No one who cooks cooks alone.
When I make Minestra di Patate I think of Nonna Giulia.
It was Ferragosto when I first arrived in Sardinia, the Italian national holiday that falls on the 15th August. Having got off the plane, dumped our things at Luca’s parents’ house and changed into something more suitable for the intense heat we were immediately whisked away to a celebratory lunch at the family’s campsite by the sea. There were four long tables covered with dark blue paper tablecloths and laid with plates and cutlery and glasses, and an enormous buffet table in the centre of the room, groaning with food; large oval silver platters boasting boiled octopus cut into lily-white discs frilled with purple, scattered with chopped parsley and drizzled with green oil, baskets overflowing with crisp and burnished shards of Pane Carasau, boiled local mullet laid on a bed of myrtle sprigs.
I loaded my plate and went to sit at the table with Luca’s family, at the head of which sat a tiny woman with hands warped by arthritis. She was dressed entirely in grey wool, one stocking fallen and sagging around her ankle, her tiny twisted hands sported two gold rings; her engagement and wedding ring, both worn thin by wear. She looked at me with blackberry eyes, keen but kind, glittering faintly.
Luca explained who I was, his English ragazza who he had met whilst working in London who had now come to live here with him in Sardinia. He was smiling at her, leaning close so that she could hear.
Nonna continued looking at me keenly, taking me in as I was; tall, pale, mousy hair slightly damp and frizzled with sweat, freckles, a goofy, apologetic grin. She said something in Sardo to Luca and they laughed. I moved a seat closer so I was sitting next to her and shook her cold hand.
‘Piacere’, I said, smiling.
‘Is my grandson being well-behaved?’ she said, peering at me, the flicker of a smile on her lips, eyes twinkling.
‘Yes. Piu meno’ I laughed. More or less. One of the few phrases I knew, but a good one.
During the rest of the lunch she continued to speak to me in Sardo, which I could not understand, but which I smiled along to, interspersed with the occasional command (in Italian) which I did recognise,
I did as I was told and ate heartily, as lacking the ability to convey my gratitude in vocal thanks I hoped to compensate in edible appreciation. It's something I have always done in every household I have ever been in, English-speaking or not, and something which never fails to make you popular with your host; eat lots, ask for seconds and accept thirds, finish everything. True hospitality merits a good appetite at the very least.
Nonna watched as I ate, nodding appreciatively and making a sign to Luca which I would come to learn later in my life in Italy, a gesture which involves touching your cheek with your outstretched index finger and which means, roughly – ‘yum’, or buono, and is used not just as a personal expression of enjoyment, but also as a signal of shared appreciation.
That was the first time I met Nonna Giulia, and I referred to her from that day forward simply as Nonna. We meet so many people in our lives, many of whom we love in various ways, but the ones that truly touch us can probably be counted on one hand, and one of these people was Nonna Giulia. I liked all of Luca’s family, but with Nonna there was something significant and unspoken which was instantly apparent to everyone, not only to us. It’s hard to describe that feeling – that mutual understanding – I suppose the word we often give it is love. I loved Nonna Giulia.
In the early days, when my Italian was still so limited I found it hard to go out with Luca and his friends and not just be sullenly silent in the corner, he would take me to Nonna’s house to spend the evening with her so I didn’t get too lonely. She and I would spend the evening watching bad Italian TV, but not watching it, instead talking, but not necessarily communicating, because we didn’t speak the same language.
Luca would drive me the five minutes to her house and we’d park outside, enter through the wrought iron garage door, pass the wood pile on the left (Nonna buys wood in bulk in the summer, when it costs less, then uses it carefully through the winter when she has a fire lit every day. Her house has no central heating and is very, very cold). But the sitting room, where the little caminetto is, stays snug and she sits next to the fire all day, moving only to the nearby dining table to eat. When she sees us arrive she greets us enthusiastically, then shuffles from her favourite seat to a little child’s seat beside it, which is so close to the fire it is almost in the fireplace. Though this seat is far too small for her (though she too, is small) and deeply uncomfortable (wooden with a scratchy straw seat which catches on her stockings) she will not hear of sitting on another, she ushers me into her previous seat – a cream leather armchair her children bought her for her 80th birthday which has a handle you can pull and thus springs into a recline. She insists I sit on this throne of a chair and perches herself on the tiny one next to me, turning to me and asking me to tell her what the news is.
