Call it a modern day version of one of those much loved and much stained notebooks that I have sitting on my bookshelves in my kitchen, the ones that belong to my grandmothers and mother. They’re the ones hidden between the other books, Italian classics such as Artusi’s The Art of Eating Well, various other books and magazines relating to Italian regional cooking and traditional recipes.
Call it a midlife desire to run off from the rat race and pursue the dream of a vegetable patch under olive trees. “Don’t buy this stuff, it’s full of chemicals,” my son said to me the other day at the supermarket. “Let’s move somewhere, mum, and go get our own patch of land.” The reality is that there’s more chance of my son doing that. I love being near Milan too much, although if the current pollution levels don’t change, I might one day have to change my mind.
Or call it an oh-so-cliched journey of how I woke up one day (several days, to be honest) and decided that maybe I should start trying to eat more healthily as actually my current diet was getting me down. Not that I was eating badly, I just knew I could eat better. Or at least more simply. I have friends who are eating vegan and feeling better. It started me thinking. But I knew that however I was going to do it, it had to be Italian. Italian and food will forever be united.
If you ask me as I start this if I’m planning to become vegan, or even vegetarian, if I’m being perfectly honest the first fills me with anxiety, accompanied by a wail of but what about the buffalo mozzarella?? – not to mention the all-sacred cappuccino and brioche, still the most civilised way to start any day. The second elicits a rather uncomfortable not sure. Cue mental image of a dish of steaming polenta and venison stew, and no, I don’t think I’m prepared to give that up. I love eating and writing about food too much – all food.
Rather, what I am planning to do is overhaul my Italian home cooking, replace the much-loved sausage risotto with new favourites, cut out the salami (well, almost), and look for more plant-based dishes I can serve at my table which still remain true to their Italian heritage. Of course some of this is easy. It’s simply collecting together recipes I’ve been cooking for years. As for the rest of it – well, that’s the exciting part. Lombardy cooking – which is incidentally where I live – is traditionally steeped in agricultural traditions. For this, read cows and pigs. So pork, salumi, cheese and butter. Of course, not only, but if I’m looking at regional culinary heritages – which I am – I may also have to go further afield. Literally.
Because really, that’s where it always lies for me personally, in food traditions and food heritage. It’s the idea of recipes being cooked by daughters, mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, female genealogies expressed through food, because that was where women were kept for so many years – in the kitchen. (And it’s still the women that are doing most of the cooking, especially if you look at the figures concerning Italy at least in terms of domestic work.) It’s my own personal memories of cooking with my mother, cooking with my grandmother one summer before I moved in with my Italian boyfriend because I’d started to realise that time was precious and I wanted to write it all down. Later, it was being handed things by my neighbour who lives in the flat below me when I had two small children. “Try this,” she’d say, and along came the realisation that Italian food could be so simple and yet so good. And it was cooking with my children when they were very little, because if there was a choice between building brick towers or cooking, the latter was always going to win hands down.
The food we cook is the creation of something beautiful – hence my beautiful Italian kitchen. My kitchen is literally where I live, when I’m not writing in cafés or getting on trains. It’s where I write, and it’s where I cook. It’s my room of my own when nobody’s around.
Food is one of the things Italians do best. It’s certainly what I loved most when I first came to Italy, and sat around so many tables listening to so many people, eating together and talking about food. Twenty years later and I’m still learning and loving it all, listening to people talk about food, writing about food, eating food and cooking food.
Yet it was still time to start rummaging through the recipes again and finding my own healthier way of Italian cooking. This is the story of what I did.