Photo Journal: An Italian family tradition – tomato sauce making day

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My father’s parents are salt-of-the-earth people. They are humble, kind, generous almost to a fault, and incredibly self-reliant, even as they grow older. Each year, my father’s parents pay tribute to the generations that came before them and honor their (my; our) Italian heritage by bringing in a truckload of tomatoes, and making and bottling their own tomato pasta sauce. It’s an age-old tradition still followed by many Italians, all over the world; even when we immigrate to new lands, we don’t leave our traditions behind. They make hundreds of bottles from thousands of tomatoes, with the help of my dad and auntie, and often a few friends and other relatives. They work under the eagle eyes of my grandparents, and while everyone has a good time, the sense of duty and respect is palpable.

 

Recording memories, through blogging, photographing and journaling, has always been incredibly important to me, and as my grandfather closes in on 90 years old, the realization that this beautiful tradition won’t go on forever under his watchful eye has really hit home. I initially took my camera along this year, with the intent of capturing as many wonderful memories as I could, both for myself and the generations of my family to come. Then, I realized a far greater thing would be to share these precious memories with others.

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Cook this: Almond Amaretto cake

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Growing up, Sundays were always “family days.” They were spent with grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins. I’m sure this will ring true for a lot of others with an Italian background. As I’m getting older, that’s changing; I’m needing a little more time alone, time to look after me. The one thing that won’t ever change, though, that still makes me as happy and comfortable and safe as it did when I was a child, is seeing my grandparents. My paternal grandparents are two of the most incredible people I know. Well into their eighties, they are so self-sufficient it almost defies belief. That my beautiful little Nonna is still growing all of her own produce (literally everything from carrots to strawberries, zucchini to tomatoes, figs to grapes grow in their ENORMOUS garden – see below for a little bit of it), spending hours on her hands and knees digging up the sweetest carrots and that Nonno is still climbing up small step ladders to pluck me a small bowl of the figs I’ve loved since I was a tiny little person is both crazy, and at the same time, I can’t imagine it any other way.

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But don’t think it’s limited to fresh produce; Nonno does his own alcohol, too. A genuine purveyor of quality home brew. Wine and spirits, thank you very much. And every time we visit, we get sent home with half a car full of fresh fruit and veggies, as well as a little bit of whatever’s just been bottled; last visit was Amaretto, a sweet, almond-based liqueur. I really like Nonno’s Amaretto, particularly for use in baking. It’s insanely strong (really, I shudder to think of the alcohol percentage…), so you don’t have the problem of it all being baked out when you add some of the home brewed stuff to your cakes, which means it’s still got that distinct flavour and kick that I remember so vividly (and fondly) from all the cakes and biscuits that I used to eat when I was younger.

I didn’t really have a recipe in mind to use when I got the bottle from Nonno the other week, so I had a flick through one of my older cookbooks, the Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking Around The World (1975 edition), purchased for change at the Grub Street Book Shop a few years ago. I found this recipe which I screwed around with a little and ended up with a cake that Nonna and Nonno would have been pretty happy with, had husband and I not eaten it all within 48 hours.

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What I changed:

– Swapped the walnuts out for toasted, slivered almonds (left whole, not ground)

– Used the juice and peel of an orange instead of a lemon

– Added a standard shot glass of Nonno’s Amaretto

 

Other than that, I used the recipe and method as printed in the cook book, and got a great result – it was somehow dense, yet light and moist all at the same time, with the almonds really bringing out the flavour of the Amaretto, and the orange flavour sitting nicely with the almond. A bit of whipped cream would have been perfect with it (note to self for next time), and a little icing sugar dusted lightly on top wouldn’t have gone astray either (if I’d had any in the pantry). It’s one I’ll definitely make again (don’t think husband is going to give me much choice there), and I’ll double the recipe next time so I have some to bring to Nonna and Nonno!

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Cook this: Nonna Gemma’s buttery, salty French toast

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I miss my grandmother. It still feels weird to talk about her in the past tense, that she doesn’t “exist” anymore. I don’t like writing that she “was” a big part of my life; she still is. She helped raise me. She taught me to knit and hand stitch in her sewing room. She taught me to pick out good produce at the market, and cook it like a pro. She made outfit after outfit for me, including the veil I wore on my wedding day. She gave me crap for my ripped jeans, asking if they needed mending, and telling me I looked ridiculous. She always started phone conversations by asking if I’d eaten (no, it’s not some Italian joke, she legit asked every time), and how Marley, my dog, was going. After she’d told me off for not answering my phone earlier in the day (sorry Nonna, I’ve been at work. “Why?!” was her response, most of the time – I could never tell if she was serious or not).

