La Bella Lingua

By heritage, I am half Cypriot, and half English. I feel strongly part of both, mostly, though when I’m with Cypriots I feel more British, because I don’t speak Greek (thanks Dad) and when I am with Brits I feel more Greek as I don’t look like them. Yes, I am contrary. I was born that way. (No, really, I was. Full breech baby. Oh yes. Arse to the world.)

However, there is one other place that also feels like home, and that is Italy. We used to spend whole summers there when I was a child, because one of Dad’s barbers had an apartment he would let us use. A huge place of echoing rooms, rather spare of furniture but exotic to London born and bred me. It still had a coin operated lift. This was back when Italy still used the lira, and the tiny coins for the lift felt like monopoly money.

I will happily admit that I was a truly privileged child to have seen so much by the time I was 12. Getting lost in Besançon, France, which happened every time we went there; drinking big bowls of hot chocolate in a hotel just over the border into the Alps; waking up hearing the cow and goat bells and smelling the cold mountain air; driving – or in my case sleeping –  through a huge thunderstorm and navigating the San Bernard pass at night.

We would drive from London all the way down to South Eastern Italy, starting off at Dark o’ Clock, getting the ferry from Dover (which probably explains my love of the smell of tar and diesel), stopping off overnight in France and Switzerland on the way, picking up local foodstuffs from any of the roadside stands that we saw and packing them into our bright blue cold box that plugged into the cigarette lighter.

Cool box

The strangeness of the empty apartment was erased once we’d been shopping. Nan always used to send us off with a tin of fruited fairy cakes that tended to have a petrol tang after 3 days in the car. No matter how much I loved the smell of benzina, the taste wasn’t quite what we wanted. We would stop off at the local alimentari, run by Anna and her parents, to collect bread, fruit, cheese, coffee and milk. Subsequent trips would net us fresh parmesan, peaches that took two hands to hold, and the best and most fragrant mortadella for our breakfast rolls. Italy introduced me to Nutella, as small tubs of it were given to us at the grocery shop to have with our rolls for breakfast. Chocolate spread, for breakfast?! We found it very strange, but we ate it anyway, because we found it to be wonderful. (Please, Nutella, lose the palm oil, you have no need for it and I prefer my orangutans to stay where they are meant to be.)

Pontecagnano is not a tourist destination, at least it certainly wasn’t then. It was an industrial town in the province of Salerno, Campania. I remember it as being full of life, with a great stretch of beach that had a freshwater river cutting across it, almost in an indecent hurry to get to the sea.  Depending on the tides, that watery path across the beach would change shape overnight on occasion. There were pizzas the like of which I had never eaten before, everywhere, and in one place, on the way to the beach, you could buy them by the yard. Small child, big eyes, good food.

This is the apartment block that we stayed in, and that’s our old place, marked in red. I suspect that Giuseppe has long since sold it on.

 

Via Trento Pontecagnano

I remember one morning waking up to the sight of that whole street, all the cars, all the shops, the roads, covered in pink froth. Upon further slippery exploration, it seemed that the rest of the town was covered too. It turned out the local tomato canning factory had had an explosion…as you can imagine, the rumours were rife. Cans of San Marzano tomatoes washed up on the beaches for weeks. Such a huge waste of produce, though many a Mamma made off with the few cans that had stayed intact.

We made friends with the people that ran the alimentari, so much so that we were invited to Anna’s wedding, an ostensibly 7 course dinner that turned out to be many more courses than that. Because Dad spoke the local dialect – for reasons we were never privy to – we were accepted far more readily than usual I think, apart from the one time we left the GB stickers on the car. It was on our first night, and we came down to a car made toothless by broken windows. Needless to say, we didn’t do that again. This would have been around 1980, so I assume the British had been doing something to anger the Italians again. Given how a lot of our tourists behave, it would never surprise me.

I felt so very at home there. I made friends with the local kids, and I must have been able to speak far more Italian than I do now, because we didn’t seem to have any problems with communication. We spent time in and out of each other’s houses, and days on the beach swimming and digging sand tunnels. (I didn’t do castles, I did Excavations and Tunnelling.)

