Bruscandoli, or wild hop shoots, are one of those foraged foods that mark the start of spring in Veneto. And although their fleeting season is coming to an end now that the cool rainfalls of April have given way to days of warm May sun, there is still a little chance to find them.
I had no hope of finding them this week, on my usual walk along the canal. It’s been too hot, I thought. And yet there they were – pale green leaves and curly stems and delicate tops reaching up towards the sky. There they were, growing through the insidious blackberry shrubs that haven’t yet bloomed, and around the rows of rushes swinging in the feeble breeze. Fragile they are, but also vital, and powerful as they propel themselves higher than anything around them like a stretched arm as if to say: “Pick me.”
Some of you might remember when, about a year ago now, I announced I was writing a cookbook. You might remember I said it would be called Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen, and that it was going to be published in July 2017 by Faber. Some of you might also recall the long premise, and the fact I said it had thus far been a rollercoaster of emotions.
Well, the process has now come full circle. And I’m here today to give you a bit of exciting news.
“Why do you write about food?” People ask.
“Well,” I’d like to tell them, “sometimes I wonder the same thing. Let’s just say it’s complicated.”
Instead, I try to be confident, to give them a straight answer. I spit out a few words like ‘culture’ and ‘family’ amidst a vortex of phrases, but the actual train of thoughts, already blurred in my mind, often lacks any coherence. Were I prepared, or warned, or simply good at giving answers that feel lucid and well-pondered, I would reply in M.F. K. Fisher’s words. No one better than her has expressed the reasons why. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, she writes:
The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other.
Love and hunger are, evidently, what keeps me writing too. And yet, I often interrogate myself on how I can keep this passion of mine burning brightly like a cherry wood fire, year after year. How do you keep yourself close to the craft while also away from burnout? The question resurged last week, as I was making a batch of these almond semolina cookies for the third time in a row. The recipe belongs to Dorie Greenspan’s new book, which, being her twelfth, decrees her as one of the most prolific cookery authors of our time. How does she do it, I thought. How does she stay interested after so many years, and so many books?
The answer, unsurprisingly, came from Dorie herself. During an interview she gave not long ago, she mentioned how she started in the kitchen in the first place, and how she kept going. She began out of necessity, she said. And carried on because of the pleasure she felt in feeding others. Dorie has always been a baker, and despite winning a number of James Beard Awards for her craft, she still calls herself “a home baker”. A home baker who, with her cookies and cakes and pies and tarts, enjoys making others happy.
These two worlds – M.F.K Fisher’s and Dorie Greenspan’s – so far apart in so many ways, collide in my mind as I stir eggs with flour and dollop dough on a baking sheet. Cooking, baking, writing, are connected by a feeling that, at the base, is humble and deeply human. Pleasurable, too, if we think of these as choices rather than chores. So, while I slip the first batch of cookies inside the hot oven, I remind myself: this is a choice. This is your choice. And it’s one that, if sustained by empathy and kindness and security, will keep acquiring new meanings as you go, learn, stumble and age.
“The main lesson you have to learn is simplicity,” is Anna del Conte’s warning to whoever wants to approach Italian food. “For what you leave out is just as important as what you put in”.
These few words have been resounding in my head for days. I have surprised myself thinking about them a lot. Not just in relation to food, mind, but to other aspects of living, too. What we leave out of our kitchen, of our home, of our lives matters as much as what we put in. Aren’t we who ultimately decide what to include and what to leave out, just like in a recipe? We choose which flavour our life is going to have at any given time. Except, perhaps starting over isn’t as easy as a round of washing up. Or is it?
Anyway, my cooking (and, consequently, this blog) went through a similar scrutiny lately. Some things went in, many others were stripped back. It’s now clear to me, at the dawn of my thirties, what it is that I just don’t care to eat, cook, or write about. Likewise, I’ve finally learnt what keeps me inspired, happily glued to the stove, and, well, hungry. This ossobuco alla milanese from Anna del Conte is one of these things. Not just because I love to eat it, but because it envelopes many of the traits that I find attractive in a recipe: culture-richness, humbleness, sustainability and straightforwardness. It just makes sense.
Yes, this ossobuco is here to stay, at least for as long as winter lasts. And I’m thinking now, as I type, as I spy a shy spring-like sun shining through my windowpane, that I better drop the chatter and tell you more about it, for winter doesn’t have much time left under its belt. So let’s.
The glycemic index of this blog has increased exponentially lately. I’ve been baking a lot, I realise – to relax, to energise, for fun. I promise I’ll move to savoury next, but for now, let me tell you about this bergamot polenta cake, for it’s sure worth a mention.
The paradigm from which this cake originates is not dissimilar from this other cake recipe I’ve shared a while ago. This, too, is a flourless cake (if we don’t count polenta as flour), and it has citrus as the primary accent within the flavour spectrum. And yet, the result is completely different, for no other reason than this cake uses the fruit in its entirety (as opposed to just zest and juice), which, of course, changes everything. Add this to the fact that the citrus in question is bergamot (easily one of the most aromatic fruits ever known to men), and you’ll have a cake that is at once seductive and surprisingly simple.