‘So you don’t even eat…chicken?’
Grandma’s inquisitive, bewildered eyes were moving slowly between my brother – who appeared to be shielding himself behind a tall chair – and the pot warming up on the stove.
Our casual visit had turned into a lunch invite. It had been a while. Far from being the weekly recurrence it once was, lunch at grandma’s had become more of a special occasion reserved for New Years and Easter. We visited often, of course, spent some time and chatted for a good while, but we rarely stopped for a meal. We liked to tell ourselves the reason was that grandma was getting old, and that we didn’t want to give her any extra work in the kitchen. We knew in fact that her hearty food was something to be had in moderation. That day, though, she convinced our reluctant selves to stay.
In her brilliant book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David has a recipe for Carciofi alla Veneziana that immediately captured my attention. I was flipping through the vegetable section one day – as I often do, looking for nothing in particular but, rather, for some kind of cooking inspiration – and suddenly stopped at the sight of the word Venetian, followed by the word artichokes. I was hooked.
As a home cook, artichokes have for long been my pet peeve. But, being such a central ingredient in Venetian cuisine, I couldn’t avoid them forever. To tell you the truth, artichokes intimidated me because I wasn’t too familiar with them. Mum never made them, and for long, I had no idea what to look for when purchasing them, how to clean and cook them properly. They were a mystery.
Then, all of a sudden, the whole world of artichokes opened up to me. I moved to London and began to work for a fruit and vegetable company. I started to have access to more knowledge, more information, more variety. I began by learning how to clean artichokes from a friend chef. Basics acquired, I slowly went into experimenting with different recipes. I started with a simple artichoke salad: just thinly sliced spiky Sardinian artichokes, good olive oil, lemon, and flaky salt. I then moved to cooked preparations: spring vignarola with peas and broad beans; frittata, risotto. And, finally, these braised artichokes.
Moving away from Italy was possibly the best thing I could do to truly become interested in the food of my origins. Before then, Italian food was just food, normal food, everyday food, something not worth talking about, not original, surely not interesting. I knew about regional differences, and I had a pretty clear idea of what the most iconic and traditional dishes from each Italian region were. Travelling around the country with my family, I would try the specialities of the area. Also, sometimes at home, my mum would prepare something exotic like sarde al beccafico (rolls of butterflied sardines with bread crumbs, pine nuts, and raisins, Sicilian style), or fagioli all’uccelletto (stewed beans, Tuscan style). Still, I was interested in the flavour, in the story maybe, but not in the recipe.
Living abroad, though, I became more of a nostalgic cook and more curious about Italian traditional recipes linked to a place and a culture. I have been travelling back to Italy quite often, looking for traditional dishes, eating in local, honest osterie, imprinting the flavours of Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Rome, Friuli, Umbria, and Sicily in my memory. I also started to collect Italian cookbooks – something I never thought I would do – digging into recipes as much as into the travel stories and everyday tales the author would unfold around them. I discovered a fascination for traditional yet unusual recipes that were new to me, and I found it especially in books written by non-Italian food writers – Claudia Roden and Elizabeth David especially. I loved seeing the food and the country through the eyes of someone who was not originally from there, but could still appreciate Italian culture and its local cuisines, and had the curiosity to go beyond stereotypes and write honestly, reporting regional differences and bits of the culture that Italians would bring in the kitchen and to the table.
we are back from a short trip to Italy to visit my family. Spending some time in the garden with my grandmother, looking at her beautiful tomatoes, made me think of these memories related, you guessed it, to tomatoes. Possibly the strongest flavour and connection I have to where I am from, and to the most beautiful time of the year there: summer.
On our first year in London, we tried to grow tomatoes. We had just moved from Italy in early March, and settled into our one bedroom apartment with no balcony or yard but lots of natural light and a big table by April. Short after our move, Jesse declared one night at dinner that no, we didn’t have to give up our dream of a vegetable patch, and that yes, we could make it work just as well indoor. There was certainly no lack of light for photosynthesis! He then bought some heirloom seeds from a company in the US, vases at the local hardware store, and he treated our seeds to organic dirt and compost. We placed some of the vases with dirt and seeds by the window sill, and some on the portion of the table we didn’t use for our meals and served as a desk. It was sacrificed in the name of tomatoes.