That language knowledge still lingers, but it’s like a memory that’s just out of reach, that movements at the corner of your eye that’s gone if you turn your head. I can almost manage a few sentences, but then not quite. I love listening to people speaking Italian, it brings huge amounts of joy to me and makes me smile. I have been known to sit in Cicchetti in Covent Garden and just grin quietly to myself. Maybe I should go to evening classes for conversational stuff, but I tried that with Greek, and that didn’t go so well.  I can pick out words here and there, and they pop like small starbursts of understanding when there’s a conversation going on but I can never quite grasp the language that’s lurking at the edges. Perhaps if I was to immerse myself in it for a week or so it would come back. It has also led to a certain amount of irritation with people that pronounce tagliatelle with a hard G, or who say ‘expresso’. [glares at Jamie Oliver]

I watch Montalbano avidly, both the young and the old. Not just for the stories, which are themselves extremely good, but for the glimpses of the scenery, both breathtaking and run down, and also for the arm-waving, hot tempered, passionate characters. They provide a sense of comfort, and of familiarity. I can almost feel the warmth radiating off the stone streets, the cool when they step gratefully into a shaded house and the sheer relief when Salvo makes it to the sea.

When I watched The Trip to Italy, I had the great fortune to see it at a cinema. The sheer beauty of the scenery blew me away, and it being on a large screen just made it even more immersive. I more or less ignored my companion for the evening, and was totally transfixed by the screen.

The trailer really doesn’t accurately portray the film at all, so I’m not going to share it here. It lacks any of the gravitas and the care that was taken with the filming, and plays up the silly, egotistical side of the two main characters which, whilst certainly there, was not the greater part of the film. Watching them walk the roads in Pompeii that I, too, had walked actually had me overwhelmed by emotion. I can’t properly explain what Pompeii is like; it’s more than a deserted town, it’s a place full of the most oppressively sad feelings, side by side with exquisite historical beauty and architecture. More is being uncovered all the time, and I would like to go back and see how much has been discovered.

When Nigella did her Nigellissima series, and got royally torn down by certain other food writers (Matthew Fort I am looking right at you) I did feel rather sorry for her, and more than a little protective, as this is how I am. I am not Italian, and never will be, but my food is inspired by, and affected by, my time spent there. It infuses how I cook, what I cook. The tastes and flavours of Italy are familiar to me, yet also foreign, and I love cooking old favourites, and finding new ones. None of us are pure breeds, no matter what the Britain First types would have you think. As such, neither is our cooking purely British. It’s made up of begs, borrows and steals from all over the world. HP Sauce, Worcestershire Sauce, Mulligatawny Soup, fish and chips, marmalade, you name it.

We adapt, we change, we grow, and so does our cooking.

One would like to hope that, as a fine wine or an excellent chutney does, we would mature and improve with age.

La bella lingua, davvero.

spaghetti with meat ragu

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Read me, read me, love me.

I read a lot. I’ve always got a book or three on the go, sometimes four or five, which can prove tricky because then I conflate characters in my head, and it has it as Rosie ended up marrying John (when she was actually meant for Jane) and everything gets jumbled up in my memories, so I have to read them again and separate out the strands.

There are a few books, though, that I will read purely on their own. I need full immersion in them, no other suitors to press for my hand.

Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea, the whole five books, must be read when there is no other distraction. I have to give it my full attention, simply because I feel that something to true to life, so real in my head it feels that it truly happened, surely an actual history on the page before me? I owe it the respect of concentration.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence similarly earns that respect. I know them so well now that I happily read them out of order. The Dark is Rising must be read at Christmas, Over Sea Under Stone in summer, Greenwitch in Autumn as the nights darken but the trees are not yet bare.

Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, that too must be read at Christmas. It’s light enough that it gladdens the heart but perfectly and deliciously dark enough that the blood left on the snow of the past is still full of menace and mystery.

I have to add a new book to my Must Read Repeatedly pile. This, too, is a Christmas book, but not just for those 12 days. It spans November to February. The herald of the dimming of the nights, as thoughts turns to traditions, candles, bonfires and sparkles, and then the start of the return as we look towards the brighter days, though perhaps not yet the losing of the extra cardigan. Nobody wants to be too hasty, after all.

Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles, brought out at just at the right time for me.

