Easy Saturday cooking

Saturday cooking. When the week is over and although the workload might not exactly be finished, there’s nothing I love more than a bit of Saturday lunchtime pottering in the kitchen. At the moment I’ve got Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well on the kitchen worktop, along with a cookery magazine supplement dedicated to meatballs and 1001 Ricette della Nonna (1001 Grandma’s Recipes). But today I had a cauliflower and I went to Artusi.

Artusi’s book was published in 1891 and is a literary classic in the world of Italian food. He gathers together recipes from all over Italy into what he subtitles “a practical guide for families.” This practical guide for families involves avoiding pneumonia, tips for aiding digestion and going to bed early according to an English proverb “Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Then come the recipes, all 790 of them, and his guide to seasonal dishes. Obviously Artusi was writing at a time when the only produce available was seasonal, but for us it’s a good reminder to stick to seasonal as seasonal is quite simply better.

Today I chose Cavolfiore all’uso di Romagna, or rather Cavolfiore Romanesco all’uso di Romagna, as the cauliflower was of the Roman variety which is sometimes called broccoli and sometimes cauliflower, and the way of preparing is typical to Romagna as in Emilia Romagna. Chopped garlic and parsley are fried quickly in oil, and you can play about with the quantities until you find the balance you like. Add a bit of water to cover the bottom of the pan, add your cauliflower in florets and cook with the lid on until they’ve started to become coated. Then add a small amount of good quality tinned tomatoes. If you can’t get good quality tinned tomatoes, and I stress the good quality as it does make a huge difference, I’d just use a bit of passata to give that tomato flavour. Continue to simmer with the lid on, although really it’s a cross between a simmer and a steam, and then serve.

Ecco. And that’s your Cavolfiore all’uso di Romagna. Easy Saturday cooking, and delicious. Here is mine, and the thing I love about Artusi’s book is that because of when it was written, there are no pictures. So you never know whether yours looks like his did, presuming that he ever cooked it, but maybe that adds to the beauty of it. We all add our individual touch, and that’s precisely what I love about easy Saturday cooking.

Eating chisciöi above Lake Como

True to every stereotype, it’s a beautiful Spring day up on Lake Como and I’m sitting on the sheltered terrace of Crotto di Biosio, feeling like I’ve hit the jackpot in some game called la dolce vita. Of course living in Italy isn’t all dolce vita, by any means. My life is very probably your life, and the only real difference is I’m doing it in Italian. And besides, we’re up in the north and the dolce vita always reminds me of Rome and Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain in Fellini’s film of the same name. Any nothern Italian version would have to be in Milan, and not the usual frenetic face of Milan, but an older Milan, slightly more weathered with age and only truly discovered on a closer look. And if you want to apply it to Lake Como, it would definitely be more Grace Kelly in a vintage convertible with a silk Hermès headscarf. Not sure my B-Max would have quite the same effect.

In any case – dolce vita or not – there’s something about this place that just encourages a more laid-back, chilled approach to the whole affair of life. And Lake Como really is as beautiful as they say. Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron all waxed lyrical about it, and you only have to come up here to understand why.

So here I am at Crotto di Biosio, a typical rustic restaurant that lies in the hamlet of Biosio just above Bellano. It’s a homely, friendly type of place that sells itself to you not just for the food but also for the view. Originally known as Crott de Balin, it’s a usual stop along the Viandante that stretches along the eastern fork of Lake Como. Viandante literally means a route on foot, or in this case path along the lower parts of the mountains that stretches 45 km from Abbadia as far as Colico at the north of the lake. Crott de Balin was (and still is) the type of place where you knew you could stop off for a drink and something to eat. It was also a popular place for the Bellano locals to while away a Sunday afternoon, playing cards whilst drinking the odd carafe of wine and a plate of salumi or cold meats.

