coffee, the mocha coffee; but if you have to go to a bar, then you drink an espresso. They say it’s less good because it tastes a little bit burnt.”
She says she’s come around to their way of thinking and makes “a mocha coffee every day” but can occasionally be found sipping an espresso too. “I like the atmosphere of it,” she says with a laugh. “I like sitting in a piazza, drinking an espresso, pretending I’m cool enough to be an Italian – when I’m not!”
- Bitter Honey by Letitia Clark, photography by Matt Russell, is published by Hardie Grant, priced £26. Available now.
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