A book full of memories, food based and non food based, but still all woven through with the thread of tastes and cooking, scents and Christmas lights and the yellow glow of candles.

This seemed an even more personal book than Toast, if that were possible, but in a different, warmer and more comforted way. It feels like being invited in for tea, or popping round for a drink. Neither of which will ever happen, but now it feels as if it did.

There is a joy in these pages, a very gentle joy, and I find it very calming indeed when, of late, my life has not been calm at all. It has fed my need for candles, I’m afraid, so poor Husband will have to put up with that for a while. At least until the mornings lighten.

I am an early bird, I love being awake when nobody else is. It feels like the world belongs purely to me, then. No cares, no demands, just me, the snoring cat, and the candles.

This book has brought me glorious recipes, of course, but also a slice of golden brown tinged peace, and on Christmas morning, when I will awake no doubt at 4am and be driven to get up and go downstairs, I will light a few candles, put on a pot of coffee, and think of Nigel in his kitchen, doing the same.

I do hope it snows.

Mix in tins

 

A Twilight Encounter

Coming home tonight, I walked up the cul de sac to my house, and was stopped by two of my neighbours. They had Faces on. You know, there’s that certain face which means bad or sad news is about to be given, and they’re not sure how you’re going to take it. A certain British sorry-to-bother-you coupled with a ‘we’re not enjoying this either but we have to’ frown.

“I don’t know if you knew them, but the people at Number 5…?”

There followed a certain amount of pointing at houses, as we all tried to remember which one was actually number 5. (Our house numbers are rather illogical, and two of them are back to front. It goes 26, 28, 27, 29. Those two burned down decades ago and the numbers got put back on the wrong houses.)

“No, I don’t think I knew them, what’s happened?”

“She died! Dropped dead just like that.”

A card was proffered, and a pen waved.

“We’re doing a collection.”

Of course we are. Because that’s what we do. Neighbours that we don’t know, have never spoken to, but you give.

You give, stood underneath a glowering sky tinged with pre-storm orange, pregnant bellied clouds heavy with rain pressing down, as the light fades and sad, closed in faces look at you.

You give, because it’s the right thing to do.

You give, as the warm lights flick on around the close, normal life happening right before your eyes when in one house time has stopped and will not carry on the same way again, even though all around them it moves at the same speed.

You give, because one day it might be you and yours being collected for and these people have known of you for nearly 20 years. Enough to nod, and smile, and take parcels in. Enough to swap ‘Morning! when it’s sunny, or “Weather, eh?” when it’s frost edged and bitter breezed. Enough to exchange rolling eyes when Him With All The Vans parks Her With The Dropped Kerb in again.

We give. Because we do.

Evening sky

 

A double edged Sabatier

Knowing how to cook and really utterly loving the act of cooking can be a bit of a double edged sword for me.

Cooking isn’t just about feeding people, though that is a large part of it, as I do adore making people replete and happy. The very act of taking raw ingredients and throwing them together, making something whole out of the component parts, being able to do that and make dish after dish after dish, is pure glorious magic to me and the more I do it, the more I want to do it.

The problem comes when my brain is just too full of ideas and options, and I get overloaded. I am under no illusion as to how very lucky I am – so SO ridiculously fortunate – to have the confidence and the funds, for once, to attempt most things. I’m not really phased by many things, unless I’m trying to cook and there is someone in the kitchen with me, then it all goes a bit Tense and Pointed. You can watch from outside, but anyone hovering irritates me intensely.

Cooking is a huge part of my life, it’s my way of relaxing, but I could never, ever be a chef on the pass. Cooking to order under a time pressure is not enjoyable to me at all. I’d hate it. I would far rather batch cook masses of things that I enjoy, foods that I know are delicious, then dole them out to people like a dinner lady without the overalls and budget cuts. (Autocorrect wanted that to say badger. Nobody needs that.)

When I watch a show like Jamie Oliver’s 15 minute meals, or his new 5 ingredients thing, or Anna Olsen’s Fresh – which I adore by the way – or my beloved Nigel,  I know I can cook them all, and I want to cook them all. Going shopping without a list the day after watching is a very bad idea because Hind Brain isn’t listening to Time Contraints Practical Brain, and she buys all the things. This is how I ended up with a whole cauliflower, prawns, fresh tofu and baking potatoes all on one night. Thank goodness I have a big freezer now and excess tupperware.