The crotto passed to the Denti family during the 1960s, and today I’m welcomed by Mauro Denti’s grandson. It’s a family business that’s stood the test of time and some of the family are on a table next to us as they take a break from producing the olive oil in the building below the terrace. It’s also a place I’ve come to with my family when family and friends have visited and we’ve brought them to Lake Como. I have photos of a lunch we had when my elder son was christened, of my son’s first birthday party and other more recent visits. It’s part of the home, my home, in what was once only foreign.

Mauro’s grandson recommends the chisciöi. Chisciöi is a word in the dialect that comes from the Valtellina valley, the large flat valley that begins above the top of Lake Como. They’re literally pancakes made with buckwheat flour and fried until crisp, and then filled with Casera Valtellina cheese, a cheese produced in the province of Sondrio that’s been around since the 16th century. It’s a bit like a type of pancake sandwich, crisp and oozing with melted mountain cheese, and all served on a bed of thin sliced chicory, a typical accompaniment to dishes from this area. And oh my word, are these moreish.

As I sit and eat my chisciöi and survey the view of the lake, it’s easy to imagine how the crotto formed a welcome break (and still does) for walkers along the Viandante. Only today I haven’t walked the Viandante. I’ve driven up via a stop at Varenna, and a fascinating encounter with an elderly lady who used to own the bed and breakfast in the square where some of family stayed when I got married there. It turns out she’s an Italian teacher and a writer of children’s books, who came to the lake with her family to escape the genocides in Armenia nearly a hundred years ago. She gives me her phone number and we agree to meet another day. Another chance encounter, and another story to be told.

Crotto Biosio, Via per Biosio, 1, 23822 Bellano, 0341 821362, http://www.biosio.it

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The view from Crotto di Biosio

Easter cakes in Lodi

The Agnello di Pasqua (Paschal Lamb or Easter Lamb) is a classic Easter cake from the Lodi area or the Lodigiana. It’s made of flaky pastry and is usually filled with crema pasticciera (Italian custard). Variations are fillings of Chantilly cream or chocolate.

At Pasticceria La Lombarda (the Lombard) in Lodi, they have been preparing cakes and other sweets for 90 years. It was Easter Saturday and preparations were well underway for the big Easter lunch the next day. The agnello di Pasqua is the pasticceria’s strong point and very popular.

I remember once being in Paris and walking away from a patisserie with a little cake wrapped in a box (Parisian style and incredibly chic) and thinking it was the most heavenly thing I could possibly hold in my hands. This had a similar effect, the ritual of something special all wrapped up, in this case freshly made cannoncini. 

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Pasticceria La Lombarda, Via Garibaldi, 16, Lodi.

Memories are made of breakfasts

When I was young, I can distinctly remember going around telling everyone: “When I grow up, I’m going to live in France,” France being the only place that I’d visited outside the UK.

I’d been on a school trip to Normandy when I was about ten. It was the early 80s and a big event, especially if you were ten and had never been abroad before. I don’t think I’d even been to London, never mind abroad. I remember we had these French lessons before we went, as much as you can cram into a short course. I also have rather vague memories of the Bayeux tapestry which was why we were there.

Yet I distinctly remember drinking hot chocolate out of bowls in the morning for breakfast. It felt like I was entering some secret world. It was foreign and it was incredibly enticing, and it bet Yorkshire hands down. Yorkshire had nothing on this. This was pure – well if not quite glamour, it certainly felt quite sophisticated, and certainly better than a bowl of cereal. And it was sweet, always a bonus.

As far as breakfasts go, it’s probably up there with the fresh sfogliatine, small pleated puff pastries filled with crème patisserie that I remember eating for breakfast in Florence fifteen years later. We’d rented a room in a pensione which didn’t have a view, so not quite like the EM Forster novel or the Merchant Ivory extravaganza A Room with A View with Helena Bonham Carter wandering round Florence and falling in love with her wild Italian man. We had no men, and no view, but we did eat cappuccino and sfogliatine for breakfast every morning if that was any form of consolation.

