Thursday, 23 June 2011

bella italia

Me and mum. Lago Patria (excuse the 'makeover' eye makeup!)
So, I was born in Naples. No, I'm not Italian. No, I don't speak Italian, but, I can pretend I have Italian roots I think. I'm sure that counts??

Doesn't it?

My dad was 'in the Navy' (I'm trying not to hum the Village People) so my parents lived there for a few years.

My mother is an amazing talent in the kitchen. A master, creator and inventress of spectacular meals. She's always had the talent (from her mother), but she really credits Italy for transforming her culinary skills. At that time, the Mediterranean diet was revolutionary and the English diet was rather plain in comparison, due to the lack of imported products available. The basis of what she learnt then is still what it is today, except now there's perhaps a little more 'Masterchef' flair!

Here is a little story...a little memoir if you will...from mamma

'Don't get between me and my grub!!!' (at American BBQ)

...'In England I did my mother’s repertoire; chile con carne, sausages, Dittisham pork casserole, lambs liver with parsley and garlic, gammon steaks, fish cakes with tinned salmon and fish pie! I had been using Hamlyn’s All Colour Cookbook whilst I was a cook for a female entrepreneur and didn’t repeat a meal for 18 months! In those days you couldn’t get the salad things we can now get (all the herbs, Thai ingredients etc). My mother always made the food look good, which is half the battle, with parsley. She was artistic. With soup there was always a swirl of cream or yogurt with chopped chives or parsley - so easy but so effective. We always had garlic, curly parsley and lemon in our lives but NOT extra virgin olive oil, only a tiny bottle of olive oil bought from Boots normally used for medicinal purposes!

Ravello - My brother eating spaghetti but seemingly eyeing up the crespolini to follow

When I went out to Italy at 30, I was inspired by their food and have used it to good effect ever since. There were many ingredients I came across that I had never seen in England: different shapes of pasta, arugula (rocket), buffalo mozzarella, huge flat round ciabatta type bread, hunks of parmesan, vin santo, frascati, soave, orvieto wines and flat leaf parsley to name a few! And extra virgin olive oil was used in every dish bar breakfast. I started using Marcella Hazan’s First and Second Classic Italian Cookbooks and there was a rumour among the NATO wives that I was going through all the recipes! People raved about pasta aglio e olio but I thought it was a bit dull when there were other beautiful things one could add like vongole (clams), pomodori (toms) and melanzane (aubergines)! At one restaurant near Gaeta we used to have Spag in the Bag as the Americans called it, which was spaghetti with tomatoes and seafood brought to the table in a puffed up greaseproof bag which was dramatically opened by the waiter!

Spaghetti aglio e olio
· 75g/3oz spaghetti, boiled and strained
· 1 medium red chilli, seeded, sliced lengthways
· 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
· 1 small handful flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
· 3 dashes hot, hot chilli oil
· parmesan cheese, grated
Preparation method
1. Boil the spaghetti until al dente, strain, and put into glass bowl.
2. Add the other ingredients, toss, and serve.

I learnt that simple meals were the best with good ingredients e.g. parma ham and melon, mozzarella with tomatoes and basil and lashings of extra virgin olive oil, Napoli salami wafer thin like the parma ham, not ¼ inch slices of pink Danish salami we had in UK-no comparison. The olives were delicious and I enjoyed my outings to the salumeria (grocer/deli) and watched the Italians ordering their ettos (nickname for 100g) of salami etc. I watched workmen order a small ciabatta and stuffing it there and then with a small tin of tuna, olio and all, with black olives-a far cry from the British workmen and their pork pies or sliced white bread. Old ladies at the entrance would be preparing the herbs or trimming veg and I would ask them for ideas. One told me how to prepare zucchini with garlic and evoo in the oven and I learnt how to do potatoes with rosemary and evoo in the oven-now why didn’t I think of that before?
Poolside (excuse the 80's glasses!)
At the butcher’s it was a joy to see the meat being cut without any fat-the minced meat was virtually fat free, and I learnt to cut meat into scallopini, thin horizontal slices, and to flour them just before cooking and then making a sauce such as lemon and parsley or pizzaiola sauce (toms, oregano, black olives)-so simple and tasty and healthy. I liked the idea of having a pasta first followed by small amount of meat with veg or salad. Washed down with wine, the Mediterranean diet. It used to be an experience visiting the macelleria (butcher)-he had a cigarette burning on his chopping board, but it never put me off. Once there was a small goat tethered at the doorway and I asked whose pet it was. I was told that it was the first prize in the Easter raffle and he made a sign of slitting his throat! Aagh! Always the shop owners remarked on my little blond boy and girl and often squeezed their cheeks saying, Bello or bella!

I fell in love with all antipasto veg like marinaded peppers or aubergines. I learnt how to do bruschetta (pronounced brusketta)-rub toasted or chargrilled bread with garlic, add chopped ripe toms, s and p, evoo and basil-divine. Basil is one of my favourite ingredients over the last 30 years.

Since Italy I hardly ever use cream in cooking-in Naples tomatoes were the basis of most sauces and much more healthy. We couldn’t buy cream in local shops in those days in Naples.

Looking back, we could have started importing all those ingredients when we returned home, but I was very happy bringing up my two little bambini and looking after my marito (husband) and cooking for my family and friends'...

T H E  E N D

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