Eventually the cauliflower got cooked with the guidance of Nisha Katona’s The Spice Tree. Spiced and dry fried, then topped with her Himalayan Cheese on Toast mixture, and baked.

That book is hands down the best companion for Indian cooking for a newcomer that I’ve read. Ok, so I’m not a newcomer but oh my, she explains the how, what and why of spices, in a way that makes perfect sense, and also in a way that makes it easy for you to get all the flavour without all the panic. Try her Himalayan Cheese on Toast. Get addicted, and then curse me for telling you about it but love me for the joy it brings.

So I had spicy cauliflower cheese leftovers. But I also had prawns ready defrosted in the fridge. Hmm. I could have made Prawn Malai, says Brain, but I had no fresh ginger or coconut milk. I did have tins of coconut condensed milk, but even for me that’s a step too far, as it would drown the delicate prawn taste. [Mentally adds fresh ginger and coconut milk to shopping list.]

Brain suggested I could have attempted a variation on Malai, or I could cook up Nisha Katona’s Aunt’s prawns with peas (recipe in The Spice Tree). Or there was that Tamarind Prawn recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Sirocco, it yelled, or prawn cakes, remember you made them that time and they were delicious? Oh but then there’s simple garlic roast prawns with added lemon, or olive oil braised with…with…so much input that my brain was twirling around and around, pirouetting with  sheer joy of ingredients.

I did manage to choose something to cook in the end, honest.

Recipe ideas sleet into my brain unbidden. A walk to the shops becomes a lesson is restraint. A trek around a market is almost overwhelming; ideas hitting me left right and centre. I’m constrained at least by not being able to carry too much on a previously broken wrist, or I’d take home so much. (One small definition of torture was a trip to Madrid’s food markets with a fellow foodie friend. Oh calamity, we had NO KITCHEN to use. Eventually we made a vow to go self catering next time because that was just too much for the both of us. We had to console ourselves with an awful lot of tapas.)

I have come to realise that I am not unusual in this cooking addiction, and it’s actually quite a hard thing to realise,  in a way, when for most of your life you have been the only one you knew of who would go into the kitchen, cook for an entire weekend, making things for the sheer joy of Relaxing and Making, only to give it away at work on the Monday. My colleagues welcome it, especially when I took in a whole (minus one portion) Christmas pork belly porchetta with chestnut and orange. Recipe here

Roast

I’ll be very honest and say that it is a jolt when you realise there’s nothing special about you. When you regularly read and are part of the Food World on Instagram and Twitter, you find there’s hundreds out there, just like me, many of them better, far more experienced, far more accomplished and talented. I’m just another daft lass who takes photos of her constant cooking, and makes people hungry with them. I’m more than happy to keep on doing it, too.

I’ll never be world class famous, or make serious spondoolies from a cookbook. I’d partially like that success, who wouldn’t? But there’s that 80/90% of me says that’s way too much effort, and my day job/life saps pretty much all the mental and physical energy I have. I’m so very lucky that I still have the wherewithall to cook two different dinners at the end of each and every day, on occasion at two or three different houses.

I suppose I could throw off the day job, go work in the food industry in some capacity and maybe get this out of my system, but I am and always have been risk averse. It even says so in my Pensions paperwork. I doubt that will change. My day job is one big transferable skill, and I like and need the security it provides. I’m rather very addicted to that regular pay cheque at the end of each month, as it pretty much enables my cookbook/cooking habit. I honestly couldn’t afford to give it up, not at the moment.

So I shall continue. Reading my cookbooks, treating them and the accompanying TV shows (if there is one) a bit like going to see old friends for a catch up, seeing what’s going on in their houses, inhaling a little of the scent from their kitchens; that background red/brown/green tint to the air that anyone’s house gets when they cook a lot, or have a cupboard full of spices.

It’s a patina that gets laid down over the yhears, and it’s very hard to get rid of. Not that I want to, but I have become immune to the smell of my own kitchen I think. Unless I’ve cooked with fenugreek or garlic. Then I can smell it, for days, and it makes me smile and think of the people I love who use it.