We went to San Gimignano and its towers one day and mingled with the tourists as it was the Italian bank holiday for 8th December and they were out in their hordes. “We need to go to Siena,” we said, especially as the next day we had to go back. Cue two young women look at each other.

What’s the quickest way to Siena?

It turned out there was no quick way to Siena, so we hitched a ride to Poggibonsi bus station. If Florence spoke A Room with View, Poggibonsi rang of Where Angels fear to Tread, Forster’s other Italian novel with a tragic ending, and certainly not the one you’d hope for. Although admittedly this was only the bus station.

We arrived in Siena about four o’clock in the afternoon, after having got a bus from Poggibonsi. The whole of Siena was lit up and the shops sold panforte (a type of chewy cake filled with cakes and nuts and ricciarelli biscuits).

I went back to Siena a few years ago with my husband and kids, although we couldn’t get in as I’d forgotten about the low entrances in the city walls and we had bikes on the top of the car. And two very young boys were tired and not really up for a walk.

Yet there was a wonderful wedding in a vintage Alfa Romeo that we watched as the bride and groom drove off down Tuscan roads to a backdrop of Siena on the hill. Then we stopped and ate grapes from the vines while the kids slept in the back of the car. “Try these,” said my husband. And so we did and looked over at the landscape and breathed in Tuscany and ate from its vines and savoured its beauty.

It all added to the atmosphere. In spite of not yet having been back to Siena.

Being home

It changes when you move away, the perspective. The familiar is still familiar but you see it through a different lens. The old lens has long been cast aside. Or maybe it’s still the old lens but it’s transformed over the years. You’re still holding the camera and you decide the angle. Which is why memory can be so unreliable.

I used to think that home was a place, and then I started to think it wasn’t. Home was something inside you. Probably true, or at least it feels as if it were true but place is more important than we allow ourselves to believe at times, or maybe that’s just the case when you leave. Home, that to which you return to, where you came from, is still there and is always there but only while ever it is still there.

It was sitting by a Yorkshire range with the fire burning in my mother’s house this weekend. The fierceness of the heat, that slight smell of fumes. I say my mother’s house, although I could equally say my father’s house. It is each of their houses and for different reasons. It’s an old house with history and a memory. It’s not our house. It belongs to itself. We are just passing through. They were cloth weavers and butchers before us, generations of the same families. They gave meaning to the meaning of the family home.

When I was a little girl I used to tell my mother there was a ghost there, and she was a woman. There probably was, but it doesn’t matter if there wasn’t. Sometimes I wonder. My boys still don’t like going upstairs by themselves, just like I never did. I used to run up the stairs and across the landing to the bathroom and then run back downstairs and hardly breathing. The ghost lived near the bathroom. Who knows how she died or why.

I know every inch of that house, every creak of its floors, every fault in its draughty windows. I go back and I feel myself move into it. It wraps itself around me. And then I leave it again, until next time. It’s purely emotional and always will be.

Then I come back home and I’m on my sofa eating mozzarella di bufala and Tuscan prosciutto crudo in front of the TV with my husband, having put the kids to bed before, in a kind of tableau to married middle aged life. Only I’m a protagonist now.

And once more I’m back at home.

Leftover risotto and the women’s refuge

Arancini di riso are literally small oranges of rice or leftover risotto, deep-fried and delicious. My kids love them, so whenever I make risotto I generally make extra for arancini the day after.

My recipe was given to me by a woman I met in a women’s refuge. I was there at the refuge with my eight year old son and he loved the arancini. We were invited to their party and he wanted to come with me. I wanted him to come with me. I want him to grow up and remember that party. I want him to grow up and remember the arancini and the woman who prepared them that evening and above all remember why she was there. You can generally explain most things to kids if you use the right language. Where you say you can’t, it’s often merely an excuse. Yet there is still a certain element of stigma that surrounds women’s refuges, as if the women were in some way at fault, that’s all part of the stigma still associated with domestic violence.

