This is not one of my typical posts. It was been prompted by today’s date, i.e. 25th April. It is a national holiday here in Italy, called Festa della Liberazione. “Not only does Liberation Day recognise the end to the Nazi occupation in the Second World War, it also remembers the end of the Italian Civil War. Since 1946, a national holiday has been held – the specific date of 25th April was chosen as it was the day when the National Liberation Committee of Upper Italy announced that the CLNAI had taken control. On this day, memorials are held in honour of those who gave their lives, and all across Italy events like these will be held complete with specially organised concerts and festivals to mark the occasion.” (quote from Italy Magazine, April 2017 edition).
My thoughts are with the people of Ukraine and all the people who are suffering unnecessarily at the hands of cruel regimes, tyrants and unethical business dealings. My thoughts are with people in exile, too, and of the houses they inhabit.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
Houses and memories.
One of the nuns at the boarding school I went to in England wrote a book about the school called “The Story of a House”, the ‘house’, Farnborough Hill, having at one point been the residence of the exiled Empress of France, Empress Eugénie, widow of Napoleon III.
Fast-forward many decades later, and my children attended a tiny sized school in comparison set in the countryside, nestling in the Alban Hills south-east of Rome. The school, Castelli International, was founded in 1977 by a remarkable woman of Russian/Jugoslav/American descent, Marianne Palladino, her first pupils amounting to the grand number of fifteen. It had formerly been the country house of her in-laws and named after her mother-in-law, Franca, who had died giving birth to her only child, Marianne’s future husband, Gianni. And she and Gianni and one of her daughters and her family still live there. It’s their home.
My meeting “Mrs P”, as she was always known, my experience at her Castelli International School throughout the eleven years both my children attended it, and the deep ties of friendship I forged there are the stuff of unwavering gratitude. Most of the ‘best friends’ I have made later in life I met there; they are scattered about in North America, Canada, Denmark, Britain, Hong Kong, New Zealand, with ties to Ireland, South Africa and Australia too when it comes to nationalities. I had every intention of writing a book about ‘her’ school, and the house a few years ago. But you know what it’s like: as the writer Charles Simmons is supposed to have said, “ good intentions are very mortal and perishable things. Like very mellow and choice fruit, they are difficult to keep”.
In many respects, I could say that my cooking ‘career’ (ha ha) began at Castelli Internationl. We parents (well, some parents) regularly volunteered to organise events involving not just the children but the adults too, and those of us who liked to cook were the caterers for evenings such as Sports Day or Music under the Stars. It involved a lot of organising and list-making, and coming up with plan B and loading and unloading loads of loads of food and drink. There was no kitchen as such to cook in, we had to set up camp as it were. This was my logistics bootcamp where catering was concerned.
And then there is a third house that to me smacks of memories and nostalgia, and about which a book should indeed be written – and that is the Casale Sonnino, a country house at the foot of Monte Porzio, not far from Frascati. The surnames “Sonnino” and “Treves” belong to notable Italian Jewish families and there are two piazzas named after them that I know of: Piazza Sidney Sonnino in Rome and Largo Claudio Treves in Milan.
The Casale Sonnino is built over the remains of an ancient Roman Villa, with a vast congeries of vaulted caves that was most likely used for wine and olive oil storage. Once past the gates, the drive to the house slows down one’s biorhythm; once inside the house, it is like stepping into a time warp. It is hard to describe the atmosphere of ‘yesteryear’ that envelops the visitor, or the sensation of well being for no definite reason one can trace. The environment prompts conversation and bonding; I am sure there is a television somewhere in the house but I couldn’t tell you where. The overall feeling is that nothing bad or wrong could happen here. And yet something very wrong and bad did tragically ‘happen’ to the Jewish population of Europe. Some of the Sonnino family made a lucky escape to Switzerland in 1939, and from there to the United States. Some of the Treves family also found its way to the United States. And it was there that a Treves man married a Sonnino woman and had a family of three.
George, one of their sons, is at the helm of the Casale today and has been since 2004, more or less. Claire, his sister in New York City, visits regularly and also takes part in the running of the estate. Their olive oil won a gold-medal award. Their grapes are sold to local wine- producers. But for all its charm and allure, a Casale has a steep upkeep and requires constant maintenance with hefty running costs. And this is one of the reasons the family rent out their Casale to house guests, or as a small wedding venue, or even for film-making purposes. I am sometimes asked to do a cooking class for their guests or cater a dinner.
