When Rachael Martin moved to Italy, she ate her way around its history. Then she had children and the comfort food of her homeland became more important.
Twenty years ago I came to Italy, and promptly ate my way through every kind of Italian food I could find. I ate pizza, focaccia and pasta. I discovered polenta and stews. It was like my own version of Eat, Pray, Love only the praying was non-existent and the love came a year later. Eat, eat, eat, and by god isn’t Italy wonderful?
I brought a copy of Antonio Carluccio’s Italian Feast with me. I used to look at the recipes and think how wonderful they looked. Wonderful, and pretty scary. It stayed on the shelf and barely moved.
I still learned to cook though; pasta, risotto, polenta and the stews. I liked to eat what I made, and I had a boyfriend (who became a husband) who liked eating too. He taught me how to eat and he taught me how to cook through eating it.
The biggest compliment I ever received was from an Italian friend: “She’s English but she can really cook,” which could be read as insulting or offensive but when you have a cultural knowledge of British food that doesn’t stretch beyond fish and chips, it’s only to be expected.
Then I had kids and something shifted. Pasta? Nope, I’m going to wean you on beef stew. Pizza? Yes, but we’ll vary the toppings. Fishfingers? Love ’em. Best emergency food ever. “But don’t you give them minestrone?” my Italian mother-in-law would ask, mildly horrified.
Food became linked with childhood nostalgia and my own food culture. I became the queen of cupcakes. OK, not the queen, but I tried. I bought various books on birthday cakes and imagined how lovely it would be to make them. I did make one. It was iced and had sweets all over it: minimum effort, my kind of cake.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Italian food. I’ll wax lyrical, take notes and put a photo on Instagram. But sometimes I just want an easy life.”
I cook Sunday roasts and Yorkshire puddings, although recently I tried toad-in-the-hole again. “What is THAT?” my elder son said. He couldn’t understand why you would want to put sausages in Yorkshire pudding.
The other day I made jacket potatoes for tea. “That’s not a dinner, that’s a CONTORNO!” the same son wailed (a contorno being an accompaniment). As in the main bit was missing. “Mum, can you make me a PROPER dinner?” my younger son complained, which means a two-course meal and don’t you forget it.
Of course I do make proper dinners and industrial amounts of ragù sauce. I have various cookery books of regional Italian cooking along with Ricette della Nonna (grandma’s recipes) for the northern Italian repertoire. Just don’t expect the Italian primo (first course of pasta or rice) and secondo (second course of meat/fish/whatever) together at the same meal, which is what you usually get in Italian homes.
“Mum, don’t put it next to that!” my sons say as I’m serving up dinner. In the UK we’ll throw it all on the same plate. In Italy, they just don’t. Everything on its own plate and a time for everything. You eat fried egg sandwiches? At half past eight in the morning? Err, yes, with lashings of HP sauce.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Italian food. I’ll wax lyrical, take notes and put a photo on Instagram. But sometimes I just want an easy life. “Sandwiches?” my younger son says. “We’re having sandwiches for tea?” Jamie Oliver, you are so right. Italian kids love their healthy Italian food, but at times it can be a downright pain in the backside.
My husband, on the other hand, is supposed to watch that nothing burns. “Just watch the dinner, can you?” I’ll say. He generally doesn’t and cracks open a bottle of Prosecco instead. However, Saturday evenings are his domain: mussels, fish, steaks or thick hamburgers from the farm shop topped with ketchup, gherkins and melted mountain cheeses that you’ve seen them making up in the pastures. And all served up with chips, the thick ones you used to eat as a child. There goes the nostalgia again.4279 Views
Rachael moved to Italy 20 years ago, and can still be found living north of Milan, enthusing about food and places, and eyeing up the Abarths. She’s bilingual, writing in English and Italian, and also goes off to Spain every summer. Three places, three languages, certainly two identities, with cultural insights and awareness that live in her suitcase wherever she goes.