Next Wednesday 8th March women will strike in forty countries all over the world. They’ll strike as part of the Ni una menos movement. It was the slogan launched by a group of journalists when women took to the streets in Argentina in 2015 and has now become a movement. It comes from a text “Ni una di mujer menos, ni una muerta mas” (not one woman less, not one death more) by Susana Chevez, the Mexican poet and activist who was killed in 2011 for having denounced gender crimes and violence against Mexican women. The Women’s marches are joining the strike and planning their A Day without a Woman. It’s an international women’s movement and it’s happening now. The movement is growing every day. In Italy, strikes will take place in many cities and towns from north to south.

There are many forms of violence. It doesn’t have to be physical or even explicit. Violence against women in Italy was identified by the UN 2012 report as cultural and therefore structural. It’s rooted within society. Femmicide takes seed where women are treated as second class citizens, where women are objectified, where there is a belief that a man is superior to a woman.

We all hear stories of women in abusive relationships, both physical and psychological women in non-abusive relationships who stay in loveless marriages for want of any way out. If a woman is dependent economically, it makes it very difficult for her to leave. How many women stay in abusive marriages because they know that if they do at least they’re assuring food and clothes and a roof over their heads for their children? And where the state is not doing enough to provide the right working conditions in which women can work, it is locking the key in the door.

This week the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Italy failed to protect a mother and her son from domestic violence. The authorities failed to respond to complaints by the woman and the result was murder of the son and attempted murder of the mother. They were accused of underestimating the violence and thus effectively endorsing it. It’s a landmark case.

Children are still studying from textbooks where daddy goes off to work and mummy makes cakes and they all go off to grandma’s on Sundays. The stereotypes are alive and kicking in the elementary classrooms of 2017. In Lombardy the recent gender theory proposals to help change gender stereotypes in schools were not just refused, they set up a helpline for people to report any examples of gender theory within schools. Yet research proves that violence against women takes root in environments where women are not treated equally to men.

You speak to other women and the story is often the same. It begins with a personal awareness, and this then translates into action.

Nutella for grown-ups

My kids were little and we were by the lake. I was making Nutella sandwiches.

“And if we ever have kids, they’re not eating any of that crap,” this guy sitting near(ish) to us said to his girlfriend.

I too had been that mother of the my kids will never eat Nutella variety. Before I had kids. Then I had kids and if my older son loves chocolate then that’s my fault as I distinctly remember sharing chocolate when he was probably only just about old enough for it to be considered appropriate for him to eat it.

Needless to say, he loves Nutella. Ask any Italian child and they will tell they love Nutella. It’s an institution. School kids take Nutella sandwiches for their mid morning break. They eat it as a snack when they come home from school.

Both my own kids love Nutella, and every time I bring a jar of Nutella into the house, I am generally horrified by how little time it lasts and each time I vow that not another jar of Nutella is setting foot in this house.

Until the next time.

“Brioche with Nutella?” A friend asked me one day when we were having bar at the breakfast.

“Yes, why?”

It was more of a kids’ thing. Nutella wasn’t for adults.

Oh but Nutella is for adults too. There’s panettone spread with Nutella at Christmas. there’s being up in the mountains all crammed into a house and staying up late and dipping leftover bread into a jar of Nutella that was supposed to last the week, there’s sitting round the table with your kids after school eating Nutella sandwiches and knowing that it’s for your benefit as much as theirs.

It’s the comfort, like mashed potato and mashed up Weetabix, comfort where the world seems to have lost it, comfort where there are times you’re living that you’d really rather not be living at that moment in time.

It’s a part of the world that’s always there, that’s telling you that things are still as they should be.

And if all this is signified in a jar of soft, velvety Nutella and a piece of bread, then surely there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Focaccia genovese and Recco beach

Focaccia will always have a special place in my heart, or rather in my stomach. Food is emotional, and it’s what I remember eating when I first came here twenty years ago. There was a shop around the corner from the school where I worked. I’d go off and buy it for my lunch and then go down and sit by the lake. Now I buy focaccia for my kids, the little ones, the focaccine, and they take them to school for their mid-morning snack.

