The food writer dishes up the things that make her tick.

Writing – and specifically evocative writing about food – is in the blood for Sophie Grigson. Her father, Geoffrey Grigson, was a poet; her mother was the revered Jane Grigson, whom Prue Leith calls ‘the best cookery writer in my lifetime.’

But as with all of the best stories, Sophie’s path has been far from ploddingly linear. She started out with a maths degree before going on to work as a production manager on pop videos for the likes of 1980s icon Bonnie Tyler. It was only when, in 1983, she wrote her inaugural food column for the Sunday Express Magazine – detailing some fifty ways with a potato, no less – that it suddenly seemed like a calling. After many more ensuing columns for the Evening Standard, The Independent and The Sunday Times, she made her television debut a decade later with the 16-part, award-winning Grow Your Greens, Eat Your Greens. She then pioneered the pop-up cookery school in her hometown of Oxford – until, that is, she recently made the decision to decamp to the heel of Italy to fulfil a lifelong dream and carve out a fresh existence amid trulli houses and olive groves.

It has been a daring move that has paid off spectacularly, both from the perspective of having written a much-acclaimed book – A Curious Absence of Chickens – and insofar as her own personal contentedness. And she owes it to a chance chat with fellow Italophile and restaurateur, Russell Norman. Having interviewed him in 2018 about his beloved Venice and the year he spent there writing about its vernacular cuisine for his cookbook, she came away both inspired and envious. When, a few days later, she serendipitously stumbled upon an article about a village in northern Puglia whose shrinking population had led the council to offer people €1000 to move there, it felt like a eureka moment. Two weeks later, she and her two children had landed in Italy on a reconnaissance trip.

As it transpired, that village was not the one for her, but the region was. So much so, in fact, that amidst making friends of the welcoming locals, it also inspired her first book for a decade. Prue Leith, that great admirer of her mother’s work, wrote of A Curious Absence of Chickens, ‘Sophie Grigson has written twenty odd excellent cookbooks, but I think this is the best of them. It is her first book for a decade and was obviously driven by a real love of her subjects, which are Puglia, people and food. It is witty, informative, fascinating and stuffed full of recipes you want to cook.'

Here, she tells us about packing up her life, finding sublime contentment, and why she plans upon coming back as a much-adored cat.

Images: William Shaw

Favourite place in all the world?

An impossible question to answer! I love where I am living now in the Valle d’Itria in Puglia, but I’ve only seen a small part of the region. Covid blocked exploration here or further afield for so long. I adore discovering new places and, who knows, one day I may happen across the ultimate dream destination. On the other hand, I’m not sure I really want to….

Dream holiday?

Somewhere warm, vibrant, fascinating and with good honest food.

Most coveted item right now?

A vertical clothes steamer. Ironing is sooo boring, but just occasionally it would be nice to look less rumpled.

Proudest professional moment to date?

I really don’t do ‘-ests’, but I was damp-eyed proud recently when a Puglian-born writer friend told me that mine was the only book on the region that she wished she had written herself.

Your dream future project?

I’d love to make a TV series down here in the south of Italy. Not just here in Puglia but also in Basilicata and Calabria, beautiful wild areas that are so different to the north of the country.

Who has been your most inspiring mentor, professionally or personally?

My mother [the cookery writer, Jane Grigson], I guess, who taught me to be curious about food, culture, people and places. And to be kind and generous to others.

Where would you live if you could live anywhere?

In 2018, I decided to fulfil a long-held dream to move to Italy. A year later, I moved into my little house in Ceglie Messapica and I can honestly say that I am happier and more contented than I have ever been. So the answer is, ‘right here where I am’.

What book is on your nightstand/ kindle right now?

Just finishing John Hooper’s The Italians which explains, with great warmth and affection, why Italians are the way they are. Then I’m going to reread Christ Stopped At Eboli by Carlo Levi to see if it moves me as much as it did in my twenties. Fiction-wise I’ve recently been blown away by Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens. Just beautiful.

Best film you’ve seen recently?

The ONLY film I’ve seen recently is the marvellous Nomadland. Nearly all cinema films here are dubbed, which I can’t bear, but this I caught with its original soundtrack.

Best binge-watched TV show?

An oldie but it still makes me laugh out loud: Green Wing.

Top podcast of the moment?

Natalie Haynes Stands Up For The Classics. A witty, intelligent, educational romp of a podcast. What more can you want?

What’s your spirit animal?

No idea what a spirit animal is but just supposing reincarnation is for real, I’d like to come back as a cat in an adoring household with a cat flap. Total independence, well-trained humans, nice warm places to kip and a decent jungle of a garden to pad through.

Favourite dish to cook?

I don’t have one. So much depends on season, location, company and mood.

Favourite website or app?

Killer Sudoku Online.

Most useful thing on your desk?

Other than my laptop? Either my current notebook or the tape measure. Least useful but most beloved – my cats.

Which five people, dead or alive, would you find most interesting to be stuck in a lift with?

Aah, the dinner party guests question in a different guise but with no loo, no booze, no room to move. Total nightmare. I don’t want to be stuck in the lift with anybody, thank you all the same. Except perhaps an experienced lift mechanic.

Favourite building?

No more favourites, please, but if you really insist then I’d probably go with one of Gaudi’s strange, fluid, thrilling buildings in Barcelona.

Your screensaver?

A photo of my son and daughter and her then boyfriend, now husband, taken in the Mayan ruins of Tulum in Mexico.

What would be your epitaph?

Better Late Than Never.

By Nancy Alsop
December 2021

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Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.