Grey outside; on my improvised worktop, red, green, white and gold.
Murky, rainy, chilly, gloomy. An early autumn. But not with the wistful charm of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. Not like the entrance of a Jerry Herman heroine, who swoops down amid a whirl of scarlet, terracotta and gold, against a sky of leaden, purple and silver clouds chased by roaring gusts and the coloratura of a gale singing in your roof. This is a half-hearted change of guard after a lame summer of inert rain, unmotivated sunshine and anaemic bleakness. Autumn, harbinger of new beginnings and fresh purpose after weeks of sun-drenched languor, is less welcome when it drifts in at the tail of a summer that never truly committed.
I want to live where I have the certainty of a cyan-blue sky to lift me from burdensome thoughts and a bright, balmy sun to remind me that it only takes a little light to banish the darkness.
I wash the tomatoes in the sink – a Barbie doll kitchen sink made for people who never soak large, scalloped lettuce or curly kale leaves to clean off soil and live slugs, but buy pre-washed, pre-packed, pre-chosen varieties. I rub the silky red skin and switch off the kettle I’d put on to boil. These tomatoes don’t need peeling. They’re the last of the San Marzano I chanced on while in the supermarket. Long, plump, pointed. Very, very red. I place them in a bowl on the cooker, next to the large wooden board that acts as my mobile worktop.
I want to live where there’s a large sink and a large table that welcome cooking as a joyful art and not just sustenance.
I break up the fresh garlic bulb and the cloves fall on the wooden board. I peel their tissue paper-like skin and their irreverent scent tickles my nostrils. I breathe it in greedily. The cloves are a brilliant, pearly white. I chop them haphazardly, scoop them into the pan and douse them with extra virgin olive oil. It’s the colour of burnished gold with a shade of dark green. I always inhale it before screwing the top back on the bottle. I love its rich, slightly bitter, almost sensual fragrance. I’ve always loved bitters. I turn on the electric ring. I know you’re supposed to heat the oil first, then throw in the garlic. I abide by the Law, pay my taxes and am scrupulously loyal to the authors I translate. But in the kitchen, I do as I please.
In proximity to the heat, the tomatoes share their own fresh, fruity, slightly acidic scent. I slice then chop each into sixteen pieces – why not? – and add them to the sizzling, golden-green oil and the by now ivory garlic.
I use my fingernails to snip a dozen or so leaves from the basil plant on the kitchen counter. Brilliant-green, teaspoon-shaped leaves that give out a peppery, feisty smell. Witches say basil wards off snake bites. When I was a child in Rome, elderly people told my mother to keep a basil plant on my windowsill to keep mosquitoes away.
I rinse the basil leaves and drop them into the pan, where the red, bright-red sauce is developing some consistency. As soon as the first bubbles start to form, I reach out for the large glass jar that never leaves the side of the cooker. It contains the most essential of all my cooking ingredients – one that has a bad press, but without which any meal would be the poorer for me: salt. This is grey, Sicilian sea salt, so salty it makes your tongue feel sunburnt. I have to put grains of rice into the shaker to stop it from clogging the holes when the weather’s humid. A normal practice when I was growing up. I don’t trust aspirine-white salt that never clumps. I take two or three generous pinches from the jar – then one more for luck – and stir them into the sauce.
“Катя, а стол крывой,” my grandmother would say whenever I laid the table and forgot the salt shaker. Katia, the table is askew.
One of the first things that surprised, shocked and outraged me when I first moved to England, was that on an English table, the presence of a salt shaker was not a given. Even now, when I go to a restaurant, the first thing I do is check there is salt on the table. If there isn’t any, I ask the waiter to bring it at the same time as I order the food.
“Без сольи”, without salt, is how my grandmother described people she found cold or distant, no matter how kind or polite they might have been. People who lacked warmth.
The sauce will cook for a couple of hours, so I sit at the kitchen counter and catch up on my New Yorker magazines. The kitchen and our entire flat are filled with the smell of colours and sunlight. To hell with the pallid greyness outside.
As the red sauce darkens and thickens, I realise that, once again, I’ve made way too much food for two people and, once again, that makes me happy.
I want to live among people whose table bursts with food.
The sharp smell of tomato lures Howard into the kitchen. “Shall I grate the Parmigiano?” he asks. Grating the cheese is his job, as is, today, uncorking a bottle of Nero d’Avola. And putting on a CD. We agree on Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico.
The sauce is nearly ready. Time to boil a large pan of water for the spaghetti.
I want to live among people for whom pleasure is not a luxury but a God-given right.
I want to live among people with salt.