Which is why any trip to Liguria has to involve focaccia, and no less so than to Genoa. Genoa is great for street food. For a start, it’s the kind of place that encourages street food. (Why go off and sit in a restaurant when you can see all this?) And the food it offers is magnificent. Remember, Genoa is the home of focaccia genovese, and focaccia genovese is to be eaten to be believed.

The origins of focaccia are ancient. Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians all prepared focaccia with barley, millet and rye flour. It’s derived from the Latin focus, meaning hearth or fireplace which is where the bread was traditionally cooked. It’s the bread of travellers and sailors, and nowhere does this seem more adapt than in the heart of Genoa’s Medieval historical centre. Genoa, once a maritime republic, and now a multi-attraction city that is definitely worth the visit.

Focaccia genovese or fugàssa as it’s known in the local dialect is flatter than other focaccia you may find in Italy – generally no more than 2cm high. It’s renowned for the fact that it’s covered in an emulsion of olive oil and flavoured with rock salt. And then there’s the farinata, a kind of pancake made of chickpea flour.

We’d only been in Genoa about, ooh a good ten minutes, and there was the usual “mum, did you bring any snacks? Mum, I’m hungry. Mum, can we eat something?” It’s like that with boys. They need feeding. Often.

Spot a few could-be locals, and “Excuse me, where you can get the best focaccia?”

The directions were a bit vague and neither of them could remember the name of the place (par for course, as you learn), and off we trek into the alleyways or caruggi of Genoa. The place we went to was Focaccia e… on Via San Lorenzo by the cathedral, although to be honest you could go to any focacceria and not be disappointed.

And it was delicious.

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Focaccia di Recco (left) and Farinata (right) 

The other type of focaccia famous around here is the focaccia di Recco, a thin almost pancake-like bread filled with a soft cheese, stracchino, that is at its best when eaten warm.

On the beach at Recco, just like this was. And no better way to eat it.

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Down amidst the cheeses at the deli

People say that you rarely get chance to eat anything on your wedding day. Wrong. I ate everything, deliberately made a point of finishing every single morsel of the menu me and my husband had painstakingly discussed with the chef. It was a three-day lakeside wedding (Lake Como), where English ladies in hats met Italian men in sunglasses and dark suits. I knew it would be the only time in my life where almost everyone I cared about was together, and so it was. And as time charges on and some people are no longer here, it’s become all the more precious.

I got married in a Medieval Catholic church, because I loved the setting and I wanted the frescoes. If I think about any church aspect now (and I deliberately say church and not religion), I’d sacrifice the frescoes for coherence.

A good ten years later, and now I stand at the deli and take my place with all the other women, the wives and the mothers and the housewives, paper ticket from the machine in hand. An Italian wedding leads, like all marriages, to a certain level of domestic life.

And here we have it, the Italian deli, as featured at my local supermarket.

To one side we have the cheeses. Every area generally reflects its local produce, and remember here we’re in the north. So here in Lombardy you can expect latterie, semi-hard cheeses, to figure significantly. Go up to the mountains in summer and you will see them up there in the pastures using the old tried and tested methods.Then there’s bitto from the Valtellina, caprini (soft goats cheeses), Grana Padano made from milk in the Po river valley, and Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan as we call it in English. Not that it has anything to do with what we may call parmesan. Parmigiano Reggiano comes only from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Modena and Mantua, parmigiano meaning “of Parma” and reggiano meaning “of Reggio Emilia.” Cut off whole chunks and taste the real thing. And then there’s gorgonzola from the Milanese town of the same name. Go for the creamier version and leave it get to room temperature before eating. And these are just a few of the regulars at your local deli.

