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.
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.
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.