December 9, 2013
I have never been the best at presents. Neither for myself, not for others. Not for a lack of generosity, or memory, or time. Rather, for over-thinking it. I research, spend days browsing shops and opening tabs of online stores, pin links, mentally bookmark the things I find here and there, promising to go back to them after some reflection and evaluation - only to become overwhelmed and unable to choose. Perhaps my problem is that I have always try to pick the perfect object, the one that will please and surprise at the same time, and yet be totally in line with the personality of the receiver; something that would fit my budget without looking cheap; a gift that will impress both in creativity and in taste. You see how it can become a challenging task.
Every year since the beginning of my adult life, I promise to myself that I would sort out all the Christmas presents before the beginning of December, leaving the few weeks before Christmas to relaxing decorations of the house, and swapping last-second shopping madness with long, soothing walks in the fields or the forest. I have failed almost every year, until two years ago, when life turned all my plas upside-down, and taught me a very simple and yet reveling lesson: food.
Two years ago, we were in the process of moving from Bra into a new life together. Unable to find the time to go shopping for Christmas presents while moving and organising our little wedding, and with a small budget available, we decided to give everybody home-made, edible presents instead. My syllogistic thinking went this way: "Everybody likes food; cookies are food; everybody likes cookies. I can make cookies; I can make many kind of cookies; I'll make cookies for everybody." And so I did, and the response was better than I could have ever hoped for. Giving good food made with time and care and thoughtfulness can make people truly happy, more than any piece of object that might or might not be ever used. Food can be enjoyed and cherished and shared in a way no object can.
December 4, 2013
We landed in Bari on a Saturday in September, past dinner time. We had spent the day - the week even - in anticipation, thinking about our first meal in Puglia, perhaps outside on a terrace, with the air still balmy and the white wine well chilled. We both needed this weekend away so desperately. Not because of London per se. The city had been particularly generous with us throughout the early fall - warm and sunny, with very little rain - and we loved how we could always pick and choose something different to do every weekend. But we were restless, and exhausted. We needed a few days of that lifestyle we both adore and miss so much: easy, inexpensive, next to the sea, and most of all, slow. A lifestyle that only belongs to holiday time now, and that we seem to find only in Mediterranean coastal areas - like Puglia.
When did it happen that Italy became the idyllic place to spend one's holidays? When did I stop calling it home, or hoping it would be one anytime soon? When did I end bragging about how much better the (insert: lifestyle, food, wine, weather, landscape, culture...) is, and started realising that all these things are available to me only if I choose to spend my vacation time (and hard-earned money) there? I think I hadn't completely realised it until the end of this trip.
October 28, 2013
Unsurprisingly, most of my family tales have food at their core. No matter if it's about my dad's tribulations as a high school student, with only enough lire in his pocket to buy a dramatically small bread roll and three slices of salami for lunch; or about grandma going to the communal mill/oven to make bread, on a bike loaded with branches and bags of flour; or about grandpa, who spent years as a captive in Germany during World War II, and had been dreaming of polenta e baccalà for months even after he made it home. Food permeates all our personal stories and intersects with our collective memories.
From all these stories, though, one truth emerges clear and sharp: the women in my family were and are some really good cooks, able to put on the table meals for dozens after spending long days in the fields, and taking care of the house. Strong women who could prepare nutritious, filling, if only a tad repetitive food out of humble ingredients. Women whom, in part, I didn't get to meet, and whose cooking I heard so many times about but sadly didn't get to experience.
September 30, 2013
|From my Iphone|
How many things have I taken for granted in my life? Things that were just there, without shouting their presence, but whose absence I would have immediately noticed. Things that now are not here, and I miss, or simply, I see from a different perspective.
Take parents, for example. I lived with them for 19 years, and even after I left, I was seeing them regularly, every two weeks. It took a good dose of miles and one-hour time difference to make me feel distant, and achy for more of their presence in my life. Take, as a second example, walking to class, or to work. Seeing it in retrospective, it was such a luxury! If I knew what was awaiting me in terms of commute, I would have savoured every step from my little apartment in Bra to the office, or from my room in Padova to the various class locations.
Take free food. I grew up spoilt with a bounty of home-grown food, from vegetables of all sorts depending on the season, to truly free-range eggs and poultry, to fruits in the summer and fall months. I am thinking of those gifted fruits now, more than anything else. Starting with strawberries in late May, then cherries in June, and plums, grapes and tiny green, soft, jammy figs later on in the summer. The bounty decreasing a bit afterwords, giving us some pomegranates and nespole in the fall, with persimmons closing the dances in December. All free, all there for us to pick.
Figs. Those figs are so stuck in my memory. There were two fig trees in grandma's garden, one by the barn hosting the farming tools, and one in the middle of the hens' patch. I would climb those trees with a latter, a little plastic bowl in one hand. I knew what to do since an early age, not quite sure if someone taught me or if it was somehow ingrained in my genes. I would test the fruits carefully, pressing them to feel the ripeness, and gently detach only the soft ones. I would descend the latter only when the bowl was full, and most of the time, there were many more left on the branches.
Another fig tree was located on my usual bike path. It was planted in someones yard, but it was so big that many of its branches leaned onto 'no one's land'. I knew it was there, and I knew there would be figs to pick, so I was always biking there prepared, with a little plastic bag and a bowl inside my basket. The figs were of a different variety from grandma's. Hers were small, with a thin green skin that was almost impossible to remove, and an almost melting heart of pulp and tiny seeds. Those others, instead, were purple-green, bigger in size, and with a thicker outer skin.