Behind are the cold meats, a few salamis (salame milano a great choice for salami sandwiches) and huge legs of Parma ham, or what we generally call Parma ham but actually includes two types of prosciutto crudo, literally raw ham in contrast with prosciutto cotto which is cooked. The first is prosciutto di Parma and comes from the province of Parma in the north of Emilia Romagna. Whereas the second is from San Daniele di Friuli in the province of Udine in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Both are delicious, the second being slightly sweeter. In any case, eat wrapped around fresh autumn figs for maximum pleasure.

The picture shows robioline, soft cheeses deliberately wrapped in leaves to give added flavour. Robiolina  literally means little robiola, a type of cheese which takes its name from Robbio in the province of Pavia, but which can found all over, typically in the Brescia area and in the hilly UNESCO protected Langhe in Piedmont.

Any cheese that’s wrapped in a leaf deserves to take centre stage, and then eaten.

Cappuccino, brioche and the day is mine

I love Italian cafés, or bars as they’re called here.

Of course you can’t generalise. Not all of them are such shrines to all things sweet. Some are best avoided, generally the ones where you walk in and there are a load of old men. Not that I have anything against old men, but it’s often a sign. In Spain if I walk in and there are a lot of old men, chances are they serve good tapas. In Italy, it’s not quite the same.

In both cases, if you’re looking for a quick toilet, don’t. They probably won’t even have real toilets preferring the Turkish variety. And in any case they won’t be clean. Although this is no guarantee. You can go to the chicest bar in Milan and chances are you’ll still be clambering down some rather lethal staircase into somewhere you probably were better off giving a miss.

Choose your bar, and choose your toilet, with care.

On the other hand, the best of Italian bars are almost like living works of art. And it’s not just about the food. It’s the whole atmosphere. From the group of mums who have just done drop-off to the businessmen having their quick caffé before going off to the office, it’s clear that the Italian bar is central to Italian life.

Some of them are very traditional, family-run and have a regular clientele that’s been going there for years, and are often the best. My local bar is like this. It was one of the first bars I came across when I moved to the area and it’s still my favourite. I walk in and the world is as it should be.

Today there were some particularly appealing chocolate and raspberry affairs sitting in the cabinet where I walked in (see main picture). Not strictly cakes, they are actually semifreddos. Or semifreddi, more like a mousse disguised as a cake, as a result of its semi-frozen texture. And utterly beautiful. Too good to be eaten? Not quite. Trust me, they need to be eaten.

There’s something so very civilised about going out for breakfast in Italy. Or maybe that should be there’s something so very civilised about having cake for breakfast, even if a brioche doesn’t strictly count as cake. I remember when I came here years ago, I’d go around in raptures like some kind of crazed Marie Antoinette. “Oh, let us eat cake for breakfast! How wonderful it is to eat cake for breakfast!” And I’d sit and have pasticcini (little pastries) for breakfast, and think I’d arrived in some form of culinary paradise.

And what better way to start your day than looking across a glass cabinet that’s full of various brioches? Take your pick: various types of jam, chocolate, Nutella (who says Nutella isn’t for grown-ups?), pistacchio, Gianduia (like Nutella), apple and so on. This morning I had an extremely buttery and delicious affair with cooked cream (a bit like custard), raisins and almond flakes. And the whole thing was freshly dusted in icing sugar.

Then there’s the coffee. Italy is famous for its coffee, and Italian coffee can be seriously good. Cappuccinos are smooth and creamy and caffé lattes are the real thing and served in a glass and not a paper carton. Coffees don’t come in sizes, they come in cups. And that’s how it should be. And in spite of Starbucks’ recent invasion of Milan’s Piazza del Duomo complete with palm trees and protests, well, let’s just leave it at this. They might do a caramel frappuccino, but personally, I’d rather have this.

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Car

I needed a new car. My old one had reached the stage that if I drove it any longer it would die. Literally. And probably somewhere very inconvenient with the kids in the back.

So off I went. It’s amazing when you do something like buy a new car how all your fears that stereotypes are still alive and well are once again confirmed.

“I think I have just the thing for you, Signora,” the guy in the Toyata showroom said to me. “Here we are,” as he proudly opened the boot in a rather da-daaa kind of way. “Look at this for a boot. You can get all your shopping in here.”

