I was seven years old and auditioning to be the voice of the Russian commercial for an Italian chocolate spread. The director was desperately trying to drag more enthusiasm out of me. “Do you really, really like this chocolate spread?”
Blood out of a stone. I repeated, in the same, vaguely detached tone, “Yes, it’s quite nice.”
Actually, I loved the said chocolate spread but, a product of my mother’s and grandmother’s drilling, I was trying to behave like a lady; and ladies never expressed strong emotions, but maintained dignified serenity. “Yuck!” and “Eek!” were banned for being rude, but so were overly vociferous “Yummy!” and “Del-i-cious!”. My mother and grandmother would curb such enthusiasms at the dinner table. “What’s this, Katia? Have you never seen food before? Have been starving for over a year? ‘Very nice, thank you’ will do.”
The director turned to my mother for support. She, too, encouraged me to be more effusive on this occasion, but I was too well trained, not to mention confused. So the job went to another – no doubt more expressive – little girl.
My grandmother was an outstanding cook who could easily coax guests into third and fourth helpings. Between mouthfuls, they would plead for the recipe. On the other hand, my mother’s appearance in the kitchen was the equivalent of a Vandal raid. On that front, she has not improved with age. Only the other day, now in her late seventies, she asked why I needed butter to bake a cake. As a girl, I had no interest in cooking. I planned to grow up to become rich and eat only in restaurants. When I first left home, at nineteen, I spent the first few days eating grilled apple slices with cheese on top, until my housemate taught me to scramble eggs. I would also boil pasta, then drown it in ketchup, since I could not make a sauce. Believe it or not, I enjoyed that.
In spite of my grandmother’s talent for cooking, and our living both in Italy and France, where food preparation is an art form, I managed to grow up with almost totally insensitive taste buds. Somehow, I followed into my mother’s footsteps in the quiet assumption that food was for sustenance and health, health being paramount to the development of the mind. Hence, a healthy diet was a means to an end – to make your brain healthier and better able to cram more “worthy” information, such as languages, philosophy, history, literature, art, sciences, music, geography – and have I already mentioned languages?
And so, for the first three or so decades of my life, my response to food was, “Yes, it’s quite nice” and I did not give it any more thought.
I greatly owe the precious discovery of the pleasure of food to two friends, L. and B., who entered my life about fifteen years ago. They showed me that food is not just a means to an end but a jolly companion in one’s intellectual pursuits.
L.’s hospitality is truly magnificent. No one I know can pack a more delectable picnic hamper, and you will always be fed when you visit her flat – no matter what time of day, or night. You can sit at her table, discuss poetry by Pushkin or Lamartine, whilst biting into whole cloves of garlic, dipping sperlonga bread in olive oil, popping juicy cherry tomatoes into your mouth, and reaching out with your knife towards a plateful of seasoned Manchego or goat’s cheese with tarragon. The poetry infuses the food with subtlety, while the food anchors the poetry into something earthy. Of course, there is always a glass of red wine to team up with the imagination. Sharing food with L. is a celebration of life as a whole, where head, heart and stomach team up in perfect harmony.
My friend B. is another gourmet. He is always game to try out a new food, a new ingredient, a new taste. On a trip to Venice, we admired unknown produce in alimentari shops with as much curiosity and excitement as the Moorish arches that lined the narrow calli. On our first day, I asked the shopkeeper for “a typical Venetian cheese” only to be told, in Veneziano sing-song, “Well, Signora, Venice is an island – don’t know if you’ve noticed – we don’t have any cows here…” Our evening picnic dinners – complete with a bottle of Valpolicella – on the bench beneath the Doge’s Palace, to the lapping sound of the Canal Grande, are as powerful a memory for me as the splendour of the city. Even now, I mix a tea brew at home, which I first tasted in a Venetian bar. A fragrant blend of Earl Grey and rose petals. Refreshing, with a dash of milk; subtly teasing, with a slice of lemon. Like Proust’s madeleine, its taste brings back the experience of Venice for me. I often make what I call “Venice tea” when B. comes ‘round.
In Brugge, you wake up to the scent of chocolate and, as you take an early morning stroll, the sweet fragrance permeates the cobbles under your feet, the Flemish base-reliefs of the church walls, and rises to the tops of the crow-stepped gables which flank the narrow streets. It gives the town a fairy-tale atmosphere.
When I was in San Sebastiàn, my friend O. (himself a superlative cook) introduced me to Basque cuisine. Rich, fragrant and full of flavour, it wraps you up and takes you for a spin to the myth-filled heights of the Pyrenees. Every bite of a pincho has a story to tell.
Going out for a drink in a bar or pub is convenient when time is of the essence, but you form a special bond with people when you share food and, especially, enjoy food. Sharing food can be binding, grounding and comforting. Perhaps because it reaches that part of us which comes from and is connected to our common mother, the earth, and so reminds us that we are – in many ways – siblings. It is also deeply satisfying to give people food you have cooked yourself. And what joy it can be to cook with someone you get on well with.
When my young friend M. and I meet for tea, we study the cake display at the Pâtisserie Valérie and pick out two varieties we both like. Once served, we split the cakes and each gives the other half of his/hers, so we end up having two different flavours on our plates. A simple enough practice, but it adds a further sense of fun to the – already scintillating – conversation.
I suddenly find that food is playing an important role in many of my friendships, in that it adds a special kind of warmth to them. There are good reasons why most social celebrations have meals as their centrepiece. One of them is, undoubtedly, that if you enjoy your food, you are happy within yourself and so, consequently, become good company to others who have also shared food with you.
And now I am off to bake a loaf of wholemeal soda bread. Not just any soda bread, though. Into the dough, I will sprinkle rosemary, pitted black and green olives, shreds of sundried tomatoes, chop some garlic and fold in some grated hard goat’s cheese. While the bread is still warm, I will slice it and spread rich, creamy butter on it, which will melt in contact with it. I plan to accompany it with a glass of tempranillo.
Anyone care to join me?
As you may have gathered, I can cook now.