We are what we eat (but make it Italian)

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 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. 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.

 

Bologna porticoes and the women’s marches

I took the picture last Thursday in Bologna before the women’s marches. There’s something so calming about Bologna. It manages to be lively and vibrant without feeling chaotic. It’s also one of Italy’s oldest university cities (yet feels more like a big town), is home to so much cultural and political activity. I sat in a bar in via Zamboni’s university area, amidst students on laptops and various flashbacks to my own student days in 1990s Manchester.

On Sunday in Milan there were women younger than this who got up and shared their stories, the stories we can all imagine. On Saturday I went to Rome and heard other stories from other women, Asia Argento, and women who’ve worked all their lives for women’s rights, women who’ve lived a lifetime and share experiences of that lifetime. I got the lowdown on menopause. I need other women to tell me how they did it, to give me the nitty gritty this-is-how-it-is-sweetheart because at the end of the day we’re living in women’s bodies. I might find the social definition of woman extremely problematic but the truth is I’m still a woman with periods and a body that’s been through childbirth and hormones that are rapidly turning me into this middle aged woman and I never knew until it’s happening now just quite how liberating that could be. So I listened to it all, met new faces and saw old ones and was so glad to see them.

Of course some of us will never be involved in politics. We’re far too busy drowning in the myth of having it all, the one where we’re supposed to have perfect families and brilliant careers and sex at least three times a week with our partners when actually most of the time we’d rather sleep. We’re the daughters of the witches, or rather the semi-witches who were still working out how to do it all themselves and mixed messages became rooted in our conscience. Our politics become the everyday, our lives, our work, the way we educate our children. The voice in my head tells me stop being sentimental. It’s not sentimentalism, it’s our own form of politics. Where women don’t feel they’re heard, they’ll find a way. Where women feel their children are being educated by other people’s values, where they see a society moving in a certain direction, where they feel they’ve been stripped of the age-old communities that fed them and nourished them, they’ll still find a way.

Like a friend said to me on Sunday, it’s sisterhood. And it’s very real. Not that men aren’t invited, but really, there are some pretty good reasons why sometimes we need this private party. To quote Gloria Steinem, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Really piss you off.

It’s a me too that feels permanently fused with a fuck you, even though you have this voice that tells you there’s always another side to any story, and maybe I’m playing the victim. That’s where the social conditioning kicks in. Keep quiet, don’t complain, think how lucky you are, be grateful, the slightly more sophisticated version that they’ll throw at you where you’re supposed to float off into some calm state and forget about all this – permanently, and shut up while you’re at it. I have no intention whatsoever of shutting up. Besides, I’ve realised it’s good for my kids. It causes them to ask questions, difficult ones. Oh, you don’t like that idea? But aren’t you the ones who are always telling me to do what’s good for my kids?

The Bologna porticoes say it all. You walk through one, and then you walk through another. What matters is that you keep walking. And sometimes you will only keep walking if there are other women walking with you. The crucial part is that there are women walking with you. It’s where me becomes we, and that is always the difference.

Arancini di riso alla milanese or Milanese style rice balls

Saturday 25th November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I want to share a recipe for arancini di riso, or little oranges of rice as they’re known, a popular dish from the south of Italy.

The reason I want to share them is because I ate them once, cooked by a woman in a women’s refuge. She’d made them that night, and now every time I make mine, I think of her. There are just some people and situations that you know you’ll always remember.

I don’t profess to make the best arancini, nor could it really be considered an authentic recipe. But that’s what I love about home cooking. It’s where you can get creative in the kitchen, and besides, most of the best home cooks I know cook with what they have to hand. They wouldn’t dream of going out to get something that they didn’t have. They’d just substitute it with something else. So rather than arancini, my fried rice balls are more a northern Italian riso al salto, or fried risotto. Whereas the original ones have ragù inside or mozzarella and prosciutto, are a Sicilian speciality and are in the shape of a ball or a cone.

So how do I make mine? Whenever I make risotto giallo or risotto alla milanese as it’s generally known, I make extra. The same if I’m making risotto alla salsiccia (risotto with Italian sausage.) Then I put it in the fridge overnight, take it out the next day and add some chopped up mozzarella, maybe some ham or whatever cheese I have in the fridge. Mix it all in with the leftover risotto and shape the mixture into small balls. If you want to use ragù you can.

Then make two halves of a rice ball with a dip in the middle of each, kind of like you were making Scotch eggs, presuming you’ve ever made Scotch eggs. Put a couple of spoonfuls of ragù in the middle of one and then close by putting the other half on top. Roll the balls lightly in beaten egg and then in breadcrumbs. Then deep fry in vegetable oil.

