Memories will be made of meatballs

A friend asked me for the recipe for my meatballs. “How do you make yours?” she asked. “I love to hear how other people make them.”

Good question. My meatballs are generally recipe-less. They’re usually a mix of the meat I’ve bought and what I have in the fridge. The other day I made them with about half a kilo of Italian sausage meat, some finely chopped thyme, leftover pecorino (a smallish chunk that I blitzed in the food processor) and the usual tomato passata. A note about tomato passata. Once you’ve tried it, you may never go back to tinned tomatoes.

A friend’s Tuscan mother swears by tomato passata and won’t use anything else. It makes for a richer sauce, and I assure you once you’re converted you’ll find it difficult to go back. Although naturally it has to be good quality Italian passata, as some passatas are better than others. I now have a tomato passata fetish that consists of various bottles of various types all lined up in the cupboard. The only passatas I draw the line at is the ones where they add the herbs. Don’t. Add them fresh yourself.

Today I had three boys for lunch. “Shall I make meatballs with pasta?” The response was an unanimous yes. So today’s version was about 300g of beef with 400g of Italian sausage, and some semi hard goat’s cheese that got thrown into the mixture and oozed lazily out into the sauce on cooking. I’d also added a softly browned leek, some parsley and chives chopped up using a mezzaluna to make their presence as least obvious as possible because that’s generally what you end up doing with kids. Oh, and some breadcrumbs. And for breadcrumbs I mean four slices of common or garden white sliced bread that were also blitzed and added to the mixture.

In the meantime I heated up my jar of tomato passata with a good slug of olive oil. Normally I put in a touch of onion soffrito, sometimes also a finely chopped carrot but  today I didn’t have any onions or carrots, hence the leeks in the meatballs. Besides, in this way, my kids would actually eat leeks.

“Do you like the meatballs, boys?”

“They’re okay.” Okay?

“They’ve got a funny taste.”

So that’ll be the leeks.

I write this as I have the rest of the meatballs simmering away with another jar of passata, slug of olive oil, a couple of meatballs and some borlotti beans thrown in for good measure. All to be eaten with my husband when I manage to get the kids in bed at a reasonable time, and we sit on the sofa watching our favourite programmes on the Italian cookery channel Gambero Rosso. Some couples watch Netflix, me and my husband watch cookery programmes and have done for as long as I can remember. There’s a TV chef called Giorgone (Giorgio Barchiesi) who believes in true rustic Italian food including lard and anything that contains about a thousand calories. His recipes are the type of things I want to eat. As for the borlotti beans, they remind me of Tuscany and Umbria and places like that, and last weekend we were in Arezzo and I was eating beans on bruschetta.

A word about the photo of the little hand and meatballs. Simply because one day little hands will have grown into big hands, and meatballs will have become a memory.


Comfort comes in the shape of meatballs

I had this phase once where just about every Friday night I’d make chicken risotto, and every Friday night my son would curl up his nose and wail “that’s not risotto!” because where we live risotto may be very popular, just not with chicken. So I’d end up giving him pasta and ragù instead, whereas the other one would just sit in front of the TV with me, both with our bowls and eating it with a spoon. I can’t remember where my husband featured in all this – possibly he didn’t – but for ages it was my favourite comfort food. It felt virtuous somehow, eating chicken with rice and naturally with all the goodness.

Today it was meatballs. I have this book on loan from the library – a Slow Food touring guide to regional Italian cookery. Meatballs – Bologna. Oh yes please. It’s the kind of thing I can dream of. The last time I was in Bologna I went to Trattoria Anna Maria near the university and ate what are known as “assaggi” or tastes. Of course the ravioli were wonderful, but it was the fresh tagliatelle with ragù that stole the show. I’d been to a pastificio – or shop where they made fresh pasta. The woman there was telling me how she makes her ragù, assuring me that the Bolognese ragù was by far the best. She commented on my northern Italian accent and told me I hadn’t eaten ragù unless I’d eaten it here.

“Of course nowadays we’re no longer working in the fields so we don’t need all this rich food,” she said, giving me her healthy version ragù. I just sat there and smiled and said nothing. I didn’t tell her my husband often puts half sausage meat in ours for extra flavour, which isn’t exactly traditional but tastes so good all the same. If you’re going to make something something like tagliatelle with ragù, then surely this isn’t the time to skimp? Eat it less would be my own theory, but at least when you do eat it, eat it well.

The tagliatelle with ragù at the trattoria was the type of thing to wave your arms with excitement over, it was that good. Signora Anna Maria wasn’t there that day, and neither was she the other week when I rang in advance, but I’m hoping one day she will be. There are stories behind her tagliatelle and ragù, and I want to hear them.

Of course the meatballs I started making according to the trattoria in Bologna from the book didn’t quite follow the recipe. It’s the type of cooking that starts from sitting and reading a few cookery books, starting to make something and realising that you don’t actually have all the necessary ingredients. So you make it up, substituting as you go along. I started rolling out the meatballs in my hands, and then I thought I really want a bit of parsley in these, possibly because I’d just been repotting coriander. They all got mixed together again, this time with the finely chopped parsley. It was the link with the herbs. And the onion was substituted by a clove of garlic in the sauce, whole to be taken out, merely added for flavour.

