The Drunken Cook, by Milton Crawford, is a festive little book I bought for my father for Christmas. Before you wonder, no, he doesn’t read my blog, so my secret is safe, and no, he isn’t a drunk either. He is a good cook though and has some knowledge of wine, but most importantly he is Italian, and on page 88 Crawford recounts an anecdote which my father will relate to and will remember me for, although unfortunately not in a good light. Here it goes:
“One of my Italian friends tells the story of how, as a child, when she used to get out of bed in the morning and get down to the kitchen, her mother would already be cooking the ragu’ for the evening meal.”
It makes me smile that Crawford might be thinking of his friend’s mother as a quirky and eccentric figure, enjoying cooking so much that she would be at it first thing in the morning. Actually, this is far from being an unusual occurrence. Italians are like that. My father is like that, and growing up this used to drive me crazy! Imagine waking up in the morning, the sun not risen yet, and smelling the pungent scent of roast meat, trimmed and sliced, before being scolded and seared on a piping hot pan, sprinkled with a pinch of salt, aromatised by a couple of whole garlic cloves, some fresh rosemary and finished off with a splash of good wine, left simmering away on a low flame, steam rising to the ceiling and pervading the house, including all bedrooms…Goodness, you haven’t even had breakfast yet, and the scent of Sunday roast is weaved into your skin and hair.
And next to the meat there would be the mandatory large pan of boiling broth, a couple of potatoes, one onion, a few carrots and a courgette boiling to death just in case. Yes, you got it, just in case you may want to serve a minestrina in brodo later in the day – (small shaped pasta in a bowl of clear broth) or may want to use the broth to make a risotto, thankfully one of the few dishes that cannot be prepared in advance, and by this I mean dawn.
There would be cime di rapa e salsicce (fresh broccoli stems and sausages), piles of dark tender leaves washed in the kitchen sink and then forced into a large pan, the lid squashed against the rebellious vegetables, fighting a seemingly lost battle but not for long: the heat would win turning the enormous mass into a pulp of even darker green, which would be spiced up with chilli pepper flakes, mellowed by a drip of olive oil and adorned with a row of fat sausages. My father would prick them half way cooking, releasing the juices and readjusting them amongst the vegetables. The customary splash of white wine would somewhat de-grease the dish and caramelise the veggies, as well as sending up a cloud of odours condensation everywhere. Your mouth might be watering, but it wouldn’t – and I repeat: IT WOULD NOT – if this happened before 8 a.m.
So where am I going with this? Well, I’ve left home so long ago that these are childhood memories, really. They occasionally come back to haunt me though when my parents come over during the school holidays. They take cans of extra virgin olive oil bought from the farmers of the Marche region and whole tranches of Parmigiano Reggiano with them, ready to take control of the kitchen and…help out. I love it. This is expensive stuff! I wouldn’t buy it myself! And I love my kitchen temporarily being taken over and run as a well-oiled machine by my super-efficient father (and mum too), spurning glorious Italian dishes left, right and centre. I also like the fact that my children experience what I experienced myself growing up, but does the glory of it all have to start, yes, you guessed it, at dawn?
Well, on a recent occasion – confident to be playing on home ground and now an experienced family head myself – I gathered my courage and prepared to set out some basic rules with my guests, you know, please no cooking meat, fish, soup, ratatouille before breakfast, for once! Day one of my parents’ stay at our house, I got out of bed and made my way down to the kitchen. I was met by a familiar picture. Bloody slabs of meat were in full sight on a chopping board; piles of carrots, onions and potato peels towered next to the sink and I fixed my stare on a series of pans.
My father meets me.
‘Have you noticed that I have not switched the hob on yet?’ he says, ‘I know you hate having breakfast in a kitchen full of cooking smells!’
I melt. He knows. Of course he knows. He’s my father and he knows that I’m a spoilt brat who, in her early forties, is still capable to make a fuss over the smell of delicious food cooked with love and affection by a great man.
And that’s when it hits me again. Some people really are better than others, and my father is one of them.
To him and my wonderful mum – an equally excellent cook – a very Merry Christmas. I’m looking forward to waking up to some of the most pungent kitchen smells this Christmas time when the sky is still dark, and a few pink clouds tell you that it’s time to get up. The ragu’ is made, vegetable broth is simmering, just in case, and my dad has already opened a bottle of white wine to splash the roast with.
All the best,
A very spoilt and ungrateful Ofglassandbooks
- Perpetual Broth- Part 1 (heirloomlivingblog.wordpress.com)
- Slow Cooker Italian Beef Roast (nesslisa404.wordpress.com)
- My Italian In-Laws: Two Weeks In Cassino: Part 1: Italian Cuisine And I Suck At Cooking (survivinginitaly.com)
- Perpetual Broth- Part 2 (heirloomlivingblog.wordpress.com)