The other day I read a Gloria Steinem quote that I’d read before and then forgotten about. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Then, if you’re lucky, you pick yourself up and take action the way you can.

 

 

November is sausage ragù

You can’t beat a sausage ragù. You can’t beat any ragù, and I generally make mine with half beef mince and half sausage Italian sausage meat anyway. But today went pear-shaped and I was in a hurry, and so the sausage casserole with polenta I’d planned to feed my family for lunch and was feeling oh-so-virtuous about didn’t quite happen. It transformed itself into tagliatelle with sausage ragù. This happens sometimes. But in my defence, I say, I am not a cook. I cook and I enjoy cooking, but above all I love food. And if I cook it it’s because I want to eat it. Although if anyone else wants to do it, especially if they are a cook and a good one at that, then please, be my guest. I’ll happily sit down to table when it’s ready.

Of course the secret of any good ragù is in the cooking time, but as I was running out of time and the kids were off playing football this afternoon, I only gave it about half an hour. Am probably stretching this by still calling it a ragù, as the whole point of ragù is the long cooking time, but it still tasted good. Although admittedly not as good as if it had been cooked slowly for three hours.

Do try to get Italian sausage to make this. If you can’t you could always just use good old mince. Lamb would work well and give a similar depth of flavour. This is robust Autumn cooking to ward off a cold, grey November day.

So, start by chopping up a shallot finely and soften it in a slug of olive oil in a smallish saucepan. I use about a 30 cm stretch of sausage as when I buy it it’s all rolled up in the packet in one length. Take the sausage meat out of the skin. Add it to the shallot. You’ll need to break it up with a spoon to make sure it becomes minced sausage meat. Cook it above a fairly fierce heat and then add about a third of a small glass of red wine. Keep the heat up and let the alcohol burn off, but obviously don’t burn the sausage. Then add about two thirds of a tin of good quality Italian tomatoes. I used chopped ones today as plum ones need more time to break up. Add a sprinkling of black pepper, put the lid on, and let it simmer away.

Cook the tagliatelle according to the instructions on the packet, mix in the sausage ragù with that famous half a glass of cooking water that you’ve put aside to bind it all together, and serve. I don’t add cheese but you can do as you prefer.

“Buono,” said my son as I was serving it up. And yes it was rather good, even if I say so myself.

The sausage casserole and polenta will have to wait for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Up Lake Como without a plan

It started off as it often does with a vague idea to go off somewhere that ends up somewhere else which is always the best thing about it.

On this day in particular, I wanted to explore the part of Lake Como between Como and Bellagio. The other side from Como leads up past Cernobbio and Cadenabbia as far as Menaggio, all of which draw the tourists in. But I wanted to get away from this and go to the quieter parts of the lake where you can still feel a whisper of the past.

I ended up in Molina, a hamlet of Faggeto Lario up on the mountainside on the hunt for a trattoria I wanted to try. A couple of locals recommended another one, Hosteria Antica Molina, where I ate a starter that included polenta with melted lardo – yes, that really does mean lard, not to be eaten regularly maybe, but delicious when you do.

And while I was sitting eating my brasato (slow-cooked beef in red wine) and polenta, I got chatting to some fellow diners who told me about the old torchio or wine press in the nearby hamlet of Palanzo further up the road. And before I knew it we were talking cows, as you do when you’re halfway up a mountainside in the local trattoria.

“At one time there were about three hundred cows during the 1940s, and now I have the only two cows left in the village,” the large man sitting on the next table tells me. It’s the same story to be heard wherever there are villages that were once self-sustained by agriculture. The young people have now left, some gone to Como and there is no one left to make the cheese or the wine like once upon a time.

So after lunch, off I went up to Palanzo and as chance often has it met the brother of the large guy who showed me the wine press. It’s dated 1572 and is now a national monument. It was in use until the 1960s but nowadays is only used for the yearly October Sagre del Torchio, the highlight of the village year that this year takes place on the weekend of 7th-9th September. The grapes are no longer grown there of course. They get them in especially for the occasion, and there are concerts and the band plays just as you’d expect in a small village on the side of a mountain. He tells me about how things used to be years ago. “It was beautiful here,” the man tells me. “A real sight. Everything gold, all these golden fields of grain. It was all cultivated from the lakeside as high up as 800m, and all terraced too.”