There once was a time when I made meatballs with a friend up a mountain pass about twenty years ago. I’m not sure how many cloves of garlic went in the sauce, but I remember our Italian friends’ reactions. Needless to say I learned that you never presume that Italians like garlic, especially when you’re in the north, although really that’s a story for another day.


Slow travel in Tuscany, and anywhere

The last time I was in Rome, I had all these plans to visit all these places and then my son started vomiting the first morning we were there so we pretty much ate our way around Testaccio instead including a carbonara at Lo Scoppetaro restaurant that I know will become one of my lasting food memories. I always have all these plans to visit all these places, but life, as we know, never quite works out like that and unless you have the efficiency of a Girl Guide leader (which I don’t), well, it’s all just a surprise from here on folks. Besides, I never really know until I get there what we’re going to see. It all depends on how it works out, or doesn’t it?

Apparently, not for some. Some have travel itineraries that are so impressive and every trip becomes the successful completion of all the things they wanted to see, and do. Which I admire, but my own tend to depend on the moment, and if I’m with my kids, generally on them. It’s that getting somewhere and wanting to sit in the café in the square with my cappuccino and brioche and just breathe it all, just feel a place or possibly eat my way round a place. It’s what’s they call slow travel, although to be honest I’ve never known any real desire to do anything else. When I was younger I used to have this vision of middle age as being that most wonderful moment which would almost justify the fact that I want to go to the lake today and just sit and read my book and drink cappuccinos, just be, in a different place or new place and experience that relationship with place. Granted when I’m getting there it’s a very different story, that of what’s around the corner and if I have to drive another couple of hours, then that’s what I’ll do. Whatever the scenario, there’s little planning, and as someone once said to me: “Your kids never actually know what’s coming next, do they?” No, probably not.

I’m sure my kids will inform me what this actually meant as they get older. It will probably be accompanied by a “mum you were so mean, you never went to get our ice creams but sent us off by ourselves.” Yes, because a lot of time that happened to be in Spain, and when you want something, you will open your mouth and ask for it. In a different language. Linguistic need equals linguistic transaction. If there’s no need, chances are there won’t be much transaction, especially if you’re six. Lecture over.

In spite of the never knowing what’s coming next, I had a moment of maternal pleasure the other day over my younger son’s reply when I asked him if he wanted to go to Tuscany (five hours) or somewhere nearer. (And yes, I know I’m gloating but this has been my dream since they were born, so I’ll just enjoy the fruition of the said dream.) “Mum, if I have to travel two hours to see two little things, I’d rather travel five hours and go see something beautiful. Better five hours any day!” Of course, there are lots of beautiful places on our doorstep but he has vague recollections of a camping holiday in the Maremma which added to the appeal I think. So Tuscany – and more specifically, Arezzo – it will be. The downside is that we’re destined for another wave of rain and snow, although I’m sure we’ll find some suitable eating establishment to soften the blow.

I was thinking this morning about how I first went to Florence during the first year I was here in Italy and my over-riding memory was of eating sfogliatine in a bar near the pensione I stayed in. That and going late in the day to the Uffizi and sitting in the Botticelli room virtually alone. I think I found that hotel when I was in Florence in January, although it’s now twenty years ago so I could be wrong but the street felt similar. There was a bar on the corner as I remembered. I had breakfast this January morning in a different bar in the main square, although they didn’t have sfogliatine. What are sfogliatine, you might be asking. Heaven. Or rather little pleated pastries, almost like little fans and filled with crème patisserie, ricotta, nutella (naturally) and sometimes lemon cream or pistacchio.

I didn’t find the sfogliatine in Florence that day. I had to go to Rome for that, to a Neopolitan pasticceria in or near Testaccio as I remember. We’d been to try to get in to the Colosseum, but it was Sunday and the queues were horrific and in retrospect we should have known better. My elder son was flagging somewhat so mid afternoon we decided to go back to our little bed and breakfast in Testaccio. That was when we found the pasticceria. And that was when I found the sfogliatine and all those memories came rushing back of being a young woman in Florence who ate sfogliatine and hitchhiked from San Gimignano to Siena because she had to see Siena and it seemed like a good idea at the time. The guy dropped us in Poggibonsi – you can get a bus from here – and then we ended up in Siena during the Festa dell’Immacolata that takes place on the 8th December in a town that was dressed like the ultimate chocolate box. Several years later I would go back with two sleeping toddlers in the car and eat grapes from the vine that my husband had picked and look over at Siena once more. There was a wedding taking place, the Italian dream, and they all drove up, the bride in a vintage car that I don’t quite remember now. We all have our own Italian dreams.

Note to self: it’s time to go back to Siena.

Until that happens, here are a few postcards from Rome.

Skies like these in Testaccio


And the carbonara: rigatoni alla carbonara, or rigatoni pasta dressed in egg and guanciale.