I tell her in my broken Italian that I am working, writing a book, that I have been painting and sending commissions, and that I have found some teaching work now too. She is very relieved. Nonna is perpetually worried about the financial/employment situation of all of her 7 children and 12 grandchildren and their respective partners. She is happy I have some work, and asks me about it, and I do my best to tell her what it involves. Teaching at the school and spending most of my free time with Franca (Luca’s mother) means that my Italian is improving quickly, though I have no grammar I have picked up conversational vocab fast – especially as I am someone who has always had an interest in etymology and lots of the words remind me of others I knew in French or Latin (I had to study Latin because for a period of time I was determined to be a doctor until I – fortunately – realised I would be the world’s worst doctor and switched from Medicine to English Literature). So, slowly, I can piece a few snippets of phrases together to tell Nonna what I am doing.
Each evening that I spend with Nonna I lay the table for her – taking the chunky glasses from the cabinet by the TV, half of which are old Nutella jars, decorated with Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry, and the old tomato-stained tablecloth from the drawer and laying it over the round table in the centre of the room. There is already a tablecloth on this table, with a fake vase of flowers in the centre, but this tablecloth is purely for show and must be removed for a real workday one.
I lay out two plain white plates, a plastic handled knife and fork for each, two folded squares of kitchen towel as napkins. I take the plastic bottle of locally made red wine from the fridge and pour Nonna a tiny thimble-full. Stop! She shouts, before it is even a third full. She is very particular about having only the tiniest drop with her meals. She drinks this tiny glass of red wine with every meal, and says it is the key to long-life. I put the bread in the middle of the table and then reheat whatever Nonna’s second daughter has cooked for her to eat that day. Nonna doesn’t cook for herself often these days, and she is lucky that all her children live close and take it in turns to look after her, 7 children for 7 days, 1 for each day of the week. Sometimes Nonna still cooks, especially if she wants to show me how to do something. Two things Nonna showed me to cook I put in my book, Bitter Honey. One was a simple tomato sauce, made using her favourite brand of pelati, Antonella, which are Sardinian and have a wonderfully decorated tin which I always save and use as a pencil pot, and the other was Minestra di Patate.
A sort of chunky soup/stew hybrid (stew isn’t quite right but neither is soup) this is one of the simplest and most comforting dishes I have ever made/eaten. The way Nonna showed me to make it, she didn’t even have a carrot or a stick of celery to put in her soffritto (the starting base of all soups – diced carrot, onion and celery) so she just cooked diced onion in olive oil, added finely diced potato and a sprig of parsley from her backyard, then a glug of passata or some tinned tomatoes passed through a mouli, some broth (chicken) and then finally pasta. We ate it sprinkled with grated parmesan that she produced from a tiny knotted plastic bag in the fridge. It was simple and good, incredibly comforting. It was Nonna Giulia in a dish.
The pasta and potatoes are cooked in a broth tinted just-red by a little tomato, the colour of spaghetti hoops and with similarly nostalgic and comforting properties. The little pasta shapes I use – the same that Nonna used – are ditalini – which means little thimbles. They are tiny little ridged tubes about 3mm in length and – for me – one of the best soup pastas. They are small enough to be slurpingly soupy but big enough to be nicely nubbly.
I give this recipe as Nonna made it, but if you like you can add a stick of celery and a carrot (both finely diced) to your soffritto.
Serves 2 as a main
3 tbsp olive oil
1 small white onion, finely diced
2 sprigs of parsley
2 potatoes, peeled and finely diced
Half a cup of tinned tomatoes/passata
Around 1 litre of vegetable/chicken stock (preferably homemade)
5 tbsp ditalini or other soup pasta
Parmesan and extra virgin olive oil to serve
Saute the diced onion in the olive oil over a low heat, until soft and translucent. Finely chop the leaves of one of the sprigs of parsley and add it to the onion. Saute for a few minutes.
Peel and dice the potatoes into small pieces, about the size of a hazelnut. Add them to the onion and saute for a few minutes. If things are sticking add a glug more olive oil.
Add the passata/passed tomatoes and stir. Now add the stock and cover with a lid. Leave to simmer for 10 minutes, then remove the lid and continue cooking to reduce the liquid down a little. Once the potatoes are tender (try a piece) add the pasta and continue cooking for a few minutes, until it is al dente (add more liquid if things get dry).
Add salt to taste, then serve, sprinkled with the extra chopped parsley sprig, some grated parmesan and a drizzle of good oil, if you like.
Nonna Giulia in her kitchen (and slippers)