The shop on the hill, up the track, from the top garden gate, closed at 12.30pm, and not one of us got up in time to make the morning rush. For an entire week, we’d sit it out by the pool until 4.30pm, when my brother would come out of the shade of the kitchen with paper and a biro and cajole us in to getting some kind of list together for the shop's second opening. Still, we'd spend half an hour reasoning between ourselves whether there'd be mozzarella left, if there’d be any tomatoes today, how many beers we really needed that night.
By 5pm we’d have worked out the lists, cobbled together the euros and be followed by a laissez faire guard dog to the shop fifteen minutes walk away up the mountain. Inside were baskets full of tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines the shop’s owner grows in her own garden. She’d present me with sprigs of basil one day, roll her eyes at my brother’s requests for vacuum packed parmesan the next. Tourists and their whims. We worked our way through the €3.90 prosecco (with far more decorum than I think necessary) and eyed slices of focaccia and packs of gnocchi that wouldn’t be enough for ten.
Back down at the house for dinner, our brief home of three families would marvel every night at the platefuls made with vegetables that had barely travelled half a mile. We each took it in turns to cook for 24 hours, each storing away ideas from the daily trip to the shop, the whistle-stop tours of the local towns and cities we made, the recipes that we could finally try from the British cookbooks bemoaning the lack of proper Italian polenta back in the UK.
I always wanted to be part of a huge family. The stories I wrote as a pre-teen always involved protagonists with sprawling family trees and more siblings than you could keep track of (I often lost count) and commune life felt like a wonderful way to figure a village. Obviously my naive hankering for eleven brothers and sisters had to get played down over the years, and now it probably only surfaces when I “accidentally” make eight portions of food every night. But for a few days in Tuscany it was ever so fun to be able to split time between the pool, intermittent trips to that Room of Requirement-style local shop and plotting dinner that night.
Lesley and Mike, who organised the trip, allocated cooks to each night of the week, which at first I found potentially intimidating but it meant everyone else knew when they could have a day off, and then if you wanted to pitch in, you were more than welcome. We also ran a house kitty. Each family added in an amount per head and this covered all food shops and meals out- at the end of the week you just split the money back again. This definitely meant I thought twice before sticking anything too weird in the communal shopping trolley, and also helps everyone to continue to cook for the whole group instead of getting too picky.
As the only vegan in the house, I was a little apprehensive as to how seven days of mealtimes would go down. It’s one of those scenarios I used to be really anxious about when I first went vegan, but I’m pleased to spot myself having a bit more of a IDGAF attitude when it comes to taking any weird comments to heart or there just not being any vegan food to eat. I can make cannellini beans and a few tomatoes stretch out for days with all the weird recipes I’ve attempted so that doesn’t bother me so much. Thankfully my shrug-it-all-off vibes weren’t required even once. Half of the rest of the group were pescetarian, so in place of chats about roast chicken or steak, there was plenty of fig, tomato and aubergine planning, and not one single gripe about veganism.
My Mum came home one night with soy milk for my tea, I managed to track down vegan chocolate ice cream in the local Conad supermarket and when everyone else reached for ice cream in Florence, I choose from the granita stand. So the corners of Italy I spent seven days in felt even more friendly than before- I always think when tea and coffee become possible pretty much anywhere can start feeling like home. I didn’t expect to be eating the same food as everyone else for a week, so was totally blown away by the fact that every night, I’d sit down to virtually the same meal as the rest of the table. That kind of made the holiday for me. We ate risotto where everyone else added cheese afterwards, homemade pizza with one base without cheese (everyone else went to town with mozzarella or ham, of course!), seitan stew with wraps, stuffed tomatoes with another vegan risotto, grilled vegetables, fruit salads, more pizza and fried vegan gnocchi that wasn’t going to last half an hour as leftovers in the fridge.
On our final day we attempted to use everything up from the many meals we’d imagined we’d get to make. We didn’t have to throw anything away in the end, just leaving a fair amount of ice cream in the fridge and wheat pasta in the cupboards for the next family. My best tip for surviving as the only vegan in a house of ten for a week? Keep a can of cannellini beans to hand (perfect even at breakfast if you need it) and don’t get on the vegan defensive a minute before you need to.