I’d hit the moment where I could either stand there and just smile nonetheless, or open my mouth. I chose the latter.

“Excuse me, but I don’t think you understand,” I began. “I’m only here buying a car like this because I have two kids and all the crap that goes with carrying two kids around. If it were up to me and me alone, I wouldn’t even be here in the first place. I’d be off buying an Abarth.”

Needless to say, I didn’t buy the car.

After there was the brash young guy. “Ring your husband Signora,” he told me, as he laid back in his swivel chair, “and get him to buy you this one.”

Then there was the guy with the Fiat 500L. Never buy a car from a man who tries to sell you a 500L. A Panda 4×4 has a purpose. It will get you up any mountain where you want to go. A Fiat Abarth is the ultimate joy, providing you don’t fall for a second-hand one that’s been thrashed by some young kid. But a Fiat 500L? No. Not for me, thanks.

It all reminded me of the time I went to buy a TV with my husband and kids. There we were standing in the showroom with another brash young guy that was showing us all that was on offer.

“And then we have this, signora,” and he looked at me as if he were showing me the crown jewels. “This would be perfect. You could do the ironing in front of this.”

Another of those moments, of which my husband was also aware. He looked at me with his “oh here we go” expression.

“I think you’ve got the wrong woman,” I hissed. “I DON’T iron. Come on boys. We’re going.”

It’s all part of the world of subtle sexism, although in this case not very subtle at all. Buy a car, buy a TV, and you’ve got woman written all over you especially if you’re over 30, and people or rather men just presume they can assume. Only I don’t sit and take it any more. I have no intentions of sitting and taking it any more.

And every time it happens it makes me more even more resolved how to bring up my boys. So one day they will grow up into men that will break the mould. It’s the responsibility of being the mother of boys, especially in a country as patriarchal as the one in which I live. And the examples are everywhere. Boys do boys’ things and girls do girls’ things, and it starts from when they are young. You try to break through the stereotypes but you’re working against the majority.

I bought my car in the end. I went to this garage with a nice enough guy who let me test-drive it in our local hills. We went off one sunny morning. In fact he let me drive several of his cars which is always a bonus. I like driving other people’s cars, especially when they’re faster than mine.

“You can drive,” he told me. “You know how to use first gear while you’re driving.”

The implication could have easily been for a woman, and it probably was although he had the courtesy not to say it.

So I gave him the benefit of the doubt yet it still hung in the air.

It always hangs in the air.

Live Italian, eat Italian

Living in Italy you soon become aware that food has god-like status, on a par with football, Ferrari and your mother. It’s the focus of animated conversations, the holy grail at the end of many a Sunday drive (sometimes for several hours) and everyone has an opinion. Food is revered and respected, which is maybe why my in-laws could never accept the fact that my toddlers ate with their hands and flung any undesirables around the kitchen. No, you just don’t do that. Food, mealtimes, the whole ritual of being a tavola is an integral part of Italian DNA and possibly one of the things I most love about living here.

Seasons are still marked by food: late-summer fresh figs, the arrival of wild mushrooms, and then the panettones appear in the supermarkets and what better breakfast than a slice of panettone and glass of milk before you go to school. Winter is also the season of cassoeula where I live, a pork dish made with sausage and savoy cabbage, and grown men discuss how their mothers make it and the subtle differences and various merits of including or leaving out various parts of pig. (Read skin, trotters and the rest.)

Polenta, wild boar stews, pizzoccheri (buckwheat pasta with potatoes, cabbage and cheese flavoured with garlic and obscene amounts of butter), brasato (braised joints of meat) and here we are in the mountains of Lombardy and it’s freezing outside but the log fire is lit and life is good.

Then Spring arrives, and after, the first hot days with people buying honeydew melons and Parma ham, and before we know it we’re back into summer again and an abundance of tomatoes which are then bottled into home-made tomato sauces at the end of the season.