Continuing on this week’s theme of food …..
So it was that we found ourselves in a small village in southern Italy on a warm October morning. It was our thirtieth anniversary and on a whim we had decided to celebrate in Rome, but I had also wanted to visit the place where my father had been born and raised. While Rome had been a feast of remarkable sightseeing and endless plates of pasta, the exploration of tiny Pietrafitta was intensely personal – bordering on the surreal. I needed some time to process the emotions I was feeling.
Looking for a place to stop for some lunch, we found an out-of-the-way, nondescript restaurant with two small tables out front. As expected, there was no English spoken there, but we understood enough to know that there was no menu to choose from and they would decide what we would be served. Intrigued, we decided this was exactly what we needed. As I entered the restaurant to peek around, I was stopped dead in my tracks. I recognized immediately the aroma coming from the open kitchen and it seemed like the wheel of time had turned and I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen.
My grandmother was a short, feisty woman. She was almost as wide as she was tall, didn’t speak a word of English and always seemed to be angry as she shouted at everyone in her native Italian. As small children, we were all afraid of her, but her kitchen was a place of fascination. No one else I knew had a kitchen like it, nor would I ever see another one.
The kitchen was her absolute domain and she ruled it with a huge wooden spoon. We had never been threatened with it but she wielded that spoon like a weapon. Her kitchen was a large room at the bottom of the basement stairs with a bright yellow and white linoleum floor. A wooden table covered with a plastic cloth dominated the centre of the room and two large hutches held the delicately flowered dishes that seemed so out of place in this rough country kitchen.
There was always a large pot gently simmering on the huge gas stove … more often than not, a tomato sauce rich in spices and garlic with plump tender meatballs nestled in the bottom. Off the kitchen were two small, dark rooms lined with shelves that held large jugs of homemade wine, crock pots of eggplant in oil, and jars of olives – both green and black. From the ceiling she hung thick links of her Calabrese sausage, drying in the darkness. Yes, this was definitely a place of magic.
Late summer and early fall were a particularly special time. Harvest from my grandfather’s massive garden was generous, as were the meals we had full of beans, peas and stews stuffed with root vegetables. It is no surprise that my love for vegetables started early in life. I quietly pitied those who claimed to have never liked vegetables because it was obvious they had not eaten at my grandmother’s table.
I barely knew this woman who was the only grandmother I had in my childhood. She passed away before my tenth birthday, but the memory of her kitchen had stuck to me like the stains on her ever-present apron. Most enduring of all was the memory of the smell which permeated the entire house. How does one describe an odour remembered only from childhood? It was thick and pungent, a little spicy with a lot of ‘gramma’ in the mix.
Now here I was, many decades later, in my grandmother’s home territory halfway around the world, suddenly encountering that distinctive smell again. I felt pure joy. How could this vacation get any better?
The next two hours were spent enjoying the best meal we have ever had in three trips to Italy. Two jugs of wine washed down course after course of foods I remembered from my childhood – the exquisite peppery chunks of sausage, roasted green peppers stuffed with finely minced meat and sprinkled with romano cheese, thin spicy slices of eggplant, plump and tender gnocchi in a delicately flavoured tomato sauce. We had no idea what was going to come out of that kitchen next, and finally with our stomachs bursting, we begged them to stop bringing more food.
It is said that the sense of smell can trigger powerful memories, and on this warm autumn day in a tiny restaurant in Calabria, I relived this marvellous memory of my grandmother’s kitchen from my childhood. Although I was 7,400 kilometres from the address on my passport, I felt like I had arrived home.