The constellation of mosquito bites on my ankles tells me that this has been a good summer after all. A summer of early mornings spent rocking on a chair with a novel in one hand and a cup of coffee that would inevitably go cold in the other. Of Saturdays at the beach, roasting on the scorching sand of a Venetian shore. And of nights eating watermelon under the pergola, seeds and all, sugary juice running down my forearms. Balmy, humid evenings with the scent of corn wafting through the air; with clear skies and bike rides and peachy sunsets that matched the colour of the drinks in our hands.
I haven’t spent a whole summer at home in Veneto in over ten years. I didn’t realise how much I missed it, not until now that it’s almost gone. And although my main reason to be here isn’t leisure, I had to remind myself to soak it all in, all the small details that frame the idea of ‘home’ – the smells, colours, the light, the heat, the flavours – and that make my stay here all the more timely and, in a way, needed.
In the few years before starting the beautiful journey that is writing a cookbook, I have been working for a company that sources excellent fruits and vegetables from the continent. Predictably, what I liked most about my job (which happened to be rather polyhedric in its own right), was the travelling, and that’s because these working trips gave me the chance to visit some very inspiring growers and farms all over Italy.
During one of these rather serendipitous trips, I got to meet an old tomato grower from Liguria. In a market dominated by mass-produced, tasteless tomatoes, seeing that he can still make a living growing heirloom Bull’s Heart tomatoes (outdoors and extensively) was nothing short of enlightening. Even more eye-opening, then, was seeing people willing to pay a premium for them. They all seemed to say they were worth every penny, not just because their flavour was outwardly, but because these wonderful tomatoes reminded them of their trip to the Italian riviera. I could really see their point.
I had almost forgotten how glorious springtime in Veneto can be. How warm the May sun can shine, and how pleasant it is to eat lunch outside with the white roses intertwined around the wooden pergola. How early strawberries ripen here, and how late the sun sets. I had almost forgotten how much I yearned for some proper spring weather in the past four years, despite the blooming magnolias and the dangling wisteria. I am reminded now, here, sitting at my old desk, the window wide open and a sweet scent of orange blossoms blowing from the garden.
Two weeks in my homeland and I’ve already fallen into some good old habits: munching on pan biscotto (some local sort of crunchy bread) while waiting for lunch; circling the house and the garden multiple times throughout the day in search for ideas; going for long walks turned into foraging expeditions; and drinking too much espresso, sometimes with a dash of grappa, too, usually on Sundays.
Whenever we go for walks together, Dad joins me in my foraging efforts, mostly because he loves weeds as much as I do. On our last trip, for instance, we found dandelion, nettle, and bruscandoli (wild hops), the holy trinity of Venetian wild edible plants. We picked two bagfuls in total, then proceeded to wash them and turn them into a huge skillet of stir-fried greens with pancetta, a nettle frittata, and a risotto with wild hops, which were still surprisingly tender and reminiscent of rosemary.
And now that the last of the young shoots and leaves have morphed into tough grown-ups, it’s time to pick edible wildflowers. Late spring is their moment. Florid bushy trees of elderflower (sambuco) and black locust (faux acacia or robinia) grow between parcels of land. Their branches have been heavy with flowers for weeks now – one can smell them before even seeing them. Black locust flowers – dangling clusters of tiny, intensely perfumed white flowers – are slowly coming to an end, though many trees are still in bloom. We have been picking basketfuls of flowers to fill every vase in the house, their beauty and sweetness a fleeting bliss before they fade and wither and bend, spent.
When I first moved to university and started to cook for myself, it wasn’t from a cookbook. It wasn’t from a hand-scribbled recipe notebook either, because no one in my family ever kept one. I mostly played it by ear, using the few basic skills I had picked up from Mum. I knew, among other things, how to make a decent plate of pasta in a small array of fashions; a good risotto with a few variations (pumpkin, peas, radicchio, asparagus or mushrooms); a fine roasted chicken; and a balanced salad dressing. I liked cooking, but I also liked not cooking. I loved having the luxury of eating cheese on toast for four days in a row, because I was finally living alone, playing adult, and responding to no one other than myself. Stirring pots interested me to a point; I had stronger urges.
Then again, food wasn’t yet the ever-embracing trend that it is now. Back then, properly written recipe books were spare and rare, particularly in Italy, where many households owned, if any, one or two tomes at most (Artusi and The Silver Spoon). In my family, for instance, I have never seen a cookbook circulating; certainly not on our coffee table, and definitely not in the kitchen. We might have owned a couple, but never used them. Mum liked to cook on a whim, make stuff up, wing it a lot, rely on classics. She, too, had stronger urges. Rather than cookbooks, she bought novels. She found following recipes somewhat tedious and cooking a distraction from her devouring passion for fictional characters. The less time spent in the kitchen, the more time with her nose buried in books.
In this instance, I turned out to be very much my mother’s daughter. I grew up loving fiction books to bits and had enrolled in a foreign language degree at university with the ambition to become a literary translator. I spent a good part of my spare time consuming British and American literature of all calibre while chasing the dream of mastering the English language as it was my own. Of course, I failed. I realised pretty soon that I was failing – struggling, stumbling on accents and sentences – and instead of pushing harder, I lost momentum, preserving my interest in reading but not my ambition in translating. Around then, my dreams took an abrupt U-turn.
Food had all the while grown to be a strong passion, something that must have always been within me but that suddenly erupted like the most active of volcanoes. I don’t actually recall where it all started, but I know that I began reading massive piles of academic papers about food – food sociology, anthropology, public health and what not – and went down such a slippery slope, such a terribly deep rabbit hole (I’m known for these) that the only way I could get it out of my system was to write and write and write about it all. And so I did – 120 polished pages of thesis about food and culture and society, a terribly boring piece of writing and yet something I still think about 7 years on, smiling at the fervour of those days. Did I get food out of my system then? Far from it.