Khoresh e Ghormeh SabziMy spice boxes

 

National Poetry Day

For National Poetry Day.

I would like to add that the Stuff is mostly not of my making, except the cookbooks, but I still live with it. Please read this in a broad old Berkshire accent. (Pam is not from the West Country, as people often think. She is from Berkshire. And wonderful.)

Heaps of Stuff

How I wish that I was tidy
How I wish that I was neat
How I wish I was methodical
Like others down our street.
I tried to stem the rising tide
I tried to hold it back
But I have been the victim
Of a heap of stuff attack.

Yes, heaps of stuff come creeping,
They clutter up the hall.
And heaps of stuff are softly
Climbing halfway up the wall.
At each end of the staircase
Is a giant heap, a stack;
One to carry up the stairs
And one to carry back.

In a heap of stuff invasion
They settle everywhere –
They grovel on the lino
They tower on the chair.
You’re searching for a jacket,
“Is it in here?” you shout,
And, opening the cupboard door,
A heap of stuff falls out.

But heaps are many-faceted
And heaps are multi-faced
And what a heap is made of
Will depend on where it’s placed.
Now if it’s in the passage
It is mostly boots and shoes
And if it’s on the sofa
It is magazines and news.

If it’s in the shed
It’s broken propagating frames
And if it’s in the bathroom
Well, it’s best to say no names,
And if it’s in the bedroom –
Your own and not the guest’s –
The heap of stuff is mostly made
Of socks and shirts and vests.

For a heap is indestructible,
It’s something you can’t fight.
If you split it up by day
It joins back up at night.
So cunningly positioned
as from room to room you trek,
Increasing all the chances
That you trip and break your neck.

But step into my parlour
Now I’ve forced the door ajar;
I’ll excavate an easy chair –
Just cling there where you are.
And together we’ll survey it
Till our eyes they feast enough
On the tidiest home in England
Underneath the heaps of stuff.

~ Pam Ayres.

Pam Ayres

Of wifely things

Following the recent furore over the “Ooh, a guy said that he loved and cherished his fat wife! He’s a dude! Give him cookies!” and the cries of “Yeah, you’re supposed to, that’s what normal people DO, so why get extra special kudos for it? Plus there’s some backhanded compliments in there man.” here is some writing.

[EDIT] Writing by me, with no backhanded compliments!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Some days I find myself idly watching you, comfortably revelling in the knowledge that we’re together, that you are someone who chooses to be with me. Our ups and downs through the years are just natural hills and valleys, to be traversed together, not battled with separately. 

I admire your quick hands, deft and sure whatever task it is you’re doing, and allow myself an indulgent smile because those same hands that can defeat heavy work tasks or plant out delicate seedlings, can also communicate such soothing human affection. The days I’m tired, and simply worn down by the world and the things in it, you hold me, put you arms around me and  the world…stops when the warmth of your palms and fingertips rest on my back.

The contour of your hip as you hold a child on it still enthralls me, so I’m sorry if I am tardy in taking the wriggling beast off you on occasion. Our children, our shared laughing, crying, tantruming responsibility, hide and burrow into your soft, ample curves, hugged into giggling submission whilst trying to wriggle out at the same time. I doubt they’ll ever grow out of loving your embrace, no matter how big and tall they grow, or how far they range away from us. 

That moment at the end of the day when we finally collapse into bed, each last small voice slowing and dropping into dreamland, is the time I think I look forward to the most. It’s that moment of “At last, we can rest.” as we fold wearily into each other and just lay there, silent for a while, the swell of your belly pressing into the small of my back, a rounded arm looped over my waist, warm skin melding briefly into one being, heartbeats aligning as we relish the comfort of “Aahh…bed.” for a few minutes, until we start to talk, going over the moments of the day in the peaceful brown-hued darkness.

You’re my sanity, my home port, the place and person I can’t wait to run to, and see each day. Most times I want to get home first so I can have dinner on the go for you, and have the joy of seeing your face when you walk in and smell your favourite dish bubbling away. I think we race each other. 

The years we’ve been together have passed in a flash, it seems, and yet the times we’ve shared stretch back over decades. You complete me, we complete US, and I love you now as always. My best friend, my strength, and I yours, I hope. 

