I’m not a great cook, but I certainly enjoy good food, having grown up with the smells and tastes of rosemary, garlic, basil and thyme of my Italian mother’s cooking. These forged my understanding that even the simplest meal should be creative and delicious.
It was not yet fashionable, during my early childhood, to eat Italian food. Such dishes as lasagne and ravioli had not entered Rhodesia’s culinary lexicon. Macaroni cheese had made a tentative foray into it, and one could buy unpalatable tinned spaghetti with meatballs. Salisbury had three Italian eateries at the time – Café Europa, La Colomba and Da Guido. These were largely patronised by Italians and they served authentic dishes, cappuccino and espresso coffee.
At home, my mother roasted coffee beans once a week, adding another evocative smell to our lives. Each morning she ground and brewed strong coffee and this we’d drink before going to school. I have enough caffeine in my system to last into my next life, and can no longer drink coffee without a sense of its poison.
She made her own pasta, beautiful swirls of tagliatelle, enough for the week, and this she’d dry on cotton cloths in the pantry. Sometimes, on a Sunday, she’d make gnocchi or lasagne. These were works of art and patience – all carefully fashioned. With the lasagne, she’d prepare first the pasta sheets, then a delicious sugo and béchamel sauce, before finally composing the whole into a baked lasagne sprinkled with grated nutmeg and parmesan cheese. Occasionally, she baked a light fruit cake, similar to panettone, and we’d eat this with morning coffee, or take slices to school wrapped in wax paper.
She would spend the whole of Sunday morning preparing lunch, with its primo piatto, its secondo, its salad and fruit salad. If an ice-cream vendor peddled by, we’d buy a tub of vanilla and over this would be poured a dash of anice or grappa. The anice would form crystals in the bottle and we’d be allowed to retrieve these and add them to our dessert. There was always wine on the table and as children we’d drink ours diluted with water.
My first venture into the culinary world outside of home involved the bland meals dished up at care-centres. There the smells of carbolic soap, Life Buoy soap and boiled food mingled horribly. At Paradise Crèche, for example, we ate the same lunch every day – bland, puréed vegetables and mince served on plastic plates. Because the plates were washed with something abrasive, they were badly scratched and we must have ingested a fair amount of flaked plastic. There were not enough bowls for dessert so only the children who finished first received their jelly or custard in a clean bowl. The slow eaters were served on their unwashed dinner plates. I found it distasteful to eat dessert served on a plate marred by mince and learnt to eat the first course really fast.
Still today, the institutional odour of boiled-to-death carrots, cabbage and mince, with their definitive absence of the olive oil and herbs that flavoured my mother’s cooking, conjures emotional panic in me.
Which takes me to the question of the food in my novels. Of course the food has to be deliciously evocative. The only place in my fictions where you’ll smell ghastly meals is in the orphanages and old-age homes some of the characters are occasionally compelled to enter. For the rest, I offer only the very best cuisine and wine.
Extract from my work-in-progress: On Writing – An African Memoir
Don Pinnock and I were recently ‘in conversation’ with each other at one of the Grande Roche Hotel’s Culinary Innovations. It was a deep-winter-weekend, with all the moody, overlaid and evocative colours of rain and cold.
We’d only been in such ‘conversation’ once before, many years ago at the City Library. Then, we shared how we’d both drawn two distinct works from the streets of the city – my novel Skyline and Don’s formative work on gangs, The Brotherhoods.
At the Grande Roche Hotel, in Paarl, our audience sat in the beautiful Bosman’s Restaurant where, warmed by a big fire in the hearth, between ‘Starters’ and ‘Main Course’, Don and I shared what inspires and motivates us as authors. We discussed a bit of what we’ve inspired in each other through our 39 years of marriage and deep friendship. We shared some of our travels, both real and vicarious, our writing methods and touched on our responsibilities as authors. A question about the delicious food served in my novels came up and I share my answer with you in this blog.
In the way that there is nothing fictitious in the delicious meals of my novels, so too there was no make-believe about the excellent meal that Grande Roche’s chef, Roland Gorgosilich and his staff prepared for the evening.
The Avondale wines, grown organically with lunar influence in mind, were a delicious compliment to the evening.
Photo: Linguine con acciughe, olive e capperi
from Cucina Mediterranea
Parragon Book Ltd 2007