I had a couple of cookbooks for Christmas, natch. In quiet moments since, I’ve spent some time dusting cookery books and their shelves, rearranging them and “edging-up”. This, I find, is splendidly relaxing activity during which the mind can wander. Mine wandered to the food of my childhood.
Mum’s sister, Margaret, is married to Mike. Uncle Mike is Italian. Being related, by marriage, to an Italian has had many wonderful advantages over the years, some of which I’ve drawn on in earlier posts and others I will undoubtedly write about in the future. Childhood holidays on the shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea, making confetti favours of sugared almonds ahead of my First Holy Communion and being called bambina and kissed on both cheeks in greeting are among these. By the way, I know that celebratory favours and cheek-kissing are now commonplace, practically de rigueur on high days and holidays, but both were very much less prevalent as I was growing up in the 1970s in South East Wales.
The greatest, and most enduring, joy of having an Italian uncle is the exposure it has given me to Italian food. We were a close-knit family back in the day. Mum and Auntie Margaret spent lots of time together and us four kids – me and my brother, Ed, and our cousins, Michael and Mark – were inseparable, pretty much until adulthood. Regular family get-togethers meant I got to eat “proper” spaghetti bolognese and pizza decades before they became the ubiquitous food we know today (thanks, Findus).
Every Christmas, boxes of panettone were lined up on the unit that separated the dining area from the lounge in Auntie Margaret and Uncle Mike’s house. These were to be distributed as gifts to visitors over the Christmas period. I used to adore the little grosgrain ribbon handles threaded through the top of the boxes and, to this day, have a deep attraction to prettily wrapped food – I blame the panettone boxes. Zanzibar coffee pots were constantly on the hob in both families’ kitchens, and though I no longer drink coffee, a bit like the panettone box, a glimpse of the angular symmetry of those little espresso pots still sets my heart aflutter. Pear juice, bomboloni and odd-tasting, and even odder-looking, green icing on Mark’s birthday cake one July, are other prominent Italian food memories.
My favourite culinary discovery of this period was lasagne. Lasagne creation in those days seemed to be an all-day and major logistical activity which, as well as requiring both Auntie Margaret and Uncle Mike to be in the kitchen for hours and hours, also involved cooked pasta sheets draped all about the place and the utilisation of every saucepan and roasting tin in the Llanedeyrn community of East Cardiff. Oh, but it was worth it: the mince, the tomatoes, the Parmesan (the real stuff, grated) and the creamy, white sauce. Today, of course, greedy gourmand that I am, I know this to be a bechamel: to my childhood self it was simply creamy, white sauce. And peas: Auntie Margaret and Uncle Mike’s lasagne recipe had peas in its ragu. I don’t know whether this was a traditional recipe, family adaptation or outlandishly modern innovation, but to my childish palate, the addition of a few handfuls of Birdeye’s finest was the ciliegna sulla torta (forgive me, I could not resist. I can never resist. Plus, I got it off Google translation so I doubt it is even correct). Little pops of green amid the red tomato sauce and white bechamel was so pretty and, as it dawned on me several decades later, a perfect colour reflection of both the Italian tricolour and Baner Cymru.
Lasagne making was such a big production that, in my memory, it was saved for special occasions. The most special of the special occasions was Christmas Eve, when our families would be together, eating and making merry, us kids fair bursting with excitement for The Big Day. And we each opened one present after dinner on Christmas Eve. Great food, “best-friend cousins”, a present and Christmas Day imminent: small wonder lasagne with peas occupies such a beloved place in my memory and probably explains why I still persevere with vegan lasagne recipes today. Happy, happy hiraeth.
So that’s lasagne with peas covered; “corn beef ‘ash”, ice-slices and Nana Mac’s egg custard to come, one day.