It’s a cook book reading time of year and I’ve been going through mine, revisiting and reimagining ideas and sinking into the writing and imagery – all the best cook books have more writing than recipes, don’t they? One of my absolute favourites, and the first cook book that I loved with a passion, is In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions from Italian Grandmothers by Carol Field. In the late 90’s sometime I ordered a second hand copy from America; it arrived in a huge US Postal Service sack along with a bunch of others, philosophy textbooks probably, I can’t even remember now – all I can recall is burrowing out this satisfyingly heavy and thick paged hardcover and consuming it in one, great, all night sitting. It stirred my imagination so much that I could scarcely wait for the weekend, and a chance to try out this revelatory food, so rooted in family and community tradition, so embedded in the belief that even the simplest meals were integral to a daily practice of tenderness and care.
At the time, the recipes were so simple as to seem miraculous: a head of broccoli, olive oil, one anchovy and a garlic clove. And indeed they were, for when tried, with the supermarket ingredients available to me back then, the results were underwhelming. I kept trying, but it took years for me to understand that broccoli is not broccoli is not broccoli, and even more so for garlic; that these recipes were from a time and place when food lived and grew in the backyard, when absolute freshness and quality were assumed, not something to be specified.
But it didn’t sink in, not properly anyway, until I was eating from my own garden out back. And then, viscerally, I understood. There are some foods, that no matter how much care is given to growing them commercially, will always taste better, sweeter, just as they should, when picked and eaten straight from the garden. And once tried, it’s very hard to go back…
And on the subject of Italian grandmothers, the lovely Rachel, now here a day a week helping in the garden and with events, lent me a very special cook book, created by her husband’s family to capture and commemorate the life, loves and food of his grandmother Carmelina. It’s an extraordinary book in many ways, so personal, so insightful, I’m privileged to be reading it – to me this is what it is all about. One passage that really struck me, and that I thought you might appreciate too (written by Carmelina’s daughter, who put the book together):
“As I sit to record my mother’s all time family favourite recipes, the challenge is on. I learnt to cook in her kitchen, and I have to say the most important ingredients are observation, determination to succeed, and confidence to make adaptations, as you, the cook, feel inclined. This is how Mum learnt her craft, not from books but from sheer determination”.