The distant noise of heavy saucepan lids clashing; the delicious smells of ragù; my grandparents’ petty arguments about how big the panzerotti (potato croquettes) should be … These reassuring, familiar noises from the cucina (kitchen) that I would wake up to every Sunday morning are among my most precious memories of growing up in Naples.
After Mass, I wasn’t interested in going to the park to play on the swings but would hurry my father into getting us home as soon as possible so I could help my nonna (granny) in the kitchen.
In those days, I would timidly observe the hustle and bustle of the kitchen from a distance. My granny would be showing my mamma how to cook the scarole (endives) for Christmas Eve’s pizza e scarole, or perhaps telling her off for making the gnocchi too big – all in typical Italian shouting style.
I was intrigued – and a little bit scared – as I watched these complicated manoeuvres in the kitchen. Deep inside, though, I knew that one day, when I grew up, I would want to do exactly the same for my own family.
Slowly but surely, from the simple task of adding leaves of basilico to bruschette, through to the great responsibility of making the pizza dough (albeit assisted by granny Cristina), my education in the cucina took place.
It didn’t always end well while I was learning, though: one day the pizza dough turned out to be too hard even to roll out on the worktop. But for me it was an important part of my growing up: an opportunity to forge an even stronger bond with my granny; and a chance to learn the significance of making something special for people close to your heart. I came to understand the special joy of tasting delicious food you made yourself, and the thrill of seeing the delighted smiles of family and friends as they nattered away while facendo la scarpetta (cleaning the last drops of ragù from their plate with a piece of bread).
Some things stay with you forever. When we say grace at big family meals these days, I am transported back to Naples, where my father would eventually manage to quieten everyone down so we could thank God for the food on the table.
The memories are more distant now that I live in London, but the nostalgia burns brightly. Cooking and eating delicious homemade food around a big, loud family table plays as important a part in my life as it did then. It’s an anchor to hold on to during tempestuous times and a way to take care of those I love.
My babbo (father) was a man of few words, yet there was something simple but meaningful in the way he showed my brother and me his love and support: from peeling an orange for us to patiently preparing an enormous fruit salad every Sunday. There is so much love and care in small gestures, and nothing shows it better than simple, fresh food.
Since then I have brought my passion for traditional Neapolitan cooking to different areas in my life, always with the purpose of supporting, caring and showing love for others. Last year for Lent, for example, I used that passion to support Cafod’s special appeal to raise funds for communities around the world that were facing emergencies. Every week I would cook a Neapolitan dish to sell to my hungry colleagues, whose payments were then match-funded by the Department for International Development. Not only did I raise £400 to help those most in need, but I also inspired others to contribute to the campaign through their own efforts in the kitchen.
And it was in cooking that I found strength when my husband, George, relapsed with leukaemia in October 2013. Those were dark days and it all happened so suddenly that a sense of being overwhelmed, scared and helpless took over. But then I came to the realisation that God would never give me more to deal with than I could handle.
That was when I started to appreciate how much love surrounds us all. Friends across the globe were keeping us in their prayers, while members of our local church were having Mass said for us. Others would offer to help me with the daily errands or visit George in hospital when I could not be there.
Medical staff and blood cancer charities such as Bloodwise and Anthony Nolan were responsible for the medical side of things. But that feeling of being helpless persisted: what could I do? That’s when I realised, once again, that there was one thing I knew how to do that would keep George smiling and help him regain his strength as he recovered towards some kind of normal life: prepare the Italian food I had been making for him since we were married in 2011.
There is something extraordinary about putting your love into making food for those you care about. Perhaps you can see it in the time, the attention and the passion that goes into kneading dough for pizza or fresh pasta.
Cooking for George gave me a chance to switch off from the noise of my everyday worries, and provided a light on the dark days when I was overwhelmed by negative thoughts. In our kitchen, focusing on that ragù or the smoothness of my egg pasta sheets for George’s favourite ham and mushroom white lasagne, I could forget the scary moments and life’s uncertainties. Food provided certainty. And I was serene, knowing I would soon be seeing George smile once he tasted what I had cooked.
What we went through inspired me to start writing about southern Italian recipes to raise awareness (and eventually funds) for Anthony Nolan and Bloodwise, both of which played such a big part in saving George’s life. Currently a blog with ambitions to become a fundraising recipe book, Coochinando – the phonetic English way to pronounce the Italian word for cooking, cucinando – is my way of giving something back.
I don’t know what the future holds. But there is hope, and happiness is never any further away than a homemade lasagne and a glass of wine, waiting to bring joy – at happy or tough times – to those you love.
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