How a trip to meet my family resulted in tasting a now popular, but then unheard of dish for the first time.
Summers were always for Italy. As soon as school broke up, we’d pile into the family Ford Escort, cross the Channel, and drive the 800 miles to see the relations we’d said goodbye to last August before speeding up through France and back once more to school.
For my father, these visits enabled him to cope with being cut off from a culture he was fiercely proud of and to pass that pride onto my brother and myself. And when, in the mid 1980s the family visits stopped, I kept the tradition up alone, absorbing the language and culture, which were my birthright.
I’d stay in my home city of Venice, where the majority of my family still lived. Lodging with my grandfather’s widow, Zia Rita, I’d spend the daytime alleys of la serenissima, exploring churches, museums, and markets.
It was in the city’s hundred and fifteen churches that I saw the works of those who had re-booted European art, some as fresh as if the artist had just left the easel. In the museums that I learnt about my ancestors, the real merchants of Venice, who had paraded up and down the Grand Canal in splashy silks they had hauled up the road from China, still fragrant with star anise and the other asian jewels they had bargained for.
But it was in the Rialto market that I started my culinary formation. The vegetable stalls looked as if the colours of the old master paintings had been released from the darkened chapels to rise to their full intensity in the August sun. The constant cries of the costermongers—’Pomidòri! CavaƗóni! MeƗansàne!—were accompanied by wafts of fennel, chicory, and sage, mingling at the edge with more pungent hints of squid, swordfish, and sea bass from the fish market next door.
When tired, I would scurry down the back streets to one of the ancient squares, where the real Venice continued oblivious to ever increasing shoals of tourists landed from the monster cruise ships on the quays of San Marco. There I would eat a lunch of salty olive focaccia, or spinach pie with buttery hand-made pastry swaddling the ricotta mix inside.
One August day in 1986, I was invited to lunch by an aunt I had never met, to meet two cousins I’d never heard of. My family is weird, cleft in two by a second marriage in the early twentieth century when my great-grandfather, already with adult children, sired a new generation. The confusion this caused, with nephews and nieces older than uncles and aunts, remains a little to the present day with cousins in generation shifts I can’t begin to understand.
Even with the address, you need directions to find Venetian buildings, as every door in each of the six sestieri is numbered from 1 to however many numbers the crowded streets and alleys can accommodate. So, I’d been told to leave the Piazza di San Marco at the western end, and use the combination of a few twists and turns to unlock the location of the Ristorante Colomba. The entrance to the apartment was opposite.
A gust of risotto asparagi e gamberi announced the presence of the restaurant before I saw it. I found my aunt’s door, ancient wood painted green what must have been a century before, and rang the bell. A voice directly above me shouted down into the narrow alley, ‘Luca? Aspetta che scendo!’ A girl, I later discovered to be my cousin Luisa, opened the door and ushered me into a surprise courtyard filled with scents of bay and rosemary. She hurried me up the staircase running round it to the third floor, where I was plunged like a cooked lobster into the ice-fresh apartment, unable to see because of the interior darkness in contrast with the exterior August sun.
Maybe it was this temporary blindness that made the smell of whatever was cooking for lunch more intense, or maybe it was the quality of the cook and the ingredients, but the aromas coming from the kitchen are such that I will never forget. In fact, every time I smell the same today, I am transported back to that apartment, where unable to see, I was bundled through and introduced to my aunt, and my other cousin, Silvia.
Thankfully, lunch was almost ready and so within a few minutes the three cousins were sitting round a heavy wooden kitchen table with heavier wooden chairs, my aunt poised over a gargantuan pasta bowl ready to serve. She loaded up my bowl with spaghetti, to which clung a sauce of dark green leaves, redolent of liquorice backed with resin. Extraodinary.
I rolled my fork in the spaghetti at the edge of the bowl, winding a perfect ball of wool around the tines as I’d been trained since childhood. I put it in my mouth and the flavours matched the aroma but with a surprising kick of parmigiano reggiano and a violent punch of pecorino sardo. Knock out.
My culinary vocabulary provided no match for the taste. It was new, it was unique. Although I was 15, living in 1970s and 80s England had deprived me of many of the peninsular flavours unavailable on the island in those pre-Jamie Oliver days.
I don’t remember the rest of the meal. I was soon distracted by a ping-pong match of questions from my cousins. I was studying dance, and my cousins were a trainee orchestral conductor and an opera singer respectively. And before I knew it I had been claimed by the singer to accompany her to Verona that evening to see her in Aida at the famous Roman amphitheater, turned Opera House.
Later, as I watched a pyramid full of dancing priestesses sing praises to night sky full of stars, my mind turned briefly back to lunch, wondering what it was I had eaten and whether I would ever taste its like again. The next day, as I described what I had had to my mother on the telephone she said, ‘Oh, that’s pesto.’
Thirty years later, everyone in the UK knows pesto: a mixture of basil, pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan, readily available in jars in every supermarket. But only the homemade version, lighter in oil and richer in basil, takes me back to that afternoon in Venice, and evening in Verona, when my unknown aunt and cousins became my friends.
Pesto alla genovese
Preparation time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 0 mins
Total time: 10 mins
50g (2 ounces) fresh basil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon pine nuts
6 tablespoons grated parmigiano reggiano
2 tablespoons grated pecorino
a pinch of salt
125 ml (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil
1. Put the basil in a food processor and blitz until shredded.
2. Add the garlic and pine nuts and blitz until combined.
3. Add the cheese, salt, and blitz again.
4. With the mixer on slow, add the olive oil until you have achieved a thick paste.
5. Serve with spaghetti.