I used to eat so many in the evening, after dinner, like they were the sweetest treat - the last with the skin still on, tired of the laborious peeling and eager to pop just one more into my mouth. If there were any left, I would make a cake, something uncomplicated. On occasions, I even made jam, although it has rarely been my first choice when it comes to fruit.
|From my Iphone|
September 26, 2013
Whenever I say I grew up in a tiny village in the Venetian countryside, people start to make assumptions, and I don't blame them. It must sound like the best place to land on this planet. Although it has its charming traits and its good sides, there are quite a few myths to debunk about my childhood.
For starters, there were no kids - only four of us in my class in primary school. Four. Which means a) any team game was automatically a bummer and lasted very shortly; and b) I had to do the maths and the grammar at the blackboard every single day. And what is worse, I had no one to exchange or share my food with. On the break between classes (intervallo), when kids were allowed to eat a snack and run around, I would eat whatever my mum had put in the little zipper pocket of my Topo Gigio backpack without a chance to trade it with someone else. Statistically speaking, four people were simply not enough. Not that anybody would have wanted to trade their food with mine anyway, and the reason for this takes me to the second myth.
My mum is the least stereotypical mum you can possibly imagine - in fact, you can't imagine her, but let me help you, as I think you'll like her. She has never fit in and never done anything that the other mums of the village were doing, or not enough for the young version of myself to record any similarities. It was sometimes upsetting, but in retrospect, I am so grateful for her 'uniqueness' - it taught me a good deal of life lessons on the way. My mum has always worked at home, but don't call her a housewife, she would rather say she 'manages a family business'. This meant I was always assured a good, home-cooked meal upon returning from school, at 12.30pm. The deal was she would wait for me at home rather than coming to pick me up at school. I never understood why I had to be the only one without a mum or grandma there to pick me up, why I was the one having to walk or bike. Now, whenever I go back to my parents house, I walk that little trail: 300 meters total. And I laugh at my past sorrow: it is so safe and quiet you can walk in the middle of the road. I have always had my mother's trust (almost, except when I was between 13 and 16), and that was just one of her ways of telling me. But back to the meal: I would return to a lovely lunch, usually consisting of two courses (primo and secondo). On Monday and Tuesday, it would be just the two of us sitting at the table, as I had to return to school for afternoon activities. The rest of the week, I would come home and find her still stirring and flipping, and lunch was ready when my dad would come home from school, too - he is a teacher.
My mum is a fine cook, but back then, she gave in a bit to the sirens of modernity - who didn't? Not everything that appeared on our table was homemade, and we were perfectly fine with that: a little frozen chicken schnitzel here, a little store-bought pasta sauce there, and she could find a second for herself, too. I thought the food was fantastic, and anyway, the no-homemade things were well concealed under a good dose of vegetables, and some really tasty pasta, soups or risotto, all made from scratch. She wouldn't make anything very unhealthy, and that was her rule for packaged food, too. It wasn't everyday, either - she wouldn't allow it.
You might have guessed by now that she was in charge of the grocery shopping. Because she has never been a baker, and for never I mean never, all the sweet things in our house were outsourced. The baking-phobia was surely enhanced by the fact that our oven has never worked properly, and that cakes would never rise. It was only good for cookies or crostate. It could have been fixed, I suppose, but as many things in our house, it never was - we just replaced the whole kitchen when it got too old. In the end, it didn't matter much. Baking has never been her passion: too messy, too long. She preferred to use that time to read, and buy crackers, cookies and little cakes instead. Looking at the whole picture now, I can't say I would blame her.
Merenda, the afternoon snack as it is called in Italian, has often taken the shape of a baked good of some sort for me, usually sweet, and rarely homemade. A beloved ritual I would consume at around 4.30pm, it was possibly my favourite 'meal' of the day, second only to breakfast, and rightly so: it was the only time I was allowed something remotely sweet. My mum never bought candy or chocolate; the omnipresent Nutella was a very, very rare presence in our cupboard. What she would fill the shelves with, instead, were relatively wholesome cookies and not-too-heavy mini cakes, usually those containing even the smallest idea of vegetables or fruits in it. The to-go ones were, generally, some little cakes shaped like a dome and made with almond meal, carrots and orange, or wholegrain cookies with fruits and nuts. Not exactly the choice a kid would make - where is the chocolate? But I didn't have any choice. She was the boss, and she never took me grocery shopping until I was 15, to avoid discussions. It was ether that, or fruit. Or worse, yogurt. Now you know why no one wanted to trade their chocolaty snack with mine. Again, in retrospect, I am quite pleased no one did.
In time, I learnt to love those wholegrain cookies. They were actually really crunchy, and I liked that they had little bits of nuts in it, and some chewy bits of raisins - that's because my mum would buy the 'fruit & fibre' flavour. They were, to me, a good snack, which I liked munching on in front of my afternoon TV allowance, usually Japanese cartoons, before getting back to do my homework, or going to the pool or to ballet class.
Needless to say, I was very glad when together with Emiko, Giulia and Jasmine, we chose merenda as the topic for this month's Italian Table Talk. It was the perfect excuse to bring back all these fond memories. Also, it was the perfect excuse to try to reproduce those cookies, and to have them in the afternoon, with a glass of juice (no tea or milk for me back then, although I quite like them with milk now). Sitting on the sofa, staring at a white wall with a smile, seeing images of myself, back there and then.
Before you head to the recipe, let me introduce the rest of the afternoon feast: Giulia will share a slice of her beautiful zuppa inglese; Emiko, a wholesome savoury snack, pane al pomodoro; and Jasmine, a decadent, creamy zabaione.