Anyway, I married a teacher, so I observe the comings and goings of the school terms. With the mention of the school term about to end, a memory filled my head and took over for a second, like one of those crazy movie flashbacks… I was a primary school aged kid again, at Nonna’s house. I’d usually stay at her house a few nights every school holidays, so we could just hang out together and do stuff that mum wouldn’t let me do. I was sitting at the bench in the kitchen, on the wooden stool you can see in the picture below, where we had breakfast together, watching her cook French toast for us. And I felt my soul crack a little. It’s cracking again right now, as I type this.

Nonna would work SO intently at her little stove top, making sure our breakfast was just right. Everything had to be perfect for her grand children, especially the food. Our favourite breakfast was French toast, made with thick, fresh Italian bread, cooked in an absolutely ludicrous amount of butter, with more than a sprinkle of salt. It was always perfectly crispy and golden without ever burning. She was a master, really.

Yes, it’s indulgent, and no, it’s not going to benefit your health to eat this regularly. But sometimes when your soul is crying out for a hug, comfort food is where it’s at. Here’s my best attempt to re-create Nonna’s French toast.

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It was pretty simple – a few eggs and milk whisked together, dip the bread in (I went a la Nonna and used a loaf of Italian bread, bought from the Preston market, sliced myself with the crusts removed) and fry up on a non-stick pan containing a small ocean of butter. And yes, I added some fruit to try to justify all of the butter and carbs. If you need a pick me up too this weekend, whip yourself up a plate of this buttery deliciousness this weekend – trust Nonna Gemma, it’ll make you happy!

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Photo Journal: Nonna’s chocolate roll cake

My family is Italian, which means two things – the food is delicious, and recipes are rarely written down. They’re just remembered, somehow. One of the recipes I really wanted to learn to bake myself and ensure was recorded was my great grandmother’s chocolate roll cake. It’s my dad’s favourite, and he has some really fond memories around this cake. I was really excited when my auntie (dad’s sister) offered to show me the ropes and take me through the whole procedure.

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Photo Journal: Nonna Gemma’s frittelle

I’ve tried to start this post a few times, and haven’t been able to do it right. Haven’t been able to do it justice. There’s too much history to tell, too many stories. So, let’s try to keep it simple.

 

My Nonna Gemma was one hell of a woman. She was my grandmother, and I, her first grandchild. We had a special relationship and meant a lot to each other. She taught me to knit, to sew by hand, to speak Italian, to cook, to clean, and to stand strong and fight. She herself fought through four enormous brain tumours, the first of which presented towards the front of her head, the size of a grapefruit, a few years ago now. They kept coming back and she kept fighting. She fought them off over and over again, but last June, sadly, her fight was finally over. We didn’t want to let her go, but she fought with all of the dignity and grace of warrior princess, and she had certainly and finally earnt her peace in Heaven.

 

When I think of Nonna, I think of her little wooden kitchen with the beautiful green plants outside the window. I think of her sewing room where I’d happily sit for hours on the tiled floor with a bucket of buttons, a scrap of material, a needle and thread, sewing away, oblivious to the world. I think of the spare bedroom where I used to sleep, with her jewellery box sitting on the dressing table, sparkling in the light, where I’d dream of the day I’d be old enough to be a lady in jewels. I think of her taking me along to visit her friends on school holidays, where they’d hug me and pinch my cheeks and send me home with biscuits. I think of the tree in the driveway that I used to climb to the first branch of, and sit, and look at the garden. I think of her dry sense of humour, ridiculous sarcasm and ability to make any of us six grandkids feel like damn fools, while she laughed at us, with that “don’t give me your young-person sass, I’m your grandmother” look on her face, glass of pink champagne in her hand, sitting at the head of the table like the queen she was. She’d waltz into any party, be it her actual birthday or someone else’s birthday or Christmas, and just command the attention of the room without an ounce of effort. It was incredible! God, she was funny though. Even the boys, as they got older, couldn’t hold it with her. She’d take the mickey out of you for anything and everything, and for a kindly, old, Italian grandmother, she took no prisoners and made no apologies. We loved it! And God help the new boyfriends and girlfriends we took home to meet her – she had an absolute field day with them!

There is so much to know about her, and no words could ever do her justice, but the most important thing to know about her was that she loved her family more than anything else, and she loved to have us all sitting around a table, sharing a meal that she’d prepared and having a good time. That’s about all I can write without bursting into tears, so let me show her as I remember her; bossing Nonno around the kitchen, cooking and laughing together, in the kitchen I spent so much time growing up in, making their infamous frittelle…

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014

 

Photograph © Jess Carey 2014