The garden at our family home is exploding with the best autumnal colours, and with a few edible delights – pomegranates and jujubes. You might have caught sight of a jujube shrub or tree before; for one, they are very widespread in Veneto. Traditionally used as ornamental plants, locals slowly began to appreciate them for their fruits, which they would use to make confectionery and liqueurs.
Every year in October, the tiny medieval village of Arquà Petrarca, in the Euganean Hills of Veneto, hosts a picturesque, popular festival dedicated to the humble jujube. During the festival (but really throughout the whole year), you can find all sorts of jujube-based gastronomic delights, from brodo di giuggiole (a sweet liqueur obtained by macerating the fruits in an alcohol and sugar); to cakes, candies and cookies.
In my family, nothing has ever been done with the host of jujubes from our shrub. We’ve always just eaten them al naturale, munching on them straight from the fruit bowl. This year, though, the production was more abundant than usual, demanding for some culinary inventiveness to sort out any excess. The most natural thing to do, at that point, was to fire off the oven and get ready to bake.
We have been settling into January at the slowest possible pace, trying to hold onto that feeling we brought back from Italy. Calm. Peace of mind. It didn’t last long – back to work and all that jazz – but we still managed to keep weekends on the resting side after all. There was a lot of sitting around, a lot of cookbook flipping, some reading and some walking. There was a lot of baking, too.
This cake is what we baked the most, by far. It’s nothing fancy, really, but it reminds me of the cake my mum used to make when I was little – that silly-easy cake (the only one she knew how to make, really) that takes a pot of yoghurt as a measuring unit. it’s a classic, but also, a cake that bears some uniqueness – in its aroma as much as in its backstory.
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 Cartoon-branded 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.
Raisin buns appear in some of my sweetest childhood memories. Every now and then, Mum would buy me one at the local bakery. I was then allowed to have it for breakfast the morning after, slathered with jam. Small or big, round or long, I loved them to bits. That sort of breakfast was (and still is) truly unbeatable.
These raisin buns are far from fancy. They are just bundles of buttery, milky dough studded with raisins and glazed with some egg wash to make them golden on top. And yet, they hit all my soft spots, not least because they are never too sweet and can act as a vessel for some moreish toppings – butter and jam, surely, but also ricotta and honey, or even cheese and ham.
The most fascinating side of an enlarged family is usually the one which lives far from the rest. My family is no exception. As a kid, among the whole lot of aunts and uncles all born and raised in Veneto, I have always been intrigued by that aunt who chose the alternative path, married a man from the South during her graduate years and left the native soil to follow him in his social and professional climbing.
They lived in Palermo, Reggio Clalabria, Naples, Udine, Varese, Florence and who knows where else in Italy. My aunt would follow her professional, upscale engineer husband wherever his career would take him without objection, even after the birth of their (only) daughter. They would show up sometimes at my grandma’s house for a weekend over Christmas or Easter or some other public holiday, have lunch with the rest of us, and then leave right after in their shiny new company car.
What was most striking was how much she had changed and moved on from her Venetian country origins. Far from using any dialect, her way of speaking had a strange inflection, a mixture of accents and local usages that made her even more singular before my eyes. She would discuss literature, philosophy, religion, art and music with her very puzzled mother and sister –all subjects that she probably had time to dig in her long days at home alone, with her husband away for work, pressured by the idea of pleasing him and be presentable at one of the many social events they had to attend.