He tells me about the cycle of the seasons: the planting of grana saraceno or buckwheat followed by the potatoes in turn followed by the wheat. He shows me the large pestle and mortar that was used to grind chestnuts. The flour was then used to make pasta and can I imagine it being rolled out into sheets and cut into tagliatelle, thick and slightly uneven. People had everything they needed here, and it wasn’t until the 1950s, he tells me, that the road came up here.

He could have been any man all over Italy remembering past times and past lives weathered by change. Yet it’s easy to be blinded by nostalgia, and especially on a beautiful sunny Spring day, to forget the harsh realities that often lie within.

Hostaria Antica Molina, Piazza San Antonio, 2/2, Molina di Faggeto Lario, 22020 (CO), 031 3370199 https://www.anticamolina.com/

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Clockwise from back: mortadella, grilled polenta with lardo, local salami with melted cheese and fresh soft cheese dressed with pepper and oil.

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.

Penitent processions and the women’s social club

“Mummy, can we follow the procession?” my younger son asks me.

We’re walking down the street of a seaside town in southern Spain. It’s Easter Sunday, Christ has risen and the black mourning robes of the Good Friday penitents have given way to red. There are women with high mantillas and children in their Sunday best. Bedspreads and eiderdowns are hung from balconies and windows and streets adorned with flowers and rosemary to perfume the air. Yet rosemary will always be for remembrance, although today I’m not quite sure what it is I’m remembering.

We proceed slowly along the cobbled streets to the intermittent outbursts of the town’s brass bands. There’s a sense of belonging that binds and draws this town together in the sun-baked south of Andalucia.

Several weeks later and we’re sitting in the park on the hill where my kids go play. We’re all here today, children, mothers, grandmothers and a handful of older women whose grandchildren have grown or didn’t arrive.

We talk about the usual: so-and-so is pregnant, another has given birth and we’re sorry another has died. Now it’s about religion, brought on by talk of the village priests, for nowhere is religion more alive than in the towns and the villages of the countryside.

On the women speak. I’m in a place without time, of communal washing troughs of times past and smallholdings with their dark kitchens and dark secrets where an elderly woman stirs a pot of polenta and another nurses a child. It’s still the women who are holding the family together, the mother-grandmothers who bring up their children and then bring up a second generation because it’s the only way they make it work in a country that’s generally failing its women.

The children continue to play opposite the dead that lie in the tombs of the cemetery across the road. One day all this too will be lost memory, yet in the meantime we’re in the years of the women’s social club and besides, it’s such a sunny day.

Photo: the old communal washing trough, Naviglio Grande, Milan

Montespluga

“Go there today,” the woman in the café tells me. “You don’t get many days like today.”

“No?” I ask her.

“Not up the Spluga. You probably get about five clear days every summer, really clear days.”

I’d set off that morning, passport at the ready, with the intention of going up the border into Soglio in Switzerland, what was once voted the most beautiful village in Italy. And it would have been beautiful, perfectly Alpine, picture postcard, and I would have sat in a bar and drank coffee and eaten a brioche or whatever else was on offer and thought I was in some earthly paradise.

She mentioned Spluga and I was off. I’d forgotten the road or rather I remembered it as far as Campodolcino and had forgotten about the sharp bends on the stretch afterwards up to Madesimo. The part where you literally traverse up the mountain pass and if my husband were driving, he’d have been belting his way up there, and I’ve have been shouting (possibly screaming) SLOW DOWN. Just SLOW DOWN. It never had that effect when I first met him. We’d be up and down mountain passes at all times of the night, on icy roads and with thick snow falling, and I don’t remember screaming at him. Then I got a bit older, and I’d met mortality. And that made me want to slow him down.

Anyway, today I was in control.

There’s something about travelling alone that makes me ever more convinced it really is the perfect way to travel. I don’t think I could ever do group holidays. It’s not that I don’t like the people who I could have a group holiday with, I just don’t like the idea of it. It’s the whole idea of getting up in the morning and deciding where to go. It’s a no go from the start.

Then after I’d driven up the few hair-raising bends, the whole landscape opened out. I’d left the trees behind. It was late March and the snow was still on the ground, although not as much as some years. Where it had melted, the mountains were brown and in need of more days of sunshine before they would take on the colours of summer.

It was strange being up there in the snow. It gave the whole place a sense of false calm, as if the snow was covering its true nature. I’d expected it to feel wilder, more remote. Whereas it felt crisp and beautiful and slightly too perfect. Maybe that was the effect of the clear blue skies.

I remember coming up here to go walking one spring. It had seemed like a good day.

After a couple of hours we were huddled by the side of the mountain refuge, trying to protect ourselves from the sleet.

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.