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Mamma cooks by eye

How infuriating.

My mother wasn’t a born cook, just an instinctive one, who put together dishes using her native know-how.  From the blue skies of Etna where she grew up, to the cooler climes of Manchester in England, she managed to put together a fusion of Italian cuisine using English produce.  Her cooking repertoire comes from a long line of mothers and sisters, aunts and grandmothers, from privation during the second World War through to the microwave revolution in the 1980’s.

Today, my mothers beautiful but arthritic hands have stopped their chopping, squeezing and mixing, but her pantry still stocks a distinctly continental assortment.  Nowadays, she is reminded of her own skill by us, her four daughters, and by me, who loves the alchemy of creating good food.

Italian cooking is much present and somewhat revered in our lives today.  It’s not often you hear someone say they don’t like Italian food – who doesn’t like pizza?  When my friends “do” Italian for their dinner parties, they often put together expensive dishes, artfully displayed and lovingly created.  Antipasti with dried meats like Parma ham, olives stuffed with feta, rocket salad with shave[i]d Parmesan, and pasta with lots of side dishes , of course. These dishes to my mind are not typically Italian but have come to be known as defining this cooking style.  It is the English twist to an old tradition, and it’s still evolving.

When I do Italian, the story is very different.  My version is much more homely and a lot plainer.  Matthew Fort writes  in his Journeys on a Vespa, “Each mouthful was a reminder of the essential plainness, and grace, of Italian food.  There were no extraneous sauces, no distracting garnishes, no mint sprigs or dashes of fancy oils.” The truth is that I probably cook Italian every day, because it is as much about the seasoning and flavour than the dish itself.

When my mother arrived here in the late 1950’s, garlic was scarce, salt was not much used, fresh tomatoes were to expensive to justify mashing them and using them for sauce, lemons difficult to find, and good meat was expensive.  She took all she had seen in her own mother’s kitchen, and adapted – everything.  As garlic et al became more mainstream, she upped her game and created real Italian dishes, but all from memory.  She still uses tinned tomatoes!

It is easy to put together using what you normally have in your pantry and it doesn’t need long processes to make it all delicious.  When an English friend visited me at home she was shocked to see me use a tub of Parmesan rather than a fresh lump of deli cheese for the snow atop the spaghetti mountain.  The thing is this: Italian cooking isn’t extravagant or fancy (except if you eat it in an English restaurant).

Home cooking the Italian way is practical and real, using seasonal produce in simple ways.  The difficulty is that Sicily, where my mother was brought up, is a small island, surrounded by an ocean filled with fish, and particular types of fish.  The grain for bread and the pasta is different as is the grass that feeds the cows and the sheep and the goats which make their extraordinary cheeses.  Nowadays, we can buy all of these things in a good supermarket or local shop, but for an Italian, they will seek out those items just because they taste better to their palate, than the English equivalent.  In Sicily and Italy, all of these things can be bought at sensible prices, locally and fresh.  I have seen octopus pulled from the sea, whacked over the head, and placed in a plastic bag filled with water one hour before dinner is due on the table.

It seems strange that Italian is seen as haute-cuisine when actually in its native country, this cooking is comforting and inexpensive, easily put together and as quick as it needs to be.  The focus in Sicily and Italy is who you eat your food with, as well as the stress-free joy of making magic in the kitchen.  Although Italians do eat frozen food and fast food, the real tradition lies in making daily dinners from scratch with ease, simplicity, and economy.  The focus is on what is available now, on using seasonal  and local produce, and taking it from there.

Who wouldn’t love to buy Liguarian olive oil each time we shop?  In northern Italy, you wouldn’t pay what we pay for it in the UK, so they will use it more liberally.  Sicilian cooking is rustic and real and no real countrywoman would pay over the odds for something they use every day.  The same goes for all the basic ingredients in authentic Italian and Sicilian cooking, chickpeas, oregano, rosemary, olives, tomatoes, fish and meat.  Expensive items can be off putting for many cooks, and whilst I buy the best I can afford, the key is not to get to cheffy about this, but to buy what you really can afford and experiment with that.  I grow rosemary and oregano in the garden, have pots of Greek basil in the kitchen, parsley, and thyme.  I grow lovage in a herb pot in the garden which I use if I have forgotten to get some celery to make the beginnings of a soup.

There are many dishes I would have liked to have put in this book like fresh sardines grilled on an outside oven, sea urchins in white wine and herbs, or boiled squid.  The fresh fish for these recipes just are not available here in England, but if you ever go to Sicily, look for them on a menu.  This kind of food is cooked impetuously and designed to be eaten by more than one person at the table.  If the squid is good today, it will be bought and cooked, if the fisherman can be bartered down on the octopus, then that’s what will be for dinner.  In other words, real Italian cooking doesn’t mean meticulous planning, and this goes for all the dishes in this book.

Collecting recipes for this book so that they can be enjoyed by others has been quite a challenge.  When pushed, my mother might give a measurement or two, but I have tried all the recipes myself, twisting and tweaking until I have a sound idea of what should be good amounts for each ingredient.

As children, my mother would beckon us into the kitchen to watch her cook.  It’s nearly criminal to think that we would back away and escape into our bedrooms as soon as possible rather than watch this “boring” process.  It goes to show, though, that good food in our house was accepted and expected, and that we didn’t realize how lucky we were to have an exotic mother with her own continental take on everything we put into our mouths.

The penny began it’s inexorable drop when our friends would knock on the door day after day at precisely tea time, asking us to come out to play.  They’d be asked to stay for tea of course, and that was the whole point.  What popular children we became.  My mother’s pizza was the favourite.  She would make it in huge rectangular roasting dishes and it was always the same, with mozzarella peppered through with plentiful black olives (out of a jar, or whatever was on offer, that week).  We used to fight for the crispy ones at the edge of the tin.  There were never any leftovers.

A child of the deprived 1930’s and frugal 1950’s, my mother can put together all manner of meals from scratch using anything she has.  She never shopped in the smart supermarkets of today, but would barter with the greengrocer for peppers that were on the turn (roast pepper salad), aubergines that no one knew how to cook (Parmegianna), and damaged tomatoes as a luxury to help with pasta sauce (Pomadoro).

There was an Italian delicatessen in Didsbury, which we would visit every Saturday.  We had the option of going to the library with my father, or shopping in the Italian with my mother.  What a choice!  Bookworm that I was, the Italian drew me like a moth to the flame every time.  The smell of that shop was as evocative as it was indefinable.  Maybe it was the collective scent of hung dried meats, hard cheeses from the North of Italy, olives marinating in oil, or garlic.  Indefinable because for me , that is the smell of Sicily and my grandmother’s kitchen.  During a wine tasting not so long ago, I sipped a deep red wine from Italy, a Barollo, and was transported thirty years back in time and two thousand miles away.  I could feel the marble under my feet and see the stone sink, and something  bubbling in a huge pan on the stove – my grandmother’s kitchen.

I have said that my mother used English produce, and so she did, for the halcyon days of the Italian shop were numbered.  My father fell ill and died long before the shop shut, and with these events, my mother’s cooking changed again.

[i] Fort, M, Eating up Italy, Voyages on a Vespa (Fourth Estate 2004)

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