I am cooking, for the first time, with my brother-in-law’s nonna (grandmother) in the Italian family cucina (kitchen) in Taranto, in Puglia, Southern Italy. She’s 82 and as Italian as they come: think Joe Pesci’s mother in Goodfellas. It’s Easter, a huge event in Southern Italy and the kitchen I find myself in feels like it’s preparing for war.
In something of a haze of activity, I am designated the role of ‘under-commis chef’. The addition of the word ‘under’ to the official term of “commis” I think outlines my position in this vast kitchen brigade which is populated by aunties, sisters, mothers, sisters-in-law, cousins and assorted female acquaintances. This is the scariest kitchen I have ever been in. Firstly because I am, after all, nothing more than the token male in an explosion of female culinary insanity and secondly because these women are ‘the real deal’, this is “La Cucina Italiana” of legend and folklore. I find it all quite incredible.
The preparation for the Easter meal will last the better part of a week: it’s a veritable maelstrom of arguments, fights, making-up, hilarity and head swimmingly marvellous eating. I’m little more than a passenger on this family wave and my only way of surviving it is to let it carry me through to the dining table at the very end.
It’s 10am and my brain has been reduced to a pulp already. I feel drunk with the sheer frenetic hive of activity going on around me. Huge wooden tables have been drafted in from neighbouring houses and are now creaking under the weight of fresh vegetables, breads and smoked meats. Giant vats of pre-cooked sauces have arrived from ‘auntie this’ and ‘auntie that’. Their aromas mingle with the heady fragrances of the wild fennel and lavender that waft in from the garden.
In symphonic (or smell-o-phonic) terms this is Philharmonic orchestration. Garlic has taken the baton as conductor in this orchestra: it is omnipresent and caresses every other aroma along. Fresh rosemary and oregano are providing the deep bass strings rumbling alongside the brass section of bubbling polpetta reminiscent of a molten lava pool. But the crescendo of the piece comes in the form of swathes of fresh basil, leaves as big as your palm. It’s familiar scent is accented by a subtle sting of lemon in the air. Hard cheeses and fresh breads provide the occasional warm crunch.
On several occasions I’m required to chop, grate, pulp, stir, run, lift, wash, wipe and open at nonna’s command as she deftly manipulates her platoon of chattering Italian women from the giant family table in the centre of the kitchen. Nonna’s hands won’t get dirty but her tongue will as instruction and chastisement are barked out in equal and constant measure. One kitchen section is chopping fresh tomatos by the basket full, their crimson flesh being deftly reduced to almost a paste by delicate olive coloured hands wielding knives as small as my own pinky finger. The pasta production table outside is producing orecchiette pasta at break-neck speed. Three expert pasta makers roll, push and flick these small ear shaped pieces of dough into little mounds on their pasta board ready for the ‘collector’ who whisks them away into a smaller kitchen in preparation for their salty water bath. This pasta will be served with nothing more than chopped chillis and oil and will join the other pasta courses, spaghetti ai funghi and the flat pasta square silk handkerchief, or fazzoletti, served with a sparse smattering of a Parmiggiano laden pesto.
Now, on a few occasions, my bravery runs away with itself and I stop to ask direction, firstly from cousin Vicki who directs my enquiry to ‘General Nonna’ with a swift, annoyed flick of her head as her arms are buried deep in yeasty bread dough. “ How much Nonna?”, “Basta, basta!” is always the reply delivered in a ‘It’s up to you lad, but get it wrong and your arse is toast, capisci’!
‘Basta, basta!’ or ‘Enough, enough!’
“How much salt should I put in”?
“How much garlic should I peel”?
“How much Grappa should I spike your coffee with?”
There’s a big assumption here, that I should already know how much enough is. Now this is all well and good coming from an Italian kitchen veteran who has been cooking for decades. I doubt if nonna went to catering college or scribbled down every recipe methodology she ever came across. Nonna’s cooking method is one of tactile trial and error free-style. I realise now that the more you cook and the longer you have been cooking the more cooking becomes about instinct, awareness and reaction and less about solidly followed recipe instructions. This seems to serve Italians very well, and it seems they live longer for it. So I would say that that’s enough for me. Basta!
Rory Kelly’s food Blog: www.rkfood.blogspot.com
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