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.
My mum is the least stereotypical mum you can possibly imagine – in fact, you can’t imagine her, but let me help you, as I think you’ll like her. She has never fit in and never done anything that the other mums of the village were doing, or not enough for the young version of myself to record any similarities. It was sometimes upsetting, but in retrospect, I am so grateful for her ‘uniqueness’ – it taught me a good deal of life lessons on the way. My mum has always worked at home, but don’t call her a housewife, she would rather say she ‘manages a family business’. This meant I was always assured a good, home-cooked meal upon returning from school, at 12.30pm. The deal was she would wait for me at home rather than coming to pick me up at school. I never understood why I had to be the only one without a mum or grandma there to pick me up, why I was the one having to walk or bike. Now, whenever I go back to my parents house, I walk that little trail: 300 metres total. And I laugh at my past sorrow: it is so safe and quiet you can walk in the middle of the road. I have always had my mother’s trust (almost, except when I was between 13 and 16), and that was just one of her ways of telling me. But back to the meal: I would return to a lovely lunch, usually consisting of two courses (primo and secondo). On Monday and Tuesday, it would be just the two of us sitting at the table, as I had to return to school for afternoon activities. The rest of the week, I would come home and find her still stirring and flipping, and lunch was ready when my dad would come home from school, too – he is a teacher.
My mum is a fine cook, but back then, she gave in a bit to the sirens of modernity – who didn’t? Not everything that appeared on our table was homemade, and we were perfectly fine with that: a frozen chicken schnitzel here, a little store-bought pasta sauce there, and she could find a second for herself, too. I thought the food was fantastic, and anyway, the no-homemade things were well concealed under a good dose of vegetables, and some really tasty pasta, soups or risotto, all made from scratch. She wouldn’t make anything very unhealthy, and that was her rule for packaged food, too. It wasn’t everyday, either – she wouldn’t allow it.
You might have guessed by now that she was in charge of the grocery shopping. Because she has never been a baker, and for never I mean never, all the sweet things in our house were outsourced. The baking-phobia was surely enhanced by the fact that our oven has never worked properly, and that cakes would never rise. It was only good for cookies or crostate. It could have been fixed, I suppose, but as many things in our house, it never was – we just replaced the whole kitchen when it got too old. In the end, it didn’t matter much. Baking has never been her passion: too messy, too long. She preferred to use that time to read, and buy crackers, cookies and little cakes instead. Looking at the whole picture now, I can’t say I would blame her.
Merenda, the afternoon snack as it is called in Italian, has often taken the shape of a baked good of some sort for me, usually sweet, and rarely homemade. A beloved ritual I would consume at around 4.30pm, it was possibly my favourite ‘meal’ of the day, second only to breakfast, and rightly so: it was the only time I was allowed something remotely sweet. My mum never bought candy or chocolate; the omnipresent Nutella was a very, very rare presence in our cupboard. What she would fill the shelves with, instead, were relatively wholesome cookies and not-too-heavy mini cakes, usually those containing even the smallest idea of vegetables or fruits in it. The to-go ones were, generally, some little cakes shaped like a dome and made with almond meal, carrots and orange, or whole grain cookies with fruits and nuts. Not exactly the choice a kid would make – where is the chocolate? But I didn’t have any choice. She was the boss, and she never took me grocery shopping until I was 15, to avoid discussions. It was either that or fruit. Or worse, yoghurt. Now you know why no one wanted to trade their chocolaty snack with mine. Again, in retrospect, I am quite pleased no one did.
In time, I learnt to love those wholegrain cookies. They were actually really crunchy, and I liked that they had little bits of nuts in it, and some chewy bits of raisins – that’s because my mum would buy the ‘fruit & fibre’ flavour. They were, to me, a good snack, which I liked munching on in front of my afternoon TV allowance, usually Japanese cartoons, before getting back to do my homework, or going to the pool or to ballet class.
Needless to say, I was very glad when together with Emiko, Giulia and Jasmine, we chose merenda as the topic for this month’s Italian Table Talk. It was the perfect excuse to bring back all these fond memories. Also, it was the perfect excuse to try to reproduce those cookies, and to have them in the afternoon, with a glass of juice (no tea or milk for me back then, although I quite like them with milk now). Sitting on the sofa, staring at a white wall with a smile, seeing images of myself, back there and then.
Before you head to the recipe, let me introduce the rest of the afternoon feast: Giulia will share a slice of her beautiful zuppa inglese; Emiko, a wholesome savoury snack, pane al pomodoro; and Jasmine, a decadent, creamy zabaione.