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.
Risi e Bisi (Venetian Rice and Peas Soup)
From Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen (Guardian Faber)
1 Kg unshelled fresh peas
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
30 g flat pancetta (optional)
1/2 golden onion, peeled and finely chopped
Small bunch flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
300 g Vialone Nano or Arborio rice
1.5 L / 6 cups vegetable stock
1 ½ teaspoon fine grain sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
50 g freshly grated Grana Padano
Shell the peas, reserving the pods. Place the peas in a small saucepan with two tablespoons of stock and simmer over a low heat until bright green, about two minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside. Wash the pods and place them in a large pot together with the rest of the stock. Bring everything to the boil and keep hot over a low heat.
Mince the pancetta, if using. Incorporate the finely chopped parsley and onion and carry on chopping until you have a fine mixture.
Heat the oil and butter in a heavy-bottom pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta, onion and parsley and fry gently until the onion looks soft and translucent. Add the rice and stir to coat in fat. Toast it for a couple of minutes, stirring often, then cover with the hot stock strained from the pea pods.
Cook the rice for about 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the reserved peas and season with salt and pepper. Continue to simmer until the rice is tender and has absorbed most of the liquid (about 15 minutes). If the soup is too dense, add a few spoonfuls of hot water to loosen it up. Finish with a generous dusting of grated cheese and serve immediately.