Fast forward a couple of years, I left the translation gig behind and went on to study food and gastronomy. I also opened a blog (this one) with the intention to share my culinary deliriums and experiments (I was cooking a lot more at that point). The problem was, I didn’t have the tools. I wanted to write in English, of course, but I lacked the rich and vivid vocabulary that would enable me to write in an engaging tone and without the stuck-up expressions of academia. Proper food writing was still a novelty then.
I was already reading a few English blogs, but it took me some time to discover what was largely considered to be the ‘good stuff’ – the basics of English food writing: Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Simon Hopkinson, Ruth Reichl and so on. As soon as I did, however, I dug in and, to my surprise, I acknowledged in them much of what I loved about fiction – a compelling prose, engaging and vividly descriptive. I found stories, characters, enchanting lands. In some I discovered a new perspective on the food of my own country; in others, notions on fascinating foods and dishes I didn’t know about. In all of them, I admired the fact that they could be read very much like a novel. But perhaps most importantly, I found in them a reason to believe that good food and good words are best when hand in hand, and the motivation I needed, at one point, to keep at it – keep cooking, exploring, and writing.
Those of you who have followed this blog for quite some time might have seen a bit of an evolution and many changes as I struggled to find my voice and to articulate it in a way that didn’t make people cringe. Thank you for bearing with me all this time. As for the content matter, after much searching, I believe I finally figured out what it is that I like to write about and cook the most (for now, at least). Funnily enough (and I think I gave you some clues here) it’s Venetian food. It’s the food that I know best, that I can cook without a recipe, and that spark the highest dose of memories and recollections about people, flavours, places; the sort of food for which I have a story to tell – my own, my family’s, and my homeland – and that I feel more compelled and comfortable sharing.
It’s with this conviction that I started to nurture the idea of creating a narrative cookbook about the food of my origins. For someone who didn’t approach cooking with a recipe book by her side – who didn’t grow up in a family who ever used a cookbook – but that had since accumulated quite a few; the thought of writing a cookbook came to feel like the natural progression after the fiction frenzy and the food fanatism: it was something I knew I would be fine throwing myself into, head first; a way to bring my two passions (food and writing) together into a project that would feel both challenging and fulfilling.
Almost a year has passed since that first spark of inspiration. The initial idea has evolved, changed, detoured, but it eventually found a home with an agent and then a publisher, and, around October of last year, it began to take shape in the form of frantic, hiccupping but at times gloriously satisfying writing sessions; massive creative highs and self-esteem crisis; piles of (more or less delicious) food from recipe testing; continuous cycles of dishwashing; and dozens of red-marked word documents open on my desktop. I woke up one day around Christmas time, walked to the kitchen to a pile of dirty dishes and random leftovers, and it all suddenly felt very overwhelmingly real. It still does, every day, in a new way that remains, like I hoped, challenging and fulfilling. This is all to say that, well, this book is really happening, and writing it here – sharing the news with you all after a few months of behind-the-scenes work in progress – strengthens that feeling of real.
Much in the same way Diana Henry described in her piece about the making of a cookbook, this book is far from being my brain child only. In fact, in its ever-evolving nature, it’s also the product of a group of people who believed in the initial project and helped me to believe in it too; who gave me guidance and precious advice when I had no clue of what it is that I was doing; who listened to my thoughts, ideas, concerns, and welcomed my input; and that helped me to develop the germ of an idea into something people would (hopefully) find nice and useful and worth buying.
The book will be published in July 2017. The title is Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen. It will be first and foremost a recipe book, with dishes largely inspired by the corner of Venetian inland where I’m from. But it’ll also be part memoir (for lack of a better word) and part journal (a bit like this blog, only with an editor who can fix my choppy sentences and cut my wordiness; and a designer that will make it all fit into a neat package) with stories, anecdotes, glimpses of daily life past and present, portraits of people and places, and so on. It will have, of course, heaps of photos, of the dishes as well as of the land and its landmarks, which I’m working on as I go and will focus on more in-depth upon my return to Veneto next week. From now until publication and beyond, I’m hoping to share glimpses of the progress here and on Instagram, bits of experience as I go, some insights if you’re interested. After all, it has become such a huge part of my life that there’s no point in keeping things separate.
Content-wise, the book will have plenty of traditional dishes from the region as well as some family recipes that are less traditional but not less loved. To give you a better idea of what’s to come, I thought to share one of the recipes that I plan to include in the book: risi e bisi (rice and peas). It’s a huge classic across the Veneto, of course, but also one that holds a special place in my family’s repertoire. It’s the sort of dish that shouts the season through its bright greenness and light spirit – a quintessential springtime recipe, particularly delicious, I’d like to think, on those days in which the rain still brings a chill to the air.
There were a couple of nights a few weeks ago, before the heat decided to come and make itself comfortable, in which the air sweeping from the harbour carried an unusual chill. One night, on our usual evening walk along the water – the ritual that separates the working part of the day from that of leisure, contemplation and unrushed time in the kitchen – we had to put an extra layer over our t-shirts. We walked hugging ourselves the whole way, wondering where such breeze was coming from, dark clouds gathering swiftly over our heads.
We rushed home just in time before the first downpour started. Another followed shortly, and then another, at seemingly regular intervals, as if the sky was emptying itself by the bucketload, taking a break between each. We thought it a good night for a robust bottle of red and for lingering in the kitchen and around the table while waiting for a warming dinner.