My partner in all things, my love, my wife.

rings

And so it goes…

The month of July has been one I’d probably – mostly – forget. Firstly because of my husband being very poorly indeed, and then…my turn.

If you do  not want to read about breasts and needles, leave now.

A year ago I had some odd happenings with my left breast. It had decided to leak. Seeing as I have never had, and never wish to have children, lactation was not and is not desirable. Cue GP visit, who just said keep an eye and see how things go. She wasn’t unduly worried but it just kept on happening. Badly some days, others days barely noticeable. No pain, just…leaking.

Then a few weeks ago, the fluid turned black. Let me tell you, when you see black liquid welling out of your own nipple, your inner calm makes a run for it.

Then it just ran clear again. After my momentary panic, I went right back to the nurse, who sent me for a breast scan.

The breast scan turned out to be two mammograms, one of which was so painful I cried, then an ultrasound, then a needle biopsy which GODSDAMNIT do not have that without a local anaesthetic. My pain threshold is good, but yeesh. By the way, doctors who do those biopsies, OFFER A LOCAL AS A MATTER OF COURSE BEFORE YOU SHOVE A NEEDLE IN. The needle went in right at the bottom of the areola, and felt like it was about an inch wide. I am well aware it was not.

That was actually one of the most lonely experiences I have had. Lying twisted at an awkward angle in a hospital room – a very cold hospital room – with all things medical going on around me, the ultrasound probe being pushed into already painful bits of me, being spoken about, not TO…all the fears I’d buried came to the surface and leaked out of my eyes. Finally I managed to ask the Dr what she was DOING, and begged please tell me what you are doing, don’t just treat me like a piece of meat lying here.

Anyhoo, after an hour of that, it was back to the consultant who said I’d been brave but still didn’t give me a sticker.  He says he thinks I’ve probably got nothing to worry about, as there seems to be a tiny cyst in the milk duct that’s causing problems, nothing more sinister, and to come back next week.

I fell over this weekend a bit, I admit. I thought the pain would dissipate, but it hung around, occasionally making me want to take my breast off and put it in a box wrapped in cotton wool, bubble wrap and kindness.

Finally today the pain has subsided.

For goodness sake, how can ONE NEEDLE cause so much hurt? I grant you, the muscle aches from the two mammograms probably didn’t help, but sheesh.

I’m hoping they don’t decide to do another one ‘just to check’ when I go back on Friday.
The main problem with this mammogram wasn’t the two ‘side on’ ones, that are usual. It was the ‘front on’ one. Because they had to try and see all the nipple, the ducts and the tissue behind the nipple, basically your boob goes front on into a mangle. That mangle then get sat on by an elephant. Or at least that’s what it feels like.

I’m one of the ‘lucky’ ones who still has firm boobs at the age of 47. I say lucky…but breast density means the darned things DO NOT FLATTEN no matter how much pressure the plates exert, so there was lots of twisting and manipulation of the breast to get it to be in the right position. Oddly, it didn’t want to stay put, so had to be forced.

I’m mortified that I actually cried out when she applied the plates for the third time. Stoicism failed utterly. The last thing I wanted to do was scare the others in the waiting room but it just…came out.

Still, at least I can cross my arms again now without wincing. It’s vitally important to have these things done, I know that, but I cannot help but think that if men had to have these done as routine, there would be a far better way of doing them invented very, very fast.

No doubt I’ll get a letter in the post any day now saying I’m due for a smear test…

As I was sat in the waiting room, looking around at my fellow women, all either mid treatment, or waiting for treatment, or waiting for diagnosis, it struck me that from around the age of 10 onwards, women are routinely subjected to invasions of their body. We have routine smears, routine mammograms, then we have the ones that aren’t routine, investigations, proddings, pokings and we have to do them all WITHOUT EVEN ADEQUATE ACCESS TO THINGS AS SIMPLE AS DECENT POCKETS.

I felt at one with my ladies in that room. There was a kind of resigned camaraderie there. An undercurrent of fear, yes, but also one of teeth gritted “Let’s bloody well get on with it then.”, and a willingness to share support and commiserate with others going through the same toe-curling procedures.

It’s not an experience I want to have again, really, but it’s one I’m glad I’ve had, if that makes sense.

http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/clinical-breast-exam

Breast Exam