An architect once told me that a house is our ‘third skin’ – clothes being our second skin. My own father, the Swedish one, the one I never knew because he died when I was less than a year old, was an architect of some renown, having collaborated even with the likes of Gio Ponti. I must have taken after him when it comes to a fascination about houses and decor. I think some houses have ‘soul’. Farnborough Hill, the Castelli International School and the Casale Sonnino all three, definitely have soul. And perhaps one of the fibres to their soul has something to do with people in exile. Or people who have made their home far away from their original home, or who pine for a home that no longer exists. Often, very often, these people speak more than one language. And when you speak more than one language, you see the world differently, you realise that black-and-white is an illusion.
The best thing I can say about cooking at the Casale is that I feel ‘at home’ there.
The kitchen is not huge but it is well equipped and cosy and some of the house guests are drawn to popping in and watching me at work and, very often, volunteering to help me – even with the washing up! People who feel entitled or snobby would never be drawn to staying at the Casale in the first place, you see. The only drawback about this laid-back atmosphere and friendly chit chat is that it can be a little distracting, shall we say?, for me … getting a dinner on the table requires concentration and I know some people who can be quite snarky as they prepare the meal. Me? I am a born chatterer so I end up engaging in the conversation – even though I stop short of drinking even one glass of wine. I leave that for later, when the meal is reaching its end. The key to getting it all done smoothly is writing everything down, even before I get to the Casale: setting up the kitchen, starting the prepping, putting utensils and foods where I can find them easily. I would be lost without my notes. And the other important, if not the most important, contributing factor is coming up with a menu that a) I know I can deliver, b) is in keeping with the season and c) that I can start preparing as much as possible even the day before.
Last Thursday I was asked to cater a dinner for a group of seven – three couples and a brother of one of the couples – who hailed from Oregon and California. George had also been invited, of course, and an Italian couple, friends of George’s, ended up being invited too – it all came about very ‘organically’ as they say nowadays. There was nothing serendipitous about my menu, however, there was a method to my cooking madness. Take a look:
Pizza Bianca with burrata, Sicilian tomatoes and basil topping
Fried appetizers: zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella, and artichoke chunks, fried in batter
Lasagna alla vignarola – a lasagna containing the Spring vegetables that make up the ‘vignarola’ recipe: fresh peas, asparagus and artichokes, wrapped in a white sauce with parmigiano
Linguine alle vongole – linguine in a clam sauce
Saltimbocca alla romana – veal culets with prosciutto and fresh sage leaves, marsala
VEGETABLE SIDE DISHES
Caponata di melanzane: eggplant in a sweet and sour sauce
Zucchine alla scapece: fried zucchini rounds seasoned with olive oil, vinegar, garlic and mint
Puntarelle salad – seasoned with olive oil, garlic, vinegar and anchovy
Cassola – a ricotta based dish typical of Roman Jewish cuisine
George had a stash of excellent wine-based gelato in his freezer, which he added to finish off the dinner.
What I aim for with my choice of dinners is to give the guests an idea of what Italian home cooking is like, to provide dishes that they would not necessarily find in a restaurant. Italians, as we know, are somewhat … ahem, errr … prescriptive about the ‘grammar’ of any given meal. And I doubt that any Italian worth his or her gastronomic salt would include a pasta course made up of a meat-based lasagna followed by a seafood one. I am such a rebel. Also, I like to provide a lot of variety – because there is no telling what people will or will not like (I do always enquire about food restrictions naturally).
Anyway – the whole evening was fun for all concerned, and the food heartily eaten, which always makes me happy. They were the nicest bunch of people one could have wished for, interesting to talk to, cheerful and appreciative of every little gesture.
Good food to put you in the mood, is my motto. Good food is magic. But there is no magic without good people of course.
Every year on today’s date, April 25th, Italy celebrates its liberation from Nazi-fascist tyranny. I, like I am sure most normal people in the whole world, are hoping that Ukraine (and not just Ukraine, sadly, the world is still full of nasty war-mongering idiots) will soon be able to celebrate its peace and rebuild its country.