Saturday, 25 January 2014

Recipes and life

This morning, an old notebook full of recipes collected over nearly 30 years fell off the kitchen shelf where it lives and onto my head. It happens all the time and I was intent on throwing the whole bloody thing into the bin, when a card with my maternal (French) grandfather's handwriting inside it floated to the floor.

His recipe for 'Gateau de Praline', photocopied by my mum, had been given to me as part of my birthday loot many years ago. 

This incredibly divine dessert, of a complexity way beyond my talent or patience, is a dense, velvety textured cake made with almond-meal and was served floating in a a cream of such deliciousness that if I close my eyes I can still taste it. Gateau de praline formed a part of the rare and terribly special occasions when Pepère shooed the household's helpers out of the kitchen and took it over himself, usually after returning from a fishing or hunting trip or when he had grand-kids around him who particularly loved his sweet things. 'Les crepes' , thrown in the air with great flair, were a favourite, closely followed by 'ca nougat' (I have no idea if that is how you spell it) which was a kind of chewy, fragrant toffee which he cooked and then cooled and cut up on the old marble table in the middle of the kitchen. These sweets were wrapped in foil (my cousins might correct my memory) and never lasted very long!

Donn'Anna Pepere and Memere's home

Pepère was also known for making an incredible Nocillo, an eye-wateringly powerful liquor steeped with green (unripe) walnuts although drinking it does not form part of my childhood memory! One of the most romantic things ever done for me was the Nocillo concocted secretly by my husband with walnuts picked from a tree in the garden of our first house in London. Robert followed Pepère's recipe and we still have some in the cupboard, usually pulled out  after a dinner party when we've probably all had quite enough to drink but the night still feels young.

For me, sense of smell most vividly evokes old memories: espresso coffee mixed with tobacco will send me right back to Naples just as ripe mangoes and pine trees woosh me smack bang into Aussie Christmases. Today it was bits of paper, old magazine cuttings, print-outs and faded photocopies, that propelled me into childhood and teens (Coco Pops slice, really?!) into the wild early 20s, back to old, old mates, exes, long lost acquaintances and the continuing friendships helped by technology like Facebook. 

Among the treasures I found Luis and Isabel Garcia's Cuban Potaje (circa 1987). The Italians call it potacchio, the French potage and it's a lentil and veg and bacon bone thing that has long been one my kids' very favourite comfort foods. Here I've found it impossible  because believe it or not, you can't find smoked bacon ribs in London!

I dug out Patricia "Aunty Pat" Sheahan's Spinach Pie, a filo concoction that reminds me of the days in the shared house in Glebe, with John Hanscombe, Mark Cornwall, Henry Everingham and a host of others - all of us young cadet journos, budding artists, musos - all poor but rich with ideas, anticipation and angst and about the future. 

Buried a little further on, the delightfully named 'Root Soup', written out I think in Rosie's godfather, Russel Granger's writing. I smiled at this one for title alone - and put it on the table for recipe revival.

I also found pages and pages of recipes I wrote out after sitting down with Cosimina Della Pioggia, who was my nanny as a baby/toddler and who worked for our family for two generations. I knew and loved her as 'Babba': she helped raise my cousins and some of their kids too. A tiny powerhouse of a woman, she never learned to read or write and yet was a dynamo, the most loving, patient, wonderful woman and to this day, a better cook I've yet to meet. She is gone now but lives on in my memories - and my kitchen! 

I also found my mum's sugo instructions, the pasta al forno my kids (and my brother's too)  call 'crunchy pasta' and probably another 20 recipes jotted on bits of paper in the wake of frantic phone calls home for inspiration after a long day at work and with hungry kids waiting. Missing is my paternal Nonna's recipes: she was a brilliant cook so I must right this omission with my Dad asap.
Oh, I found a host of other wonderful tidbits that I won't bore you with. So to finish, here's picture of me in Naples eating pizza.

My favourite. Of course.

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