What every food blog post seems to sound like…
I barely know a word of Italian. It’s so strange, having summered here every year in our second home in Tuscany, that I still speak in very slow, laboured English. One of the two phrases that I do know is, “fare polpette di qualcuno“. I first heard that phrase in a delightfully quaint bar one July in 1998, the night I met my husband around the Piazza Mazzini. It was shouted, rather humorously, by a brute of a man who Clive had bested at pool. I found out afterwards it’s a rather uncouth saying meaning, “to make meatballs out of someone”. Despite the obvious violent connotations, it is highly fitting that an aggressive Italian provocation be about food!
I find this phrase so amusing that I use it all the time. Dishwasher not working properly? Fare polpette di qualcuno. Queue at Whole Foods? Fare polpette di qualcuno. Out of the vegan gluten-free cream substitute? Gosh, no, that might take something a little bit stronger, but it does often bring a wry smile to my lips. Like a little secret that nobody else knows, except for us – and now you.
The second phrase I have learned in my 35 years summering here is, “tutto finisce a tarallucci e vino“, meaning, “it all ends with biscuits and wine”. In my case, however, the entire story is strewn with both ample bourbons and a cheeky pinot noir.
It is Hecate’s fourth summer here, and Nigel’s seventh and they do not know a word of Italian either, which strikes me as entirely heartbreaking. This villa is etched into their very being, yet they seem to bear no connection to the great country it is part of. As I watch the two of them each summer we stay here, I always wonder what has happened to the carefree days of my own youth. So much has changed with the times. No longer is it commonplace to take a bike out for a ride by the coast, to flirtatiously giggle in a restaurant and elegantly forget all your troubles. Instead, they remain glued to their phones and televisions the entire time we are away, just as they would when they were at home. That is, until we made the villa a “device-free” zone, as well as banning the dread word, “diet”. Diet has no place on a holiday, even if it is from April until September.
The house back home has been an absolute tip, so I dread going back and some days I fancy that I might just stay here for ever, if only the children didn’t have school to get back to. It’s such a mental toll to listen to the constant sounds of the swimming pool being retiled, and I think that Nigel might have already forgotten his butterfly stroke, which is frankly absurd.
It is with the interest of connecting my two angels with the country that I hold so dearly that I present to you this recipe. It’s one that brought me straight back to my youth and the meals that our cook, Berta, used to make us here, rest her soul. With just one spoonful after I first concocted it, tears immediately sprung to my eyes, and it was like Berta herself was stroking my face with her wise, maternal hands. Berta always used to greet me like that. Never being able to speak a word of English – nor I anything in Italian – it was one of the few ways that we learned how to communicate. The other being the food that she would cook for me to eat. I imagine that the tomatoes contained within are a hug, the coriander the ruffling of hair, and the mouthwatering meatballs a whispered, “I love you”. Berta, of course, has been dead many years now. I believe that her family buried her nearby, but I’ve never found the precise location, and have yet been able to communicate with the locals sufficiently to find it. Maybe one day, when they’re older, I shall tell Hecate and Nigel my aunt Berta, and they will finally understand my weeping whenever she comes to mind.
As a working mother, who takes sizeable and frequent breaks to her second home, I can sometimes struggle to find the time to juggle my career and raising my two darling children – not to mention the husband! So it can be quite difficult to find a meal that is not only quick, but also dreadfully delicious! The first time I served this meal, Nigel barely paused for breath and banged his plate upon the table until he was gifted seconds. Within an hour, he was passed out in front of the fireplace with a fitful grin on his face and tomato sauce smeared over both cheeks. Meanwhile, Hecate, the ever-precocious four-year-old, looked up at me wistfully, earnest tears forming in her gorgeous ice-blue eyes and whispered, barely audibly, “Mama, this is simply darling. You must tell me where you got the recipe.” A lump forming in my own throat, I stroked her face, and told her that Berta’s secrets would soon be her own when she was older.
As time has ticked on, we have had this meal at many occasions: birthdays, christenings, funerals, court proceedings, car accidents: you name it, it always tastes delicious and has the company begging for more. So, roll up your sleeves, grab your food processor, meat tenderiser and recently-born calf, and get ready for a three-hour recipe.
This post was inspired by my constant struggle to find a recipe that doesn’t first contain an entirely unrelated story before I can see the ingredients list. Just a little something to keep my creative writing brain ticking…